30 January 2015

Locked Room Mystery in Argentina

By Dixon Hill


There are times when I read something, and I think it would make an excellent post here on SleuthSayers.  Often, I try to post a synopsis of what I've read, adding information about it from other sources in order to round out the story a bit more.

When the originating source, however, is such a truly fantastic article that appeared in The New York Times, I find myself thinking that any attempt at a synopsis would simply be foolish.

There are those who may cry foul, claiming that I shirked my duty by doing what I'm about to do. While I, personally, would admit that I'm not submitting my own writing on this post today, which means my own work here on SleuthSayers is pretty short this time, I don't feel I'd be able to agree with the idea that I'm shirking my duty.

Drawing people's attention to a story such as this, is something I feel duty bound to perform.

Additionally, as you'll see, this is a real and quite contemporary locked room mystery of sorts -- though whether we'll ever see justice done, remains an open question.

To understand what I'm talking about, please click on this link HERE .  You'll be taken to a page of The New York Times, and a story that -- in my opinion -- is must reading.  About something that happened far south of where you and I live, on the day when our nation was celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sadly, this story is one of injustice to another group of people.  But, it's one I firmly believe you'll find worth reading.

Since I originally created this post, I saw that one national television news outlet had run a story about it.  I was on my way out the door at the time, so I didn't get to see what they reported, or how they handled the story.  On Wednesday, January 28th, I found an interesting follow-up article in The New York Times, which you can read HERE .
 
Sincerely,
Dixon


29 January 2015

Is Time Money, or is Money Time?

by Eve Fisher

James Wallman
You may or may not know that this last week has been wild, because on January 23rd, a gentleman named James Wallman had an article on the BBC Magazine based on his book, Stuffocation, and mentioned me. (I'm also cited in the book.) The citation was for one of my history lessons, "The $3,500 Shirt", which I gave regularly in my Western Civ and World History classes when it came time for the Industrial Revolution talk. I also shared it with several people, including Mr. Wallman, and here on SleuthSayers on June 6, 2013.

After the citation in BBC Magazine, the article got a few hits. (!!!) It also got a few comments. Some people simply could not (perhaps would not?) believe that clothing could be that expensive. Most of time their quarrel was with my multiplying the time spent making the shirt by current minimum wage, saying that didn't show how little people were paid back then, and so the shirt would be much cheaper. Which, in terms of cash paid out, is absolutely true. BUT not when it comes to the amount of time: time-wise, it was infinitely more expensive. Because for most of history, labor (time) was what counted, more than money:
Father took out a round, big silver half-dollar. He asked, "Almanzo, do you know what this is?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo answered. "Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is? It's work, son… You know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?… Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?" "You cut it up. … Then you harrow - first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice… Then you dig them and put them down cellar." "Yes, and then you pick them over all winter, you throw out the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much do you get for a bushel of potatoes?" "Half a dollar," Almanzo said. "Yes," said Father. "That's what's in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it." Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared to all that work.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy, pp. 182-184.
Work is important. Work is time. How much a penny or a dollar is worth changes over time; but the number of hours in a day don't. And you don't get the whole 24 hours to do anything you want: you have to sleep, eat., etc. So if you subtract 8-10 hours a day for all those other things (sleep, eating, bathroom, washing, travel to and from work, etc.), what you have left is 14-16 hours a day to work, play, live. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most of us (at least in the Western world) don't have to spend 12+ hours a day at hard physical labor, so we have a tendency to think in terms of money (how much did it cost?) rather than time (how long did it take?), but, as I say, that wasn't the way people used to think about things.

Here are a couple of ways to look at things:

First, the Shirt, and then I want to move on to such fun things as criminals and celebrities. First off, some weavers and spinners gave me some more exact figures (I under-figured for spinning; over-figured for weaving), so here goes:
Note how long the shirt is.

