Showing posts with label Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Show all posts

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?”

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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.

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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/ 

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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.




20 December 2016

Remembering Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in Books and Movies

by Paul D. Marks

When Raymond Chandler talked about a man neither tarnished nor afraid navigating the mean streets, I have no doubt he was talking about that man walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood.

For my first SleuthSayers post on February 24, 2015, I wrote a column called Adventures in La La Land (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html), where I talked about Los Angeles, how it influences my writing and memories of growing up here. One area that I didn’t mention then was Bunker Hill. That is Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast.

And since my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill appears in the December, 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (though I think it’s only available on newsstands until today, the 20th) I thought I’d take this opportunity to rectify that, especially as Bunker Hill has influenced both that story and my writing in general.



If you’ve been to the Music Center in downtown L.A. you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. If you’re into film noir, you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Numerous film noirs—as well as movies in other genres—were shot there: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey’s M, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, The Glenn Miller Story and Angel’s Flight, an interesting, gritty, ultra low-budget noir. And L.A.’s Bunker Hill has stood in for many other cities as well.

Bunker Hill in transition
Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After WWI 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. The wealthy.

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
―Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Bunker Hill is also where John Fante (and his character Arturo Bandini) lived when he first moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The struggling writer wrote about that experience:

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight photo by Rarmin
And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. I guess Bandini preferred to walk alongside it instead of riding in the little cars:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put in, but it closed not too long after it opened. So it might have been new, definitely not improved. And it makes me think of the old saw about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. I talk more about it in the Adventures in La La Land post and in Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


***

Fante also described Bunker Hill like this:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

It was a tough life in the tough part of a tough city for the young writer and his alter ego:

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. an old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the late 1950s and 60’s, the Powers That Be decided they wanted to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved.

In Ask the Dust, Fante said, “I crossed Hill Street and breathed easier when I entered Pershing Square. No tall buildings in the square.”

Bunker Hill today, photo by Lan56
Today’s Bunker Hill would be unrecognizable to Bandini. But maybe not completely to Fante, who lived till 1983, though he was dealing with serious complications from diabetes so he may not have seen what it became. As the narrator in Ghosts of Bunker Hill says,

Bandini had said there were no tall buildings in the Square. He should see it today. Steel and glass spikes sprout from every available space. And when nothing’s available the wrecking ball makes a new empty lot. Much of the park greens have been cemented over, with little pinpricks of green here and there, like a garnish on the side of your plate.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

***

I may have a somewhat romanticized view of Bunker Hill. We do tend to romanticize the past, don’t we? I’m sure it was a hardscrabble and even dangerous life for the people who lived there after the swells moved out and it became “shabby town”. But with its gingerbread elegance and the “secret passages” of Clay Street (which no longer exists), with the winding roads going up and down and the hills, I have to say that I love the old Bunker Hill. And I’m glad so much of it is preserved in movies and writing.

Newel Post "borrowed" from Bunker Hill
I also feel very lucky that I could explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

Los Angeles isn’t known for venerating and preserving its past. Everything here is new or wants to be. People come here to start over and every few years the city tries for a rebirth. But parts of Bunker Hill were preserved. Some of the old Victorian houses were moved to Carroll Avenue near the Echo Park section of L.A.. The characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill live in a restored Victorian on Carroll Avenue and appreciate what they have:

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it. 
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

Haskins house on Carroll Avenue, Photo by Laëtitia Zysberg

So I hope you’ll give Ghosts of Bunker Hill a shot and if you like it the sequel, Bunker Hill Blues, will be in a future issue of EQMM.

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22 November 2016

JFK, the Beatles and the Beginning of the Sixties

by Paul D. Marks

What were we doing fifty-three years ago and a day from today? As a country, many of us were listening to and/or watching Alan Sherman, Victor Borge, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, Bobby Darin, the Dick Van Dyke show, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Ben Casey, Leslie Gore, Peter Paul and Mary, Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Jan and Dean, Vaughn Meader, and Jose Jimenez (yes, I know, but that was then and this is now). And more.

