06 March 2018

Book ’Em, Paulie

by Paul D. Marks

A weird thing happened the other day. It’s not a unique thing. It’s not something I’ve never done before—in fact I’ve done it many times. But quite honestly I don’t do it as often as I used to (get your minds out of the gutter here).

I went to a bookstore. And it was almost a revelatory experience.

Now, I have to admit it wasn’t a quirky little independent bookstore. It was a Barnes and Noble. And it was a wonderful experience. The feel of the books. The ability to read the jacket flaps. To see books on display that I might not come across online. And while checking out the clerk had some interesting things to say about one of the books I was buying, A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window.

One of my favorite pastimes is meandering through bookstores. And I'm not a snob about it. I like both the big chain stores and the small independents. Each has strengths and weaknesses. The independents often carry a more eclectic stock or are sometimes dedicated to a single genre, such as mysteries. Their staffs are usually more knowledgeable and well read. The big box stores often have more variety and selection.

L to R: me, Naomi Hirahara, Darrell James and Rochelle Staab
 at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood
But either way, I look at going to bookstores as a social experience. Even if I say no more than "Hello" and "Thank you" to the clerk checking me out, I have a social experience with hundreds of authors and books. And that “hello” is more than I get when shopping online.

Also, on the social level I’ve met women I ended up dating at bookstores (before I was married, of course!) and have seen authors I like do signings and readings. Check out a James Ellroy event some time if you want to see insanity in motion. And I've done signings and speaking gigs at bookstores myself.

I like bookstores that stay open late. That I can run to when an urge for something in particular strikes at an odd hour—and I keep pretty odd hours. It was a place to go. A destination. Before moving out of the city proper (Los Angeles) to a more rural area, I would often hop in the car at all hours to go find a book to satisfy my addiction. But from here, everything is a trek.

Me doing a reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood
But that's getting harder and harder to do, even in the city as there are less bookstores. And yes, I also patronize Amazon, so in that sense I’m part of the problem. But I also still patronize brick and mortar bookstores when I can. And there is nothing like browsing through one, discovering new books and authors. And that’s what it’s all about: Discovery, with a capital D. Whenever I see a bookstore, I want to go in. Whenever I go in, I buy at least one or two things, hoping to help keep the stores afloat and also just cause I like books. And if you saw our house you’d know what I’m talking about. Books everywhere, including on shelves in the garage.

A scene from the movie Harry and Tonto
 where you can see Pickwick Books on Hollywood Blvd in the background
Before my mom got sick for many years, we would often go to lunch and then to a bookstore together. We’d peruse the aisles, not always the same aisles, and both of us would leave with armloads of books. That’s one of my fondest memories of her.

In the olden days, Los Angeles had a ton of bookstores. Specialty stores and general bookstores. Westwood alone (in West Los Angeles, between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, home of UCLA and the Bruins for you non-Angelinos) had a ton of bookstores. It was so much fun just walking the streets of that little neighborhood and hitting all of them, and maybe getting something to eat and going to a movie as well.

Westwood also had the Mystery Bookstore, which began life as the Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood, the West Coast branch of Otto Penzler’s famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Both places were treasures in more ways than one and I’m truly sorry that they are no more. Luckily, while in NYC last April I got to visit the original Mysterious Bookshop and it was an amazing amalgam of mystery books. I can’t wait to go back.

Unfortunately, all those Westwood bookstores are gone now.

Other specialty stores that are still with us include, Larry Edmunds for film and TV books and Samuel French that specializes in theatre books.
Pickwick Books in Hollywood 

Back in the day, on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and definitely worth the trip, was Pickwick Books, three stories of book lovers’ delights. And way back in the day, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Faulkner, Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and many other celebs would haunt this place. Though I’m sure F. Scott wished he hadn’t one time. He went into the store and asked if they had The Great Gatsby by one F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk told him, “We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs [where used books, bargains and the like were kept].” The clerk later said, “I didn’t even recognize him and it’s been making me sick ever since. Especially since he died shortly after that. Another customer who knew him told me my not recognizing him and thinking he was dead had a catastrophic effect on him.”

There were also used book stores (and still are). Down in Long Beach was Acres of Books, a mere 12,000-square-feet. I went there several times but it was a bit of a drive. Closer to home and one of my faves was Book City on Hollywood Boulevard. Partly because of the books and partly because they had one of my favorite pix of the Beatles outside (see pic). They would order hard to find books for me and always came through. And in West Hollywood was the very independent George Sand Books. A small store that held a lot of readings. And even as I put the polish on this piece another one bites the dust: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-caravan-last-chapter-20180301-htmlstory.html 

Book City in Hollywood
Even most of the mall bookstores are gone. Dalton’s and Walden. And Crown Books. It was always good when I had to go to a mall for one reason or another to be able to duck into a bookstore and pick up something.

There’s still bookstores, of course, though maybe not as many. But hopefully things will shake out and people will want the human and tactile experience of going to bookstores.

Small World Books in Venice Beach
I was thinking about including a list of now-gone bookstores, but for many of you, especially outside of LA it wouldn’t really mean anything. Suffice to say there’s a ton of them. But there’s also a bunch (both new and used bookstores) still around, so if you’re in LA you might want to check them out. But remember L.A. is very spread out and even though some places might seem close to one another they might not be. And if I’ve left any off this list, I’m sorry, it’s not intentional:

$10 or Less Bookstore – Tampa Ave., Northridge
Angel City Books and Records – Pier Avenue, Santa Monica
Barnes and Noble – various locations
Book Soup – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
BookMonster – Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
Books on the Boulevard – Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks
Bookstar – Ventura Blvd, Studio City (owned by B&N)
Chevalier Books – Larchmont Avenue, Hancock Park/Los Angeles
Eso Won Books – Degnan Avenue, Leimert Park (Los Angeles)
Gatsby Books – Spring Street, Long Beach
Iliad Bookshop, The – Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood (near Universal Studios)
Larry Edmund’s – Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood
Last Bookstore, The – Spring Street, downtown L.A.
Mysterious Galaxy – Balboa Avenue, San Diego
Mystery Ink Bookstore – Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
Mystery Pier Books – Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
Open Book, The – Soledad Canyon, Canyon Country/Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County)
Pop-Hop Bookstore, The – York Boulevard, Highland Park (Los Angeles)
Samuel French – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Skylight Books – Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz (near Hollywood)
Small World Books – Ocean Front Walk/the Venice Boardwalk, Venice Beach
Vroman’s – Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

So, tell us about your city’s bookstores (now and then) and your favorites.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

I’m happy to say that my story “There’s An Alligator in My Purse” has been selected for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology, Sunny Places, Shady People, edited by Greg Herren. I’m pleased to be included with fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and John Floyd.