To make a shirt entirely by hand - and we're going to go with 25 gauge for a decent, but coarse shirt - we start with the spinning. 25 ÷ threads per inch × 36 inches wide × 8 yards (shirts were longer then) = 7200 warp yards, plus about the same for weft = 14,400 yards of thread; divided by 30 yards per hour = 480 hours. The weaving (which I admit I over-estimated in the original) requires about 20 hours including 10 hours minimum for set up – stretching the warp, setting up and threading the loom – and then another 8-10 for weaving. And the sewing, which I still say would take 7 hours, including finishing all the seams. So the new figures are:
Spinning - 480 hours
Weaving - 20 hours
Sewing - 8 hours
Total: 508 hours of labor to make a shirt.
This still doesn't include things like buttons, or the needle and thread to sew the shirt, nor the labor that went into raising/processing the linen, cotton, or wool.

Imagine spending 480 hours to make enough thread to weave a shirt. No wonder Ellen Rollins said "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26) And that would be 480 hours "fitted in", because almost no woman (luckily!) could spend an entire working week (72 hours in pre-Industrial times) doing nothing but weaving. She had chores to do, like cooking, cleaning, dairying, weeding, minding children, etc. No matter what price she got for that yarn, she would undoubtedly have felt like Almanzo - a pretty small sum for that much work.

480 hours: that's 7 weeks' work in pre-Industrial times; 12 weeks' work in today's Western working world. What do you have around your house that costs that much? That costs three months' worth of your time, of your year? A shirt? How many shirts, at that rate, could you actually afford, considering you also have to pay for rent and food? And could get no credit?

Now you have some idea of what most people were up against before the Industrial Revolution. (And why the first thing the industrial revolution produced was cloth, and why the first inventions were spinning machines.)
St-aethelthryth.jpg NOTE: one thing about medieval objects, they were, for the most part extremely well-made. Things lasted. I have read of a hand woven linen sheet lasting 100 years. (Of course, well-cared for linen only gets better – more supple and soft – with successive washings and bleachings.) And they didn't waste anything. Everything was darned, mended, cut down, reused, repurposed, recycled, you name it. (Most of the Victorian poor bought or received their clothing second hand.) But there was cheap stuff, too: the ribbons and gee-gaws that were sold at the annual St. Audrey's Fair in medieval England got cheaper and cheaper until, by the 17th century, "tawdry" had become a synonym for "cheap, gaudy and showy".
Back to hours and time. Today we calculate almost everything in terms of money, how to get it, how to increase it, how to spend it, save it, bank on it… But money is only a symbolic representation of labor, of time. (There isn't any currency, at least in the Western world, that has any intrinsic value.) Perhaps our obsession with money is that it buys us time - or does it?

Not always. Exhibit 1: Criminals.

Quite simply, most criminals don't understand why people work. Why exchange all those hours of hard labor when you can get money so much easier by stealing, conning, forging, robbing, or even killing for it? Much less time, much less effort. Of course criminals ignore the endless mental planning and rehearsing - the obsession - that is their life. They ignore the fact that the $20,000,000 heist is literally one in 20,000,000, and is probably not going to be theirs. They ignore the immense effort and hardship that a life of crime requires. And they most definitely ignore the fact that, if caught (as so, so, so many are), they will give ALL their time for the crime, spending years, if not their entire life, on 24/7 watch with no privacy at all.

Of course no one reading this would give up all their time for something as stupid as crime. So I give you Exhibit 2: Celebrities.

Celebrities - including royalty, athletes, movie stars, rock stars, CEOs, and some politicians - live a lifestyle of fabulous wealth and almost unlimited access to anything the celebrity wants. But, they pay for that with ALL their time. A celebrity is never off-stage. Paparazzi are omnipresent. Phones are tapped. (Ask Rupert Murdoch.) National Enquirer has their hairdressers and stylists on speed-dial. So the exchange is everything for everything. What's left of the person underneath the celebrity? If everything is public, is there any private person there? People have been wondering for centuries if there was anyone under the mask of Louis XIV. What was under Norma Desmond's mask but the hunger for more?

