Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

17 October 2017

Puerto Rico nostalgia

by Barb Goffman

This blog is running the Tuesday after this year's Bouchercon convention in Toronto. Since I won't return home until that Monday night (last night as you read this), I'm writing this post in advance. With the trip to Canada looming, and with the struggles of the people of Puerto Rico still in the news after the recent devastating hurricane, I've been thinking about travel lately, and especially trips my family took in the 1970s and early '80s to Puerto Rico. I hope the island and its residents recover sooner than later from the storm damage. And I hope you won't mind me indulging in a moment of nostalgia now. I'm fortunate that I created a scrapbook as a kid of some of our vacations, and my dad saved it. It's helped jog some memories, as well as provided the source of some of the photos.

I was four years old the first time I went with my family to Puerto Rico. (My dad did business there, so he went somewhat often.) We flew on a Pan Am double-decker plane. Granted my perspective is skewed since I was so small then, but I remember the jet being huge. The top level was set up with a bunch of booth-sized tables, surrounded by four comfy chairs, where you could hang out and play backgammon and other games. Flying back then was, in a way, luxurious--in sharp contrast to the way we fly these days like sardines. That plane made going to Puerto Rico seem glamorous.

These were the types of cards we had back then.
So did the hotel casinos. Each hotel always had a casino, which I was never able to see because they were super strict about not letting kids in. I remember the adults all went there at night after dinner (especially in the '70s), and everyone got really dressed up to do it.

The hotels typically ran Bingo games by the pool for probably a half hour every afternoon. I won the very first hand I played. When I called out Bingo, my mom admonished me, reminding me that you can't just yell out Bingo, you actually have it. Imagine her surprise when I did. I won forty bucks -- a huge amount of money for a four-year-old, especially in 1973.

Back then hotels also had actual keys for their doors. I know this because, apparently, I took a key from every hotel room we stayed in when I was a kid (and put them in my scrapbook). The hotels might have rightly called me a thief had they known, but I'll prefer to think of those keys as mementos.

On one of our trips we found and fell in love with the Oasis restaurant. It was billed as a Cuban restaurant, and they served a fried plantain appetizer that we loved. I've looked for fried plantains elsewhere over the years, but I've never found a place that makes them as this restaurant did. Most places serve you mushy plantains when you order fried plantains. The Oasis served them crispy and thin, like potato chips. And they were hot, too (temperature-wise). A few years ago I asked a friend who was born in Cuba if she knew a restaurant near where we both lived in the DC area where I could find fried plantains like these. She laughed and said that the Oasis restaurant might have been Cuban, but those were Puerto Rican friend plantains. Alas, there are no Puerto Rican restaurants near me. I wonder if there are any in Toronto.

And on that note, I should pack for my trip to Bouchercon. I'd love to hear about any favorite memories of trips you've taken to exotic places, especially (just to keep this on point for the blog) any places that you've used or might use for a mystery setting.

26 September 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

by Barb Goffman

I love reading, but I can't ever seem to find enough time to do it. And when I do read, I'm often playing catch up. When it's time to pick up a new title, instead of going to my personal library and picking one of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, I'm going to a list of books and stories published in the prior year and nominated for awards.

Agatha teapots
If it's February, March, or April, I'm reading a work nominated for the Agatha awards that year. I don't vote in a category if I haven't read all the nominated books and stories, and between best novel, best first novel, best historical novel, best children's/YA novel, and best short story, my reading dance card is full. (Some years the nominated books are announced and I've read several of the finalists, but I still usually have at least a dozen books to read. And yes, there's a best nonfiction category, too, but I never get to those books.)

So Malice Domestic comes, the Agatha awards are given out, and then I have a month or two to choose my own reading. Heaven! Until the Anthony and Macavity award nominees are announced, and it's off to the reading races again. I read Anthony- and Macavity-nominated books, stories, and novellas until Bouchercon, which occurs in September or October. (And this is a perfect time to give a shout out to my fellow SleuthSayers Paul Marks and Art Taylor, who are up for the Macavity Award for best short story this year, and to Art once more, as he's up for the Anthony for best short story. And let us not forget the wonderful late B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens, who is up for the Anthony for best novella.)

Anyway, Bouchercon eventually ends and the awards season is over and I get to read what I want to read. YAY! Not that there's anything wrong with the books and stories I read for the Agathas, Anthonys, and Macavitys (they're usually great--that's why they're nominated), but there's something to being able to pluck a book off the shelf just because I want to read it. And that period is coming. I'll get to choose my own books!

But what should I choose? There are so many options.

In preparation for making my choices, I reached out to some friends and asked them what books they've read recently that they loved. I asked them to focus on newer books that I might not yet have purchased. There's always room for more books on my shelves. Here are their recommendations:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -- my friend described it as "a treat for any tea-drinking, Anglophile, Agatha Christie fan--or anyone who enjoys a traditional mystery."

The Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah -- the new Poirot

Pulse by Felix Francis -- this book comes out next month, but my friend got an early copy.

The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace

The Good Byline by Jill Orr

Double Up by Gretchen Archer

Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Later Gator by Jana Deleon

The Ex by Alafair Burke

I've already read The Ex and recommend it heartily. How about you, dear reader? What books have you read recently that you adored? Bonus points for books published this year. I'd love to get ahead on my awards reading for next year!

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.

23 August 2017

Bread and Circuses

David Edgerley Gates


This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.

I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass. 

There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.

