Showing posts with label Art Taylor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Art Taylor. Show all posts

13 April 2018

Agatha Award Finalists: Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic convention is right around the corner—April 27-29 in Bethesda, Maryland—and two of us SleuthSayers have stories up for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman with “Whose Wine is it Anyway?” and me (Art Taylor!) with  “A Necessary Ingredient” (mine with ties to other SleuthSayers as well, since the anthology which includes it, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, was co-edited by Paul D. Marks and features stories by several members of our group too). Three other fine writers/fine stories round out the slate: Gretchen Archer’s “Double Deck the Halls,” Debra H. Goldstein’s “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” and Gigi Pandian’s “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The Agatha Awards will be presented at the annual Agatha Awards Banquet on Saturday evening, April 28.



In advance of the big weekend, I invited the finalists to answer a question about their nominated stories, and I’m glad to share these reflections here. Please note that you can read each story for free through links in the paragraph above and in the headers to each response below. 

Here’s the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your particular short story and how did you overcome it?

And the responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Gretchen Archer on “Double Deck the Halls”

The biggest challenge I faced writing “Double Deck the Halls” was also the most fun. One of my characters, in dire need of salvation, couldn’t speak. She could only communicate by humming Christmas carols. My mission, as her author, was to find appropriate song lyrics for her to hum so she could help her rescuer, a senior citizen with nothing but the retirement accessories she had on her person, save her. First, the lyrics had to fit the story, as in answer specific questions and convey detailed instructions. Not only that, the lyrics had to be in the public domain for me to use them. Writing a character who could only communicate in holiday tunes was so much fun. (And challenging!) 

Barb Goffman on “Whose Wine is it Anyway” from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet 

My biggest challenge in writing the story was overcoming the issue that I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol) and didn't know enough about cabernet to use it properly in a story. (I know. Sacrilege!) The anthology requirements were that the story had to involve a mystery/crime involving cabernet and it should be lighthearted. So I started doing research. I scoured the internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. The most interesting item I came across was a Japanese hotel that fills its hot tubs with red wine, but I couldn't come up with a good idea stemming from that tidbit.

 Finally I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon, and an idea began forming. What came to me was a story about a seventy-year-old woman, days from retirement from a job she's loved for decades. But in these final hours, she realizes she hasn't been appreciated as she should have been. So she decides it's time to teach some lessons about the importance of caring more about people than appearances, and what I learned about wine allergies enabled me to make the story work. So the moral of my personal writing story here is that you don't have to be an expert on a topic to write about it. You can always learn the information you need to make your story work. Just keep at it.

Debra H. Goldstein on “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 

“The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” combines the impact of an exchange between a nine-year-old boy and an adult during a Civil Rights era evening where there is a murder in a house where the sheets are changed more than once a night. My biggest challenge was to make the voices of the child and the adult believable and recognizable to the reader. It was easy to establish the heat and tension of the setting of a 1960’s non-air-conditioned kitchen through references to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, but making the characters’ voices realistic rather than stereotypical required nuanced layering of details. Rather than pounding the reader with what the characters said, wore, thought, and did, my challenge was to present a sufficient build up of these things, sentence by sentence, to trigger each reader’s personal reactions and memories. By engaging the reader through evoked recollections or associations, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” hopefully succeeds in establishing and resolving a crime while contrasting the innocence and bravado of childhood as it is lost with an adult’s acceptance of life as it is. 

Gigi Pandian on “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn”
 
I write fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, stories in which a big part of the fun is that clues are hidden in plain sight for the reader. “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is a locked-room mystery, the style of mystery popularized in the Golden Age of detective fiction that takes puzzle plots to the extreme by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle.

Whenever I begin writing a new locked-room story, my biggest challenge is to set up a clever twist so the big reveal is satisfying to the reader—something that seems impossible, but if you pay attention closely, you can see what really happened.

I’ve always loved puzzle plot stories with a satisfying twist; they epitomize why I love mystery. Locked-room mysteries are the ultimate puzzle, and can be the foundation to build so much more into a story. Impossible crime stories frequently include hints of the supernatural, creating a Gothic atmosphere that’s like reading a ghost story—but there’s always a rational explanation.

To meet the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas for impossible crime stories, my process is that I work first on a paper notebook that I fill with ideas. Sometimes a short story comes together quickly, and sometimes it can take years between when I think of an initial idea and when the ideas come together to make the twist successful. There’s one story draft I wrote five years ago, and I’m not yet satisfied with the ending so I haven’t send it out yet! But happily, I’ve written enough impossible crime stories that turned out successfully that I have a collection of Jaya Jones locked-room mysteries being published later this year.

The twist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” was also challenging because there’s a double-twist at the end. That made it one of my most challenging—but also satisfying—stories I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Art Taylor on “A Necessary Ingredient” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea

Though I was pleased to have been invited to contribute a story to a private eye anthology and though I love and often teach works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, etc. in my classes at George Mason University, I’m not actually a regular writer of private eye stories and don't think I've ever written anything traditionally hard-boiled. I think I’ve only had two PI stories published before—one a parody, the other steeped in the fantastic—and while I wanted to write this one a little more straight, the small-town North Carolina setting (my assigned region to help the anthology’s stretch “from sea to shining sea”) also posed some challenges  in terms of any potential hard-boiled leanings: No mean streets in my town for my main character to go down, for example.

