Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.


22 January 2018

Saying Good-bye

by Janice Law

My view of Anna
There comes a time for good-byes in literary relationships. I’ve experienced this twice, first with Anna Peters, a detective who made my first novel a success and who explored mostly white collar crime in seven subsequent volumes. I liked her, I really did, but I’d made a serious miscalculation, I’d aged her with me.

Anna, professional illustration
That didn’t seem a problem when I began, but as the series extended and she got older and more settled and developed back problems, I understood that, despite an Edgar nomination, we had to make a break.

Fortunately for my artistic development and for her personal safety, the series was not the fiscal prop of some struggling publisher nor the passion of a legion of demanding fans. I didn’t need to kill her off, as some writers have done with heroes who hung around too long, but could settle her into a decent retirement.

Madame S in AHMM
More recently, I bid farewell to two characters who have done yeoman work in the short story markets, namely Madame Selina, Gaslight era NYC’s leading medium, and her assistant, Nip Tompkins, an orphan with a good deal of savoir faire. I’ve enjoyed them, and Nip, in particular, has a turn of phrase that is a pleasure to record.

But I have already explored many of the issues of their time, including spiritualism, the aftermath of the Civil War, exploited heiresses, Irish rebels, corrupt politicians, votes for women, and immigration.

There are, I know, fertile imaginations that can ring endless changes on a couple of appealing characters and the sins of a big city. Not me. Nip has grown up and, not having any gift for the spirit world, has entered the newspaper business.

My view of Madame S & Nip
Lucky boy, journalism is in its greatest days, and having appeared in a novella along with Madame S, he will perhaps have an afterlife. We will see.

I have been thinking about good-byes lately, because another big one is coming up: the last of the Francis Bacon novels. Mornings in London finishes the second trilogy with this character. The first trilogy debuted with Fires of London, set during the Blitz when Francis was scraping together a livelihood along with his beloved Nanny, and ends with Moon Over Tangier, when Francis is an established painter with a toxic lover and a big hole in his life following Nan’s death.

I could have said farewell then and had the perfect ending. But these things are not solely under the writer’s control. Francis, gay, alcoholic, promiscuous, and ambitious, was such fun. He was quite different from Anna, Madame Selina or Nip. Although he disliked the countryside and animals, both of which I adore, he was interested in the Greek plays and Shakespeare, and of course, in painting. So am I.

But I did not necessarily want to forge ahead. As a general rule, people of great achievement are more interesting on the way up. Their struggles to succeed are much interesting that the lists of greatest hits of the established artist. The solution was to head backwards, where I felt Francis was both more charming and more vulnerable, the latter an essential for any mystery, caper, or suspense novel. The Bacon books partake of all three.

Last Francis Bacon novel
His biography was a great help in the decision. He was dispatched with a truly funny uncle to Weimar Berlin in his father’s delusive hope that he would come back a heterosexual soldierly type. Then he went to Paris, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties and acquiring some basic art training, before he set himself up in London with his nanny and opened a design studio.

Three venues, three books. It worked out nicely. But now the Second World War is coming, and Francis is about to become an Air Raid Precautions warden and embark on the adventures of Fires of London. Although he’s been good for me, being a finalist three times for a Lambda award and winning once, it’s time to say good-bye.

As consolation, he recently acquired another life in the form of talking books, as the first four volumes have been produced by Dreamscape and are excellently read by Paul Ansdell. Francis could not have been better voiced. My Francis is pleased, and maybe the real Francis Bacon would have been, too.

22 April 2016

New House (and Backyard Writing Studio)

'Screaming Eagles' patch of
101st Airborne Div. (AASLT)
by Dixon Hill

As many of you probably know, I met my wife when we both worked for Military Intelligence, in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

One off-shoot of this fact, is that we both grew used to an itinerant lifestyle.  She and I lived many of our single-life years in army barracks.  Before landing at the 101st, she spent time at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona, followed by a year in South Korea.  I lived in Monterrey, CA for a year and a half, studying Arabic, then spent several months, each, at Goodfellow AFB, TX and Ft. Devens, Mass.