I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.

I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.

Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.

We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.

The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.

I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.

Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.



15 August 2017

Thoughts on Cowardice

This is Robert Lopresti, butting in where I don't belong with some bad news that should not wait.  We just learned that our beloved fellow blogger B.K. Stevens has passed away.  Art Taylor will be writing at length about her in this space on Friday, but I wanted to let you know.  She will be missed more than I can say.  I apologize to Barb for stepping into her space.  - RL 

Barb here: Before we get to what I wrote earlier about cowardice, let me express my shock and sadness upon Bonnie's death. I've known her for more than a decade, and she was always such a warm and welcoming presence in the mystery short-story world. To Dennis and Bonnie's family: I'm so, so sorry. And now, I guess, onto my regularly scheduled post.

by Barb Goffman

Am I a coward?

I've been sitting this morning, thinking about it. Thinking about what happened this weekend in Charlottesville.

I'm a Jewish woman. I'm not religious, but I am Jewish. And when I read some of the signs of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville, especially those condemning Jews with vile, hateful words, I cringed. I was saddened. And I was angered. And I was scared.

It reminded me of one set of my maternal great-grandparents, who were killed by the Nazis in Poland. It reminded me of my paternal grandfather, who fled the Cossacks in Russia. He escaped to America but never truly became free--I understand they haunted him in his dreams all his life.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a boyfriend back in college, nearly thirty years ago. He asked me--if we were ever put in a position to have to hide or fight from the Nazis--would I deny who I am, pretend to be otherwise to survive? I said yes. I considered myself pragmatic. He thought it cowardly. He surely would have fought, and I expect wherever he is today, he's doing his part.

Am I cowardly?

I work as a crime-fiction editor. I often tell my clients to avoid hot-button issues. Unless your character is actively involved in politics for plot purposes, why give the character political views? You'll end up turning off some potential readers. There's no upside.

That's a phrase I use a lot. There's no upside. It's why I rarely post about politics on Facebook, my preferred social-media platform. The people who agree with me on political issues don't need me to weigh in. I'd be singing to the chorus. And the people who disagree with me--I'm not going to change their minds. And since I can't stand arguing with people, I refrain.

It's gone so far that I have a short story coming out soon with a character named Don. He was named after a friend's husband, but this weekend I worried about it and emailed the editor to see if there's time to change his name to Dan. I didn't want people distracted from the story by the other Don. I didn't want to invite any comments that tied me to him.

Perhaps I am cowardly.

Perhaps I've been wrong about there being no upside to addressing political issues in fiction and in real life. Bigotry grows in darkness. It festers in corners when no one is looking and tries to infect those around it. And then, when it feels it has some strength, some backing from those in power, like now, it slithers out, surprising the rest of us who thought that way of thinking was long gone except for a very few outlying people.

So maybe I've been wrong not to post about politics more often. Maybe shining light, even among those who agree with me, will push the evil that has taken root in our country to die off, bit by bit. Maybe it would be a good idea for authors to create plots or subplots involving hot-button issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, and gay rights. It amazes me that these are even issues in the twenty-first century, but they are. So instead of backing away from these topics, perhaps crime fiction characters should tackle them head on. Will authors who take on these issues lose some readers? Maybe. But maybe they'll gain new ones. Maybe they'll make a difference in the thinking of some of the ones they already have.

Maybe that would be worth it.

Maybe the way to not be a coward is to take just one step that's scary or risky, or both, because it's the right thing to do.

This is what I'm thinking about today. Mystery readers and writers, I welcome your thoughts.





25 July 2017

True Political Animals

by Barb Goffman

So much about politics divides our nation these days, but here is something I think we all can agree on: the death last week of the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a loss to us all.

You see, Talkeetna (two hours north of Anchorage, population less than 900) has for twenty years had the same mayor: Stubbs the orange tabby. Stubbs supposedly began his political career as a write-in candidate who garnered more votes than any of the humans on the ballot. He thereafter won several uncontested elections over the years. He even survived what's been billed an assassination attempt by a stray dog in 2013. (There's a newspaper in Alaska that claims Stubbs never was elected and his political career is effectively an urban legend, but I like what everyone else is reporting about Stubbs, so screw 'em.)

Anyway, it might seem silly to be sad over a deceased feline I never met--and it might seem sillier that said feline ran a town in Alaska for twenty years--but this cat did something few political candidates seem able to do these days. He brought his town together. Once he was elected, no one ran against him. His constituents actually liked him, and not for what he could do for them. They liked him just for himself. Isn't that refreshing?
Rest in peace, Stubbs.

That's not to say Stubbs accomplished nothing while in office. I understand he helped increase tourism because people wanted to meet him. And I daresay he promoted the idea that you don't have to look--or be--like everyone else in order to succeed, in politics as well as in life. Granted, Stubbs's job was apparently more symbolic than functional, but that makes Stubbs's accomplishments no less valid. So I salute you, Stubbs, for all your success. Thank you for your years of service. And may you rest in peace.

There's more where Stubbs came from

Stubbs was not the first animal elected to office in this country. Here are a few others. (Note: This information was gathered from multiple sources on the Internet. I haven't gone to each town to confirm, but why would anyone make this stuff up?)

In 1981, Bosco, a lab-rottweiler mix, was elected mayor of Sunol, California. He served for thirteen years, dying in office in 1994. His job was described as purely ceremonial, but he still got to be called mayor.

This isn't any of the Henry Clays,
but you get the idea.