My solution? With "A Necessary Ingredient," I tried to put yet another twist on the conventional PI tale—Ambrose Thornton has “Private Detective” on his office door but he’s really just an unassuming guy seeking a quiet spot to read old crime novels—and then I drew as much on the traditions of regional crime fiction, in the spirit of Margaret Maron, for example, as I did on the legacy of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald in terms of crafting character, setting, and plot. When a new chef in town tasks Thornton with finding a special bean prized in French cooking (a bit of gentrification, this little restaurant), our detective sets out not down any means streets but instead on a tour of local farmer’s markets, roadside vegetable stands, and greenhouses. And while Ambrose references a couple of classic gumshoes here and there, a key twist in the story offers my own nod toward Maron's influences—hopefully keeping the balance of several traditions in play and satisfying readers across a wider spectrum.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Malice in just a couple of weeks! 

10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer

by Michael Bracken

Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.

30 January 2018

Curses, Boiled Again!

by Barb Goffman

I work full-time as a freelance editor, which means that I get to spend my days helping other people's dreams come true. I don't have a magic wand like Glinda the Good Witch. (Wouldn't that be fun!) But I do have a hardworking red pen, which I use to help make novels and short stories shine. But publishing is a hard business, and for authors aiming for traditional publication, there's no guarantee a book will get picked up, no matter how good it is.

That's why it's wonderful when one of my clients gets a contract with a traditional publisher. And it's especially wonderful when that publisher is one of the big ones in New York, and the deal is for three books. And it's even more wonderful--wonderful to infinity and beyond!--when that client is also one of your closest friends, and the contract is for her first published novel, and that first book finally comes out.

Well, today all that wonderfulness is wrapped into one with the publication of Curses, Boiled Again! by Shari Randall. The book, the first in the Lobster Shack Mysteries, went on sale at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia last weekend where Shari appeared at a signing, but today is the day folks everywhere can buy a copy of this book, published by St. Martin's Press.

So what's it about? This is a cozy mystery whose main character, Allie Larkin, is a ballerina who's back home in Mystic Bay, Connecticut, recuperating from a broken ankle. Her beloved aunt Gully has recently opened a lobster shack--her dream come true. But it soon turns into a nightmare when Gully is involved in a foodie competition, one of the judges dies after eating a competitor's entry, and suspicion turns on Gully. Did she tamper with the food? Allie isn't going to let her aunt be railroaded, and she won't let a broken ankle keep her down either, so she sets off to solve the mystery and find the killer.

Signing at Barnes & Noble
The book is filled with delightful characters, delicious food, twisty twists, and Connecticut charm. What's not to like?

So take it from me, who edited the first draft of this book, the final version is sure to knock it out of the park. How do I know? I've also edited two of Shari's short stories (one in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, and the other in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies, which is coming out in April). And I edited a fabulous, unpublished stand-alone novel Shari wrote, which could be the start of a separate traditional mystery series--hint hint to any acquisition editors out there. So I know firsthand not only how well Shari writes, but also that Shari is an author who takes editorial notes and runs with them, making her work better and better. I have no doubt she took what was a good first draft of Curses, Boiled Again! and turned it into a great book, especially after working with her editor at St. Martin's.

But don't take just my word for it. Here's what some other authors who've read the book think:

"Not only is Curses, Boiled Again! a suspenseful and entertaining mystery, but Shari Randall left me longing to visit the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack―even though I'm allergic to crustaceans!" ―Donna Andrews, author of the multiple award-winning Meg Lanslow Mysteries

Cheers to Shari Randall!
"Delightful! A fun whodunit full of New England coastal charm and characters who feel like friends. Warm humor, a delectable plot, and clever sleuthing will keep you turning the pages." ―Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries

"A mystery as richly layered as a genuine Connecticut lobster roll!" ―Liz Mugavero, Agatha Award-nominated author of the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries

"Curses, it's over already! Shari Randall introduces a lively cast of characters who had me dancing through this book. Allie Larkin charmed me with her sense of humor when faced with a heartbreaking injury. The climactic scene is like nothing I've ever read or seen and I loved it!" ―Sherry Harris, author of the Agatha Award-nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries

And if you head over to Goodreads, you'll find around twenty-five reviews of the book, and they're all good. That's no surprise to me, of course.

The only disappointment is that the next book in the series, Against the Claw, won't come out until July. But at least it can be pre-ordered now. And I'll get to see the first draft of the third book in the series this spring. I can't wait to get my editorial claws all over it. Yes, sorry for the pun, but we're talking cozy mysteries here. It was a given!

****

Let me take a moment for a little BSP: Yesterday my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet was named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. I have stiff competition from four writers whose work I admire: Gretchen Archer, Debra Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. Woo-hoo for us all! I'm sure all the nominated stories will be available online for you to read soon (if they're not already), but in the meanwhile, you can read mine by clicking here.

29 September 2017

Anthony Award Finalists for Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

A few weeks back here at SleuthSayers, Paul D. Marks hosted his fellow Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story for a chat about where their nominated stories came from—ideas, inspirations, etc. It was a fine post, and I was glad to be a part of it myself.

Following Paul’s lead in advance of Bouchercon less than two weeks ahead (!), I invited this year’s Anthony Award finalists in the same category (I’m honored to be among this group too) to choose a representative excerpt from their respective stories and offer a quick craft talk on the passage in relation to the story as a whole. Unfortunately, getting all the finalists on-board and on deadline proved a challenge; Megan Abbott, for example—whose story “Oxford Girl” simply blew me away when I read it last year—was gracious as always, but had travel looming and was on a tight timeline generally. (For those who might not know, she’s one of the forces behind the critically acclaimed HBO series The Deuce.)