After my wife, Madeleine, received an honorable discharge, she moved out to where I (by then) was on an A-Team, so we rented an apartment in Fayetteville, NC, outside Fort Bragg, until I received my own honorable discharge.  Arriving in Scottsdale, afterward, we were used to living in places we didn't own, so we continued to rent while raising our family.

A few months ago, though, we decided to use the G.I Bill and buy a house.

Yep!  This is the house.  I know: It's pretty darn green.  And the yard needs work.
But, Mad likes the tree, and I'm not stupid, so the tree is staying.
We like the older houses in South Scottsdale.  'Older,' around here, means they were built in the late '50s or in the '60s.  The house we closed on, yesterday (yep! the day before this post went up online), was built in 1959.

As you can see from the photo, it's ... well ... green.

This has nothing to do with our military background.  We suspect there was a sale on green paint, because several houses in the area are painted the same color.  And, we plan to make some changes to the paint scheme, because -- frankly -- our years in the army provided enough exposure to the color green, as far as we're concerned.  (Though we do like a nice green lawn -- something I'm going to get cracking on, next week, after we're moved in.)

Not Mine
The house may have been built in 1959, but it's solid, built of block, and suits our needs well, with a living room and large kitchen (big enough for the farm table my wife wants), a nice back patio, a fireplace and swimming pool, as well as three bedrooms and a room (where the carport used to be) that my youngest son can set up as a game room.  And, it has one more thing.
Nope, not this one!


Not Mine, either.
There is a large concrete slab in the backyard, which was clearly used for parking an R.V. sometime in the past.  I used to be an SF Engineer, and we did more than just blowing things up.  We also built things.  Out of lumber, rough timbers, even concrete and steel (when we got the chance).  So, I checked out the pad, and realized it was strong enough for what we needed.

The plan is, we're going to put my Backyard Writing Studio on this pad.

If you haven't thought of backyard offices, or studios, let me tell you: There are a lot of folks who have them these days, judging from what I found online.  I've done quite a bit of research -- both in-person and online -- and posted some of the pics (above) that I found, to give you an idea of what's out there.

But, I don't think mine will look much like those.  Not at first, anyway.  We contemplated the idea of my building the thing, but I think there's an easier solution.  We're still not quite sure yet, but I suspect my studio will initially look like this:

"Duratemp Side Utility" building from Weather King.  Interior unfinished.  Priced about $4,000, including delivery.
Those double doors on the front, when removed, leave an opening that measures just the right size to permit the installation of a sliding glass door without extensive adjustment.  The interior is unfinished, but the 2x4 studs, at 16-inches on center, permit easy insulation addition, while the roof 2x8's will handle R-30 insulation.

I don't do electrical work, so I'll hire an electrician to wire the place for plugs and lighting, as well as a window 110V A/C unit I plan to install on the side away from the house (and, an exhaust fan, of course, to get rid of my cigar smoke at times).  I can handle the dry wall and flooring without any problem.  In the future, we can decide if I want to upgrade the exterior, and maybe add a wooden deck around it or a pergola-type shade structure out front.

True, my Backyard Writing Studio probably won't end up looking as nice as those others, but the price is right, and it sure beats sitting out on my apartment balcony as the Arizona summer comes marching in!

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.



04 February 2016

Max Bialystock is Dead

by Eve Fisher

The six finalists for the Edgar Awards have been announced, and each and every one of them is fantastic.  Go read them.



The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Penguin Random House – A Marian Wood Book)
Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House - Dutton)
Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Night Life by David C. Taylor (Forge Books)

But, while these six are basking in hope and glory, I'd also like to bring to your attention some other damn good books that came out in 2015.  

First of all, Phantom Angel by David Handler (Minotaur Books).  I love a good mystery, and I love it even better when it's funny.  Really funny.  This one is.  PI Benji Golden is hired by Morrie Frankel, who's putting on a $65 million musical adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" (yes, Emily's cheerful little romance).  If you're thinking Max Bialystock and "Springtime for Hitler", so was I.  And I was not disappointed!  Max, I mean, Morrie is killed, money vanishes, and Golden's real problem is sifting through Broadway gossip as high as a NY skyscraper to find the killer.  This was a truly FUN read.  It's also the second in this new series by David Handler - the first was Runaway Man.

For those of you who love the long slow burn...