In 1986, a political dynasty began in Lajitas, Texas, when Henry Clay, a billy goat, was elected as mayor. Since then Henry Clay Jr. and Henry Clay III have served in the same position.

In 1998, voters in the small town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, elected Goofy, a German shepherd, mayor. Goofy was eventually succeeded by Junior, a black lab, who was succeeded by Lucy Lou, a border collie, who remains in office today. Goofy's election stemmed from a fundraiser for a local church. People paid $1 to cast each vote.

In 2011, a cow named April was elected mayor of Eastsound, Washington. After not running for re-election, April was succeeded the next year by Murphy, a Portuguese water dog (like Stubbs, Murphy was a write-in candidate). Other animal mayors of this town have been Granny, a whale; Jack, a golden retriever; and their current mayor, Lewis, a dog (breed unclear). As with other towns with animal mayors, the job in Eastsound is ceremonial, and the voting each year is designed to raise money for charity, but the effect of teaching respect for animals is certainly real.

This isn't Duke, but it looks like him.
And last, but certainly not least, there is Duke, a great Pyrenees, who was elected mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota, in 2014. He has won re-election annually since then, and he continues to serve today.

So, readers, would any of your furry friends make good politicians? Please share. I'm particularly interested in what qualities they have that we all could benefit from. (And no comments, please, about how any animal is better than the politicians we have today. All of these animals have been elected in good-natured environments, and I'd like this blog to remain just as positive.)

And so we don't stray too far from the topic of writing, if you know of any crime short stories or novels involving the election of an animal or an animal serving in office, please share those too.

04 July 2017

Dialogue to Die For

by Barb Goffman

Remember the TV show "Name That Tune"? The idea was to see how few notes of a song a person could hear and correctly name that tune. I don't know how well I'd do on that show, but if there were a "Name That Movie" show, I would clean up--assuming they asked about movies I've seen. Spoken dialogue, I've found, sticks with me. I adore snappy and heartfelt dialogue in books too, but for whatever reason, I don't retain it the way I do dialogue from movies and TV shows. (You'd think, then, that I would have good recall for dialogue from audio books, yet not so much.)

Anyway, I started thinking about ear memory the other day when I turned on the TV. I wasn't looking at the screen. All I heard was, "Always," and I knew it was the late Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. (I might have seen that movie a few times.) That one word transported me back right to the exact scene in the movie. Rickman delivered it perfectly, revealing so much about Snape's character. Even now, recalling the scene breaks my heart a little all over again.
Alan Rickman 

Of course, Rickman had help. His dialogue was written for him. Great dialogue depends on the team of great writers and great actors working together, as well as the folks who add the background music that adds drama or tugs at your heart. When done right, dialogue can be magical. I only need hear certain words or a sentences in the right voice, with the right rhythm, and I know the film. I'm transported in my mind right back to that scene.

Here are a few examples. They may not be the most well-known from each movie, but they certainly stand out:

"I want the truth!" "You can't handle the truth." Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

"You can't kiss her!" Sally Field in Soapdish

"Why can't I write shit like this?" Whoopi Goldberg in Soapdish

"Shall we play a game?" Joshua (computer) in War Games (even a computer can make dialogue memorable)


More Alan Rickman
"There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?" Emma Thompson in Love Actually

"Oh jeez. I'm getting pulled over. Everybody just pretend to be normal." Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine

"I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying." Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption

"And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that?" Frances McDorman in Fargo

"You don't really know how much you can do until you stand up and decide to try." Kevin Kline in Dave

"Here's looking at you, kid." Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

"A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man in town." Todd Karns in It's a Wonderful Life (It's interesting that one of the most memorable lines in the film is from a minor character.)

And even more Alan Rickman
"I'll have what she's having." Estelle Reiner in When Harry Met Sally (another minor character who steals the scene)

"By Grabthar's hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged." Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride


"You're going to the cemetery with your toothbrush. How Egyptian." Robin Williams in The Birdcage

"Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?" Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

"It was like ... magic." Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle 

"I'm not crazy. I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years." Shirley MacLaine in Steel Magnolias

"But I don't want to be a pirate." Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld

"I'm not insane. My mother had me tested." Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory

Alas, not Alan Rickman
but still wonderful



"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." Gordon Jump in WKRP in Cincinnati

Inspired to go watch a great movie or to try to write your own memorable dialogue? Great. But before you go, please share your favorite movie or TV show line(s) of dialogue. The lines that stick with you, that you remember sometimes out of nowhere. The words that transport you and make you smile. And if you know how to make dialogue on the page stand out in memory the way spoken dialogue does, please let me know. I'm open to any and all tips.

And to all of you in the United States, happy Independence Day!

13 June 2017

It's Academic!

by Barb Goffman

Growing up, I was one of those nerdy kids who liked school. Not all subjects, and not all teachers, but I loved reading and history and got mostly A's (at least in elementary school). After completing college summa cum laude, I went on to get a graduate degree in journalism, and then after working a few years, went back to school and got a law degree. As I've liked to joke, there's no such thing as too much education.

My interest in education continued after graduation. When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered primary and secondary schools. School board meetings? Sign me up. Visiting classrooms to see how students were learning and write articles that gave their parents a virtual seat in the classroom. Loved it. And when I worked as an attorney, I specialized in higher education, first assisting colleges with compliance with state and federal regulations, among other things, and then working for a student-loan provider and servicer. I might not be a teacher or professor, but education sure is in my blood.

"Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."
And that's why one of the types of books and stories I love to dig into are academic mysteries. So I was jazzed to read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (yes, for pleasure reading) a couple of days ago titled "From Indiana Jones to Minerva McGonagall, Professors See Themselves in Fiction." The Chronicle surveyed their readers' favorite professors in TV, movies, and books, and the winner was ... Indiana Jones, the main character in Raiders of the Lost Ark and three subsequent films.

Why is Jones so popular? Who wouldn't love a Nazi-hunting, boulder-dodging, snake-hating scholar who travels the world between classes, seeking archeological treasures and fighting bad guys? Quoting William Purdy, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Chronicle said, " 'One of the hard knocks against academics is we’re in an ivory tower and not in touch with the world. He’s a straight response to that criticism.' "

I ditto that. Indeed, the Indiana Jones movies are more action-adventure stories than campus mysteries, but there's crime at the heart of all of these tales, so they fall within my definition of the genre.

That said, there are also a lot of great crime novels set on college campuses. Just a few weeks ago, The Semester of our Discontent by Cynthia Kuhn won the Agatha Award for best first mystery novel published in 2016. Set at a prestigious fictional college, the novel showcases an English professor embroiled in departmental politics and murder. Here are just a few other mysteries involving academics that I've enjoyed:
  • The Red Queen's Run by Bourne Morris (more department politics and murder) - the first in a series
  • Murder 101 by Maggie Barbieri (a professor is accused of killing her student, which I bet a lot of professors dream about but few would admit to) - the first in a series
  • Artifact by Gigi Pandian (a historian described as the female Indiana Jones--the first in a wonderful series, but so far, no Nazis)
  • Fifty Mysteries by our own John M. Floyd (fifty short stories involving retired schoolteacher Angela Potts. They're not exactly academic mysteries, but I love Angela Potts, and she used to be a teacher, so I'm listing her.)
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Yes, they're set at a secondary school, but it's a magical school, and they're wonderful, and there sure is mystery in these books, so I count 'em. 
    "Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."
Other academics that made the Chronicle's list of favorite academics:
  • Charles Kingsfield from The Paper Chase
  • John Keating from Dead Poets Society
  •  Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series
Want to read the whole Chronicle article? Click here.

And please share your favorite academic mysteries in the comments. I know there are a lot more I could have listed. What academic mystery books/series/stories/movies/TV shows do you love and why?

23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting

by Barb Goffman

I was recently reading a comment on a novel on Amazon in which a reader said that she didn't like books set in fictional towns if the setting plays an important role in the plot. If the setting is important, she wrote, the author should take the time to research and properly use a real place. Not to do so is lazy writing.

Well, that stopped me.

I can think of a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place in his/her books. And none of those reasons are lazy reasons. But rather than expound on this point myself, I figured I'd go straight to some author friends who take different approaches to see why they do what they do. In all cases, they chose their settings with care.








Let's start with LynDee Walker's Headlines in High Heels mystery series. It's set in Richmond, Virginia, and features newspaper crime reporter Nichelle Clarke. LynDee lives in Richmond and chose to bring her adopted hometown to life in her books. She loves exploring the city and learning about, and sometimes using, local history as she works to get the details in the books right, she said.

But using a real city can be tricky. "I try to avoid mentioning specific businesses when I can, largely because if a place closes, it dates the book," LynDee said.

And she also doesn't want to make any real businesses look bad. "I get creative with made-up, non-specific, or abandoned public places for body discoveries. I would never put a corpse in the freezer at Capital Ale"--a popular Richmond pub--"or have someone get poisoned in a real restaurant. I don't want to hurt anyone's reputation, even if I am making it all up and it's clearly marked as such."

Sasscer Hill, author of the new Fia McKee mystery series, mostly uses real places in her books too. Doing so adds realism, but it also adds to the workload.

"The difficulty about writing a real place is you must get it right," Sasscer said. "That takes research by phone, internet, and road trips. If you don't carefully check for the accuracy of your setting's description, there are plenty of readers who will be happy to point out that you got it wrong."

Sometimes authors choose to use a made-up setting to avoid making inadvertent mistakes, as well as to avoid angering real people. Maya Corrigan is a good example.

"With a fictional town, I don't have to worry that the place where I set a scene (restaurant, secondhand shop, clothing store), will go out of business before my book is published," said Maya, author of the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series set in a fictional town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Also, with a fictional place, I won't get irate messages from actual town police and county sheriffs because my character interacts with less-than-ideal law enforcers."

These are legitimate reasons for choosing to make up a setting. But with these pros comes the possible con that readers familiar with the area in real life might find it hard to accept the fictional town.

"My main problem with a fictional location is with the interface between it and real places," Maya said. "How long does it take to get from Bayport, which doesn't exist, to Baltimore or Annapolis? I can't leave it vague because timing can be crucial in a mystery. I'm afraid a reader familiar with the area may complain that a twenty-minute drive from some real location will put me in a cornfield or in a real town, not my fictional one."

To avoid Maya's cornfield problem, some authors try to straddle the line. They make up a town to set their series in, but that town is based on a real place. And sometimes the fictional town is set in exactly the same spot on the map as the real one.

Sherry Harris, author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, sets her books in fictional Ellington, Massachusetts, including the adjacent fictional Fitch Air Force Base. Readers won't recognize these places by name, but they may by description.