Still, with other authors willing to join in, I thought it would be good to push ahead—with me offering some quick reflections myself on passages from Megan’s story and Lawrence Block’s as well, before sections from Johnny Shaw, Holly West, and me on our own respective stories.  And just a quick reminder for readers here going to Bouchercon: Four of us—Megan, Johnny, Holly and me, along with moderator Alan Orloff—will be on a panel at Bouchercon on Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. We’ll be chatting more about our stories and about short fiction in general, and hope to see you all there!




In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of the first two stories, along with links to read the full stories for free!

“OXFORD GIRL” BY MEGAN ABBOTT
From Mississippi Noir

Two a.m., you slid one of your Kappa Sig T-shirts over my head, fluorescent green XXL with a bleach stain on the right shoulder blade, soft and smelling like old sheets.

I feigned sleep, your big brother Keith snoring lustily across the room, and you, arms clutched about me until the sun started to squeak behind the Rebels pennant across the window. Watching the hump of your Adam’s apple, I tried to will you to wake up.


But I couldn’t wait forever, due for first shift at the Inn. Who else would stir those big tanks of grits for the game-weekend early arrivals, parents and grandparents, all manner of snowy-haired alumni in searing red swarming into the cafĂ© for their continental-plus, six thirty sharp.


So I left, your head sunk deep in your pillow, and ducked out still wearing your shirt.


“AUTUMN AT THE AUTOMAT” BY LAWRENCE BLOCK
From In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper

The hat made a difference.

If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced that you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s. 


Certainly it wasn’t abject need that led you to the cashier’s window at Horn & Hardart. No one watching you dip into an alligator handbag for a dollar bill could think so for a minute.


Prominent in each of these openings is that “you.” The second-person opening section of “Autumn at the Automat” seems to offer a bit of guidance or a set of rules to follow: You should look both ways before you cross the street, for example, or you should always try to make a good impression. It might be an outside narrator presenting insights to the reader or talking directly to the character, or perhaps it’s a sort of internal monologue the character at the core of the story is having with herself—the woman pictured in Hopper’s painting by the same name as the story’s title, sitting solitary with her cup of coffee in that hat and coat. Soon, the story shifts into a third-person narrative, putting into action all this advice.

In Megan’s story, that “you” serves a different purpose: a young girl at Ole Miss talking to a very specific you, direct address to her new love. And as the story progresses, the narrative shifts back and forth between the points of view of each side of this relationship. Even in these opening paragraphs, the effect is a combination of intimacy and isolation. How close our young narrator is to this young man, snuggled against him, watching his Adam’s apple, talking directly to him—and yet how far away, unable to wake him. It’s a distance that grows throughout this lyrical, heartbreaking, and ultimately haunting story.


“GARY’S GOT A BONER” BY JOHNNY SHAW
From Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by the Replacements

I had never attempted a long walk with a raging erection. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was awkward and painful, my dick bobbing up and down like a broken antenna. And the son of a bitch wasn’t going anywhere. Whatever they put in that pill, it had given me an invincible boner.

I started to stroke it as I walked. Figured if I could rub one out, it would lose its swell. I had never masturbated outdoors. I found it difficult to feel anything but shame. I worked it until my arm was tired, but got no yield. 


I thought of baseball. Football. All the balls. I did my income tax forms in my head. I even tried thinking about the day my dog Roscoe died. Up until that moment, it had been the saddest day of my life. I had hit a new low, holding my rock-hard dick while thinking about my dead dog.


I was stuck with the damn thing until it decided to surrender.


Johnny's comments:
Art asked me to write about how this passage speaks to or illuminates the story, as whole. 

I’m sitting here, rereading it, trying to come up with something clever to write about. I have notes on the connection between humor and empathy, about how fun isn’t inherently frivolous, about dramatic tone change that can amplify the believability of broad comedy or stark realism. I wrote some stuff about the impact of oral storytelling, particularly the art of the shaggy dog story, on my writing.

But I just can’t do it. I can’t in all seriousness write a thesis about elevating the dick joke. Mostly because the dick joke is fine right where it is. A tool like any other. (You see what I did?)
   
“QUEEN OF THE DOGS” BY HOLLY WEST
From 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback

They found seats at one of the tables on the perimeter of the dance floor. Marisol waved at Dennis, her favorite DJ, spinning records from an egg shaped-booth overlooking the dancers. He winked and pointed a finger gun at her. A moment later, 'Dancing Queen" came over the speakers. He always played it when Marisol came in.

"C’mon, let’s dance,” Marisol said, pulling her friends to the floor. She closed her eyes, immediately lost in the music. She loved everything about dancing; the way the bass beat reverberated under her feet, how men watched her out of the corners of their eyes as they danced with other women or from the sidelines, working up the courage to ask her to dance. Here, she was no longer just a maid who cleaned other people’s toilets. She was a foxy lady, the object of everyone’s desire. A dancing queen.



Holly's comments:
"Queen of the Dogs" is a particularly meaningful story to me because its based on someone who was very special to me. By the time I met her she was in her sixties, but after emigrating from Guatemala in her twenties, she worked as a housekeeper in Los Angeles, taking a variety of jobs over the years to support herself and her two children. There'd been lots of them—cheap motels, maid services, individual households, whatever she had to do to get by. For a few years, she was a live-in housekeeper for a very famous Hollywood producer, until she was fired because another employee accused her of stealing a UK passport. And she arrived at one long-term job to find the man she worked for dead in his bed.

But most of her experiences were mundane, as you'd expect a lifetime of cleaning up other people's messes to be. She'd known extreme poverty throughout her life and always seemed to be on the edge of it. I don't know if she ever felt like a "Dancing Queen," but I hope she did, if only for a moment.