A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan ((Picador) is classic British creep show.  You know.  The kind of story where everything is normal, perfectly normal.  Until one day, you notice that the ivy is twining the wrong way, and the next, the garbage can shifted, and later, who turned on that light, and why are you in the attic...  Well, in this one, we have Mr. Heming, real estate agent.  Wonderful man.  Friendly, helpful.  First to call.  And has keys to every house he has ever sold. Who likes to drop in, when nobody's there. Who likes to see how people live.  Who is very, very particular.  Who has motives that no one has ever dreamed of.  Who may have fallen in love.  Or not.  Who finds himself in a situation.  And knows that there is always, always, always a way out...  He's done it before...  Seriously, check it out.  You'll stay up for a while.

And now for something completely different:

The Lost Treasures of R&B by Nelson George (Akashic Books).  Nelson George's professional bodyguard D Hunter is on the job protecting rapper Asya Roc at an underground fight club in Brooklyn.  But the rapper has arranged to buy some illegal guns; an old acquaintance named Ice is the courier; a robbery is attempted, a shoot-out follows.  Who were the gunmen?  Why did they want those guns?  And who was being set up - the rapper or the Ice?  D tries to figure all of this out and, at the same time, to track down the rarest soul music single ever recorded.  The voice of this book is very real, and the whole mood of the book is an R&B rapper High Fidelity noir thriller, and I loved it. Nelson George, knows his music:  a former editor for Billboard Magazine, columnist for the Village Voice, R&B, currently co-executive producer of VH1's Hip Hop Honors and executive producer of BET's American Gangster.  He also knows Brooklyn.  The Lost Treasures of R&B is the third in the D Hunter series:  the other two are The Accidental Hunter and The Plot Against Hip-Hop: A Novel.


A brand new series to keep an eye on:

The Magician's Daughter by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press).  Magician Valentine Hill always introduces her act by announcing “Reality is an illusion. Illusion is reality, and nothing is what it seems.”  She learned that, and many other things, from her grifter mother, who is still on the loose, and her magician father. From both she learned a whole lot of tricks that will come in handy as she struggles to deal with wealthy socialites, car mechanics, cab drivers, and FBI agents.  Most of whom are also ruthless criminals, psycho killers, and seductive gangsters.  And, of course, her amoral, abusive, never-retired mother who is still on the con, and still very, very, very dangerous...

And everyone needs a good spy thriller:

Nobody Walks by Mick Herron (Soho Crime).  Tom Bettany is working at a meat processing plant in France when he gets a voicemail from an Englishwoman he doesn’t know telling him that his estranged 26-year-old son is dead.  Liam Bettany fell from his London balcony, where he was smoking pot.  Bettany goes back to London to find out the truth about his son’s death.  Because Liam might have been a druggie, but Bettany isn't just the quiet butcher he's been for the last few years.  He's been around, he knows a lot, perhaps too much, and a lot of people are afraid of his return, from incarcerated mob bosses to high powered bosses of MI5.  None of them appreciate his return.  Or did someone arrange to get him back, literally in the worst way possible?   Stylish, noirish, a don't trust anyone read that will definitely surprise you.

Under the why didn't anyone tell me? classification of series:

Down Among the Dead Men by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime).  Miss Gibbon, the most disliked teacher (of art) in a posh private girls' school vanishes in a Sussex town on the south coast of England. She is not missed, especially since her replacement is a gorgeous male teacher with a fancy car and some boundary issues. Meanwhile, detective Peter Diamond finds himself in Sussex, with the person he hates the most:  his supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore.  She's been called to lead a Home Office internal investigation into a Sussex detective who failed to link DNA evidence of a relative to a seven-year-old murder case.  And she takes Diamond with her.  What she doesn't know is that Diamond knows the suspended officer.  And over time, he notices unsettling connections between the cold case and the missing art teacher. And there's also the mystery of why C.C. Dallymore was really called on the case in the first place.  I loved the plot, I loved the characters, but most of all, I loved the wit.  Why didn't someone tell me about Peter Diamond before?

Well, that's all for this week.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some catching up to do....




30 April 2015

Useful and Necessary Knowledge

by Janice Law

I just finished a novel, always a satisfying moment, even if the product never quite lives up to the initial inspiration. Novels begin in careless rapture with hints of genius, run into complications toward the middle, and end, if one is lucky, somewhere in the realistic realm of ‘good enough.’

