05 March 2024

"The Colonel"

When Sleuthsayers settled on Murder Neat, with stories set around watering holes of all kinds, I had a problem: I don't drink. I find beer, which smells so interesting, disappointing, while hard spirits bring up reminders of childhood illness.

I was susceptible to colds as a kid – possibly our drafty one room schoolhouse had some part in that – and my Scots immigrant parents were convinced of the medicinal powers of their national beverage. Rightly so, perhaps, because my mother brought Punch, our beloved parakeet, back from paralysis and near death by administering whisky and water.

In any case, the hot toddy of my childhood, whisky, hot water, lemon, and honey, served to inoculate me against a taste for alcohol save for the occasional glass of wine or cider. Glass, singular, as any more and I fall sleep.  Participation in Murder Neat, therefore, called for imagination.

Fortunately, my childhood, which clearly hampered a career as a writer of the hard drinking tough guy school, provided alternative sources of inspiration, including a couple of road houses. Yes, the same sort of isolated drinking establishments that Raymond Chandler found so inspiring in California.

These were in rural Dutchess County, N.Y., and we regularly passed the roadhouse that appears in "The Colonel" on the way to music lessons. The tavern was on a bare open stretch of state highway, fields and pastures on every side.

The dark brown, one story bungalow sat alone on top of a hill at the juncture of a county road. A lonely place, a lonely building, on the unlit roads with its lighted sign, it became The Huntsman in my story, a little nod to the fox hunting that so many of the rich estate owners loved.

The Huntsman was an odd place for a man of wealth and culture like the Colonel, who came to drink inferior spirits when he undoubtedly had better at home. But who knows what people need? I surely did not as a child in the late 40's and early 50's, though I was aware of troubled people who could not find happiness, despite possessing everything that should have made their lives good. 

But after Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we all have a better grip on post war costs. There are wounds that nothing can heal, and in the late 40's and early 50's there were a lot of veterans for whom time had not done even the smallest work. The Colonel was one of them. I recognize that now.

The tavern, that from its architecture began as an ordinary dwelling, may have been established with just such folks in mind. It was quiet and out of town and out of sight with its parking lot tucked in the back.

What ideas might come in such a place to some wounded soul? The title, Murder Neat, says it all.

04 March 2024

So an alcoholism treatment therapist walks into a bar...

I'm a lifelong writer who started talking about it at the age of seven and dreamed of becoming a bestselling novelist in my twenties. That didn't happen. So in my late thirties, when my sole published output consisted of two poems (payment in copies), I started looking around for something else meaningful to do.

I emerged from Columbia University in 1985 with a master's degree in social work and a desire to work with recovering alcoholics and their families and partners as well as the usual clinical social worker's ambition to practice as a psychotherapist, or as I prefer to call myself, a shrink. I've just come across a blog post I wrote in 2007, right before my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, came out. Titled "Recovery and Transformation," it's still spot on about why I wanted to do what many considered an oddball kind of work.

It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two drunks started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness, whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.

While I was running alcohol treatment programs—the one up in East Harlem, the one down on the Bowery, the one for women at Coney Island Hospital—I would occasionally find myself bellying up to the proverbial bar on a social evening out. I would twirl around on the bar stool, grin at the bartender, and say, "Ask me what I do for a living!"

So my reaction may not have been quite the same as that of the rest of the SleuthSayers gang when I heard that we were doing an anthology whose theme was bars. My Bruce Kohler mysteries, both the novels and the short stories, are a lot of fun. But once Bruce gets sober in the first book, they're not about bars and drinking. The challenge was to join in the fun of Murder, Neat without being unfaithful to my expert knowledge that out of control drinking is not ho ho ho hilarious, but a recurring disaster that leaves shattered lives in its wake.

To write "A Friendly Glass," I turned back to a time when I myself was young and ignorant, knew nothing about alcoholism, and did think wild drinking could be hilarious. I set my story in a fictional village in the South of France. It was loosely based on a village where I'd spent a week in 1962 and a month in 1966. I drank numerous cups of café filtre on the picturesque terrasse. I sang and played the guitar in a boîte I can't remember anything about. I made two treasured women friends who, sadly, are no longer with us, and two artist friends, a Frenchman and an Englishman, who are still my friends today, sixty years later.
The village was St Paul de Vence, then completely unspoiled, a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wound up stairs and through stone arches, surrounded by a medieval wall. Alas, it's now a tourist destination with luxury hotels and high-priced shops with plate-glass windows. It's still considered artsy, but it's more of an artfully packaged artsiness. I'm glad I didn't miss the real thing.

Oh, and the fictional murderee is based on someone I thought deserved it back in the 1960s.