"Ellington is based on the real town of Bedford, Massachusetts," Sherry said. "Fitch AFB is based on Hanscom AFB, which adjoins Bedford. Anyone familiar with Bedford or Hanscom will recognize places they know in the books. But by making a town fictional, I can move things around, add things, and change how buildings look as needed."

As any author knows, being able to manipulate the setting can be important. But it also can be dicey.

"People are very proud of their towns. Moving things around can cause outrage," Sherry said. "By fictionalizing Bedford I can add businesses, rearrange the base a bit, while staying true to the real versions. I wouldn't want a murderer to work at a real place and have the real place take offense (or legal action). I do use real places in the books, though. Sarah goes to Concord, Lexington, Bedford, and Boston."

Barbara Ross took a similar approach with her Maine Clambake mystery series, set in fictional Busman's Harbor, Maine, which is based on Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Barbara chose to create a town based on a real one "because I wanted to move some things around, borrow some shops and restaurants from nearby towns. The pros are that when I need a new business downtown, like a frame shop or a jeweler, I can add it to my Main Street without any worry. The con is, I am sure the bookstores and libraries in my town and other nearby towns could attract even more readers if I used the name of the real town."

So in Barbara's case, we see the author choosing to fictionalize a real setting in order to enable her storytelling to work better.

Sasscer Hill took that approach with two specific settings in her first series about a jockey in Maryland.

"Shepherds Town was based on Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia, and Dimsboro was based on the old Marlborough Racetrack in Upper Marlboro, Maryland," she said. "Charles Town racetrack was significantly upgraded and rebuilt while I was writing my stories, and I wanted to write it the way it was, not the way it became. The old Marlborough Track, before it was torn down, had turned into the seedy training track I describe as Dimsboro. I didn't want to anger people who had fond, nostalgic memories of Marlborough Racetrack before it went downhill."

Jack Getze, author of the Austin Carr series, also relishes the freedom of writing a fictional town based on real places. "My fictional Branchtown is based on several towns near the ocean in central Jersey--Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch, Rumson, Sea Bright. My characters say bad things about a few of the local police and other authorities, much of the criticism based on real lawsuits and criminal trials. I figured I'd skip the chance of libel," Jack said. Plus "I like the 'feel' of my Branchtown encompassing all these different areas. Different kinds of people. [...] I wanted the fictional [town] to sound like one single town, not a conglomeration, and thus the wrong streets are in the right locations, and the police and fire houses are where I need them to be for my story."

And these are all excellent reasons why authors choose their settings. Whether their books are set in actual places, completely fictional places, or fictional places based on real ones, these authors all chose their settings with care. And that's really what's important when writing fiction. When making the decision of when to use real places and when to make them up, the goal should be serving the story. In the end, that serves the reader.

So, dear reader, do you have any books with settings that you find memorable? And are they real places, fictional, or fictional places based on real ones? Please share in the comments.

02 May 2017

The Good and Bad of Societal Family Expectations

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Barb Goffman

"So, are you married yet?"

Those five words from an old friend's husband set my teeth on edge more than a decade ago, when I was in my early thirties. They still bother me. Not because they make me feel like a bit of a failure in such an important aspect of life (as they did then), but because they represent what still seems to be a ridiculous societal expectation. You grow up, you get married. And if you don't, you're incomplete; there must be something wrong with you.

Indeed, my own mother had this perspective. To her dying day, she believed I was unhappy. I had to be, she reasoned, because I wasn't married. Nothing I said or did to show I was happy by myself made any difference. To her, a woman couldn't be happy if she doesn't have a husband.

Well, on behalf of all my single friends, I say poppycock. (If you know me at all, you know I actually used an expletive instead of poppycock. But I wrote poppycock because this is a family blog. (Did you see what I did there?))

In fact, I'll wager that not having a husband has been good for me, at least creatively. Imagine how much less writing I would get done if I had a husband and children to care for and spend time with. I can barely manage giving my dog enough attention.

Of course, it's possible that having a husband and children would inspire more stories. Thinking back to old boyfriends, there was the one who liked to interrupt me; the one who spent money like he made it in the basement; the one who liked to blame the victim. Yes, being stuck in close quarters with any of them could have inspired a lot of murder mysteries. Or at least murders. Sure, then I'd go to prison, but think of all the writing time I'd have.

Not that I need a husband to come up with murder stories. I have parents, two brothers, and a sister, so I've got more than enough history to delve for creative inspiration. Indeed I've written a large number of stories involving killing or maiming members of your family. My sister has accused me  several times of creating sister characters with her in mind and has said that she doesn't want to get on my bad side. (Too late! Kidding! Maybe.)

And family can also have a broad definition. I'm sure many people have friends they aren't related to but whom they think of as family. And when you care about someone so much, they can end up inspiring ire (either because of something they did or something done to them). Indeed in my newest short story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, my main character, Myra, thinks of her boss of forty years, Douglas, as her little brother. And when pushed, she decides that it's time she teaches her little brother a lesson in humility. It's the family thing to do, to help make him a better person.

So, am I married yet? Nope. But that doesn't matter. I have more than enough friends and family to inspire my writing. Maybe I'll go kill off another one today. On paper, of course.

11 April 2017

The Curse of 2013

By Barb Goffman

Like poor Rose at the end of Titanic, clinging to a piece of wood in the frozen Atlantic Ocean, using the last of her strength to blow a whistle to attract rescuers who've missed her, then weakly, hoarsely yelling, "Come back! Come back," I find myself wishing some people would come back too.