But this one, being set in the 1920‘s, got me to thinking about how one gets information for historical novels and the differences in what is needed for history, on the one hand, and a story, on the other. In my opinion, it comes down to minutia, and while I don’t like to criticize historians, whose ranks I’ve joined on occasion, they usually skimp of the day-to-day details that are the blood and bones of any novel.

Money, in particular, is always tricky. Not only did earlier eras have different coinage – the UK went decimal within living memory – but it is extremely hard to determine equivalents in today’s money. You don’t need to be a Jane Austen or a Karl Marx to feel that lacking a grasp of how much and what value leaves a gap in a manuscript.

Of course, historians venture into the realm of economics, but they tend to like the big scale and the overall trend. Only occasionally do they include the price of a modest lunch or the cost of a subway ticket or a ride on a mail coach. What would a woman pay for a dress and how much would her seamstress clear? These are often hard to determine.

Consider Weimar, the ill fated Republic and its rowdy capital, Berlin, where I’ve recently been spending time in the service of the very young Francis Bacon. It’s easy to find statistics on everything from housing to political preferences, but I really had to struggle to find out what was served in the local bars, where I’m afraid Francis spent a lot of time. Fortunately a memoir came to the rescue with the menu: pea soup, sausages and beer. Memoirists are notoriously unreliable about their personal history, but I think they’re probably trustworthy on fast food.

Memoirs, particularly Christopher Isherwood’s, were useful in another way, because Berlin suffered extensive bombing damage during the war. It was then divided by the wall, and ,when the wall came down, reintegrated with the east. All this has meant buildings lost, areas redeveloped, old haunts vanished except in the mind of the memoirist who helpfully resurrects forgotten districts and seedy cafes. Sometimes, though, one must finesse a problem. I read whole books on the so called combat leagues, the groups of political activists that slid from providing bodyguards to fueling street warfare. Their motives, their sociological backgrounds, their financial support, their aims, their resentments were all laid out in neat columns. But what about the colors of their shirts? Except for the Brownshirts, no dice.

Of course, occasionally one comes across a volume that seems written with other writers in mind. I can recommend two. Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, the Erotic Worlds of Weimar Berlin is beyond lurid but the vocabulary and the venues, not to mention the goings-on of the notorious sex trade, are all usefully laid out. With pictures. Want to know who patronized the Cozy Corner, the “boy bar” beloved of Auden and Isherwood? Care to take a gander at the Eldorado, the great transvestite club and cabaret? Gordon has the info and the illustrations. A picture really is worth a thousand words in this case.

Not related to Weimar but useful for anyone who cares to dip into the Victorian world is Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Divided up by topic ranging from transportation to marriage to money to etiquette, it can help you distinguish a barouche from a victoria, and a ladies maid from a housemaid. A useful volume indeed.

But sometimes there are no useful memoirs or frivolous historians. Then the writer must improvise.

Soon after we moved to eastern Connecticut, I was asked to write a local history, and wanting to do something a little different, I came up with the idea of ending each chapter with short blurbs like what’s for dinner? what did they do for fun? travel time to some local town or attraction? how were they educated? and how did they die?

You can probably guess which ones were easy to discover, New England being proud of its education and mortality being popular with medical historians. Travel was another matter. I wound up checking with a local cross country coach to estimate how long it would take a tribal runner to cover rough ground and with the university equestrian center for the time it would take a decent horse to make a ten mile journey on dirt roads.

Historians need the big picture, bless them, but novelists have – or should have – their own big, or little, picture in mind. What we need are the details, the minutia and the ephemera that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past.

02 February 2015

Wanted Mystery Readers

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

What do mystery readers want?

Mystery readers are a varied and particular group. The majority of them want what they like to read best and all you have to do is point them to their favorites are.

And exactly what are their favorites? Cozy, Private Eye, Legal, Medical, Historical, Soft boiled, Hard boiled, Noir, Police Procedural, Who Dunnit, Woman in Jeopardy Thriller, Paranormal Cat Mysteries, Dog Mysteries, Comic Capers? And what about True Crime?