The hunger for more: for more time, more money, more fame, more stuff, more, more, more… Well, we've got the machines, and we've got the stuff, but now everyone complains how they don't have enough time. So what are you willing to spend your time on? What can you afford to spend your time on? What is worth your time?

28 January 2015

The Imitation Game

by David Edgerley Gates

I wrote a post about Alan Turing and breaking the wartime ENIGMA codes awhile back — 22-May-2013 — and knowing the story, or pieces of it, I wanted to see THE IMITATION GAME, a big-ticket movie version of what happened.

The picture's taken some static, in certain quarters, for fudging the details. But any screenplay based on the historical record is going to take liberties, and compress the narrative. I'm not as interested in what they left out as I am in what they got right.


For openers, the mechanics of code-breaking. The process is over-simplified, and dumbed down a little (and Turing himself is credited with the breakthrough that was a team effort), but the basic elements are coherent, the odds against success, how they did it, and most importantly, why it was so vital to the war effort. All you really need to know are the lineaments of the Enigma machine, the rotors ticking over with each character typed in, and how the Bletchley team defeated it. (Spoiler alert - Turing and his guys do crack the ENIGMA cipher.) Over and above, the nuts and bolts might be compelling to somebody like me, with my technical background, but they're unnecessary for a general audience. What counts are the reasons behind it, the unsustainable loss of life and tonnage in the North Atlantic, and the all too real danger that Britain could be beaten by Hitler.

There is, of course, exaggeration for dramatic effect. I somehow doubt that the Charles Dance character would be so obstructive, for instance. It's a false conflict. And the counterintelligence effort,
personalized by Sir Stewart Menzies of MI6, is, if not contrived, kind of a blunt instrument. Menzies was an old hand at both spy-running and spy-catching. (Mark Strong, who plays Menzies, walks away with Best Suit.) I'm not sure, either, that I buy into the way John Cairncross is characterized. Cairncross, later in life, was exposed as the Fifth Man in the Cambridge Ring - Kim Philby's network - but at Bletchley, so far as anybody knows, he flew under the radar. Taken as a whole, though, none of these things hurt the movie.


There's only one incident in the picture I have issues with. After the U-boat codes are broken, there's a scene in Hut 3 where they've mapped out the German naval deployments in the Atlantic, and one of the wolfpacks is on an intercept course for a Brit convoy. But they can't be warned, Turing argues. It would give us away. If the convoy changes course, to get away from the submarines, the Germans will know we're reading their encrypted traffic. Fair enough, as a theatrical device, but this is pure invention. It's based on the discredited urban legend that Churchill, reading the ENIGMA decrypts, knew in advance that the Luftwaffe had targeted Coventry for a bombing raid, but couldn't allow the city to be evacuated, because he had to protect the intelligence source. (This is second cousin to the claim that Franklin Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack ahead of time, and allowed it to happen to get America into the war.)

Easy to find fault. Some of the specifics in THE IMITATION GAME aren't entirely accurate, and some of the characters are composites. Any story is a leap of faith, the willing suspension of disbelief. I think, at bottom, the movie's true to itself in a larger sense, that it hits the right notes, the rapture of discovery, the
burden of concealment, the collision of accident, a fated meeting, a glancing blow, something seen imperfectly in our peripheral vision. It's about secrets, hidden, suffocatingly claustrophobic. An interior world, closeted and protective. Authentic enough, for my money. Does it matter whether it's all true to the facts? Not if it convinces us.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com

27 January 2015

What's In a Place

by Jim Winter

If you've been following along at home, you know I'm fascinating by setting, particularly fictional cities. Done right, a place that never existed can be as real as where the reader is sitting and have just as much history.

Often, when cities are created for a story, you're almost hit over the head with it. DC Comics had a long time, though, to flesh out Metropolis and Gotham City. Notice that the show is called Gotham, and they seldom use the name "Gotham City" in dialog. But what makes two cities full of superheroes and costumed psychopaths as real as, say, New York or Peoria, Illinois or even Redding, California, up in the redwoods?