“PARALLEL PLAY” BY ART TAYLOR
From Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning

Walter’s glasses were still covered by rain, the drops so thick she couldn’t see his eyes, and somehow that troubled her nearly as much as having him show up on the doorstep. Jordan stood beside him, and there was something unreal about that too, as if the two of them had materialized there, same as they’d been standing back at Teeter Toddlers. Except he wasn’t the same, was he? No, he wasn’t holding an umbrella now and . . .

“The tire,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d make it all the way home, figured I’d have to play knight in shining armor again. But here you are.”


Too stunned to answer, Maggie tried to snatch Daniel back and shut the door, but her son pulled away from her like it was a game, poked his head around one knee, then the other, and then into the doorway again.


“Hey, Daniel,” Walter said, stooping down, leaning forward, releasing his own son’s hand to take Daniel’s instead. “It’s Jordan, your friend.”


“Jordan,” Daniel repeated, and Maggie could hear a mix of pleasure and surprise in his voice, like when he got a new Matchbox car.


Walter stared up through those smeared glasses. “I hate to barge in for a play date unannounced, but given the circumstances . . . ”


Maggie shook her head, tried to hold back the tears suddenly welling up behind her eyes, finally found her voice. “It’s really not a good time right now. My husband—”


“Away on a business trip.” Walter nodded. “I heard you talking to Amy, that’s what got me thinking about this, making sure you got home in one piece.” He looked at Daniel again, smiled. “Surely you could spare a few minutes for the boys to play.”


She nodded—unconsciously, reflex really. “A few minutes,” she said. “A few, of course.”


Her words sounded unreal to her, more than his own now, and even as she said them, she knew it was the wrong decision—everything, in fact, the opposite of what she’d always thought she’d do in a case like this. But really what choice did she have, the way Walter had inserted his foot into the doorway and held so tightly to Daniel’s hand?


And then there was the box cutter jittering slightly in Walter’s other hand, raindrops glistening along the razor’s edge, the truth behind that flat tire suddenly becoming clear.


My comments:
The section I chose—apologies for the length, two lines needed including—comes at about the 40% mark of the story but really marks the first dramatic uptick of the action here.

I’ve already written at B.K. Stevens’ blog “The First Two Pages” about the relatively slower start of the story, but I wanted to look at this scene here for two reasons. First, I think it encapsulates the mood and approach of much of the story—the intersection between an everyday conversation on the surface and the life-or-death stakes coursing under that conversation. Second, I wanted to focus on the decision to postpone the mention of that box cutter. My writing group was very divided about this scene when I brought in my draft: Wouldn’t mentioning the box cutter at the start—“an umbrella now and…”—add drama more quickly? get the reader into the conflict more quickly? Perhaps. But I continued to think (hope!) that readers would be drawn ahead by questions about Maggie’s reaction, wondering about the uneasiness she’s feeling, and perhaps sharing with her some small disorientation. What’s happening here? And could this really be happening at all?  

Again, I hope that readers here attending Bouchercon will come out to the Anthony finalists panel featuring Megan, Johnny, Holly and me and moderated by Alan Orloff—Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. See you all in Toronto!

08 September 2017

A Room (or Two) of One's Own

By Art Taylor

In a SleuthSayers post back in July, I talked about how we were moving this summer—a process that still seems never-ending. Yes, we got all the boxes into the new place, and we've made some headway on unpacking, organizing and arranging the contents of those boxes. Yes, we finished cleaning out (slowly) and cleaning up (painfully) the old place and then bringing it successfully to closing (a big sigh of relief). And in addition to the move, we navigated another couple of transitions—most importantly my wife Tara's start at a new job and our son Dashiell's entrance into kindergarten (which I also wrote about at the Washington Independent Review of Books). Much to celebrate in all this, but also still a long way to go—and the dishwasher that died on Monday hasn't helped, I'll admit: one more thing to add to the to-do list.

Still, we're happy with the new place, especially Dash, who calls it a "magic house." There's a corner cabinet in the kitchen with a lazy Susan inside! The timer on the stove plays a little song when the countdown hits zero! And at sunset, the glass in the front door projects tiny patterns, shapes, and rainbows on the wall!

I'll admit: I find that last bit a little magical myself.

Our search for a house seemed quick—we picked this one on our second formal day of looking with an agent—but our plans to move stretch back to even before Dash was born. We'll move to a house with a yard before he starts kindergarten—that was our goal. And we had more than five years to meet that goal—should be easy, right? Just before Dash turned five-and-a-half, we finally kicked into high gear.

When our realtor (shout-out to Dutko-Ragen in Northern Virginia!) asked us what we were looking for in a house, he emphasized that we should talk about things we needed (couldn't do without) and then things we'd love to have (reaching for the stars).

Dash, a car man since he was a baby, judges houses by whether they have a garage, so that was top of his list.

Tara has always loved the idea of a screened-in porch.

And I felt that ideally Tara and I—both being writers—should each have space for an office, hearkening back to that oft-quoted phrase of Virginia Woolf's about a room of one's own. (I recognize, of course, that Woolf's essay is an argument about women's spaces and places in the literary world, but I do believe that writers and artists of either gender benefit from having both mental and physical space in which to indulge their creativity and hone their craft.)

The reasons we snatched up this house as quickly as we could?

Well, Dash got his wish:


Tara got hers:


And while much of the house is still a mess of boxes or else the stuff that came out of those boxes, two rooms were among the first priorities for us to get settled. Here's Tara's office (I avoided the right half, still a work in progress):


And here's mine:


I've enjoyed posts from other SleuthSayers about writers and their working environments, several of them published just this year. Earlier this summer, Jan Grape did a nice round-up of various writer friends' workspaces. Paul Marks gave us a glance inside his office (and into both real and fictional versions of his days). And Dixon Hill treated us to before and after photos of the construction of his beautiful new office during our recent Family Fortnight.