Did you realize there are so many different divisions in Mystery? Only when I owned a bookstore did I really realize that there is a huge variety under the mystery umbrella. What's funny to me is many people say, "Oh, I never read mysteries." But when you ask who do they read, they say, "Oh, I read James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Charlaine Harris, Stephen King, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Janet Evonovich, Kathy Reichs, Tony Hillerman, Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan or Faye Kellerman."

Okay, I guess these authors write what is considered suspense, not mystery. I personally would say all of those authors write mysteries. I don't understand why people don't consider these best selling books are mysteries. Are they ashamed and don't want too admit they read mysteries. Do they think mystery is low-brow. Or maybe they think if a book is on the New York Times Best Seller List it's not a mystery? Often when a writer says they are published and they write mysteries, someone invariably will ask (usually one of your off-side relatives) when are you going to write a REAL book. That's when I want to run away screaming.

What about Harlan Coben's books? They are usually high suspense but they also are mysteries. A crime is committed, usually someone is murdered and a man (or a woman) is caught up in a situation they have no knowledge of or how to solve the mystery. Sometimes they or their loved one is in jeopardy and the main character has to use everything they've ever learned or known to save the loved one or themselves.

Back to my original question, what do mystery readers want? I can only say what I want in a book. I want a character that I like and like to root for, although I don't have to have a perfect character. In fact, it's much better if the main character has vices or flaws. However, it's nice if you see the main character in one place and, by the end of the book, the main character is in another place, perhaps changed a bit. Becoming a better person, maybe or at least has a different outlook on life.

I like reading about a location that's new to me like Alaska or Iceland, Hawaii or Florida. Places where I can learn about a state or country, their customs, foods, peoples.

I feel that way about someone who has an occupation I'm not familiar with, like Fran Rizer's character who works in a funeral home. Her character is also from South Carolina and I've never been there so I enjoy reading about the coastal area of the Atlantic side of our continent.

I also enjoy reading about a place when I have been there and see a few things in the story that I've seen. Like reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, set in Sweden. I had two short trips in Sweden, but I had been to Stockholm and several of the other locations mentioned. That made the book more fun and interesting to me.

I enjoy reading good stories wherever they're set or the people who populate the mystery story. I like a story that begins with some action. I'll go along with perhaps fifty pages but something better be happening by then or forget it. It doesn't have to be a bloody murder; the murder can have taken place off scene, but I want to see the main character doing something to move the story forward. If you're a writer, write the best most intriguing book you can. Don't forget that if you are bored with the story then your readers most likely will be bored, too.

If you're a reader, proudly admit that you like mysteries. Some of the best writing is being done under the mystery/suspense umbrella. Trust me. Mystery writers cover the major issues of the day. And in about 98% of mystery books, the bad guy is caught and justice prevails, which doesn't happen in the real world often enough.

That's my opinion, what do you think, class?

14 January 2015

Genre & Its Discontents

by David Edgerley Gates


There was a recent newspaper article on the wire services - courtesy of the Houston CHRONICLE - about video games now being treated seriously as an academic subject. Not simply gaming design, which is a career path, but themes and narrative, studying the art of the medium. The first thing that struck me was there's sure to be pushback, from more conservative circles, a sense that this is frivolous, or another sign of the impending doom of Western Civilization.

What's the world coming to, that we seriously look into the origin story of Batman, for example, and the dark graphics of Bob Kane, or the influence of MAD Magazine on American culture? There was a time, not that long ago, when comics were seen as a malign presence, poisoning youth. (See SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, published in 1954, which led to mutterings in Congress.) The comic book industry got ahead of the curve with the so-called Comics Code, akin to the Hays Office in the movie biz, which self-censored content. These days, Archie Andrews takes a bullet and dies in a pool of blood. What's next, Nancy Drew comes out to her dad as a lesbian dominatrix, or the Hardy Boys cook meth in their garage? The mind boggles.

This goes back to an older division of the spoils, low-brow vs. high-brow. Or the related question, does commercial success compromise literary integrity? ULYSSES got
tied up in court for a dozen years, remember, over whether it was obscene. Its publication in the U.S. led, for better or worse, not just to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER seeing the light, but MY GUN IS QUICK. Spillane's books were wildly successful, and struck a deep chord, but the critics took him over the coals, the brutal sadomasochism, the perceived contempt for women, the casual Red-baiting. Not that Mickey gave a rat's ass. He wrote a book in three months, and spent the other nine months fishing off the beach.
The issue is their staying power. Who would you rather read, Spillane or Melville? No disrespect to MOBY-DICK, but most of us are gonna go with the more lurid and accessible.