There's a sense of place and identity about those fictitious towns. Gotham, for instance, has a geography. Some river empties out into another river or a lake or the Atlantic, forming "The Narrows." Bruce Wayne probably lives in a place north of the city that looks suspiciously like Atlanta's Buckheads. And there are nightclubs, restaraunts, and city landmarks that get recycled and repurposed with every incarnation of Batman and its spin-offs. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's films and the new TV series, Gotham looks a lot like a place you can go to.

Contrast that with the typical comic book or movie device of hitting you over the head with a city's unreality. It's always something-"City." Very few large urban centers are actually called that.

"But, Jim, what about Mexico City?"

Glad you asked that. It's an Americanism. We call it either Mexico City or Ciudad de Mejico because, English or Spanish, it's hard to differentiate between the city of Mexico (and that's all actual Mexicans call it) and the country.

There are exceptions, of course. But often, when I hear something like "Bay City" or, pulling from the soaps, "Genoa City" (Really, Young and the Restless writers? You couldn't just call it "Genoa"?), I hear "Fake." It worked on Battlestar Galactica because, like Mexico, the city of Caprica needs to be differentiated from the planet Caprica if you don't live there. Genoa City sounds like lazy writing. (And in the soaps' defense, they do have to crank out at least 260 scripts a year.)

But what really makes these places real?

Well, let's look at my personal favorite nonexistent town, Isola, a borough of... McBain spares us a lame name for his City. It's just The City, just like every urban center you've ever been to. From the first 87th Precinct onward, you get a sense of the city's geography (including the only two rivers in America that flow west into the Atlantic), history (often lifted from New York's own), and landmarks. Grover Park is not Central Park. Diamondback is the roughest neighborhood in Isola. You have to take a ferry to Bethtown. And I'm still not sure where the Alexander Hamilton Bridge goes.

McBain sprinkled just enough of these little details into the series to make Isola and its fellow "sections" real to you. You can almost picture the drive upstate to Castleview Prison.

But even better at making a town real is Stephen King. I've been to those little stores in Castle Rock and played in a place that looks a lot like Derry's Barrens. And then there are the backstories. If you lived in small towns dependent on a nearby city for its media (like I did living near Cleveland as a kid), you know the ebb and flow. You know certain places are going to get mentioned in the news and in conversation. You remember a sheriff very much like Alan Pangborn, and you know what happened at your high school happened in Derry. King takes the common experiences we all have, good and bad, and creates a Maine that does not exist but looks so much like the real one that you can't miss it. Oh, and there's a monster in there somewhere, like a clown that eats children or aliens messing with your head or something. The horror is almost secondary. Almost.

And finally, the history is often important. Street names and neighborhoods and landmarks take their names from people you don't remember. Here in Cincinnati, there is a William Howard Taft Road, named for the city's most famous president, and a lot of things called Hudepohl and St. Clair. Until the stadiums were built, a Pete Rose Way ran from Sawyer Point to the grungy barge docks that begin the city's West Side. Many streets are named for Civil War heroes who came from here, for meat-packing moguls like Buddig and Morrell, Procter & Gamble executives long dead before the current management was born, and sometimes, just somebody who helped layout the town.

McBain and King include these things, and I think it's the most important aspect of creating a fictional town. If you know a little about its history, you get an idea what to name things and where to put them.

It helps the reader live there with you, even if it's in both your heads.

26 January 2015

Calling All Literary Sluts (and Others)

By Fran Rizer



Several SleuthSayers and I have been discussing the possibility of one or more panels at Bouchercon 2015 consisting solely or primarily of SleuthSayer authors.  Jan Grape suggested previously that many organizers and planners appreciate receiving suggestions of a specific topic and writers for the panel and/or moderator. I have inquired about where suggestions should be sent.

Melodie Campbell and I exchanged emails about making a few proposals.
We need your help.

A visit to the Bouchercon 2014 website schedule reveals many interesting panels last year (including three workshops with our own R. T. Lawton on Surveillance).  Format for the titles is primarily in the form of a catchy title, followed by a colon which introduces a more explicit explanation of what the panel is about.