Many of us with office space (me included) also write in other places, I recognize this. In my case, I also have an office on campus where I spent more time than at home, and then there's the library and occasionally a coffee shop, and back here at the house, I'm as likely to work at the kitchen table or the couch as in the office itself; I'm sitting on the couch right now, in fact, but mainly because it's better internet reception tonight.

So given all that, what's behind the desire to have an office of one's own? Part of it is, again, the space to work—to spread out a printed manuscript on the desk and look at it or to stare out the window (and I keep the desk facing that way, clearly) or to close the door and just think. Part of it depends on the things in the space: the books that have inspired me and that I keep at eye level on the nearby shelves, for example, and my own works in progress always within arms' reach too. In the picture of my office above, you might note a brown three-ring binder on the right corner; it holds printed drafts of various stories in one stage or another of needing attention. And the file cabinet on the left, the one with the old typewriter sitting on it? That's got notes on other stories and the draft of a (failed) novel—or, honestly, two. And the typewriter itself? It's an old one, of course, and I like to think that some other writer pounded out a story or two of his or her own on it. It's inspiring somehow, and so too is the artwork on either side of the desk and—not seen here—the framed poster on the wall behind my chair, from an exhibition at Trinity College in Dublin about the great detectives, a reminder of the tradition that informs so much of what I write, so much of how I think about what I write.

Tara, meanwhile, has her own approach: books too, obviously, but she keeps her desk sideways in the room, and she's looking for a chair for the other corner (unseen) where she can curl up and read. She has an Elvis lamp as well—a gaudy thing as far as I'm concerned (and I'm an Elvis fan, I should stress). But that's the beauty of the layout here: It's her space, she can do with it whatever she wants. It must be working OK for her already: Last week she finished a draft of her novel in the new office, and she's already gotten affirmative feedback from her first reader—hooray!

And as for Dash... well, beyond the garage, he's already taken over much of this house in one way or another. But he wanted a desk of his own as well, a place to draw actually, and at the same time he also wants to be close to us when he creates, so he's got a table and chairs in the living room, and we're planning to set up a craft corner if we can ever get all his art supplies unpacked, and then there's an old, old desk from my own childhood that he's taken a liking to... and I'll admit, I was glad to share some of my own office space with him. I hope you'll indulge this one last picture:



Writers who are reading this here: Where do you work? What in your space helps to spark creativity? Not sure how easy it is to post a picture in the comments—if it's even possible—but do offer some description at least if you can! 


Countdown to Bouchercon! (...and a little BSP)


My story "Parallel Play" from Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning won this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story and is up for both the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award at this year's Bouchercon. My fellow Macavity finalist Paul D. Marks, author of the terrific "Ghosts of Bunker Hill," offered a great post here recently where we joined other nominees Lawrence Block, Craig Faustus Buck, and Greg Herren to talk about the origins of these stories, along with Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, talking about the origin of Joyce Carol Oates' nominated story; do check out Paul's post and check out the links there in order to read the other stories too—such a distinguished batch of short fiction!

I'm hoping to arrange something myself with all the Anthony finalists for my next appearance at SleuthSayers in three weeks, along with announcements about my Bouchercon schedule—all of it rushing toward us so quickly!

Stay tuned for all that—and looking forward to seeing everyone in Toronto next month! 


05 September 2017

Introducing Black Cat Mystery Magazine

by Barb Goffman

It's not everyday you get to blog about the premier issue of a new magazine, especially on the very day it's scheduled to launch. And it's especially exciting when the magazine is coming from a publisher that's been around for nearly thirty years, so you can feel confident that the magazine should have staying power.

Well, this is that day. Welcome to the world, Black Cat Mystery Magazine!

The brainchild of Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt and Wildside editor Carla Coupe, the magazine is expected to come out quarterly. The first issue features new stories from fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Art Taylor, as well as one from me. (More on that below.) The other authors with new stories in the issue are Dan Andriacco, Michael Bracken, Kaye George, Meg Opperman, Alan Orloff, and Josh Pachter.

Editor Carla Coupe was kind enough to answer some questions about this new venture.

Why did you decide to start this magazine?
To provide an outlet for great short fiction, which we love. We decided to launch Black Cat when certain other mystery magazines cut their publication schedules in half. 

How do you hope to distinguish BCMM from other mystery magazines?

We're focusing on edgier, noir-tinged, character-based short storieswhich happen to contain a crime of some sort. (A crime is essential, or it isn't mystery fiction.) We don't want fantasy, horror, science fiction, routine revenge stories, or sadism. We do want stories with characters who feel real, in situations that are possible (and plausible), and of course great writing.


 


Do you have a minimum or maximum word count? How about a sweet spot?

We’re looking for contemporary and traditional mysteries, as well as thrillers and suspense stories. We hope to feature stories by established and new authors, and will include a classic reprint or two in each issue. We aren’t looking for flash fiction, and our sweet spot is for stories between 1,000 and 8,000 words. We will look at material up to 15,000 words in length—but it better blow us away to take up that much of an issue!


 

Where will the magazine be available for sale? Bookstores?
It will be for sale at our website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), on Amazon, and hopefully some independent bookstores. US readers can buy a four-issue subscription, so they won't miss any.


You're aiming for it to come out quarterly?
Yes, but as with all our publications, we're not wedded to a strict schedule.
 