G.K. Chesterton once remarked that any informed person knows the difference between literature and printed matter. (Chesterton, of course, wrote the Father Brown mysteries, so you couldn't call him a snob.) Genre writing - gothics, Westerns, thrillers, SF and fantasy - has for a long time been condescended to. So have novels themselves, for that matter. Early on, they were thought of as unserious, books for women, who were frivolous by nature. Maybe it's the comfort zone. There's a shapeliness to fiction, unlike life, say. Fiction of itself is a construct, a pattern, a design. Life is messy, and unresolved. Stories are rounded and complete, and usually have a satisfying punchline, mystery stories in particular. I don't think of this as a weakness. There's something to be said for the familiar. That doesn't mean it's paint-by-numbers, or unoriginal. You don't let it get stale. You write faster and smarter. You don't settle for less, although sometimes less is more. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


We'll leave the last word with Spillane. (Spoiler ahead.) I, THE JURY ends with Mike Hammer and the killer alone. They have a sexual history together. She tries working her wiles on him yet again. Hammer isn't having any. He shoots her in the belly. She sinks to her knees. "How could you?" she asks him tearfully, holding in her stomach, blood leaking through her fingers.

Mike looks down at her. "It was easy," he says.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

30 November 2014

The First Female Detective

by Louis Willis

In my August post, “An Homage To Poe,” I discussed Andrew Forrester (pen name of J. Redding Ware) and his short story “Arrested On Suspicion.” I also mentioned The Female Detective, a collection of stories that he supposedly edited. I couldn’t find the book on Project Gutenberg. I found and downloaded it from Google Play. Because I couldn’t increase the small text in the scanned edition, I bought a print edition (released in 2012). The Female Detective was originally published in 1864.   
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of The Female Detective, Mike Ashley accepts Forrester as the author of the stories, though the scanned edition shows him as the editor. When  the book was published, there were no women detectives, either private or police, in Britain. It would be 50 years before women detectives appeared. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Pinkerton agency employed a woman detective in 1856, and the first policewoman appeared in 1908 in Portland, Oregon.
However, women as amateur detectives had appeared in stories prior to 1864, but “These works...involved women who, by circumstance, were forced to investigate matters.” According to Ashley, THE FEMALE DETECTIVE features the first professional woman detective: "Whether inspired by real events or entirely fictional it is clear that the mysterious 'G' is first and foremost the pioneering female detective.” 

G, as the police refer to her (she calls herself Gladden), is retired from the detecting business and was wise enough to allow a “literary editor” to revise her manuscript. G wrote the “book to help show, by my experience, that the detective has some demand upon the gratitude of society.”
The first case in the collection, “Tenant For Life,” is about a five year old inheritance fraud that G feels she must expose. Her round-about way of telling the story at first annoyed me until I accepted that she, like many of us old folks, likes to talk. She considers herself “a good talking companion, and “women are in the habit of talking scandal, with me for a hearer, within three hours of my making their acquaintance."
From a cabman and his wife, she learns the story of how, five years earlier,  the cabman bought a baby from a poor woman who appeared to be in distress. Shortly after the transaction, a lady ran after him looking for a woman with a baby and hears the baby crying in the cab. She offered him thirty pounds and he sold the baby to her. After hearing the story, G suspected the lady wanted to substitute the child for one who had died and that possibly an inheritance fraud was involved. She feels it is her duty to “deal out justice” and see that the property is return to the rightful owner, if it is in fact an inheritance fraud. 
I like the story for the way in which G goes about the investigation. Researching the birth and death records of the village where the cabman had sold the baby, she discovers it was born close to the same time a wealthy lady, Mrs. Shedleigh, in the village died. Armed with this information, she locates a family consisting of a five-year-old girl, her father Mr. Newton Shedleigh, and his sister Miss Shedleigh. Disguising herself as a seamstress, she gains entrance into the Shedleigh household and learns all she can about the Shedleighs. 
From her research on the law on inheritance, she learns that if the children of a husband and wife die before the wife, and she dies before the husband, he inherits her possession and becomes a “tenant for life.” If she dies without children, her property passes to her father’s brother. Her investigation of the Shedleighs leads to the dead wife’s uncle, whom she suspects is the rightful heir.
I like G even though she seems to be a meddlesome woman who interferes in other people’s lives to prove that detectives are necessary. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the remainder of her sleuthing adventures.