On November 21, 1963, four guys did a gig at the ABC Cinema, Carlisle, England. In the summer and fall of 1963, a young folk singer was recording his third album, but still not too many people were aware of him outside of a small circle of friends (to paraphrase another Sixties folk singer). Some people might have known some of his songs as done by other people, but they didn’t really know him…yet.

The President and his wife spent the day in Fort Worth. A loser and lost soul spent the night at Ruth Paine’s home, a friend of his.

As the sun came up the next day, November 22, 1963, everything seemed fine.  A group called the Beatles released With the Beatles in England, but they’d yet to make their mark on this side of the pond. And that folk singer, Bob Dylan, was a long way off from his Nobel Prize.

And then it all went to hell.

JFK said, “If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's.” Unfortunately this was a prophetic statement. Someone was crazy enough.

There’s been a lot written about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I doubt I can add much to it. Some say it was the end of innocence for the country. The country went into a deep depression after his death. We started slipping waist deep into the big muddy. The 60s happened: protests, riots, hippies, counter culture, the Summer of Love, Woodstock , Altamont.

So where was I that winter day in 1963? I was a school safety, standing in a hallway monitoring student “traffic”.

***

“Stop, don’t run,” I shouted to some kid charging down the hall, wearing my AAA safety badge on
my arm. He slowed down, but I could hear him hard-charge again as soon as he rounded the corner, out of my sight. I could have given him a written demerit, but chose not to. I guess I was in a good mood. Either that or I hadn’t yet learned the power trip that the badge could give me.

A few minutes later, he ran back down the hall. I was already getting my little ticket book out when he shouted, “The President’s dead.” I dropped the book in dazed silence.

In class later, the principal’s voice came over the tinny sounding loudspeaker. “I have the bad fortune to announce that President Kennedy has been shot.” A collective gasp escaped through the room. Even Jamie Badger (name changed to protect the guilty), the class bad boy, was stunned long enough to stop making spitballs. The principal continued, “It’s unknown what his condition is, though it’s thought that he’s still alive.”

But we found out that wasn’t the case after all.

We were young, but that didn’t stop us from being stunned. Even the boys cried. Teachers tried to control themselves, they had to keep it together for their students. Mary Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) nearly collapsed in my arms – she was the first girl who’d ever sent me a love note.

That long weekend and week that followed the assassination, my parents and I (and my younger brothers to a lesser extent) were glued to the television, as was the rest of the country. LBJ taking the oath of office. The capture of Oswald. Speculation on the whys and wherefores and whos. John-John saluting as the caisson carrying his father rolled by. Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. Conspiracy theories forming.

So we watched in silence as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there were no psychologists, no shrinks to salve our wounds. It was like landing in Oz, only to find the Wicked Witch of the East in control in the dark, forbidding forest of snarled trees and flying monkeys. And we hung our heads. And we cried. I cried. And we didn’t know where we were heading on that cold day in November, 1963.

***

The very popular Vaughn Meader, who’d made a living and career impersonating JFK and the First Family, was out of a job. And we were out of laughter and joy. No more touch football on the White House lawn. No more pill box hats and white gloves. And somehow none of our backyard barbecues would taste as good or as sweet for a long, long time to come, if ever.

Here's a YouTube video of Vaughn Meader.

We needed something to buoy our spirits through the dark winter months of 1963/64. And for many of us that something came on February 9, 1964 in the form of those four mop tops from Liverpool and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which was most people’s first exposure to them. My dad called me into the den to watch and I’ve been hooked ever since. But they helped a good part of the country bounce back, at least a little, from the events of a couple of months before, with their effervescent sound, happy music and wit. So at least for a while we could forget about the darkness in our hearts.



It’s hard to say when one decade begins and another one ends or vice versa, because the zeitgeist of the times doesn’t necessarily coincide with the years that end in zero. But I think the Sixties really began with those two events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and it ended with Watergate in 1973.

Several year later, when I was in DC, I made a side trip to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia in part to see JFK’s grave (see photo). I know Kennedy wasn’t perfect and Camelot wasn’t all that, but seeing the memorial made me remember a time when there was hope and optimism and maybe even a sense of innocence.



So, what were you doing 53 years ago, if you were around?