03 March 2024

Music, Neat

Many SleuthSayers enjoy a music background. I’ve long known Rob’s interest in folk music dating back to the classic electric zitherphone. Our Fran Rizer, no longer with us, was an avid bluegrass fan and picker. Liz Zelvin released an album. And I gathered Brian Thornton and Steve Liskow stays active in the music scene. Turns out Eve Fisher and Chris Knopf keep up as well. And then I learned Stephen Ross pretty much operates a home recording studio.

“Stephen, Lady Ga-Ga on line 2.”

After intense cogitation, I mapped out a trailer for our first anthology based on Deborah Elliott-Upton’s book cover. I loaded up tavern sound effects– laughter, tinkling glasses, breakage, yelps and more laughter. I snagged karaoke tracks featuring Chris Stapleton, George Thorogood, and a little bit drunk Lady Antebellum. But as much as I like ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ (the song at least, thank you, Melayna), the cuts didn’t quite match the mood of the book. But I knew who could.

I put out a call and a half dozen SleuthSayers responded gleefully when I proposed a nearly impossible task– coming up with a bar song amid a time crunch. Using groundwork laid by Lopresti and Liskow, the team figured out how to pull off a global effort. Here is the result. And thank you, everyone. Here is the song, composed and sung by Rob Lopresti, instrumentals by Stephen Ross.

Murder, Neat

sung by Rob Lopresti, keyboards and percussion by Stephen Ross

Following are Rob's clever lyrics. No alcohols were unduly harmed in the making of this song.

Murder, Neat

lyrics and melody by Rob Lopresti

Come in the tavern and kindly ignore
The ax in the bar stool, the blood on the floor
You’re in no danger. Here death has no sting
For this is crime fiction and not the real thing.

There’s bourbon for burglars, and robbers get rye
Cocktail or blackmail? One vodka per spy.
Here partners may swindle and spouses might cheat
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

The cops drop a beer in their favorite saloon
Where hardboiled detectives start drinking by noon
Amateur sleuths take red herrings and Scotch
While pickpockets covet your wallet and watch.

Femme fatales ask as they sip the champagne
Does gunpowder leave an indelible stain?
A dive bar is waiting down any mean street
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the name of the book
Where convict and constable, conman and crook
Will pour you a ninety proof story of crime
To make you turn pages way past closing time.

In the back room there are gangsters today
Planning a caper to steal cabernet.
If you aren’t driving the getaway car
They’ve got pinot grigio and plenty of noir.

The mastermind villain advances the plot
And chuckles that arsenic sure hits the spot.
Each cozy village has pubs so discreet
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the book you should choose
If you like your clues well-infused with some booze
You can buy it online or in bookstores downtown
But don’t steal a copy or we’ll track you down
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

02 March 2024

Howtellums: They're All Mysteries to Me


Since we at SleuthSayers are still posting about our stories in the new Murder, Neat anthology, and since my slot has rolled around again and I've already done one post about my story here . . . I thought I'd just do a different take on it today, and talk mostly about plotting.

As you probably know, many writers and readers believe all mystery stories are whodunits. That's not correct. According to most editors and publishers, a mystery story is merely one that has a crime central to its plot, or at least includes a crime. Some even say it's a mystery story if it implies that a crime is committed. If you want a real-world example, take a look sometime at the mystery fiction section in your local bookstore: the one thing those novels have in common is that they're crime stories. They're not all whodunits.

Neither is my short story, "Bourbon and Water," in the SleuthSayers anthology. It's a crime story set mostly in a bar, which was the theme we chose for the book. (It goes a bit beyond that, but I can't say more without getting into spoilers.) 

My point is, there are other kinds of dunits. Lots of mystery stories are howdunits or whydunits. The late great Elmore Leonard, a recipient of Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award, once said in an interview that he'd never written a real mystery, or at least never a whodunit. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that in none of his novels was the villain's identity ever kept secret from the reader until the end. Even so, I think his shorts and books were--and are--great examples of the mystery genre.

Another example: Neither of the two TV series Columbo (old) and Poker Face (recent) featured whodunits. Or howdunits, or whydunits. All those episodes were howcatchems. In every show, the viewing audience knew at the beginning of the story who the murderer was. The fun was in the rest of the hour or so, in watching the hero (or heroine, in the case of Poker Face) figure out the identity of the killer. It was a concept that worked just fine. Columbo ran for ten seasons, and (current news flash!) three episodes of Poker Face are among the five screenplays that are nominated for the 2024 Edgar in the Best Television Episode Teleplay category. It's a fantastic, well-written series.