So long until next month when I must say goodbye.

25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries

By David Dean

Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.

English TV Policemen with authentic accents
I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.



Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!


Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.     
                   

28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?

by Stephen Ross
Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'ĂȘtre. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.

Nope.

She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

16 May 2014

In the Heart of Dark Ghost Trains

by Dixon Hill 


     We’ve mentioned NetFlix on this blog, in the past, and I recently saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, on NetFlix, which contained elements that I found applicable to writers.

     In this episode, Bourdain visited the Republic of the Congo, and traveled down part of the Congo river. On the trip, they visited a railway station, with dilapidated rolling stock and ruined rail lines.

     Frankly, it reminded me of a rail station near the Jungle Warfare School in Ghana, West Africa. When we were there, running a leadership academy for Ghana Army NCO’s, we ran some patrols that encountered the defunct rail station/junction.



     I was in Ghana for work, not photo-tourism, so I took no photographs. And, unfortunately, I was unable to find photos of that junction, but I did find some that have the same attributes found there. They might give you a good feel for the place.




     It was a hauntingly beautiful sight:  Dozens of rusting rail cars—freight cars, old passenger cars, even a lone caboose—sprouting up from green growth where “The Bush” had encroached and begun to consume them. Inside the cars: ancient antique fixtures, rusted and decaying remains that would have made a railroad enthusiast’s or antique hunter’s heart race.




     We climbed the rickety steps to the dilapidated switch tower (which looked a lot like this one below) and marveled over the huge clamp-lever manual switches (left) that had once been used to shunt trains from one line to another on the switch yard below.





   




    No trains ran through that yard at the time. The tracks weren’t just rusted; whole sections were missing. And the sections that remained boasted not only profound ruination and tall grass, but also bushes and small trees that grew up between the ties.


    Yet, back at our barracks, late at night, we sometimes heard a locomotive hauling a train of many cars at high speed down through that switch yard. Our ears would catch the rumble of steel wheels grinding against the narrow-gauge rails, the rhythmic thump and rattle of quick-rolling cars clattering down the track, sometimes a long mournful horn blast as the engineer warned people or animals to clear the way. But no trains rolled down those tracks.
   
No train crossed that overgrown, ruined switch yard. So what did we hear?

   


     The Ghanaians said, “Oh, sir, that is the ghost train. It comes at night. It is bad luck to be at the station at night, when it comes by, because then it might stop for you. This would not be a good thing.”

   






Congo’s rail line in that show looks like the one I saw in "The Bush" in Ghana, but men still work on that Congo rail line. According to a 2011 BBC report, they hadn’t been paid for over four years. But, still they worked. On a railway system with nearly no rolling stock, large sections of missing track, almost no hope of revival -- though the PRC may have come through some capital to begin reconstruction.

     Meanwhile, at a defunct research facility up-river, Bourdain found a group of volunteers maintaining the large library that had been abandoned when the facility was closed in the Sixties.

     Why work to maintain a library of old, outdated research material, virtually in the middle of nowhere, for over fifty years? Without pay? Without access to electricity? Keeping an antiquated card catalogue system in rough, but working order while trying to keep the books from mildewing into muck? Why?

     To me, the answer to both questions— Why the railroad workers keep going to work and the library volunteers continue their work — seemed to boil down to a single answer. I think it’s called hopeful persistence.

     They persist in their work, in the belief it will one day pay dividends of some kind—either to them, to their loved ones, or to some future human beings who will one day benefit from all that thankless work.

     When a writer gets a rejection, I think this hopeful persistence is a good thing to have in abundance. In fact, I suspect that’s why the men in these stories appealed to me: I felt a common bond with them. Though, hopefully, my goals are more attainable.

     Here’s wishing you an abundance of Hopeful Persistence, and a long string of acceptances that renders your persistence superfluous.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon