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

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.)

06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.

by Barb Goffman

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.