When will submission guidelines go up?
Hopefully this week.

When will you open for submissions?
We'll start accepting submissions at the beginning of October.


Do you make the acceptance decisions alone or with John?
We make the decisions together, and so far have agreed on almost every story!


What do you pay?
We pay 3 cents/word, with a maximum of $250.

Is there anything you'd like people to know about the magazine that I haven't asked?
John thinks the response times are often unreasonably long in the short fiction field. Our goal is to respond to most submissions within 2 weeks. (We're going to try for "all submissions"but in rare circumstances we may take longer.) We also will look at poetry ($5 for short poems, more for longer ones) and cartoons.

Thank you, Carla!


So, readers, here's your chance to read some great fiction in this brand new issue, which is already available for sale on the Wildside website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), and which should show up any moment now on Amazon, if it isn't there already. My story in the issue, "Crazy Cat Lady," is a tale of psychological suspense about a woman who comes home and immediately suspects there's been a break-in, even though everything looks perfectly in order. Go pick up a copy of the magazine. I hope you enjoy it!

Art, John, and all the other authors with stories in this premier issue, I hope you'll comment with information about your tales. I'm so glad to be sharing this moment with you.

29 August 2017

2017 Macavity Award Short Story Nominees Dish on Their Stories

by Paul D. Marks

Today I’m giving over my post to the 2017 Macavity Award Short Story Nominees. There’s six of us and I’m both lucky and honored to be among such truly distinguished company. It’s mind blowing. Really!

The envelope please. And the nominees are (in alphabetical order as they will be throughout this piece): Lawrence Block, Craig Faustus Buck, Greg Herren, Paul D. Marks, Joyce Carol Oates and Art Taylor. Wow!

I want to thank Janet Rudolph who puts it all together. And I want to thank everyone who voted for us in the first round. If you’re eligible to vote there’s still a few days left – ballots are due September 1st, and I hope you’ll take the time to check out the links below and read all the stories.

But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers. Our Bios are at the end of this post.

So without further ado, here’s our question and responses:

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“What inspired your Macavity-nominated story? Where did the idea and characters come from?”

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Lawrence Block: “Autumn at the Automat,” (In Sunlight or in Shadow, Pegasus Books). Story link: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP 



When I got the idea for an anthology of stories based on Edward Hopper paintings, the first thing I did was draw up a list of writers to invite. I explained the book’s premise and invited each to select a painting.

The response surprised me. Almost everyone on my wish list accepted, picked a painting, and went to work. Now it fell to me to go and do likewise, and I began viewing the paintings and waiting for inspiration to strike. I considered several works—everything Hopper painted somehow manages to suggest there’s a story waiting to be told—and when I looked a second time at “Automat,” the germ of the story came to me.

But there was a problem. “Automat” was off the table. Kristine Kathryn Rusch had already laid claim to it.

I tried to find a way out, but all I could think of was the story that had come to me, as it evolved in my mind. So I emailed Kris, explained where I was, and asked her how strongly committed she was to that particular painting. Had she begun work on a story?

She could not have been more gracious, replying at once that she’d picked “Automat” because she’d had to pick something, that she hadn’t yet come up with a plot and characters, and could as easily transfer her affections to something else. I thanked her, and that same day I sat down and started writing. If I remember correctly, an increasingly tenuous proposition with the passing years, I wrote the story in a single session at the computer. It was already there in my mind, waiting for my fingers to catch up with it.

Kris promptly selected another painting, “Hotel Room 1931,” and knocked my socks off with her story, Still Life 1931, which she elected to publish under her occasional pen name, Kris Nelscott.

So that’s the story.

***

Craig Faustus Buck: “Blank Shot,” (Black Coffee, Darkhouse Books). Story link: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck 

“Blank Shot” was the result of two writing issues coming together in the right place at the right time. I'd been asked by someone to blog about openings, so I'd been thinking about my favorite way to start a story, which is with a bang. So I wrote an example: "His face hit the pavement hard."

I wrote my blog and found myself wondering what happened next to the hapless fellow in my example. At the same time, I'd been reading a Cold War thriller about Berlin in the time of the Wall, and I wondered what Berlin had been like before the Wall went up, but after it had been divided after WWII. I did a bit of research and became fascinated with this period of a divided city that had open commerce and transportation between the sides, yet still maintained a heavily guarded border without barriers between them.

I decided to take my opening line, put it in 1960 Berlin, and see what happened. The result was a hoot to write and full of surprises for me as my characters developed. The ending really came as a shock. Of course, I had to do a lot of back-filling and tap dancing to motivate it and make it work, but that was the fun part.

Once again, writing by the seat of my pants, instead of outlining, turned the work of writing into play. I truly believe that when authors allow their characters to do the driving, the journey is more enjoyable for both writer and reader, and the destination is more likely to delight.

***

Greg Herren: “Survivor’s Guilt,” (Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016, Down & Out Books). Story link: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/ 

My story was inspired, in part, by the stories I heard from people who did not evacuate from New Orleans before the levees failed; what it was like to be up on the roof, running out of water, and drinking alcohol because that was all that was left while waiting to be rescued. A married couple—friends of friends— got divorced because the wife had wanted to evacuate and the husband didn’t; they were on their roof for four days. That dynamic—the blame and guilt—fascinated me, as did the mental anguish. That kind of trauma changes people.

As I listened to the husband tell his story, through my horror at what they endured, I thought: what if they had argued and he’d accidentally killed her?

After all, the victim’s body wouldn’t have been found for months, and by then, the water and decay would have certainly done a number on the corpse; and the bodies weren’t autopsied. It seemed almost like it would be the perfect crime. The body might not ever be identified, and the husband could just disappear, as so many did in the vast diaspora that followed.