Well, my wishes are about fictional characters, but they feel like real people to me. And they've all been missing since 2013.

With less than two weeks until Malice Domestic (a wonderful fan convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland, honoring the traditional mystery), I find myself thinking about mystery characters I wish would come back. I'm not talking about characters created by authors who have died--there's no way they're coming back, not in their original author's form, anyway. And I'm not talking about characters whose authors regularly put out a new book every year or so. This column is devoted to characters whose authors seem to have moved on or are taking too long of a break (in this devoted reader's perspective).

With respect and love, I wish the following authors would get a move on:

Stephanie Jaye Evans

I'm starting with you, Stephanie, because you're scheduled to attend Malice Domestic, and I want you to be prepared. I am going to hound you at the convention, begging and pleading for more stories in the Sugar Land Mystery Series about family man and Texas minister Bear Wells, who becomes a sleuth. Here's what one reviewer said of Stephanie's wonderful first book, Faithful Unto Death:

“Praise be! A new series with a soul, a heart, and a down-home Texas twang. Preacher Bear Wells is an entirely original sleuth and author Stephanie Jaye Evans is that real rarity: a debut writer with dead-on dialogue, winning characters, and—mirabile dictu! —nimble plotting.”   — Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of the China Bayles mysteries

Faithful Unto Death, was a finalist for the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Stephanie has a great second book in the series, Safe From Harm, which came out in 2013. For four long years I've been waiting oh so patiently, hoping for more. Please, Stephanie, may I have some more?

Chris Grabenstein

Chris, I know your heart--and your time--belong to middle-grade readers. Between writing books with James Patterson (how can I get in on that gig?) and writing your own extremely successful books for kids, you don't have time anymore for your mysteries for grown-ups. (I was going to write that you didn't have time for your adult mysteries, but that has a completely different connotation.) But I wish we could add more hours to the day because I miss your John Ceepak mysteries. Oh, heck. Let's be honest, I long for them. Yes, I admit it: I have a crush on your character John Ceepak, and given how long it's been going on, I feel comfortable saying it's not going away.

Ahhh. Ceepak. A cop with a moral code. A decent, generous, wonderful man. If I can't have this romance in real life, come on, Chris, let me have it on paper. Please! I long to return to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and investigate more cases with John and his partner, Danny Boyle. Sure, I could re-read the eight books in your Anthony Award-winning series, starting with 2005's Tilt-A-Whirl and ending in 2013's Free Fall. But it's been four years since the last book. I need more. Please, Chris. Just give me a little more.

Sara J. Henry

Sara, Your first novel, 2011's Learning to Swim, was nominated for a gazillion awards (and won the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel as well as the Mary Higgins Clark Award). It deserved every bit of praise. I loved Learning to Swim so much that I told practically everyone I knew in 2011 about it. I gushed, Sara. Gushed. It was disgusting. So you can imagine how happy I was to read the 2013 follow-up, A Cold and Lonely Place. I love watching your main character, reporter Troy Chance, as she struggles to right (and write) wrongs. Your books have been described as "compulsively readable," and I agree wholeheartedly. I long to be compulsive again. On behalf of your fans, give us more Troy books, Sara. Please please please.


Julia Spencer-Fleming

Unlike a lot of authors, you usually have a new book come out every two years instead of annually. And that's okay. When someone writes books as good as yours, you can take any reasonable amount of time you need between books. But come on, Julia. We're both nonpracticing lawyers here, so we know there are limitations to how far you can stretch the meaning of the word reasonable, and I think we've hit the limit. It's been four agonizing years. I need more Clare. I need more Russ. I need more murder in the Adirondacks.

I remember how taken I was with the small town of Millers Kill, New York, when I came upon your first book, In the Bleak Midwinter. It has one of the best opening lines ever and a hell of an engaging plot. My love for the town grew over the series' eight books. Despite all the murders, it seems like a lovely place to live. I know others agree with me. Your books have won practically every award out there. Your latest book, 2013's Through the Evil Days, can't be the end of the series. I need to know what happens with Clare and Russ and ... Well, I'm not going to ruin it for people who haven't read the book yet. But you know what I'm talking about, Julia. Come on. Please don't leave me hanging. I need more.

2013

And that leaves me with wondering what the heck was going on in 2013 that made all these wonderful authors hit the brakes. Could it be a coincidence that all of them haven't had a new book out since then (or, for Chris, an adult book)? We mystery writers don't believe in coincidence. So there must be a reason. Are you all working on a big book together?! No. That would be too much to hope for. Is there a curse going on? No, I don't believe in curses either. ... Well, I'm out of ideas. So I'll just have to end this blog with my plea one more time. Get plotting, get typing, and get publishing, people. In the immortal words of Oliver Twist: Please, sir (and ma'ams), I want some more.

PLEASE.

*****

While I have your attention, in case you missed earlier posts: the Agatha Award will be given out in six categories during the Malice Domestic convention at the end of this month. I have a short story, "The Best-Laid Plans," short-listed in the short-story category. The competition is pretty fierce. Fellow SleuthSayers B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor are up for the award, as well as authors Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read about all five of the nominated stories by clicking here, and you'll also be able to click through to read the stories themselves. I hope you'll check them all out and read before you vote. (I'm also blogging today at B.K. Stevens's blog, analyzing my thought process behind the first two pages of "The Best-Laid Plans." I hope you'll stop by there too. You can read that post here.)
  