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com





05 March 2018

Misadventures

by Dale C. Andrews                                                 
 

[A] pastiche is a serious and sincere imitation in the exact manner of the original author.  

    --  Ellery Queen
        The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes  (1944)   

We have been using the word "pastiche" for decades, at least since Ellery Queen's The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of such stories, was published in 1944.  

     --  Chris Redmond 
          "You Say Fanfic, I Say Pastiche -- Is  there a
           Difference?” (2015) 

       This week (I am happy to announce) marks the culmination of a project that has kept me fairly busy for a good bit of the last year -- the publication of The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, co-edited by Josh Pachter and me, Dale Andrews. The anthology collects, for the first time, 16 stories, written over the course of some 70 years. The stories are “misadventures,” that is, pastiches, parodies and other homages, all inspired by author/detective Ellery Queen. For Josh and me putting together this collection has been a work of love. And it has also been a project that has been, well . . a long time coming.   

       Many of you may remember from previous SleuthSayer articles that Ellery occupies a particularly warm spot in my writing heart. Over the years I’ve written three Ellery Queen pastiches that have graced the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I’ve written numerous articles on Ellery and his exploits that have appeared on SleuthSayers. While some of the backstory to The Misadventures of Ellery Queen predates SleuthSayers, the recent story of how the collection came into being can be traced through various footprints throughout the history of this website.   

     Books collecting “misadventure,” that is, anthologies that carry forth the exploits of an established character but in stories penned by other authors, have a long pedigree. The best examples of misadventures are the many stories and anthologies offering up new Sherlock Holmes stories written outside of the established Arthur Conan Doyle canon. And the first collection of such stories was The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by none other than -- Ellery Queen in 1944. (The collection was quickly withdrawn from the public following a copyright challenge from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. Luckily for all of us the collection is now once again readily available.) 

       It was only natural that a fan of Ellery Queen who has also written new Ellery Queen adventures (that would be me!) would reasonably be expected to ponder why the stories not originally drafted by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee but nonetheless featuring their detective creation Ellery have not been previously collected. EQ pastiches and parodies are not as numerous as those featuring Sherlock Holmes, but nevertheless many have popped up with some regularity since at least 1947, when Thomas Narcejac wrote (in French) Le Mystere de ballons rouge featuring Ellery, and the inspector. Since then Jon L. Breen, Francis Nevins, Edward D. Hoch and a host of others, both famous and lesser known, have also contributed Ellery Queen stories. So wouldn’t an Ellery Queen “misadventures” anthology make some sense?   

The Japanese Misadventures
     That was precisely the question I pondered in one of my earliest SleuthSayers articles, “Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun,” which posted on October 25, 2011. At the time the article was written I had just received a request to allow my first EQ pastiche, “The Book Case,” written in collaboration with my good friend Kurt Sercu, proprietor of Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction, to appear in exactly such an anthology. That volume, also entitled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen was published in 2012. But, as that earlier SleuthSayers post explains, the book, edited by Iiki Yusan, who also heads up the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan, was intended for the Japanese market and the stories it collects have been translated into Japanese. All of this is explained (and lamented) in that earlier article. Even back then, as I indicated in a response to a comment, I was ruminating over the possibility of an English language Misadventures anthology.   

       From 2012 on my author’s copy of the Japanese Misadventures just sat there on my own book case -- staring at me accusingly as nothing happened and the years slipped by. Since I don’t read Japanese about the only thing I could meaningfully ponder in Iiki Yusan’s Misadventures was the list of contributing authors, which appeared in English at the back of the book. The list included the likes of Francis Nevins, Jon Breen, Ed Hoch, and even me. 

        Also a guy named Josh Pachter.   

       Josh Pachter? Back in 2011 when I wrote that first SleuthSayers column the name meant nothing to me.   

       Josh, it turned out, has written many mystery stories during a career of almost fifty years -- including several homages featuring a character by the name of E.Q. Griffen. The reason I was unfamiliar with  these stories is the same reason that I had concluded that we needed a collection of Ellery’s misadventures -- Josh’s Ellery Queen homages were nearly impossible to find. Like almost all EQ pastiches, parodies and homages they were published originally in issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and that had occurred many years ago. As a practical matter those magazine issues were unavailable to the vast majority of the reading public. But even given this, I began to hear more and more about Josh, including the fact that he lived not all that far away from me, outside of Washington, D.C. in the Virginia suburbs.   

       So let's skip a few years and eventually alight in yet another SleuthSayers article.   

       In the summer of 2015 I received an email from my friend Francis (Mike) Nevins informing me that he would be traveling through Washington, D.C. that September. I immediately offered up our guest room, and Mike accepted. 

        Mike Nevins, as many of you will know, is an emeritus professor at St. Louis University Law School, a preeminent Ellery Queen scholar and the author of many short stories and books, including two seminal biographical works chronicling the lives and works of the two cousins who were Ellery Queen -- Fred Dannay and Manfred B. Lee: Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974) and the more recent Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013). Mike’s 2013 book was, in fact, reviewed by me right here on SleuthSayers in January of 2013.   

       Mike is also the author of one of the finest Ellery Queen pastiches ever written -- “Open Letter to Survivors.”   

       When Mike accepted my invitation by return email he told me that he would really like to get together with an old friend during his D.C. stay. Another author. Named Josh Pachter. As I said, by then I knew who Josh was. Mike and I contacted Josh by email and dinner was scheduled for a September evening in the backyard of my home. The dinner (you guessed it) was the subject of my SleuthSayers article of September 27, 2015.    

Josh, Mike and me in the backyard. 
(Animation courtesy of Google!)
     As we chatted that evening it turned out that I was not the only one who had contemplated a collection of Ellery Queen misadventures. Josh’s first EQMM story -- that E.Q. Griffen homage -- was published in EQMM when he was just 16 years old, at a time when Frederic Dannay was still editor-in-chief of the magazine. Josh had thereafter become close friends with Dannay and had even broached the possibility of exactly such a volume with him. But nothing came of it.   

       It didn’t take long for the gears to begin to mesh. Maybe each of us thought. Just maybe working together we could actually do this.   