***

And now for something not quite completely different: My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is in the brand new, hot off the presses December 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Get ’em while you can. And if you like the story, maybe you’ll remember it for the Ellery Queen Readers Award (the ballot for which is at the end of this issue), and others. Thanks.



Oh, and that is, of course, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast. And more on this in a future blog.

www.PaulDMarks.com


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19 July 2016

A Noir Summer

by Paul D. Marks

Since Turner Classics doesn’t appear to be doing a noir Summer of Darkness like they did last summer, I thought I’d mention some film noirs to turn those bright sunny days into days of shadows, dread and despair. Hey, I’m just a happy-go-lucky guy.

And while Turner and other stations do run noirs at various times, they often seem to stick with the classics and well-known films. Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Postman Always Rings Twice (some of my favorites). But they sometimes overlook the lesser-known noirs. And while noir fans might know these, people looking to expand their horizons into the dark side might not. So I thought I’d mention a few here that are available for purchase and/or rent, as I said, to darken those too cheery, happy days of summer.

One of my favorites is Too Late for Tears (aka Killer Bait) – 1949 – with Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. She’s so evil in this one that even Duryea, who’s pretty good at being rotten himself, can’t take her. A husband and wife (Scott) are driving their convertible when someone in another car throws a suitcase full of cash into their car. She wants to keep it, he not so much. Noir ensues. Good, low budget noir. I like this one a lot. Some nice shots/scenes at Westlake Park in LA and other LA locations. It was written by Roy Huggins, who later created The Rockford Files and The Fugitive (TV series), though David Goodis might dispute that, among other things. And it’s just recently come out in a new, fancy-dancy restored Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Fear in the Night – 1947 – stars Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley and Ann Doran. And yeah, it’s that DeForest Kelly, before he ran around saying stuff like “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a mechanic.” A man dreams he murdered someone in a weird-shaped mirrored room. Then slowly comes to believe it wasn’t a dream. It was remade in 1956 as Nightmare, with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy and relocated to New Orleans. Both versions are good, though if I had to pick one I’d probably say I like Fear in the Night better. Both are based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish).

What do you do when your days as the boy ingénue are over and Judy Garland doesn’t go to CC Brown’s for a hot fudge sundae with you anymore – and you’re down on your luck? You gotta find something to do. You turn to noir. And Mickey Rooney did. After the War, in the 1950s, he made a series of low budget film noirs. I couldn’t decide if I should go with The Strip – 1951 – or Quicksand – 1950 – so what the hell, check ’em both out. In The Strip Rooney plays a drummer who loses his girl to a gangster buddy. In Quicksand he’s a mechanic who “borrows” 20 bucks from his boss to take a girl on a hot date. When he can’t pay up, he slips deeper and deeper into……quicksand. The Strip has the added attraction of Louis Armstrong and his band and seeing Louis do A Kiss to Build a Dream On, which was nominated for an Oscar. Interesting background on the song since it was written in 1935 but nominated for an Academy Award in the 50s. Normally a song would have to be new to be considered for an Oscar for best original song, but Oscar Hammerstein II completed the unfinished lyrics of the older song for the 1951 movie and I guess the Academy decided to fudge it. – You might have to wait till The Strip plays on one channel or another. I’m not sure it’s available for purchase or streaming.

Dick Powell wasn’t on the skids, but he did want to change his image from the juvenile lead in backstage musicals to something more adult. Going from lines like “Hey, I've been for you ever since you walked in on me in my BVD's” to “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.” And, “She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.” So, he jumped on the Raymond Chandler bandwagon, playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, two years before Bogie played Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and did a fine job of it. MMS is based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. One of Powell’s lesser known noirs is Cry Danger, with Rhonda Fleming and Raymond Burr, which is what I really wanted to point out here. Powell’s a mug sent to prison for something he didn’t do. He gets out, wants to set things right, and returns to LA. What I really like about this one are the great LA locations, especially of Bunker Hill and surrounds, an area that was totally flattened and redeveloped in the Sixties. Many film noirs were filmed at Bunker Hill, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and Backfire. So if you want to see LA’s real noir hood, check out these movies and Cry Danger. And as a side note, I have a couple of new stories coming out in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the future that are set in modern day Bunker Hill (what’s left of it), but inspired by Bunker Hill before it bit the dust.


And to top the list off, a couple of Barbara Stanwyck noirs. She, of course, plays the ultimate femme fatale in the ultimate film noir, Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – 1946 – she co-stars with Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas in his film debut. The File on Thelma Jordon – 1950 – is a companion to piece to that, at least in my mind. Something about Stanwyck’s aunts getting mysteriously dead in both movies. I like them both.

So, if you want to see dead aunts, LA’s infamous Bunker Hill, as opposed to that other one in Massachusetts, a hardboiled Mickey Rooney sans Judy and Lizabeth Scott at her most corrupt, check these out. This list barely scratches the surface but should give you start on making those hot, bright summer days just a little less bright.

***

09 April 2016

Short Takes: The 2016 Nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha

by B.K. Stevens

"Being short does not mean being slight," Flannery O'Connor maintains in "Writing Short Stories." "A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience in meaning." I think all the nominees for this year's Best Short Story Agatha would agree. The nominated stories include whodunits, suspense stories, and character studies. They include contemporary stories and historical mysteries, serious stories and humorous ones, realistic stories and stories laced with fantasy or whimsy. But all the nominated stories, I think, are long in depth, offering readers a variety of experiences in meaning.

All the authors of the nominated stories have contributed to this post. Each picked an excerpt from her story and commented on it briefly. I hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories and also hope you'll decide to visit the Malice Domestic website to read the stories in full. And if you're going to Malice, I look forward to seeing you there.

 


"A Year without Santa Claus?" by Barb Goffman
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2015

Here's the passage:

"Look at this email from Santa."

"First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger," Stan read aloud. He turned to me. "Doppelganger? Who's he trying to impress with his fancy language?" 

Stan had never been a big fan of Santa's. Something about not getting a certain potato gun he'd wanted as a kid. I sighed loudly and tapped the tablet. "Read."

"Okay, okay." He looked back down. "First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger. Then my look-alike was run down. And now someone's offed an Easter Bunny impersonator. Shot him between the ears. New Jersey's too dangerous for me this year. Sorry, Annabelle. Maybe next Christmas. Love, Santa." Stan's eyes returned to mine. "Uh oh."

Uh oh indeed. I shook my head. This was a catastrophe. Santa couldn't skip out on our kids.
It's two weeks till Christmas, and Santa has just notified Annabelle, the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey, that he's not coming there this year. A murderer is on the loose--it's not safe, he says. Annabelle can't let the poor kids suffer, so she sets out to catch the murderer. But even with her magical powers, Annabelle can't just conjure up whodunit. So she sets off to investigate the old-fashioned way, asking questions and taking names. But will it be enough? Can Christmas be saved?

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Goffman_Year.pdf


  



"A Questionable Death," by Edith Maxwell
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

In the following passage from "A Questionable Death," 1888 Quaker midwife Rose Carroll has brought a pregnant client of hers to see David Dodge, a physician at the new hospital in the neighboring town. Rose's client, Helen, has been showing symptoms of illness not related to her pregnancy.

"I'll need a small lock of your hair," David told Helen when he was finished examining her.

It had taken us twenty minutes to find a hack, we had to wait a bit to see David, and he had taken care with his examination, so it was now getting on for five o'clock.

"Why?" Helen asked, taken aback.

"Just to aid in assessing your health," David said, slipping me a look behind Helen's back. He handed her a small pair of scissors.

Helen shrugged, but handed the scissors to me. I clipped off a small bit from near her neckline and handed the deep brown lock to David, along with the scissors.

"Thank you for coming in," he said. "I'll have an answer for you within a day's time. And Rose, thanks for bringing her. I'll summon my carriage and driver to take you both back to Amesbury."

"That's very kind of thee," I said.

"I'll need to use the outhouse before we leave." Helen blushed a little.

"Oh, we have the new chain-pull toilets," David said with a note of pride in his voice. "The lavatory is just down the hall to the right. It's labeled Ladies." He pointed the way.

After the door closed behind Helen, I gave him a quizzical glance.

"My teacher in medical school would call it gastric fever." He gazed at me. "I suspect poison."

"Poison?" I whispered, moving to his side.

"Arsenic. I'll tell you for certain after I've analyzed the hair." His brows knit, and he went on, "Don't let on to her. Yet." 

This short scene comes about a third of the way through the story. It reflects the rapid changes in the late 1880s--the new chain-pull toilets in the hospital, the technology to analyze arsenic from a clipping of hair--contrasted with the horse-drawn carriages and Rose's Quaker way of speaking. It also gives the reader a likely cause for Helen's symptoms, which Rose will continue to investigate, and shows that she and David have a relationship as medical professionals in addition to their romantic one.

To read the story: https://edithmaxwell.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/questionabledeath.pdf 





"A Killing at the Beausoleil," by Terrie Farley Moran
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015

My Agatha-nominated story, "A Killing at the Beausoleil,"is a prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat  cozy mystery novels, including the Agatha Award winning Well Read, Then Dead, as well as Caught Read-Handed and the soon-to-be-released Read to Death.

In this excerpt we meet Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield on their first day in Fort Myers Beach. The building manager of the Beausoleil is showing them their new rental apartment.

Bridgy leaned in. "Sassy, what a gorgeous place to start our new lives."

Pleased with her comment, K. Dooney went for super-wow. He tugged on one cord of a wall's worth of creamy vertical blinds, and, like a well-trained platoon, they made a snappy left turn. Florida sunshine streamed in between the slats and danced all around the room. I fell into an instant fantasy of sipping my morning coffee while sitting on the terrace, drenched in sunlight. Mr. Dooney yanked another cord, and the slats marched in unison, half column left, half column right.

Below us, great white birds with wingspans measured in feet, rather than inches, circled lazily around fishing boat bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico. The horizon pushed on forever.

A view that might seem nice enough standing on the beach appeared majestic from the fourth-floor window. I let out a deep sigh of contentment.

Usually the bouncy one, Bridgy was more restrained. She tapped K. Dooney on the arm. "Who is that man sleeping on our terrace?"

In Well Read, Then Dead Sassy mentions that she and Bridgy moved to Fort Myers Beach three years ago. A number of readers contacted me because they were wondering how Sassy and Bridgy settled into their life on Fort Myers Beach. So at the urging of the readers, I decided to write this prequel short story, which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

This particular scene comes early in the story. It is a favorite of mine because it gives the reader a glimpse of the vibrant south Florida setting while indicating trouble to come in the person of the "sleeping" man.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Moran_Beausoleil.pdf




 "Suffer the Poor," by Harriette Sackler
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

Anne Heatherton, my story's protagonist, tours London's East End with a group of philanthropic women of means. The conditions that exist here in the 1890s appall the ladies. The group's leader expresses her view of how they should proceed.

"Well, ladies," Mrs. Pinckney, the group leader, announced, "we have a great deal to think about. But I am truly confident that we can make a difference. I believe it is our moral duty to share the blessings of our fortunate circumstances with others. But certainly not to be patronizing or morally superior. Don't you agree?"

The women nodded emphatically and whispered to each other as they moved toward the outskirts of the East End.
 This passage illustrates the dilemma of offering assistance to people who suffer from abysmal poverty and yet seek to maintain their pride and independence.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Sackler_SUFFER_THE_POOR.pdf

"A Joy Forever," by B. K. Stevens
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March 2015


In "A Joy Forever," narrator Chris, an aspiring photographer, travels to Boston hoping to take a picture that captures "the spirit of New England." To save money, Chris stays with his crude, domineering uncle, Mike Mallinger. After a miserable day of failing to find a good subject for the photograph, Chris returns to the house, where Mike's second wife, Gwen, is working on an embroidery project. Gwen seems to be meek and submissive, seems to have surrendered utterly to Mike's bullying and abuse. She sympathizes with Chris's artistic frustrations and recommends patience, because "sometimes, you can't make good things happen right away." Here, Chris responds.

"You're sure patient." I walked over to look at her tapestry. "That's lovely, Aunt Gwen. Did you design it yourself? Are you going to fill in all that space with those tiny flowers? That takes more patience than I'll ever have."

The design consisted of a mass of flowers--not arranged in a landscape or vase, not forming a pattern in any usual sense, but a joyous profusion ordered by a harmony I could feel but not define. The colors were dazzling, the variety of flowers amazing. No two were exactly alike, and some, I was sure, bloomed only in her imagination, never in any garden. And each flower was composed of dozens of tiny stitches. Each must have taken hours to create.

She blushed--a proud, vibrant blush this time. "I'm glad you like it. I've been working on it for a long time. A long, long time. I take it out whenever I have a spare minute. So I can't do much at a time. But I work on it every day." Her smile hardened. "Every single day. I'll never give up, not till I finish. And when it's done--why, when it's done, it's going to be wonderful."
I hope this passage hints that Gwen may be keeping secrets, that she may be neither as helpless nor as harmless as she seems. I hope readers will sense that everything Gwen says may have a double meaning. She's talking about her tapestry, yes, but is she also talking about some other project she's been working on "every single day" for "a long, long time," some other project she'll "never give up"? Whatever that project is, "when it's done, it's going to be wonderful"--it's going to be a joy forever. This passage also continues the flower imagery I've tried to develop since the story's first paragraph, the imagery that represents Gwen's independence and suppressed creativity. And it juxtaposes, for the first time, Gwen's tapestry and Chris's photograph--two artistic projects that will come together again when the story ends.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf

The Authors

Barb Goffman has won the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for her short crime fiction. She's been a finalist seventeen times for national crime-writing awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. Her award-winning story collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, includes seven of her nominated stories. She has two new stories scheduled to be published later this month. "Stepmonster" will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (on sale 4/26), and "The Best-Laid Plans" will appear in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (on sale 4/28). Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime fiction. http://www.barbgoffman.com/

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Food Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her "A Questionable Death" is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from Delivering the Truth, which releases on April 8. Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors, and you can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her website, edithmaxwell.com.

Terrie Farley Moran is the best-selling author of the Read 'Em and Eat cozy mysteries series. Well Read, Then Dead, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel 2014, was followed by Caught Read-Handed in 2015. Read to Death will be released in July 2016. Terrie's short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and numerous anthologies. Her short story "A Killing at the Beausoleil," prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat novels, has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. She also co-writes Laura Child's Scrapbooking Mystery series. Together they have written Parchment and Old Lace (October 2015) and Crepe Factor (October 2016). website: www.terriefarleymoran.com

Harriette Sackler serves as Grants Chair of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. She is a multi-published short story writer. Her latest story, "Suffer the Poor," appears in History and Mystery, Oh My! and has been nominated for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. She is a member of Dames of Detection and is co-owner, co-publisher, and co-editor at Level Best Books. Her nonfiction book about House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary will be published in 2017. Harriette lives in the D.C. suburbs with her husband and their two dogs. website: www.harriettesackler.com

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Some of those stories are included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection being published by Wildside Press. B.K. has won half a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, both Fighting Chance and "A Joy Forever" are nominated for Agathas. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, and four perfect grandchildren. www.bkstevensmysteries.com











20 October 2015

Post-Partum Bouchercon Blues

by Paul D. Marks

Whenever a convention ends there’s a feeling of emptiness. The excitement, the constant motion, everything just sort of winds down, leaving one with a sort of empty feeling: Post-Partum Bouchercon Blues.

Mystery conventions are chaos—exercises in controlled chaos to be sure. But chaos. You spend your time running from panel to panel, sometimes even ones you’re on. You meet with editors and agents and other authors and fans. This time I even got to record my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story, “Howling at the Moon” for Ellery Queen’s podcast. I believe an Academy Award Nomination for “Best-Worst Reading of a Short Story in the Mystery Category, Black Mask Sub Category of a Story Under 10,000 Words, But More than 3,000 Words” is forthcoming and I hope the award will be handed to me by Jennifer Lawrence.


You spend some time eating and a lot of time in the bar at night schmoozing and maybe, just maybe, having a drink or two. Nah. Whoever heard of hard-drinking mystery writers?

But there’s other aspects of conventions besides the obvious ones. One of my favorite things is to see cities that I might not normally choose to go to or get to see. Raleigh is a perfect example of that. Albany was another a couple of years ago.

Next year, Bouchercon is in New Orleans and Left Coast Crime is in Honolulu in 2017, both places I’ve been multiple times and places I probably would have gone to again on my own. But I don’t think I ever would have thought about going to Albany or Raleigh on my own, though I’m not sorry for having had the opportunity to visit either city.

To be honest, Albany is one of the last places on earth I ever would have thought of going to. My major “experience” with it, prior to Bouchercon 2013, was via Law & Order when someone, usually the DAs, would have to go there for some legal proceeding and it always seemed as if they were being sent to Siberia. So when I was nominated for the 2013 Shamus Award I turned to my wife and said, “Albany! Why Albany? Why couldn’t it be Chicago or Boston?” someplace I really wanted to see or see again in these cases.

But that’s part of the problem—many of us don’t really see the city where the convention is held. You see the inside of the hotel or the convention center or a restaurant or two. And they all pretty much look the same. So when my wife, Amy, and I go to conventions we always go a day early and stay a day or two extra so we can see the city. And guess what, we both really liked Albany. It had a certain small town New England charm that maybe those who live there don’t see. But coming from L.A. and being outsiders we saw the city with different eyes than those who’ve been jaded by familiarity.

And going to Raleigh for Bouchercon 2015 was the same. We got there a day early to meet up with Amy’s parents and one of her sisters—who drove up from Georgia—for dinner the night before the convention. And we stayed a couple extra days after it was over. During the convention we didn’t have a rental car, but for those extra days at the end we did. And we explored a bit of the city. One of the things we enjoy doing is just driving around the neighborhoods seeing how they’re different—or the same—as where we live (Los Angeles area).

We particularly enjoy the older Victorian and Colonial homes, with their wraparound porches and Southern charm. And we enjoy sampling the local food. Blood-red Cheerwine (which is not alcoholic) is the unofficial state drink of North Carolina. Even so, it took some doing but we finally found some. It tastes a little like Dr. Pepper and I can take it or leave it. But I had spareribs marinated and glazed in Cheerwine and they were out of this world. Just a different taste that I really sparked to. We also ate at the famous Pit restaurant. And cruised the city, seeing the North Carolina Museum of History and the Fiction Kitchen and Gringo A Go Go. And how lucky we were to be in Raleigh on the major celebration of Food Truck Day.

We saw Mordecai Park, home of the Mordecai Plantation Manor, once part of a 5,000 acre plantation. The park also now holds the home of Andrew Johnson, one of only two presidents to be impeached. The home was originally a few blocks away but was moved to the park.

We also visited the Oakwood Cemetery, with graves going back a couple hundred years, maybe more. It contains the grave of Berrian Kinnard Upshaw, the first husband of Margaret Mitchell and, some say, the possible inspiration for the character of Rhett Butler. And in that cemetery was a section filled with Confederate Civil War soldiers...and one Union soldier mistakenly put there and originally misidentified as a Confederate. Some of the graves are still tended to with flowers and Confederate flags. And despite the current brouhaha over that flag, it was a very sobering site and solemn place to be.

Standing in that cemetery, seeing all the graves of dead Civil War soldiers truly made me stop and think about how short life is and how much we take for granted.

So, while we enjoyed the convention, we also enjoyed the side trips and learning about Raleigh and its history. To see more about my actual convention experience and about my panel, with Shamus nominee Sam Wiebe and Macavity Winner Craig Faustus Buck, you can check out my 7 Criminal Minds blog post from last Friday. Click here http://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/2015/10/new-faces-new-crimes-new-challenges.html



It was good to go and good to come home. And come March it’ll be good to go to the next Left Coast Crime in Phoenix. Another place I’ve been but a place I’ll enjoy rediscovering.

*****

And Big Time Congratulations to our own fellow Sleuthsayer Art Taylor for his Anthony Win for Best Short Story for “The Odds are Against Us” from Ellery Queen.

*****

And now for the usual BSP stuff:
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24 August 2015

Queen of Crime

by Stephen Ross

I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
in EQMM
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.


So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].


Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)



1949
Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

1950
Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

1951 
An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

1963 
Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

1967 
The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

1967 
Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

1969 
Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

1973 
Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

1978 
South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

1990-94
The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

2010 
The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


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Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library