As for the characters in my story, I had started with the story and worked backward. I made them blue collar, because of most of the people who lived in the lower 9th were, and began piecing together who they were, and what their marriage had been like. It all just kind of fell into place as I wrote the story.

***

Paul D. Marks: “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Dec. 2016). Story link: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/assets/3/6/EQMD16_Marks_BunkerHill.pdf 

My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is partly inspired by the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with fantastic Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After World War I the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. So in the late 60s they tore it down and redeveloped it. Luckily, some of those Victorians were moved to other parts of L.A. If you’re into film noir you’ve seen the original Bunker Hill. And when I was younger I explored it with friends, even “borrowing” a souvenir or two. And that place has always stayed with me.

In the story, P.I. Howard Hamm is investigating his best friend’s murder and, while the murder takes place today in one of those “moved” Victorians, “ghosts” of the past influence the present.

As it says in “Bunker Hill Blues,” the sequel to “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” which is in the current September/October 2017 issue of Ellery Queen, but which also applies to the first Bunker Hill story:

“Howard might not have believed in ghosts, but they were everywhere if you knew where to look for them: There are more things in heaven and earth, and all that jazz. Not creatures in white sheets like Casper, not malevolent apparitions like in Poltergeist. But ghosts of the past, ghosts of who we were and who we thought we wanted to be. Ghosts of our lost dreams. In some ways those ghosts are always gaining on us, aren’t they?”

***

Joyce Carol Oates: “The Crawl Space,” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Sep.–Oct. 2016). Story link: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/assets/3/6/EQM916_Oates_CrawlSpace.pdf 

(Note: I couldn’t reach Joyce Carol Oates, but Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, provided me with the following and with Ms. Oates’ bio at the end of this piece.)

Joyce carol oates 2014
Photo by Larry D. Moore © 2014
“The Crawl Space” by Joyce Carol Oates was written in response to an invitation from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to contribute to its special 75th-anniversary issue, September/October 2016. The author explained the seed for the story when she spoke at the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University in September 2016:

“‘The Crawl Space’ . . . gives me a shiver because it’s set in my former house…. There was a crawl space in that house. If you know what a crawl space is, it’s some strange part of a cellar—it’s not completely filled in. Sometimes there is a cellar and the crawl space goes out from it, but this particular house didn’t have a cellar. It only had a crawl space. There were things stored there, and I think repairmen would have to crawl in there and do things—and I think they never came out again....If you have an imagination, you can just imagine how horrible it would be to be in a crawl space. So the story’s about that dark fantasy that comes true for someone.”

Ms. Oates added, that despite being set in her former home, the story is “NOT autobiographical”!

***

Art Taylor: “Parallel Play,” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, Wildside Press). Story link: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/ 

My story “Parallel Play” centers on new parenthood, both the stress and anxieties surrounding it and then the idea of parental protectiveness—the thought that most parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children. The opening to the story is set at a kids play space which I call Teeter Toddlers, and the idea of the story actually first came to me when I was taking my own son, Dashiell, to his weekly Gymboree classes. I was the only father who regularly attended, and while the moms there were certainly welcoming to me, they did seem to form quicker friendships, share more quickly, with one another than with me—some small gender divide, I guess, and probably not surprising, but I did start wondering about various dynamics and situations, letting my mind wander (as we crime writers do) into darker twists and turns. Another inspiration was the prompt from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, which required weather to play an important role. The Gymboree had big plate glass windows surrounding the play space, and I remember one day watching a thunderstorm roll into view. That image plus one more element—a forgotten umbrella—and the rest of the story was suddenly in motion. I hope that readers will appreciate where it all goes.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

BIOS:

Lawrence Block has been writing award-winning mystery and suspense fiction for half a century. His series characters include Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Chip Harrison, Evan Tanner, Martin Ehrengraf, and a chap called Keller. His non-series characters include, well, hundreds of other folk. Liam Neeson starred in the film version of his novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones.  Several of his other books have also been filmed, although not terribly well.  In December Pegasus Books will publish Alive in Shape and Color, a sequel to his Hopper anthology In Sunlight or in Shadow. LB is a modest and humble fellow, although you would never guess as much from this biographical note. http://lawrenceblock.com/ 


Author-screenwriter Craig Faustus Buck's short crime fiction has won a Macavity Award and has been nominated for a second, plus two Anthonys, two Derringers and a Silver Falchion. His novel, Go Down Hard (Brash Books), a noir romp, was First Runner Up for the Claymore Award.  The sequel, Go Down Screaming, is coming out whenever he writes his way out of the second act. CraigFaustusBuck.com  

Greg Herren is the award-winning author of over thirty novels, and an award-winning editor, with twenty anthologies to his credit. He has published numerous short stories, in markets as varied as Men magazine to the critically acclaimed New Orleans Noir to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and his story "Keeper of the Flame" is scheduled for an upcoming issue of Mystery Week. He has written two detective series set in New Orleans. His most recent novel, Garden District Gothic, was released in September 2016. He lives in New Orleans with his partner of twenty-two years, and is currently finishing another novel. http://gregherren.com/ 

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll and is nominated for a Macavity Award. Howling at the Moon was short-listed for both the Anthony and Macavity Awards. Midwest Review calls his novella Vortex “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” His short stories can be found in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine/s, as well as various periodicals and anthologies, including St. Louis Noir. He is also the co-editor of the Coast to Coast series of mystery anthologies for Down & Out Books. www.PaulDMarks.com 


Joyce Carol Oates is a winner of the National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards, and a National Medal of the Humanities (among many other honors). One of America’s most celebrated literary writers, she is the author of more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories, most under her own name but a number employing her crime-writing pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. Her honors in the field of crime fiction include two International Thriller Awards for best short story. https://celestialtimepiece.com/ 


Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/ 

###


And now for the usual BSP.