Examples from 2014:  No More Badges:  Crime Solvers Who Left the Badge Behind

                                    Short but Mighty:  The Power and Freedom of the Short Story

                                    Crime Goes Visual:  Graphic Novels and Comic Books

Check out the website for more examples.

My question for everyone today, both writers and readers:

 What do you suggest as an interesting topic for a panel at Bouchercon 2015? 


Melodie and I are seriously considering a proposal (or maybe I should say proposition in this case) of a panel entitled:

      
Writers as Literary Sluts: Publishing in More Than One Genre



Of course, both Melodie and I are eager to be members of this panel.  Be sure to let us know if you want to be with us or if you want to be suggested as the moderator of this sure-to-be-fun session.

We are also looking for a super cool title and topic about short stories and will suggest SleuthSayer writers for that panel and moderator.

Another thought that's been roaming around in my mind is related to Bouchercon 2015's location in Raleigh, NC, as well as Ron Rash being one of the featured writers.

Would any of you want to be a participant in this one?

Murder Down South, Y'all: Southern Writers, Southern Mysteries

Please share your thoughts on topics for panels. If you're a writer, let us know if you are planning to register for Bouchercon 2015 by May 1, 2015 (deadline to be considered for presentations) and if you'd like to be recommended for a panel or rather handle it yourself.  If you don't want to announce your plans publicly, just email Melodie or me.

Until we meet again, please take care of . . . you.

25 January 2015

Slip Sliding Away?

by Dale C. Andrews
[The Doctor] gave me the route map: loss of memory, short- and long-term, the disappearance of single words -- simple nouns might be the first to go -- then language itself, along with balance, and soon after, all motor control, and finally the autonomous nervous system. Bon voyage!
                                                                       Atonement: A Novel 
                                                                       Ian McEwan 

       Over the holidays I read several mystery novels, each set in Florida or the Gulf Coast, all in a row. I don’t know why I did this -- maybe the gray skies over Washington, D.C. and the promise (threat?) of more winter on the horizon had something to do with it, or maybe it was just a simple reaction to my impending return to SleuthSayers and the prospect of sharing space on a new day with my friend and inveterate Floridian Leigh. More on those Florida books later -- perhaps next month.

       But after that steady southern diet I started to feel a little swampy, which led me to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in search of something different. A great book, by the way. And in it the above quote, from an author character who, near the end of Atonement, confronts the onset of dementia, struck a chord. Confronting and dealing with dementia in the context of mystery novels has been a recurring theme, both lately and historically. 

        In an earlier article discussing first person narration I referenced Alice LaPlante’s debut novel Turn of Mind, where the central character and first person narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, is an Orthopedic surgeon suffering from Alzheimer's disease. LaPlante skillfully allows the reader to know only what Jennifer knows, and the story progresses only through her distorted view. As readers we are imprisoned in her mind, a mind that Dr. White herself describes as:
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient. 
       Another recent mystery utilizing the same technique -- a narrator disabled by dementia -- is Emma Healing’s ambitious mystery Elizabeth Is Missing. Here, too, the first person narration is by the central character, Maude, who speaks through her dementia, and all we know of the mystery at hand, and the clues to its solution, are told to us through her filter. 

       Tough stuff, writing a mystery under such constraints. But what about the tougher task -- writing a mystery when it is the author who is struggling with the real-life constraint? That may be precisely what Agatha Christie did when she penned her last mysteries. 

       I began to read Christie late, after I had exhausted all of the Ellery Queen mysteries that were out there. And that early obsession with Queen tripped me up a bit as I approached Christie. With Queen I found that I liked the later mysteries best, those from the mid-1940s on. I particularly liked the final Queen volumes, beginning with The Finishing Stroke. And that led me to a mis-step. I began reading Christie by starting with her most recent works, specifically, Postern of Fate and Elephants Can Remember. Oops. 