Once you finish reading, it's time to start packing. I'm looking forward to seeing so many of you at Malice Domestic in two weeks. (Stephanie Jaye Evans, this means you!)

08 April 2017

The 2017 Agatha Short Story Nominees

by B.K. Stevens

All of this year's nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha have female protagonists, but that's about the only thing they have in common. And the protagonists themselves are a diverse bunch, ranging from a midwife still in her twenties to a mystery author who fears she's past her prime. The settings for these stories include a lavish casino, a play space for toddlers, and a small-town bar; the moods vary from light-hearted to ominous. Some stories are whodunits, or whodunits with a twist; some might be described as suspense stories or even as daylight noir. Together, I think, they reflect the vitality of today's mystery short story, and of the many variations it embraces.


All the nominated authors contributed to this post by picking excerpts from their stories and commenting on them briefly. I hope that the comments will give you intriguing insights, and that the excerpts will whet your appetite for reading the stories in full (you'll find links to each below).

The Stories

"Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" 

by Gretchen Archer

Henery Press


July Jackson's job as a Holiday Host at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi is more trick than treat when one of her Scary Rich slot tournament players croaks. Then $3,000,000 goes missing. And a couple dressed as condiments--he's Mustard, she's Ketchup--might be behind the spooky shenanigans. What's a Holiday Host to do? Call in the flying monkeys? July turns to the highest level of casino security and meets a boy named Baylor. Just Baylor. From there, it's all thrills and chills.

"Do you know how to shoot?"
I shook my head.
"Do you know how to point?"
I nodded.
He popped the clip out of the gun and passed it to me.
I couldn't remember being this scared or this calm before. It was an amazing sensation, the adrenaline mixed with the quiet confidence. The adrenaline was from what was about to happen. The calm was from him.
"Double Jinx" introduces July Jackson to the core cast of characters in my Davis Way Crime Capers. Not only does July go on to be Baylor's love interest, she gives up her job as Holiday Host and puts her Early Childhood Education degree to good use when she takes a nanny position for my main character's toddler twins in the just-released sixth full-length novel of my series, Double Up. I loved writing "Jinx." The holiday theme was so much fun, the Agatha Award nomination so unexpected (I cried) and such an honor, and then there are the bats. Have you seen the bats? "Double Jinx" has the cutest little bats ever.

You can read "Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" here.

"The Best-Laid Plans" 

by Barb Goffman

Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)

 

When "The Best-Laid Plans" begins, my main character, celebrated cozy author Eloise Nickel, reads an article in Mystery Queen Magazine about the future of the traditional mystery novel. The article includes patronizing comments about Eloise from her long-ago former friend, Kimberly Siger. Both Eloise and Kimberly will be honored at this year's Malice International convention, Eloise for her lifetime achievement and Kimberly as guest of honor. Sharing the stage with Kimberly would have been hard enough, but now Eloise is livid. So she hatches a plan to get revenge at the convention. Nothing fatal, of course. Just painful. Eloise is cozy, just like her books. This excerpt is set on the day before the convention starts, with lots of people chatting in the hotel lobby bar.

I hadn't noticed when Kimberly walked into the lobby, but I figured it out pretty damn quick when the bar erupted in excitement and people ran toward the hotel's front doors. Not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people. It gave me the chance to reach into my purse for my lip balm. My aloe-vera lip balm. Kimberly was allergic to aloe. It's one of the things I remembered from being her friend so many years ago. Aloe made her skin itch and burn upon contact.

I slathered on the balm and watched Kimberly head to the bar. I planned to kiss her hello so everyone could see I was the bigger person. She looked better than I'd expected. Still thin from her love of exercise. No gray in her wavy, dark-brown hair. No lines by her eyes or mouth. Her skin was tight, her teeth, sparkling. Clearly she'd had work done.

"Kimberly." I rose and opened my arms in a welcoming gesture.

Her eyes narrowed for a second, seemingly confused. But she plastered on a smile and stepped toward me. Revenge step one, here I come.

"You're here," Malice board member Cherub Lapp shouted, jumping between us and hugging Kimberly. "I've been waiting for this moment all year. You are one of my absolute favorite authors. Can I buy you a drink?"

Kimberly grinned. "That would be a perfect way to start the weekend. Thank you."

And before I knew it, Kimberly had turned from me, and my chance was lost. Damn that Cherub.

Thankfully, I had other plans.
I'm often conflicted when I read or watch serial dramas because I want my favorite characters to be happy, to find success and love and contentment. But if they were to do that, they'd get no screen or page time, because happiness isn't dramatic. There's no meat to a plot about happy people. It's . . . sigh . . . boring. The best plots, writers know, involve characters who suffer. Not that authors have to be sadistic about it, but it's certainly more interesting to read, for instance, about someone whose revenge plans go wrong, who tries over and over to get back at her nemesis, with increasingly unfortunate results. The goal of a plot like that is for the reader to get invested, wanting the next plan to work because they like the main character, while also wishing that the plan flops, because watching the character suffer is so much fun. That's what I'm showing here. This is the first scene in which Eloise tries to get her revenge plans in action, and she gets her first taste of failure. It was fun to make Eloise suffer. (Yes, that's the sadistic side of me.) But I also enjoyed showing her pluck and sarcastic side. I hope that this scene makes readers eager to read more, to see how Eloise fares. Will she get her revenge? And how much will she suffer as she tries? As for you, dear reader, pick up "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out.