As for me and my writing, I suspect that at least two-thirds of the mystery stories I've written and published are not whodunits. They're crime stories, period, to the degree that if you took the crime out of the plot, you'd have no story. Not that I have anything against whodunits and traditional mysteries--I like reading them and writing them, and yes, trying to figure out who the villain really is. But I also like the other kinds of mysteries, and I think the others are often more fun.

I've heard a lot of writers say they don't submit mystery stories to Woman's World because WW publishes only whodunits. Not true. I've also heard they publish only murder mysteries with at least three possible suspects in each story. Again, not true. A couple of weeks ago I sold my 130th story to WW (my 128th mystery, there), and less than half of those were whodunits. 

What about you? Considering both short stories and novels, do you mostly stick to the tried-and-true whodunits in your mystery writing? How about your reading? Do you find that you like UNtraditional mysteries just as much? Better? What's your definition of a mystery story?

I'm looking forward to seeing just how the stories in Murder, Neat fit into this discussion. (I've not yet seen a copy of the finished product.)

I guess that, for now, is a mystery.

01 March 2024

My story in MURDER, NEAT: a SleuthSayer's anthology

When I learned the proposed title/idea for the SleuthSayers' anthology was

“Two crooks walk into a bar…” –  I chuckled. Felt like another school homework assignment because I don't go to bars, haven't been in one for a drink since the mid-70s and those were discos where I danced more than drank. Wouldn't be familiar turf, more like writing about two guys walking across the Gobi desert. It was a challenge I became eager to take.

Some may ask how can I be a New Orleanian and not frequent bars. Well, I don't like jazz music either. I've been a rock-and-roll fan since the last 50s.

OK, I did enter bars when I was a cop, searching for suspects or witnesses to crimes, seeking help from bartenders and barmaids, which brought me to the plot of my story in MURDER, NEAT. I decided to write a simple story and came up with "Flesh Wounds."

It took longer to write than I thought but I like its simplicity.

The set-up – a man staggers from a rainstorm into a bar. There's a lone barmaid inside. There's blood.

I just followed along …

Hope the anthology does well. Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman did a great job in editing and the stories are so well done.

So y'all indulge, take a drink and see what's going on where people get liquored up and sometimes die.

That's all for now,


29 February 2024

Golden Parachute - Can Money Buy Everything?


When Barb Goffman, Michael Bracken, and other Sleuthsayers discussed putting together an anthology from active members and alumni about stories set in a bar/drinking establishment I was thrilled to be invited with so many amazing writers. I had an outline of a story with an explosive opening that I had been wanting to write for a while and this was the perfect excuse. 

As a writer of crime fiction – and often in the short story format – sometimes I create characters who are not likable and then make their lives miserable. More often than not, it is protagonists who sabotage themselves with selfish short-term decisions. People making bad choices and suffering the resulting consequences is a definition that I use for noir. 

In my story “Golden Parachute” I wanted to create a display of obscene arrogance and have it backfire. A billionaire tech bro in Silicon Valley plans to make a memorable exit after the board of his company canned him for inappropriate behavior.  Unfortunately for Alex Dorrett, his departure does not go very well for him …and things get worse from there. 

I also wanted to contrast insane wealth and egotism with people who were down, out, and desperate. While San Francisco is famous for Alcatraz there is another famed prison just across the bay, San Quentin. The current and former residents include Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Merle Haggard, and Scott Peterson among others. The prison (now called a rehabilitation center) sits in on prime waterfront property in an area where nearby homes sell for millions of dollars. I set a bar in the nearby vicinity of San Quentin. So when Alex, injured in both spirit and body, stops at that bar not long after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, things will probably not go well for him. 

AI-generated (Copilot) image

I don’t want to give too much more away except to say that the story is very dark and brutal. During the writing process, I came to a fork in the road where the story could have gone in another direction. I sketched out some scenes that would have resulted in a different outcome with an overall lighter, happier tone. But I went dark. (Hopefully, I’ll use those “road not taken” scenes in another story.) There was something in the air—the political climate we live in probably—about wealth corrupting everything and how it can bring out the worst in humanity that felt true. So, I chased it. 

I am excited to read all of the stories in this collection from so many authors that I admire. This is an outstanding collection. Also, this is my first Sleuthsayers article in several years, so I want to thank Velma for allowing me back on this platform. I wasn’t so sure she’d let back here after what happened the last time. 😅

The author trying not to look too dark

28 February 2024

Getting More Than You Bargained For

Image by Freepik

Frankly, I love a good deal. Complementary appetizer or dessert with purchase. The trial products our grocery store app sometimes sends our way. One free night each year at a hotel chain we're loyal to—and then the occasional complementary upgrade on rooms between times. I recognize, of course, that many bargains come with costs (no free appetizer unless you buy an entree, of course, and credit card points only accrue if you've been charging on your card), but you obviously have to consider many factors whenever you try to weigh which deals are worth it. The man who paid for a lifetime pass on United—not cheap!—and has been living it up ever since? I really admire that guy.