       Postern of Fate, the chronologically last book that Christie wrote, features Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This, on its own, is a sad way to end things -- they were hardly Christie’s best detective characters. But that is not the real problem. The reader uncomfortably notes from the beginning of the book that conversations occurring in one chapter are forgotten in the next. Deductions that are relatively simple are drawn out through the course of many pages. Clues are dealt with multiple times in some instances, in others they are completely ignored.  The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, tags the work as one of Christie’s "execrable last novels" in which she "loses her grip altogether." 

       Elephants Can Remember, written one year earlier, fares no better. The Cambridge Guide also ranks this as one of the “execrable last novels.” More specifically, English crime writer, critic and lecturer Robert Bernard had this to say:      
Another murder-in-the-past case, with nobody able to remember anything clearly, including, alas, the author. At one time we are told that General Ravenscroft and his wife (the dead pair) were respectively sixty and thirty-five; later we are told he had fallen in love with his wife's twin sister 'as a young man'. The murder/suicide is once said to have taken place ten to twelve years before, elsewhere fifteen, or twenty. Acres of meandering conversations, hundreds of speeches beginning with 'Well, …' That sort of thing may happen in life, but one doesn't want to read it.
       Speaking of reading, are we perhaps reading too much into all of this? Could it just be that Christie had run out of inspiration? Younger writers (Stephen King comes to mind) display peaks and valleys in their fiction output.  Could Christie have just ended in a valley?  Unlikely.  There is almost certainly more to Christie’s problem than just un-inspired plots. 

       Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto wondered about the perceived decline in Christie’s later novels and devised a way to put them to the test. Lancashire developed a computer program that tabulates word usage in books, and then fed sixteen of Agatha Christie’s works, written over fifty years, into the computer. Here are his findings, couched in terms of his analysis of Elephants Can Remember, and as summarized by RadioLab columnist Robert Krulwich:
When Lancashire looked at the results for [Elephants Can Remember], written when [Christie] was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like "thing," "anything," "something," "nothing" – terms that Lancashire classifies as "indefinite words" – spiked. At the same time, [the] number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. "That is astounding," says Lancashire, "that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost."
         But to her credit, Christie was likely battling mightily to produce Elephants and Postern. Lancaster hypothesizes as much, not only from the results of his computer analysis of vocabulary, but also based on a more subjective analysis of the plot of Elephants.
 Lancashire told Canadian current affairs magazine Macleans that the title of the novel, a tweaking of the proverb "elephants never forget", also gives a clue that Christie was defensive about her declining mental powers. . . . [T]he protagonist [in the story] is unable to solve the mystery herself, and is forced to call on the aid of Hercule Poirot.
"[This] reveals an author responding to something she feels is happening but cannot do anything about," he said. "It's almost as if the crime is not the double-murder-suicide, the crime is dementia."
In any event Christie likely should have stopped while the stopping was good, which she did after Postern. Her final mysteries, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, while published in the mid-1970s, were in fact written in the 1940s. 

       Christie’s plight is a bit uncomfortable for aging authors (I find myself standing in the queue) to contemplate. But thankfully Christie’s road as she reached 80 is not everyone’s. Rex Stout still had the literary dash at about the same age to give us Nero Wolfe slamming that door in J. Edgar Hoover’s face in The Doorbell Rang.  There, and in his final work Family Affair, written in 1975 when Stout was in his late 80s, there are certainly no apparent problems. Time’s review of Family concluded "even veteran aficionados will be hypnotized by this witty, complex mystery." I recently read Ruth Rendell’s latest work, The Girl Next Door, written during Rendell's 84th year, and it is, to use Dicken’s phrase, “tight as a drum.” Similarly, the last P. D. James work, Death Comes to Pemberley, a Jane Austen pastiche written when James was well into her 90s, received glowing reviews, most notably from the New York Times, and has already been adapted into a British television miniseries. And when James’ works were analyzed by the same computer program to which Christie’s novels were subjected, the results established that James’ vocabulary, even in her 90s, was indistinguishable from that employed in her earlier works. 