       And, to make a longer story short, we did! The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which we compiled over the course of almost a year, has one story by each of us -- “The Book Case” for me; “E.Q. Griffen Earns his Name” for Josh. The other 14 stories are by other authors.  We had a lot of stories to choose from, and the final volume differs in many respects from the Japanese Misadventures anthology. Our book includes the first ever English translation of that 1947 Thomas Narcejac pastiche “The Mystery of the Red Balloons,” as well as Mike Nevin’s “Open Letter to Survivors.” Readers will also find Jon Breen’s pastiche “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” and a particularly sneaky pastiche by Ed Hoch, which spent most of its literary life masquerading as an Ellery Queen-authored story . There are stories by Lawrence Block. William Brittain, James Holding and others. And the book also includes what is probably the most recent Queen homage (a sort of pastiche with it’s own twist) Edgar winner Joe Goodrich’s “The Ten-Cent Murder.” All of those, and quite a few others by authors famous and authors obscure share one thing in comon --  each was inspired by Ellery.   

       Josh and I are particularly pleased with the final product shaped by our publisher, Wildside Press, which has made the collection available in hard covertrade paperback, and Kindle editions.  

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
Picture courtesy of "Ellery Queen -- A website on Deduction"
       Choosing the stories, writing  introductions, and otherwise putting this volume together has been a joy for Josh and me for many reasons. Perhaps the greatest joy is mirrored in an observation by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM.  In these Misadventures, she has written, “Ellery Queen lives again.” That's what we were hoping for.   Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen observed in their introduction to that 1944 Sherlock Holmes Misadventure anthology that pastiches and parodies are "the next best thing to new stories."  

       And that was always what we wanted most to accomplish -- bringing some of the many adventures of Ellery Queen written by authors other than Dannay and Lee together in one volume.  We hope that readers will enjoy diving into these alternative adventures as much as we have enjoyed collecting them.

       One final note -- in addition to availability on-line, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen will also be on sale at the Malice Domestic convention at the end of April.  And Josh and I will both be there.  Just in case anyone might want . . . uhh . . . a signed copy?


04 March 2018

The Left Hand of Leonard

by R.T. Lawton


AHMM March/April 2018 cover
Con schemes have been going on since the serpent in the Garden of Eden sweet-talked Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.

"Come on, baby, just one bite. You know you want to. It'll make you smarter, prettier and it'll taste better than anything you've ever had." Or something like that. Choose your own words.

From that time forward,  according to the Bible, innocence was lost. Man, and woman, then came up with various ploys to manipulate other people into parting with their wealth, possessions or other coveted objects. In the last few years, you personally have likely been warned about many of the recent scams and probably even been approached by a scammer or three. But by now, you're too smart to fall for those types of ploys. Aren't you? Right, but all a scammer has to do is find your soft spot.

So, let's go back several centuries and see what was happening then. A religious fervor had swept all of Europe. The Crusades became the rage, with kings, knights, nobles, soldiers, monks, peasants and even young children hitting the road to the Middle East in an attempt to save the Holy Land for Christianity.

Over time, some of those pilgrims returned home with wondrous tales of strange sights in foreign lands. Many of these survivors had visited places referenced in the Bible, places that most stay-at-home people knew about only from worship services by their local religious leaders. Only now, with these returning pilgrims to speak first hand of what they'd seen, the places became real to the listener, no longer just place names in a book or a sermon. Along with these returned pilgrims came religious relics from the Holy Land. A bit of bones from some saint, a piece of wood from a coffin or cross, all alleged to have been from a particular person or place referenced in the Bible. Churches and monasteries began to purchase or otherwise acquire these holy relics. The fame of these religious organizations grew according to the status of the relics they had obtained. Competition grew fierce, to include the stealing of relics from their owners.

NOTE: King Louis IX of France himself purchased some of these relics from Baldwin the Second, then emperor of Constantinople, for the price of 130,000 livres. Actually, the money was paid to the Venetians who were holding the Passion Relics as collateral for cash they had loaned to Baldwin. In any case, King Louis received the relics at Paris in August 1239 where he first housed them in a building known as Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel). One of the items was alleged to be the Crown of Thorns (now lodged in Notre Dame Cathedral). In 1246, Louis added alleged fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance to his collection.

Now, back to those returning pilgrims. If a knight or soldier returning alone (not with his lord and master) hadn't plundered, then he probably came home broke. Food and travel to get there cost money. Who's to say a little piece of sheep bone or a sliver of ancient wood to display during a dramatic tale wouldn't bolster a good story about the Holy Land. Make the telling seem more real. Might be good for a meal and a cup of wine from the listening audience. And then, miracle of miracles, what if some stay-at-home nobleman or church leader desired to purchase that now "holy relic." The scam played out.

St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France
This brings us to "The Left Hand of Leonard," 6th in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, AHMM March/April 2018 issue.

Our young-orphan, inept-pickpocket protagonist has been summoned by the leader of their criminal enclave to go south with two of the leader's henchmen to steal some of the bones of Saint Leonard from a church. The bones, alleged to have certain medicinal powers, are to be sold to a nobleman in order to heal his wife. The two henchmen and the young orphan travel to southern France, where under the cover of darkness, they enter the church. Unbeknownst to them, a clever con has already been set in motion. For the rest of the action and the ending, you'll have to read the story.

NOTE: Saint Leonard, the patron of imprisoned people (to include political prisoners, prisoners of war and Crusaders captured by the Muslims), women in labor and horses, died November 6, 559 A.D. His first claim to real fame came from the power of his prayers which saved the wife and child of a Frankish nobleman during a premature birth. In return, he was granted a plot of land where a town and a church were later built. After his death, his bones ended up in St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France. Here's a real saint with real bones, pretty much accounted for through the centuries.

Thus was a home grown saint found and used for a fictitious story. The historical backgrounds meshed and were too good for me to pass up.

SIDE NOTE: Since we're talking about religious relics, here's an interesting situation for those of you watching the Knightfall series currently on television. It seems that in 2014, two Spanish researchers claimed to have found the Holy Grail inside another object in a church in the town of Leon in northern Spain. The cup has been analyzed as having been made in about the appropriate time period, however there is no direct line on its early history. When you look at the photo and see the rich materials used to make and decorate the cup, you have to wonder who the rich patron was who donated this chalice for the Last Supper, but then a richly jeweled chalice was probably more preferable to the religious tastes of the upper classes in the earlier centuries than an everyday clay pottered cup would have been. You are now left to draw your own conclusions.


03 March 2018

Let's Hear It for Heroines


by John M. Floyd



There's been a lot of talk lately about strong female characters, both in movies and books. A recent USA Today article by Maria Puente says the number of movies with female leads dropped off a bit last year, but I think it's significant that the three top-grossing films of 2017--Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, and Beauty and the Beast--did have female leads. (For what it's worth, I think I'm the only person in America who liked the live-action remake of Cinderella more than that of Beauty and the Beast.) Anyhow, as a male writer, reader, and viewer, I've decided to list some of my favorite movies and novels with female protagonists.