You can read "The Best-Laid Plans" here.

"The Mayor and the Midwife"

by Edith Maxwell

Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)


In "The Mayor and the Midwife," the very real mayor of New Orleans comes to Massachusetts to visit his pregnant daughter. Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, from my Quaker Midwife Mysteries, is watching over the daughter. At the mayor's request, Rose takes him to meet her police detective ally, Kevin Donovan, because the mayor is struggling with corruption in his government wants to meet some town officials. The following scene takes place during that meeting.
"Has his wife been informed?" I asked. This kind of shock could easily bring on labor. Her baby might be mature enough by now to survive the birth, or might not.

"Not yet, ma'am," the officer said.

"I must go to her. My pauvre fille," Joseph said. "You'll come along, Miss Carroll?"

"Of course. Let me quickly pen a note to my next client saying I'll need to cancel. I can hail a boy outside to deliver it."

I looked at the detective. I'd assisted him in several cases by keeping my eyes and ears open in the community, especially in the bedchambers of my birthing women, where secrets were often revealed during their travails. Keven had reluctantly grown to accept my participation.

"If it's murder, I'd like to help by listening, watching, and reporting to thee as I have done in the past," I said.

Kevin nodded. "Then meet me at the Currier steamboat dock after you see to the wife, will you?"

This brief snippet shows the mayor reverting to his native French and the detective conceding to let Rose help with the investigation. It lets the reader know that Rose knows what she's doing when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, and we hear her musing about the places she can go where Kevin never could. Midwifery turns out to be a great occupation for an amateur sleuth.

You can read "The Mayor and the Midwife" here.

"The Last Blue Glass"

by B.K. Stevens

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016

 

"The Last Blue Glass" begins with a brief description of a dinner party. Newlyweds Cathy and Frank Morrell are entertaining Frank's mother and brother, plus two close friends. Then the story shifts ahead:
Nine years later, Cathy again stood in the kitchen--not the kitchen of their apartment in Newton Upper Falls or of their house in Virginia, but of their condominium in Brookline. Once again, Mrs. Morrell and Will, and Faye and Brian, had come to dinner. But Frank was dead now, supposedly in an accident. Really, Cathy thought, it had been suicide by car, suicide by alcohol. Really, it had been murder. She thought back to that first dinner party. Even then, there were signs. If she'd seen them, could she have prevented it? Maybe not. And what she was doing tonight wouldn't really set things right. But it was her only way to strike back against things that were wrong.

She gazed at the last blue glass in the cupboard and touched the small bottle in her pocket. I'll fix a special drink for someone tonight, Frank, she thought, and serve it in the glass we chose together. That's all I can do for you now.
In one sense, "The Last Blue Glass" is a whodunit, challenging the reader to watch for clues as Cathy thinks back on her marriage. Which of her four guests does she see as most responsible for Frank's death? Who will be the target of her revenge? In another sense, the story is a portrait of a marriage that goes tragically wrong--not because Cathy and Frank are bad people, and not because they don't love each other. Instead, their marriage--and Cathy and Frank themselves--are destroyed by subtle weaknesses in their relationship, weaknesses hinted at even in the opening paragraphs.

You can read "The Last Blue Glass" here.

"Parallel Play"

by Art Taylor

Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press)


"Parallel Play" starts out with a simple mistake: Maggie, a young mother, realizes that she's left her umbrella at home and there's a major storm brewing just as her son Daniel's Teeter Toddler class is ending. Fortunately, Walter, the father of another boy in the class, offers to share his own and get Maggie and her son safely to their car. But more troubles are ahead--Walter points out that Maggie's tire might be going flat--and worse, generosity often comes with a price, since Walter soon shows up at Maggie's door for an impromptu playdate. Here's that scene:

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 unreal 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.

I hesitated slightly choosing this excerpt since it's nearly halfway through the story--killing any suspense those first few pages might've offered readers who haven't yet read the story. But at the same time, this moment captures in miniature what I was trying to navigate here: the potentially jarring contrasts between what continues to unfold as a very civil conversation (pay no attention to that box cutter, right?) and then the roiling fears, desires, and other emotions underneath that surface.

You can read "Parallel Play" here.

The Authors 

Gretchen Archer is a Tennessee housewife who began writing when her daughters, seeking higher education, ran off and left her. She lives on Lookout Mountain with her husband, son, and a Yorkie named Bently. "Double Jinx" was published by the Great Chickens of Henery Press in October of 2016.

https://www.facebook.com/crimecapers/
Barb Goffman edits mysteries by day and writes them by night. She's won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she's been a finalist for national crime-writing awards nineteen times, including the Anthony and the Derringer awards. Her newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," appears in the mystery anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was published three weeks ago. When not writing, Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service. She blogs every third Tuesday here at SleuthSayers. In her spare time, she reads, reads, reads and plays with her dog. Learn more about her at

National best-selling author Edith Maxwell is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story "The Mayor and the Midwife." She writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime  fiction has appeared in a dozen juried anthologies, and she serves as President of Sisters in Crime New England. Maxwell writes, cooks, gardens north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors. Find her at


B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens taught English for over thirty years and now writes full time. She's the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional mystery offering insights into Deaf culture and sign language interpreting, and of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Eleven of her stories are included in her collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. B.K. has been nominated for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards and has won half a Derringer. She and her husband live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, four perfect grandchildren, and a smug cat.


Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has also won two 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 also edited Murder under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. Find him at