Showing posts with label Macavity Awards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Macavity Awards. Show all posts

08 September 2017

A Room (or Two) of One's Own

By Art Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, Dash got his wish:


Tara got hers:


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


And here's mine:


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

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

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

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

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



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


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


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

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

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


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.




08 August 2017

The Writer Unplugged

by Paul D. Marks

MTV and Palladia often do “unplugged” shows of various bands, where they go acoustic instead of electric. And it’s fun to see acoustic versions of songs we know and love. In fact, sacrilege as it might be, I prefer Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla more than the electric version. So I’m not opposed to going unplugged.


However – and you knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – we went unplugged a couple of weeks ago, not by choice, and it wasn’t any fun. Of course it’s not the first or only time this has happened. But it did make me think of some things that I’d like to share here.

There was a fire relatively near us, though not near enough that we were concerned about evacuating, which we’ve had to do two or three times in the past, so I guess that was a plus. But this fire caused both our internet and cell service to go out. We did still have satellite TV and our landline. And luckily we had electricity – nothing’s worse than having that or water go out. So we weren’t totally unplugged. But we were largely disconnected from the world. It’s like in the unplugged concerts when they still have the bass plugged in but everything else is acoustic.

So, we couldn’t check on the fire to see if it was coming our way. TV and radio news don’t give you a lot of info. And when there are fires near us we mostly rely on the internet to know what’s going on. But since we had no internet (via cable) and since the cell service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. And couldn’t get updates on the fire. That wasn’t a good feeling.

But since we did have electricity we could continue to work on computers or do other things. And here’s how this connects to writers and writing: I was working on rewriting a story. Normally when I do that I’m flying all over the internet, researching this and checking that as I write. And playing hooky from writing, pretending that the “extra” research I’m doing is really necessary. But I couldn’t do that that weekend. No internet research – no playing hooky on the net. And that was beyond frustrating. I have a pretty good reference library but you get spoiled with the ease of finding things without having to leave your desk. So, while I could continue to work on the story I had to leave a lot of things blank to be filled in later, once the net came back on. This disrupts the flow and the “zen” space of writing and can get very frustrating. It also shows just how dependent we’ve become on all of these modern conveniences.

On top of that, our microwave “blew up” around the same time. And we’ve now been without a microwave for a while. And that’s been very frustrating too. How do you quickly reheat that cup of coffee that keeps you up all hours while doing those rewrites? How do you warm up leftovers? And a million other things?

In ye olden days, of course, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to them, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who the hell needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wowser! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? Then, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house one day and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93 and I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a computer, one of those fancy shmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“white out”) – and supporting Mike Nesmith and his mother 😉. It was liberating. You felt more creative because now you could move something and just try it out. You could cut and paste and re-cut and re-paste to your heart’s content. You could change a character’s name on a whim and not worry about it. It really freed the imagination. Hard to believe now how we made things work before. Before you would be hesitant to make changes because it was so hard to make them. Time consuming and impossible to do.

But not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and that can search the net and TVs that are largely running on computer chips. I just downloaded a pedometer to my phone and can track the number of steps I take every day.

My wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency. She takes the train from work and just the other day got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or love to eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to unplug sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience. Let me tell you it was no fun when we lost most of our communication with the outside world.

As writers, and in general, we’ve become so dependent on these devices that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient, but a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we are.

###

And now for the usual BSP.

My short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the December 2016 Ellery Queen is nominated for a Macavity Award. If you’d like to read it, and the stories of all the nominated authors, please check them out at the links below. If you like my story I hope you’ll want to vote for it. And thank you to everyone who voted for it and got it this far:

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP
Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck
Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/
Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/Ghosts-of-Bunker-Hill
Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I
Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

If you want to read a great article on the Macavity nominees, check out Greg Herren's blog: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/24/beatnik-beach/

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



07 July 2017

The Book As Object

By Art Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 August 2016

Anthony & Macavity Finalists Talk Favorite First Novels

By Art Taylor

This week marked the final balloting for this year’s Macavity Awards; the final balloting is just ahead for the Anthony Awards; and in less than a month, the winners of all these will be announced in New Orleans at Bouchercon.