First, the movies. And please note: In the cases of shared male/female leads, I've tried to choose only those movies that I thought focused more on the female protagonist than the male, which excluded dozens of equal-attention-to-the-guy-and-gal favorites like Bonnie and ClydeWitnessDouble IndemnityBody HeatSleepless in SeattleWhen Harry Met SallyAn Officer and a Gentleman, etc.

The ones I enjoyed most are listed at the top, in each very loose category:


Adventure

Romancing the Stone -- Kathleen Turner
Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Daisy Ridley
The Hunger Games -- Jennifer Lawrence
Kill Bill (1 and 2) -- Uma Thurman
Gravity -- Sandra Bullock
Wonder Woman -- Gal Godot
The River Wild -- Meryl Streep
King Kong (2009 version) -- Naomi Watts

Comedy

Amelie -- Audrey Tautou
Sixteen Candles -- Molly Ringwald
Ghost World -- Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
9 to 5 -- Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton
Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone
The Devil Wears Prada -- Anne Hathaway
Miss Congeniality -- Sandra Bullock
Private Benjamin -- Goldie Hawn

Drama

To Kill a Mocklingbird -- Mary Badham
Out of Africa -- Meryl Streep
Gone With the Wind -- Vivien Leigh
Hidden Figures -- Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Music of the Heart -- Meryl Streep
The Help -- Emma Stone
Juno -- Ellen Page
Winter's Bone -- Jennifer Lawrence

(I avoided listing some of the great "message movies" like Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, and Silkwood. Besides, how many times should Meriyl Streep's name appear in any one list?)

Musical

Mary Poppins -- Julie Andrews
Calamity Jane -- Doris Day
The Sound of Music -- Julie Andrews
My Fair Lady -- Audrey Hepburn
The King and I -- Deborah Kerr
Annie -- Aileen Quinn
Flashdance -- Jennifer Beals
Funny Girl -- Barbra Streisand

Mystery/Crime

The Silence of the Lambs -- Jodie Foster
Fargo -- Frances McDormand
Wait Until Dark -- Audrey Hepburn
Jackie Brown -- Pam Grier
The Long Kiss Goodnight -- Geena Davis
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011 version) -- Rooney Mara
The Brave One -- Jodie Foster
Thelma and Louise -- Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis

Romance/Romantic Comedy

While You Were Sleeping -- Sandra Bullock
Working Girl -- Melanie Griffith
Sense and Sensibility -- Emma Thompson
Muriel's Wedding -- Toni Colette
Enchanted -- Amy Adams
Sweet Home Alabama -- Reese Witherspoon
My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- Nia Vardalos
Peggy Sue Got Married -- Kathleen Turner

SF/Fantasy/Horror

Aliens -- Sigourney Weaver
Psycho -- Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
The Village -- Bryce Dallas Howard
The Terminator -- Linda Hamilton
Cat People -- (1982 version) -- Nastassja Kinski
Contact -- Jodie Foster
The Birds -- Tippi Hedren
Halloween -- Jamie Lee Curtis

Western (these were harder)

Cat Ballou -- Jane Fonda
The Homesman -- Hilary Swank
True Grit (2010 version) -- Hailee Seinfeld
Meek's Cutoff -- Michelle Williams
The Missing -- Cate Blanchett
Cold Mountain -- Nicole Kidman
The Quick and the Dead (1995 version) -- Sharon Stone
Hannie Caulder -- Raquel Welch




And here are some of my favorite novels with primarily female protagonists--again with what I consider to be the best listed first:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips
Artemis, Andy Weir
The Hunger Games -- Suzanne Collins
Sunset and Sawdust -- Joe R. Lansdale
Demolition Angel -- Robert Crais
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Hannibal, Thomas Harris
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Blind Descent, Nevada Barr
True Grit, Charles Portis
The Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
The Fifth Wave, Rick Yancey
Goldeline, James Cajoleas
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King
Divergent, Veronica Roth

(The only surprising thing I found after choosing these twenty novels is that ten were written by women and ten by men.)



Again, this is my opinion only, which won't matter much to anyone beyond my home-office door. And I realize there are many, many more fine candidates for heroine-addiction, on both the page and the screen. These are just the ones I remember most.

What are some of your picks of books and movies with female leads? My Amazon wish-list and my Netflix queue await your recommendations.

Meanwhile, picture Sigourney Weaver saying this, in the original Alien, back in 1979: "This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."

That still gives me goosebumps.




02 March 2018

Stories to Novels: Reading the Complete Continental Op

By Art Taylor

Over the last couple of months, I've been reading aloud to my wife Tara the stories in The Big Book of the Continental Op, the first print collection ever of all of Dashiell Hammett's stories featuring the unnamed detective. We've read fifteen of them so far, and as I write this, we're about three-quarters through the novelette "The Whosis Kid"—and on the edge of our seat each time someone new comes through the apartment door with pistol(s) in hand! (The room's getting crowded now, with the Op and five other people all vying for space to maneuver.)

Our readings stem in part from a New Year's resolution to read the whole collection this year—rereading stories in some cases—and the title doesn't lie, it's a big book, and it's a mammoth achievement too, thanks to the hard work of editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter. But I've been interested in Hammett and particularly the Op stories long before, even having taught some of them in my classes at George Mason University, and I was thrilled with the earlier gathering of these stories in an e-book series.  (See my 2016  SleuthSayers interview with Rivett on that project.)

I've read some of these stories before, as I mentioned, but some—even some well-known titles—I'm enjoying for the first time. And what's struck me at several times is how Hammett used the short stories as a testing ground for ideas, characters, and scenes.

I've said before—and will argue again (and again)—that short stories can't fully be apprenticeships for writing novels. While writing short stories can help writers learn some of the fundamentals of crafting characters and shaping scenes and sharpening dialogue, etc. But the short story and the novel are two vastly different forms, with different requirements and different challenges. The leap isn't entirely a natural one, and I've talked to as many fine novelists who say they've never been able to write a short story as I have with fine short story writers who've struggled to complete a novel.

That said, however, I've also written before about Hammett's own transition from short story to novel—with his first two novels loosely put together as novels in stories with the seams smartly covered up. Both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse appeared as serialized stories in Black Mask, each installment with its own narrative arc, even as the fuller narrative arc emerged only in the connecting of the story cycles. I've written about this before too; see my essay here for the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog. And one of the things I'm most excited about in the new Big Book of the Continental Op is seeing those story cycles in their original forms: "The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted—Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder," which became Red Harvest; and "Black Lives," "The Hollow Temple," "Black Honeymoon," and "Black Riddle," which became The Dain Curse. In these cases, it's not just that Hammett used the short story as a training ground for the novel but that he used the architecture of the short story as the building block for the larger structures.