       So if you are both writing and contemplating the other side of middle age, watch out! But on the other hand don’t needlessly descend into gloom. Keep your fingers crossed and remember the advice of Spock, as rendered by Leonard Nimoy (also in his 80’s): Live long and prosper!

24 January 2015

Mysterious, Thrilling, and Criminal





by John M. Floyd



I've heard that the late great Elmore Leonard, who was at one point named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and who won an Edgar for his novel LaBrava, once confessed in an interview that he'd never written a mystery in his life. He said he wrote crime stories, thrillers, suspense novels (and short stories)--but never what might be a called a "traditional" mystery.

Does it matter? Not to me. I love Leonard's books and stories--all of them, including his Westerns--and I couldn't care less how they're labeled. Besides, mysteries are not always whodunits. I maintain that mysteries are puzzles, in the sense that any good story is a puzzle--we want to see what happens, how things turn out--but the identity of the villain doesn't always have to be withheld from the reader until the end. Look at the Columbo series, where the bad guy was always identified in the first five minutes of the episode. It was still considered a mystery show, and one of the best.

The criminal element

This question of what a mystery is--or isn't--seems to come up a lot, in literary discussions. One way to address it is this: Next time you're in a bookstore, take a look at the "Mystery" section. Stacked upon those shelves are hundreds and even thousands of volumes containing murder, mayhem, and misbehavior on all levels. But all of them aren't traditional mysteries, and certainly all of them are not whodunits. I doubt that half of them are. What they are is crime fiction.

If you need further proof, consider the short-story submission guidelines for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Both of them used to say (I'm paraphrasing, but this is the gist) that a story qualifies as a mystery if a crime is central, or essential, to the plot. In other words, if there's no crime, the storyline would fall apart. I also think I remember once reading in their guidelines that a story can be categorized as a mystery if it includes a crime, or even includes the hint of a crime.


In light of these observations, I dutifully went back and examined some of the stories I've had published over the past twenty years. As it turns out, only about twenty percent of my mystery stories have been whodunits. The rest were howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. In those, there's no question about who killed whom. The question is, will the good guy(s) win out, and--if so--how?

Bottom line: Are whodunits good examples of mystery stories? Of course they are, and they'll always be around. But mysteries, whether long or short, don't have to be traditional. They just have to include criminal activity of some kind.

Puzzle vs. suspense

What, then, are some differences between so-called mysteries and so-called thrillers? Here are a few that come to mind:

1. In a traditional mystery, the protagonist (detective, usually) knows more than the reader. In a thriller, the reader knows more than the protagonist--or at least knows it sooner. I once heard it put another way: in a mystery the reader is a step behind the hero, and in a thriller the reader is a step ahead.

2. Traditional mysteries are often told in first person, which supports the "conceal the facts from the reader" approach. Thrillers are more likely to be told in third person, which can heighten suspense. It's "thrilling" for the reader to know, before the FBI agent does, that the terrorist is ready and waiting, just around the corner (or in the root cellar). Or, as Hictchcock is famous for saying, that "there's a bomb under the table."

3. In a thriller, the protagonist's world gradually grows larger, to include more and more tense situations. In a mystery, his world narrows, until only the solution remains.

4. In a traditional mystery, we wonder who committed the crime. In a thriller, we wonder if the hero will survive.

The big question is . . .

Which of the two do you prefer? The answer might not reveal only your reading tastes, but your writing preferences as well. It's been said that crime fiction writers who prefer using third person naturally tend to write more suspense/thriller stories, and that crime fiction writers who prefer first person lean more toward traditional mysteries. I admit that in my case that might be true. Some of my favorite stories of my own were written in first person, but I usually feel more comfortable writing in third--and I've written far more suspense stories than whodunits.

What are your thoughts? Which had you rather read? Which had you rather write? At a guess, what percentage of your own stories or novels are mysteries and what percentage are thrillers?

On the one hand, who cares, right? They're both fun to read, and to create. And we're all different. As Lt. Frank Bullitt said, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

On the other hand . . . tell me your secrets. End the suspense.

To do less would be a crime.