Many years ago (this phrase will come up again), back in the days before Groupon and Living Social (which I was also a fan of), I lived in Raleigh, NC, and while I can't remember the specifics, there was a coupon book that I bought which was full of promotional offers from restaurants, stores, event venues, and more throughout the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill). As I recall, many of these offers were "two for one" deals—BOGO in more current slang. The woman I was with at the time and I thought it was a real treat, and we tried restaurants and activities that we probably wouldn't have tried otherwise. A real deal! 

...but it also reached a point where the coupon book seemed a burden of sorts. If we were going our to eat or looking for something to do, shouldn't we use another coupon? The expiration window would be closing, after all, and there were so many coupons left, and we wanted to get our money's worth, didn't we? 

And so, many years ago (I told you so), I wrote a story about a couple who'd been enjoying all the many benefits of such a coupon book ("Dine-A-Mate is Dine-A-Mite! Thousands of dollars in savings! A year of opportunities awaits!") but after awhile, one of them wants to break free a bit, try a new restaurant that's not in the coupon book, and—honestly—maybe break out of some bigger rut in the routines of the relationship too? Sandra and Wiley were my characters, and the story—"Two for One"—tried to chart both their relationship struggles and also some larger questions about what people want out of life and how to balance those wants against another person's desires. While it wasn't technically a romance, the story also focused pretty intently on desire and seduction and on storytelling as an aspect of expressing desire and maybe manipulating seduction. It also wasn't—I need to stress this—a suspense story in the traditional sense either: no mystery, no crime, nothing like that. This was, as I said, "many years ago"—before I'd really come back around to writing in the genre at all.

I wrote the first draft while a student in the creative writing program at N.C. State University, and then I reworked it again (and again) in a "Revision" course my first year in the MFA program at George Mason University. Though I felt very pleased with each subsequent version of the story, it never found a home, and I ended up just putting it aside. 

...until SleuthSayers announced the call for Murder, Neat, and I remembered the bar at the restaurant that's at the heart of "Two for One" and began thinking about how one kind of story might become another kind of story. What are the tensions—the dangers even—in a relationship when one partner wants something different from the other? Where might temptation lead to trouble? Or adventure into adversity? What happens when you bite off more than you can chew—or to stick with the anthology's theme, sip more than you can comfortably swallow?

Often when I look back at the drafts of stories from many years ago, I find myself wincing a bit—prose that's not up to par, plotting a little underdone (or overwrought), or characters without much... well, character. Often, I end up just tucking those drafts away once more—out of sight, where they belong. 

But in this case, returning to those early drafts of "Two for One," I found myself pleasantly surprised, particularly by some of the playfulness at the line-level—a bit of fun with language and phrasings, particularly in descriptions of food and drink. The story felt like it had some energy to it, it felt like that writer—the old me—was having some fun, and that fun was infectious. I found myself excited to dig in for a fresh revision. 

Here's a little sample of the story to, um, whet your appetite?

Sandra worked as a receptionist at a law firm in downtown Raleigh, and on Friday mornings she browsed through the newspaper between calls, looking for new ways to lure Wylie away from Dine-A-Mate. In recent weeks she had been drawn repeatedly to an ad for the new Royal International Buffet.

Alaskan King Crab Legs! Peking Duck! London Broil! Chilean Sea Bass!—each entrée was encased in a starburst. Drawings of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Golden Gate Bridge stood in each corner of the ad. Visit the world on our 70-foot-long buffet! Chefs of all nationalities! Kids buffet for tiny travelers! Elegance and sophistication!

 Elegance and sophistication? She knew better. A buffet was a buffet. But that wasn’t the point.

“I saw this new restaurant,” she told Wylie on their regular Wednesday. “Want to try it one night?” She handed him the paper.

They’d finished the steaks she’d pan-fried with a little Marsala sauce. Capers and green peppercorns and a hint of Dijon—though she’d called it pan gravy for Wylie’s sake. Last Wednesday, she’d added a single finely minced porcini mushroom into a quick pasta sauce, even though Wylie claimed an aversion to “funguses.” Another Wednesday, she’d glazed some pork chops with guava paste, telling him it was a new barbecue sauce from Hunt’s.

Had any of it encouraged his appetites?

Had it? Well... you'll have to read and see.

I hope readers will enjoy the final story too, and I'm grateful to Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman for editing Murder, Neat and to all my fellow contributors—so pleased to have my work alongside yours.