Beyond those specific stories and those specific novels, the early stories in the new collection have been opening up new perspectives on Hammett's artistic process—exciting discoveries for me, even if others have likely written on them elsewhere. Take, for example, that scene from "The Whosis Kid" I mentioned above. The Op and a woman named Inés Almad and a guy named Billie are together in her apartment; then in comes the Frenchman Edouard Maurois and a fellow with a big chin (appropriately called Big Chin); and at our last stopping point the title character steps in, a black revolver in each hand. What everyone's doing there—well, neither the reader nor the Op know at this point in the story, but the Frenchman seems to be looking for something that Inés is supposed to have—and that she claims she doesn't but the title character does. And all through the scene, I couldn't avoid thinking about Sam Spade, Bridgid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Casper Guttman, and Wilmer Cook all crowding together in that pivotal scene in The Maltese Falcon. (Again, we haven't finished "The Whosis Kid" yet, but I'm thinking things don't look good for Inés here.)

Similarly, reading "The Golden Horseshoe," about the Op's hunt for missing Norman Ashcraft, who left his wife and disappeared, how could I not think of the famous Flitcraft Parable—and not just because of the echo between the names. That story from The Maltese Falcon—a digression that's been discussed and argued over endlessly—gets an earlier treatment here as a case itself, and it's fascinating.

Elsewhere, in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," Porky Grout (what a name!) seems a prototype for  characters in later stories and novels. (On a side note, I just read this New York Times review of the 1974 collection The Continental Op, which focuses on Porky Grout—and I disagree with the take here. In recent conversation, Peter Rozovsky mentioned Porky and talked about the story's moments of real emotion, a glimpse inside the Op's feeling—so true.)

And then beyond plot and scene and character, I've also found myself marveling as seeing Hammett's style evolving—and his boldness about his writing. Even in a very early story, "The Tenth Clew," he includes a chapter that seems more impressionistic, certainly less plot-driven, with the Op floating in San Francisco Bay, horns blowing around him, swimming, trying to survive. It's a marvelous passage, and one that another writer might simply have skipped (or another editor might simply have cut).

In short, reading The Big Book of the Continental Op has delivered not just some fine, fun stories, but also significant glimpses both into the evolution of an artist and into the process of artistic creation. Still many stories to go—and the rest of the year to read them!—and looking forward to them all.

BIT OF BSP


Since my last post here, Malice Domestic has updated its website with links to all of the finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. You can find them all here.

So pleased again to have my story "A Necessary Ingredient" among the mix here—and shout-outs again to two fellow SleuthSayers: Barb Goffman, my fellow Agatha nominee, and Paul D. Marks, co-editor of Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, where "A Necessary Ingredient" first appeared.




01 March 2018

The Dark Keeps Rising

by Eve Fisher

It's March 1st, and there's been more than one trouble in River City, a/k/a the United States.  The Florida Parkland school shooting on 2/14/18 left 17 dead.  Back on 1/23/18, Benton Kentucky, a school shooting left 2 dead, 17 injured.  Back 11/7/17, Sutherland Springs, TX, a church shooting killed 26 people.   So much safety.  So much safety...

Many people long for a return to the innocent heartland of America - family farms, playing children, hardworking parents, country cooking, and family values!  And that's all true, along with feedlots (nothing like the smell of cow poop in the morning), lakes that are stinking green with phosphorus fertilizer runoff, and, sadly, home-grown terrorists:

Monson_mugscopy_WEB

The above five people were all arrested in Willmar, MN (pop. 19,610). Police search yielded methamphetamine, pills, cocaine, numerous firearms and ammunition. The firearms recovered included handguns, rifles, shotguns, and submachine guns. They also found homemade silencers, night vision goggles, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and numerous items believed to be explosive. But wait, there's more! They also found books on incendiary devices and - my favorite item - a strap-on fake penis called a “Whizzinator,” sometimes used to evade drug tests. And yes, there was a concrete bunker and at least one minor child living in the home.  (Twin Cities Pioneer Press)

My favorite local blogger, Cory Heidelberger, looked these up people on-line, and found that Thomas Quimby of Willmar likes to express his Alex Jones, anti-Muslim, White Pride beliefs while Chad Monson likes to post lots of cute Minions memes about killing people.  (Dakota Free Press)  And they weren't fooling:  According to the criminal complaint, Monson had told someone that he had the addresses of a judge, a prosecutor and another attorney and intended to use explosives in or near their homes and vehicles.

Don't you feel safer knowing that this guy - THESE guys - had an arsenal?

636505918771903642 ARTIS KATTENBERG.JPGMeanwhile, our Willmar group isn't the only crazy around.  Meet Artis Kattenberg of Brandon, SD.  She and her son went to a church in northwest Iowa, where fellow churchgoers got nervous when they realized that the son was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun into the sanctuary.  Eventually a Rock Valley, IA police officer called her to ask about it, and she told him that her son was an "Ethan Bot" (video game, Call of Duty Infinite Warfare), and that "he'd have to get a hold of the secretary of defense."  There was also an intense encounter between the Kattenbergs and church elders, who asked them to no longer attend church.  A few weeks later, two of the church members were victims of drive-by shootings.  (No one was hurt.)
Some of the stash.
Courtesy Minnehaha County Sheriff's Office

At that point, the Iowa authorities contacted the Brandon Police, who paid a call on the Kattenbergs. They found a bunker, with 80 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Some of the weapons were fully automatic. They also had tactile vests, and high end optics that included nightvision, infrared, thermal optics. Captain Jason Gearman of Minnehaha County said, "They've been purchasing $3,000- $7,000 worth of weapons pretty, pretty continuously for every three to five months."  

Now, being the naive young thing I am, I would have thought - I would have hoped - that buying that many guns and ammo every 3-5 months would have registered, somewhere, that something might be wrong...  But no....  (I'm going to get into the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act in a minute.)  My husband just asked, "where did they get all this money?" and so far no one's answered THAT question, either. 

Anyway, all were purchased legally, locally, at Gary's Gun Shop and Scheels.  The employees remembered the Kattenbergs, because they talked about being spies, hating the government, having microchips in their brain, and, of course, the fact that the son was actually a warrior from a video game.  You know, the usual stuff.  BTW, the guns were in the 16 year old's name.   (Argus Leader)  

And, of course, the neighbors never saw anything.  "They were inside most of the time. The only time we ever saw them was their truck coming in and out of the driveway."  