I’m happy to say that my short story “Bunker Hill Blues” is in the current Sept./Oct. issue of Ellery Queen that hit newsstands Tuesday of this week. It’s the sequel to the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll winner and current Macavity Award nominee “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”. And I’m surprised and thrilled to say that I made the cover of the issue – my first time as a 'cover boy'! Hope you’ll want to check it out. Available at all the usual places.




My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



07 July 2017

The Book As Object

By Art Taylor

Michael Dirda's column in yesterday's Washington Post celebrated more than a dozen small presses whose books he recommended for summer reading. Many of these publishers specialize in genre fiction, and a couple are likely already favorites of my fellow contributors here and our readers: Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes the British Library Crime Classics series in the U.S., and Wildside Press, which has actually published stories and books by several SleuthSayers, including Barb Goffman's collection Don't Get Mad, Get Even, B.K. Stevens' collection Her Infinite Variety, several of Janice Law's books, including most recently Homeward Dove, and several volumes of the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, the latest of which features my story "Parallel Play," which you can find here for free. (And while we're talking about "Parallel Play," I'm thrilled that both my story and my SleuthSayers buddy Paul D. Marks' terrific "Ghosts of Bunker Hill" have recently been named finalists for this year's Macavity Award—just find some way to vote for both of us!)

While Dirda's emphasis is on small publishers and summer reading, the column actually brought me back once more to another topic—books as objects—since several of the other publishers focus on high-quality, illustrated hardcovers, often in limited editions. In his column, Dirda himself contrasts one publisher from the next in these same terms. Writing about The Folio Society, Dirda asks, "Are these the most beautiful books being published today?" and then later in the column, he notes that Wildside's books "aren't fancy" before praising their enormous collection of titles in "fantasy, science fiction, adventure and horror" (and, again, I'd add mystery, of course).

There are a couple of ways to think about books as objects, of course. A reader may well feel some sentimental attachment to a specific book. I still have, for example, an old "junior deluxe edition" of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which isn't in terrific shape but which my mother read to/with me when I was a child. My tattered copy of the first volume of The Norton Anthology of American Literature never fails to transport me back into the classroom at my old boarding school, The Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. And I treasure a copy of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies not just because of the joy I take in reading it but also because it was a gift (Christmas? Valentine's?) from an ex-girlfriend—to whom I gave a copy of another Gorey title as a present on the same day!

The book as object can be a container for memories, I guess that's what I'm saying.

Interestingly, that ex-girlfriend was the one who first questioned why I enjoyed special editions of books: first editions, for example, or handsome special printings of some kind. Aren't there the same words in a tattered paperback as in a pricey hardcover? And aren't the words inside what matter?

It's hard to argue with her point—both from a writer's perspective and from a reader's, the words themselves are indeed the most important thing—but at the same time I can't help but admire and enjoy the beauty of a well-made book, holding it in my hands, reading it: an elegant binding, fine paper, original illustrations, etc.

My wife Tara and I have become big fans of those Folio Society books ourselves. Just recently, she ordered their new edition of H.P. Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu & Other Stories, which features some beautiful illustrations by Dan Hillier, and at the same time ordered me the next title in Folio's series of James Bond novels, Dr. No, illustrated by Fay Dalton. I already have the first two in the series (they're doing about one a year), and I anticipate continuing to collect the rest (I'm a sucker for these things, I know). And as a bonus for ordering two books, Folio sent us a surprise title: The War at the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, one of my favorite writers. Much appreciated, and a beautiful edition as well. And I've also enjoyed a couple of Folio's editions of other crime classics: Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon and Patricia Highsmith's first three Ripley novels in a nice boxed set.

Another of the publishers Dirda mentioned was Centipede Press, which also produces beautiful editions, limited editions in this case, numbered and signed by author or editor or illustrator or some combination of those. On Dirda's recommendation a few years back, I ordered Centipede's edition of Paul Cain's Complete Slayers, featuring his novel Fast One and all 13 "slayers" stories he wrote for Black Mask and other pulp mags—really his complete fiction. The edition features an illuminating biographical and critical essay by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers Jr., plus original cover art by Ron Lesser along with a gallery of covers of previous editions of Cain's books/collections. It's really a stunning volume start to finish, as is another book I picked up from them, Speak to Me of Death: The Collected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume One (which reminds me I need to order volume two soon as well).

And yes, Cain's and Woolrich's stories are great too—it's the words that matter most, I agree.

Centipede Press and the Folio Society aren't the only publishers putting out elegant editions of classic works. Beyond those mentioned by Dirda, another favorite publisher, Crippen & Landru, comes to mind as well; I could list a whole group of books they've published which I treasure, and congratulations to Jeffrey Marks, who recently took over the press's operations from founder Douglas Greene and promises to continue their fine work. But beyond a continued listing of publishers or of favorite special editions on my own shelves, a question: Does the specific edition/printing of a book matter to you as a reader—first editions, special editions, or those volumes with sentimental resonance—or does it make no difference at all? 

(Postscript: It wasn't by design that the two covers here feature scantily clad women, though seeing them together reminds me of J. Kingston Pierce's wonderful blog Killer Covers (a companion site to The Rap Sheet), which celebrates classic pulp titles with often provocative artwork, a different group of special and collectible editions!)