I’m pleased to have some of my own work in contention here: On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for both the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, which I edited, is a finalist for the Anthony for Best Anthology or Collection. And I’m thrilled for the other SleuthSayers who are also honored as finalists this year: Barb Goffman for “A Year Without Santa Claus” and B.K. Stevens for “A Joy Forever,” both contenders for the Macavity for Best Short Story, and B.K. Stevens again for her novel Fighting Chance, an Anthony finalist for Best Young Adult Novel.

What’s maybe most exciting about all of this, however, isn’t the chance to toot our own horns but to connect with and celebrate the other writers in whose distinguished company we’ve found ourselves. I appreciated the opportunity to interview the other finalists for the Anthony for Best Anthology/Collection right here at SleuthSayers back in May, and earlier this year, when On the Road was up for this year’s Agatha Award, I asked my fellow finalists what first novels they themselves would name as favorites and why; you can find that latter round-up of titles at the Washington Independent Review of Books here, and I’d encourage you to look up the Agatha authors’ own books as well, a fine bunch!

That column offered a pair of fun opportunities—both to get glimpses into those authors’ tastes and influences and to add some titles to my own TBR list—so I wanted to repeat the same question with this year’s Anthony and Macavity finalists for Best First too: "What is your own favorite first novel (mystery preferred, but could be any genre), and how has that author’s work influenced or inspired your own writing?"

And our panelists are:



Anthony Award Finalists, Best First Novel
Macavity Award Finalists, Best First Novel

Here are the responses I got—a varied bunch and terrifically interesting, as I hope you’ll agree!

Patricia Abbott, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Concrete Angel
Patti Abbott
One of my favorite police procedural series was created in 1965 by Swedish couple, Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo. Police detective Martin Beck was a typical cop in Sweden and readers got a fine portrait of Scandinavian socialism for good and bad. In Roseanna, his first outing, Beck investigates the murder of an American tourist found in the Gota canal. The duo would go on to write nine more books. What made the books special for me was the way the authors addressed societal problems of their day. Their influence on later writers, like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, is immediately apparent. To be able to write compelling crime stories with great characters, and also critique contemporary society is a terrific achievement. And the elements were all there from the start. Roseanna is my choice for my favorite first novel. In Concrete Angel, I tried to examine the way women with mental health issues were treated in the 1960s. And Shot in Detroit looks at the issues Detroit experienced in 2008 and after. Certainly the work of Sjowal and Wahloo was a huge inspiration.

Glen Erik Hamilton, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Past Crimes 
Glen Erik Hamilton
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950). Arguably one of the most influential mystery novels ever written, Highsmith's tale of two men who trade murders—one reluctantly, one eagerly—is still a gripping page-turner. Guy (note the Everyman name) is a vacillating architect unhappy with his wife and life. His new acquaintance Bruno is—well, Bruno is something else entirely. A charming sociopath, Bruno is the sharply-dressed rehearsal for Highsmith's greatest creation, the anti-hero Tom Ripley.

In between the delightful surprises of her plot, Highsmith managed to explore guilt, paranoia, homoeroticism, and above all the fascination many of us have with the darker side of human nature. The story follows Guy, seeing Bruno through his gaze. We realize that even with a close third-person view Guy is an unreliable host, largely because he doesn't know his own mind.

I write about criminals as well—some reluctant, some eager—and admit that the moral ambiguities in their world have an allure for me, at least from a distance. And while my protagonist Van Shaw is anything but indecisive, he too is figuring out his place in the world. Crook or hero? If Van is unreliable, it's mostly to his own higher instincts.

Rob Hart, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for New Yorked 
Rob Hart
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. I picked it up mostly on a whim, because it had been in the New York Magazine Approval Matrix. And it just knocked me on my ass. I saw a Broadway show with my wife that evening and took the book out during intermission just so I could read a few more pages. It's the kind of book that demands your attention. And as a writer, it forces you to up your game on so many levels—it's hysterical and smart and experiments with form (footnotes!) it's got an emotional core and the ending, well... I don't even want to come close to spoiling that. But I will say I had to put the book down for a moment. And I shuddered. That's a hell of a thing, to elicit such a visceral physical reaction in a reader. That's something I one day hope to achieve.

Chris Holm, Anthony Finalist for Best Novel and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
I really wrestled with this question because I’m fascinated by brilliant debut novels, and was unsure which of my favorites I should highlight. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? William Gibson’s Neuromancer? Katherine Neville’s The Eight? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? Ultimately, though, I settled upon Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Written in part while Tartt was a student at Bennington College, The Secret History is a marvel of structure and language, a poignant coming-of-age story, and a thrillingly effective whydunit. Those who turn their noses up at mysteries will insist The Secret History transcends genre; I humbly submit that it demonstrates the full range of what genre’s capable of. If I one day write a story with a tenth its grace, I’ll die a happy man.

David Joy, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Where All the Light Tends to Go
David Joy
There’ve been countless times I’ve gone back and read the debuts of writers I love and just been blown away by the amount of talent they possessed so early. I think of a writer like Ron Rash, who’s undoubtedly one of the finest at work today, and I know a lot of people who can make compelling arguments that his first novel, One Foot In Eden, is as strong a novel as he’s ever written. He was that good from the start. I think what takes me most by books like that is how clear and powerful the voice comes through. You read writers like Ron or Daniel Woodrell or Donald Ray Pollock or George Singleton, and you know who you’re reading. Think of writers like McCarthy and Larry Brown and William Gay and Barry Hannah, you knew from the first sentence. Their voices were just that strong. So I’m going to give you someone I think needs more attention and that’s Alex Taylor. He has that kind of voice. His debut, The Marble Orchard, was as rich a debut as I’ve ever read. It’s sure-footed and wholly original. As far as the effect that kind of writing has on me, it’s humbling. It lets me know I’ve got a long ways to go.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Unquiet Dead
Ausma Zehanat Khan
I first became enchanted by mysteries when I discovered the work of the great Ngaio Marsh, whose debut novel A Man Lay Dead introduced her darkly handsome, archetypal detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn's charisma drew me in further through the course of 32 books, and to this day, he remains my favorite detective of fiction. He was clever, sophisticated and kind—with an old-fashioned chivalry and masculine directness that made his suspects swoon. Esa Khattak owes him a debt.

In Alleyn's train came the charming young reporter, Nigel Bathgate, who acted as his sidekick through several other adventures, including the enthralling Enter a Murderer, the first of Marsh's books to feature a theatre setting. The theatre would become a defining element of Marsh's best work, as in her pair of her novels Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin. Both these novels introduced the fairy-tale theme of an unlikely talent's discovery and stardom. I was a theatre buff from a young age, so I was captivated by the world Marsh created, a world that discussed the writing and staging of plays in the midst of a gruesome murder. I learned more about Shakespeare through Death at the Dolphin, than I ever did during high school. And I credit these mysteries, as well as Marsh's Light Thickens, with teaching me to love Shakespeare's language and themes. But there were other lessons, too. Through Ngaio Marsh's wonderful artistry, I learned the sting of a well-turned phrase and the importance of a range of colorful suspects: Marsh's character descriptions are some of the best I've ever read.

Ngaio Marsh's writing taught me that mysteries didn't need to be paint-by-number constructions of murders, suspects and clues. They could encompass a wide range of interesting commentary, delve into history, politics or race relations, and deftly incorporate psychological depth. All with the most alluring arrangement of language and setting one could imagine. Ngaio Marsh's England and New Zealand were two places I dreamed of as home, all through my teenage years. From A Man Lay Dead all the way through to Light Thickens, Marsh's strengths as a writer continued to flourish and develop—she left her fans wanting more.

Brian Panowich, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for Bull Mountain
Brian Panowich
Like most writing assignments I receive, I have the hardest time doing specifically what is asked of me. The question posed was what is my favorite first novel and what kind of influence has it had over my own writing, and if I stayed on topic, that would be pretty easy to answer. John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing made me want to try my hand at writing a novel. Forth Of July Creek by Henderson Smith was so good it made me think I’d never try my hand at writing a novel. Soil by Jamie Kornegay was the best first novel I’ve ever read, but if the question was what first novel was the most significant to my own career, it would be The Second Son by Charles Sailor.

You see, when I was seventeen, I was a class a fuck-up, and that summer, a buddy and me thought we’d try to steal a gas station air-machine to get at the wealth of quarters inside. So undercover of streetlight, we pulled a beat-to-hell Pontiac Grand Prix into the parking lot of a Gas-N-Go and wrapped a chain around the steel post cementing he yellow air compressor to the ground and punched the gas. We lost the bumper and hit the curb, and the only thing we accomplished was getting both of our asses locked up in County. I was there for three weeks. Felony theft by taking, and a vandalism charge just for shits and giggles.

During those three weeks in lock-up, I had a little forced time on my hands to evaluate my current life trajectory. My cell’s tiny slit of a window faced the fairgrounds and every night I would stare out at the Ferris wheel of the fall fair, and wonder what I was going to do next. During my second week, after the Ferris wheel came down and there was nothing to stare at out the window, I grabbed a book of the book-cart that came around once a day around noon. I grabbed The Second Son, with zero intention of reading it, but after a day of going stir-crazy, I peeled open the cover and read a fantastic story of a man who fell from a skyscraper and survived to go on and become one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read to this day. I read the book twice during my tenure at 401 Walton Way.

When I finally got home, and after promising my father the money spent on bail and fines wasn’t in vain, I searched for that book in my library, and every book store I could find, until I found a paperback edition at a Goodwill on a fluke. I’m a novelist now, and I believe that book was where it all began. Sometimes when I’m in the throes of an author’s crushing case of self-doubt, I pull that book off the shelf and remember the power it held over me, and how a book can change a life. I hope someone finds one of mine someday and puts it to that kind of use. It’s the reason I do it. I think it’s the reason we all do.

Art Taylor, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for On the Road with Del & Louise
Art Taylor (hey, that's me!)
As I said back in the WIROB column, I had three novels that popped to mind. Like Chris Holm, I’m enthralled by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and two other debut novels have also stood out to me for their equally confident prose and intricate, engaging plots: Tana French’s In the Woods and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air (the last one is lesser known, of course, and not a mystery, but I’m such a fan that if I ever see a copy in a used bookstore, I pick it up just to pass it along to some deserving reader).

I taught In the Woods this past semester at George Mason University, but it’s not just the freshness of my rereading that has me putting it at the top here. I was stunned by the book when I first read it (I reviewed it for the Washington Post here)—just blown away by the beautiful writing, the complex and frequently heartbreaking characters, and the many layers of a plot that offered new depths and startling surprises at regular turns. Rereading it simply reinforced that admiration and reminded me of the level of writing I’d love to aspire toward myself—even if there’s likely little connection between her work and my own in On the Road with D&L, perhaps more of an influence evident in some of my short fiction (and really a stronger connection structurally between my book and Cynthia Shearer’s, since hers is also a novel in stories). Either way, still a long way to go on developing my own craft, but that’s how reading can enrich writing, right? Raising the bar? Not just influencing but encouraging our own prose? At least that’s what I tell myself.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Bouchercon—and happy reading in the meantime!

#

As a final note here, I’m encouraging folks to sign up for my new newsletter, which I hope to debut later this month—along with giveaways of three volumes from the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series: The Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and the newest addition, Storm Warning. Sign up here and you’ll automatically be entered in the drawing!

13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!

by B.K. Stevens


On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here--Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which comments on Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)