In case you're wondering, the charges against the Kattenbergs are: 2nd Degree Criminal Mischief/Aiding and Abetting, a Class “D” Felony: Reckless Use of a Firearm/Aiding and Abetting, an Aggravated Misdemeanor; and Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, a Misdemeanor. Her juvenile son is charged with: 2nd Degree Criminal Mischief; and Reckless Use of a Firearm.    (Kiwaradio)  That's it.  That's all they are charged with.  

Don't you feel safer knowing these two had a bunker, loaded with guns and ammo?

How long, O Lord, how long?  


Meanwhile, if you need an AR-15 to hunt with, I hate to think what you're hunting.  And other Armalite manufactures.  Did you know that the AR-15 and AR-18 were the favorite weapons of the IRA during the Irish Troubles?  They even had their own song - "Little Armalite".  Believe me, if the Irish can disarm, or "decomission" as they called it, which they did in 2005, anyone can do it, even the United States of America.  (See "IRA Arms Decommissioned".)

Supreme Court Building
Anyway, to all those who claim that AR-15s are their constitutional right - well, they're wrong.  On November 27, 2017 SCOTUS refused to challenge Maryland's ban on assault weapons and assault-style weapons that included AR-15s, which means that SCOTUS agrees that none of these are covered by the 2nd Amendment.  (Reuters)  Nor does SCOTUS see open-carry as a 2nd Amendment right.  Not only that, but back when District of Columbia v. Heller gave individuals the constitutional right to own private handguns, Antonin Scalia, perhaps the least liberal justice to ever serve, said:
"Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms... 
We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons...."  (Heller)
Sorry, guys.  No, I'll take that back.  I'm not sorry at all.  I'm ecstatic that they're not a 2nd Amendment right.  I just wish they were also illegal.  They were, you know: The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, banned the manufacture, use, possession and import of 19 types of assault weapons, including AK-47s and Uzis. It expired in 2004. The NRA has since successfully kept it from being re-enacted.

Can we talk about how the NRA is registered as a non-profit organization?
Can we talk about how Wayne LaPierre makes $5 million a year?
Can we talk about how much lobbying the NRA is doing, have done, and plans to do?
Can we talk about the way the NRA sends out letters to politicians and judges, asking them to provide - in writing - their stance on guns and the 2nd Amendment, saying, "If you choose not to return a position letter, you may be assigned a “?” rating, which can be interpreted by our membership as indifference, if not outright hostility, toward Second-Amendment related issues"?  (Snopes)
Can we talk about how this is extortion, at the very least, and should be 1000% illegal?

Meanwhile, let's talk about gun laws.  Some people will tell you that we have plenty of gun laws, they just need to be enforced.  Yes, we do and they do, but the laws have also been either gutted or "allowed to expire" (See the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act above).

(1) There are laws that stop convicted domestic abusers from getting guns are strictly enforced.  BUT - there are loopholes!  Oh, let me count the loopholes.
First, stalkers, boyfriends get a pass (you have to have been "intimate" with the victim).
Second, there's no clause about taking the weapons they already have away from them, so if they're already armed, they stay armed.
Third, the law doesn't apply during the temporary restraining order period, which is when most women get killed by their abuser.
Fourth, there's the HUGE problem that military, police departments, and other groups somehow keep "slipping up" on registering people. The convicted domestic abuser who killed 26 people at a Texas church back in November 7, 2017 never had his name put into the national database that would have barred him from buying weapons.  The Air Force - which had courtmartialed him for fracturing his baby stepson's skull - failed to enter it.  And, after the furor about that, the Air Force realized it "forgot" to enter almost 5,000 names of people convicted of domestic violence.  (NBC News)

Looking through microfilm at the
National Tracing Center - GQ 
(2) There's a national registry of guns, and that should always be checked!  Oh, my dears, there isn't one.  The 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act bans states or federal agencies from building gun registries. That's right, the National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data. What they have is on microfilm, without any index. Nada. (Seriously, read the GQ Article, "Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns", and meet Charlie. "They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name."  Pretty effing useless, isn't it?

(3) Enforce the law felons don't get guns. Except - and you knew there'd be an exception, didn't you?Exception #1:  The 1965 amendment to the federal Firearms Act of 1938 allows felons who want to own a gun the ability to apply for "relief from the disability of not being able to possess a gun." Unsurprisingly in many states (ahem, ahem) they get them!
Exception #2:  White collar felons aren't included in the ban.  And, of course, if a felon get their felony expunged, pardoned, etc., they're good to go.

(4) Make sure the mentally ill don't get guns.  Besides the argument that it's toxic rage, not mental illness, that's behind mass shootings (and I believe this about 99.9%), in order to be banned from owning a weapon, you have to be involuntarily committed - but if your stay doesn't exceed 72 hours (no matter how many times this happens), it doesn't count towards your ability to buy / own weapons.  So you could be involuntarily committed 20 times a year and, as long as you got out before 72 hours, you're good to go.  And Donald Trump himself signed an Executive Order repealing the (admittedly small) attempt Obama implemented to keep people who were getting mental illness disability from owning weapons.

(5) Background checks, background checks, background checks. We've all heard about the Brady Bill requiring background checks.  EXCEPT there's a couple of major flaws:
First Loophole:  Immediately after it passed, the NRA launched lawsuits in nine states to declare the Brady Bill unconstitutional, and finally struck gold.  In 1997, in Printz v. The United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the provision of the Brady Act that compelled state and local law enforcement officials to perform the background checks was unconstitutional, so it's on a voluntary basis. 
Second Loophole:  Gun shows and other private sales - including sales over the internet - are exempt from the Brady Bill requiring background checks and complete forms, sales records etc., since "any person may sell a firearm to an unlicensed resident of the state where they reside, as long as they do not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms".  (Wikipedia)
Third Loophole:  Background checks only work one way.  Thanks  - again - to the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, a firearms dealer can get electronic information about the purchaser, but the FBI and the ATF do not get electronic information in return to let them know what firearms are being purchased.  Or how many.  Or how often.  Which is why our local crazies Kattenbergs could purchase $3,000-$7,000 worth of firearms every three months and nobody got any red flags...

We have a lot of work to do to get sane gun laws back in this country.

And as for the idea of arming teachers...  Well, these memes say it better than I could:
Image may contain: 1 person, text  Image may contain: 1 person, text  Image result for meme teachers protect students don't get raises credit
Make that THREE deputies who froze.  Which is the point, because you don't know who'll freeze until it happens.
And the 18% is true.  See HERE
And if they arm teachers, will they have to buy the guns the way they have to buy classroom supplies? 
















Another major meme going around is that all would be well if we just restored prayer in schools.  Look, if prayer is going to do the trick, then how come that white supremacist punk shot up a black church AFTER sitting through their prayer meeting?  Or the November 7, 2017 shooting by the convicted domestic abuser in a Texas church which killed 26 people?  And don't forget the 2006 shooting in an Amish school which killed 5 Amish girls.  All of these were places of prayer.

I believe in prayer.  I do a lot of it.  But I also believe that we need ungutted regulations and laws, because the dark never stops rising, and we have to fight it all the time.

Anyway, that's the latest from South Dakota, where I WISH we were the only ones who talk like Mayberry, and act like Goodfellas while the crazy just keeps on coming.



 













28 February 2018

Heat Lightning

David Edgerley Gates


Atlanta, the Deep South, in 1948. The war changed a lot of things, but the immediate postwar world, in the U.S., was in many ways a turning back of the clock. Women in the workplace, like black guys in uniform, were wartime adjustments. The unions had been bottled up, part of the war effort, and there was no reason to let a bunch of Jews and Reds wave the Hammer-and-Sickle. Jim Crow was both custom and law, and things were gonna be the way they were before, when people knew their place. And if they forgot themselves, there were the night-riders, the Klan. Not that good people subscribe to violence, but when every Christian value is threatened with contamination, where can you turn?

All right. The obvious irony, first, that we're talking about white values. And secondly, was it in fact that bad, in the South, for black people? Well, yes. All you have to do is ask. It's a time in living memory. Equally obviously, not just in the South, either. But in a town like Atlanta, it was institutional. This is the world of Thomas Mullen's novels Darktown and Lightning Men, a world of tensions and temperament, accommodations and anxiety. A place of comforting convention and uncomfortable energies.

Some of you probably know I have a weakness for this time period, the late 1940's, and I've written a series of noir stories that take place back then. The stories involve the people and events of the time and place, and usually touch on some cultural or political ferment, the Red Scare, the mob takeover of the waterfront, running guns to Ireland or Palestine. One in particular, "Slipknot," takes a sidelong glance at race, in the context of fixing the book on a high-stakes pool game. The principals are two historical figures, rival gangsters Owney Madden, owner of the Cotton Club, and Bumpy Johnson, boss of the Harlem numbers. I have no idea whether these guys actually butted heads, back in the day, but it felt right to put them at odds. It was a way of sharpening the racial edge, to make it personal, an open grievance. And neither of them what you might call black-and-white, but equal parts charm and menace.

This is true of Thomas Mullen's books. They're about the color bar, in large degree, but one thing they're not is black-and-white. There are good people, and bad, and mostly in between, just like it is. Darktown is maybe the more traditional as a thriller, with its echoes of True Confessions, and Lightning Men less about a single criminal act than it is about a climate of violence, but both books are effectively novels of manners. You might be put in mind of Lehane or Walter Mosley, but I think the presiding godfather of the books is Chester Himes. Mullen is the more supple writer by far - which isn't to disrespect Himes, but let's be honest, he's working the same groove as Jim Thompson, it's lurid and it's unapologetically pulp - and Mullen's characters are round, not flat (E.M. Forster's usage). All the same, there's something about the weight these people carry, their mileage, their moral and physical exhaustion. This is material Himes took ownership of, and Mullen inhabits it like the weather, We all get wet in the same rain.

Don't mistake me. These books aren't dour. We're not talking Theodore Dreiser. Mullen's writing is lively and exact. He's sometimes very funny. He's got balance, he's light on his feet. And he does a nice thing with voice. The books are told with multiple POV, shifting between five or six major characters, black and white, male and female. You always know who it is, because the narrative voice rings true. The situation is lived-in. You feel your way into its physicality, and you can take the emotional temperature. You don't hang up on it, thinking, that's not a genuine black person speaking, or that's not white.

I realize I've been talking about theme, for the most part, and not giving you the flavor. Here's a cop in a bar.

  He lifted the glass, nothing but three sad memories of larger ice cubes. "I'll take another."
  When Feckless returned the full glass, it rested atop an envelope. Smith looked up at Feck, who peeled the triangle away and revealed cash stuffed inside.
  That there was a lot of money, Smith saw. "I don't do that," he said, looking Feck in the eye.
  "Pass it on to Malcolm, then. He could use it."
  "He'd be very grateful. But you can give it to him yourself." Smith stood and walked away, leaving the full glass behind him as well, and wondering what lay at the end of the road he hadn't chosen.

Not that he isn't tempted. That's the underlying tension, the spine. What lies at the end of the road you don't take? What lies at the end of the road you do? Personal character - moral character, integrity - is about what you do when the going gets tough, not when it's easy, how you behave when you don't want to disappoint yourself. It's self-respect. It's not Jiminy Cricket, or concern for appearances. This is the engine that drives everyone in the books, whether toward good ends or bad. If you've got nothing to live with but your own shame, you've got nothing left to fight for.


27 February 2018

Rejected!

Michael Bracken
by Michael Bracken

I have every rejection I’ve ever received.

All 2,552 of them.

When I began writing in the mid-1970s, conventional wisdom—whether true or not—was that a collection of rejection slips would prove beneficial were the IRS ever to audit my taxes. The very existence of the rejection slips proved I was writing with the intent to earn money and not as a hobby, even though I was operating at a loss. These days my taxable net profit on freelancing proves the point far better than my collection of rejection slips, but I can’t stop myself from collecting them.

Though today’s rejections are nowhere near as physically varied as the ones I once received through the mail, I continue to print out emailed rejections and file them with all the other rejection slips, which now fill most of a filing cabinet drawer.

JUST SAY NO

I received my first rejection slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction in September 1974, just as I began my senior year of high school, and I received my first personalized rejection—a quarter-page typewritten note with a handwritten addendum—from the editor of Multitude in May 1976, less than a year after high school graduation. I had progressed from form rejection to personalized rejection in only seven submissions.

Of course, a personalized rejection still means “no.”

The typing is mine,
the handwriting is Sam's
My goal was to collect acceptances, not rejections, so I persevered: A single rejection the first year, four the second, 34 the third, and a whopping 74 the fourth. They came in all sizes and shapes, from scraps of paper containing a simple scrawled note (Sam Merwin, Jr., rejecting a story sent to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine) to four-color full-page form rejection letters that cost more to print than I earned from many of my earliest sales.

Most rejections provided little information beyond the preprinted message. Others contained checklists where editors, by one or more strokes of the pen, identified the way or ways my story failed to engage them. Still others provided handwritten words of encouragement: “Not bad,” “Fine writing,” and “Try us again.”

O'Neil De Noux fails to recognize
the genius of my early work
The best—though they were still rejections—were the long notes and letters providing detailed reasons for rejection and providing suggestions for improvement. Sometimes, they even provided lessons on writing: Gentleman’s Companion editor Ted Newsom’s page-and-a-half letter on the value of writing transitions rather than using jump-cuts springs to mind, as do several letters from horror anthologist Charles L. Grant and several incredibly detailed, multi-page letters from Amazing Stories editor Kim Mohan. (Note: I placed two stories with Ted Newsom and one with Charles L. Grant, but I never did place one with Kim Mohan.)

And one rejection, from Mystery Street, may have been my first encounter with fellow SleuthSayer O’Neil De Noux!

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON REJECTIONS

During the 40-plus years I’ve been writing, my stories have been rejected by 71 mystery periodicals—the five that existed in the 1980s and 66 more since then—and an uncounted number of mystery anthologies, including both print and electronic publications. (Note: In “Poster Child,” my recent guest post at Something is Going to Happen, I actually name the many mystery periodicals that have come and mostly gone since I began writing short mystery fiction.)

I’m unsure if a multitude of rejections indicates when I’m having a good year or a bad year, but I received 204 rejections in 1991 (I received 84 acceptances that year). On the flip side, I received only three in 1989 (I received four acceptances that year). More recently, acceptances and rejections are near equilibrium: 39 rejections vs. 37 acceptances in 2017; 35 rejections vs. 45 acceptances in 2016; and 31 rejections vs. 42 acceptances in 2015.

Though the majority of rejections are in response to short story submissions, mixed among the many early rejections are those for articles, essays, fillers, poems, and short humor. I was shotgunning the market back then, trying anything and everything, and hoping something stuck. (And not every rejection generates a rejection slip—Woman’s World, for example, does not send rejections—so I’ve received more rejections than rejection slips.)

Rejections mess with your head. Being told no 2,552 times is quite disheartening. Some writers give up after the first few dozen. Other writers receive rejections and only become more determined. Many writers play rejectomancy, attempting to read between the lines of every rejection. (Aeryn Rudel, in his blog Rejectomancy, which I follow, attempts to decode and rank rejections into various tiers, from “Common Form Rejections” to “Higher-Tier Form Rejections.” Though most of Aeryn’s data comes from the horror, science fiction, and fantasy markets, the information he provides is both entertaining and informative.)

REJECTION-FREE IS THE WAY TO BE

Were it not for the lessons I learned from those long, detailed rejection letters, I may have become one of the many would-be writers whose shattered egos and unpublishable manuscripts litter the literary highway. Lack of ability quashed my music career and my artwork never gained traction, so I focused my creative energy on writing and, over time, began to accumulate acceptances: 1,584 of them (more than 1,200 are for short stories).

That’s one acceptance for every 1.61 rejections and, yes, I’ve kept every acceptance letter, postcard, note, and email. Those I file with hardcopies of my manuscripts and, when I get them, with copies of the actual publications.

I had a hot streak a few years back, when almost everything I wrote sold on first submission. My ego expanded exponentially, but then I realized something I should have realized long before that: If everything is selling, I’m not challenging myself; I’m taking the easy path to publication.

So, I began writing stories that stretched my abilities, either by working in unfamiliar genres or by submitting to higher-paying and more prestigious markets. The acceptance-to-rejection ratio shifted, and not in my favor. I placed a few stories, and just in time because two of my sure-sale markets ceased publication and several anthology editors with whom I worked stopped editing anthologies.

So, as I continue stretching my abilities and my stories continue facing the submission gauntlet, my rejection collection grows, taking ever more space in my filing cabinet. Luckily, so does my acceptance collection.

A trio of recently published stories survived the submission gauntlet: “Plumber’s Helper” in The Saturday Evening Post, My Stripper Past in Pulp Adventures #28, and “The Mourning Man” in the March/April Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (Note: Joining me with stories in this issue are two other SleuthSayers: R.T. Lawton and Robert Lopresti.)

26 February 2018

To Pay or Not to Play...

by Steve Liskow

A contest I used to enter regularly (It was free, see below) now sports the following headline on its web page: "Submissions for the 2017 **** Contest are closed. The 2018 contest will open on January 1, 2018." Today is February 26 and that banner was still there when I uploaded this essay.

Yesterday, I found a website for a magazine with exactly the same message. Their submission period will open "sometime after January 1, 2018."

Not encouraging...

When I was trying to break into publishing (An accurate phrase for a crime writer, right?), people urged me to enter contests. If I won, I'd catch the attention of editors and agents, and they'd take me more seriously.


But not all contests and awards are created equal. Winning a Pulitzer, an Agatha or an Edgar means something. Second runner-up in the Oblivion County Limerick Derby won't raise many eyebrows.

There are a few problems every writer encounters in writing contests--or even submitting to a magazine or anthology--but I've learned to recognize warning signs.

One is a website that's hard to navigate, or that's out of date, like the two I mentioned above. If you can't find details like a theme, length, formatting, or if there's an entry fee (more about that in a few minutes), you should look elsewhere.

Another is weird judging or criteria.
Yes, no matter how much the judges have a rubric, at some point personal preference will come into play. Every time you send something out, subjectivity is a fact of life, but it should be less crucial in a contest than for regular publication...especially if you pay an entry fee. You won't know this until it's too late, but don't make the same mistake twice.

One judge doesn't like profanity, another doesn't appreciate your humor, and a third wants more violence or a sympathetic female character. I have withdrawn stories from two anthologies (Both later published somewhere else) because I discovered the judges didn't understand their own criteria.

I added one sentence to one story to make it fit a theme, and on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high) the three judges gave me 1, 3, and 4 on how well I adhered to that theme. Not possible. 

In another contest, the sponsors sent me my scores and I saw ratings of 56, 94, and 89. Two judges loved the story and the other gave me low scores on almost every standard. The judge who gave me a 94 total only gave me a 1 (out of 5) for relative quality of the story compared to the others he or she read. Really?

I've mentioned cost a because I'm cheap. If the submission involves a reading fee, look at the prize. I won't pay $25 for a $100 prize. I enter few contests that involve reading fees anymore. There has to be a good return, meaning at least two of the following: money, exposure, prestige.

I avoid one contest because it published the deal-breaker right up front. They offered a $250 prize (not bad) with a $20 reading fee (ummm...) BUT the judges reserved the right to award no prize if they felt on entry deserved it. Nothing was said about refunding the fees.

Oops.

Yeah, I still enter a few contests, but now I need a Plan B, other places I can send a story if it doesn't win. Last summer, I sent a story to an anthology. It wasn't chosen, so I entered it in a contest with a hefty cash prize. I learned last week that it didn't win and sent it to two regular markets. I have three other places to send it if neither of those pick it up.

Prestige is nice, and so is exposure, but in the words of Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."