16 October 2021

Mystery Magazine


  

Some of you are probably thinking, You left out part of the title. Did you mean Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, or Black Cat MM, or Sherlock Holmes MM, etc.? Nope, the title's right. Mystery Magazine is the former Mystery Weekly Magazine, which--as most of you know by now--recently renamed itself and thus clarified things a bit, since it's published once a month.


Let me begin by saying that Mystery Magazine (new name or not) is an excellent publication, based in Canada and published by Chuck Carter, and in my opinion it has become one of the half-dozen leading short-fiction mystery markets. It usually features from eight to ten short stories and one interactive "solve-it-yourself" mystery in every monthly issue, it recently raised its pay rates, it pays on acceptance, it responds quickly to submissions, its covers and layouts always look good, and editor Kerry Carter is kind and competent and professional in every way. Another thing that might be interesting to writers is that after submission MM provides a monitoring link that allows you to see how many stories are ahead of yours in their to-be-read queue. The magazine's only drawback is that they don't provide a free author's copy of the issue your story appears in, but to me that's overridden by the fact that they pay so promptly, often on the same day the acceptance email appears.

Another thing to like about Mystery Magazine is that they are receptive to cross-genre stories. By that I mean writers can include the occasional fantasy, science fiction, horror, or Western ingredient along with the mystery/crime element. To give you an idea of how much that open-minded policy has helped me, here are some quick summaries of my stories at MM/MW so far: 


A gambling addict is pursued by murderous loan sharks. A mystery, but mostly a chase story. ("Merrill's Run," Jan 2017) 

A mix of crime and fantasy involving a missing teenager, a thunderstorm, and travel between dimensions. ("Lightning," Sep 2018) 

A lonely blind woman is targeted by a killer. Just a crime/suspense story with nothing cross-genre going on. ("Rachel's Place," Dec 2019)    

Two brothers in the depression-era south--one of whom has visions of future events--try to protect their alcoholic father from old enemies. ("The Barlow Boys," Nov 2020) 

A former combat soldier stumbles upon a bank robbery and is aided by a woman with paranormal powers. ("Charlie's War," Dec 2020) 

A combination Western/mystery/coming-of-age tale with a minor woo-woo element. ("Wanted," Feb 2021)  

A straight crime story set in the cottonfields of northwest Mississippi. ("The Delta Princess," Sep 2021)  

An offbeat mystery/fantasy featuring occasional small crimes. ("The King's Island," Oct 2021)   

A Western about a small town terrorized by a pair of killers. Obvious genre-mixing here, including a tiny bit of otherworldliness. ("Bad Times at Big Rock," upcoming)  


My point is, only a third of these stories were strictly mystery/crime/suspense. The others all had various shades of paint mixed into the genre can--and those stories probably wouldn't even have been considered at some of the other respected mystery markets. I still write mostly straight and undiluted mystery/crime plots and I will continue doing that, but when I do feel the urge to create a cross-genre story, Mystery Magazine is always on my mind as a possible home for it.

One last thing. I'm not alone in my fondness for this magazine. Many of my fellow SleuthSayers have had stories published in MM as well, before and after its name change: R.T. Lawton, Michael Bracken, Eve Fisher, Robert Lopresti, Steve Liskow, Robert Mangeot, Joseph D'Agnese, Elizabeth Zelvin, Melodie Campbell, the late Paul D. Marks and B.K. Stevens, and probably others I'm leaving out.

What are your thoughts, writers and readers, about Mystery Magazine? Have you read it? Enjoyed it? Written for it?

Here's hoping they stay around for a long time.




15 October 2021

Careful With That Website, Eugene



 Last week was... um... interesting for Facebook. Not in the usual "Wow, that tech company invented something really cool" way. That seems to be left to SpaceX these days. (Let's face it. How many of you, even devoted Apple users, yawn at a new iPhone anymore?) No, Mr. Zuckerberg had an interesting week as in the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

For starters, one of his own managers went on 60 Minutes and confirmed what most of us suspected. It's more profitable to let us at each other's throats through Facebook than to actually combat misinformation and outright fraud. That was Sunday night. On Monday morning, it got worse. Suddenly, Messenger did not work. This aggravated me not because "Oh, noze! I can't have my favorite cyber-distraction while I work!!!" No, Messenger displayed a "No Internet Connection" message. Not good. Usually, this means my computer's aging WiFi card flaked out. I had to kill my work session and reset my card. Sounds arcane and technical, but all it means is I right-clicked and reset in about three mouse clicks. It takes longer to find the router on the list of connection choices. Only...

My work session came up fine but no Facebook or Messenger. There are then two sites I go to for what's going on with the Internet. One is downdetector.com, which tells you if your favorite web site or your Internet provider is having a bad day. The other is Twitter, which lets you use the hysteria of the world to gauge people's reaction to it. Downdetector usually has a few hundred reports when Amazon is slow in updating its site or Google has a rare outage. Oh, no. The graph showed reports of Facebook and related sites in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the next day, when my web host flaked out for about fifteen minutes. Forty reports, and while not GoDaddy, this is not exactly a bit player in the trade.


 

What did Twitter look like? Oh, my friends, it looked like a party. Normally, I hate Twitter. They keep serving up political tweets I don't want to read. That day, I noticed how easy it was to mute [insert preening politician or idiot pundit here]

Earlier, author Sara Celi, whom I've had a few conversations with, mentioned the 60 Minutes interview and suggested we, as writers, are getting too dependent on Facebook with marketing. I suggested Facebook would, like AOL before it, implode and become irrelevant, that someone would build a better mousetrap for data, one that didn't rely so much on division and falsehoods to drive revenue. Then Facebook went down. I followed up my tweet to Sara with, "I was kidding! I didn't think they'd take me seriously!"

It is, however, true we've become dependent on Facebook. Also Google, Microsoft, Apple, and probably a few you don't even think about. But you can live without Google. Not everyone has a Gmail account, and there are other search engines. Your computer could be run on something other than Windows or OS X, and it would not take much to replace the iPhone or your favorite Android device.

Source: Paramount

But Facebook has surpassed AOL in its ubiquity and its user base. The number of people without a Facebook account, even in less developed places, is actually a minority. The problem is writers, particularly small press and independent writers, are almost chained to the platform.

That same platform that disappeared for six hours on Monday.

Social media is not going away anytime soon, if ever. Like television, it will likely morph and fragment in the future. But the specific platforms? 

I liken it to Dan Ackroyd in Grosse Pointe Blank shouting "Who is like this Beast? Who can stand against him?" whenever someone worries some retail juggernaut is monopolizing our buying. In retail, the Beast was originally Woolworth, supplanted by, in order, Montgomery-Ward, Sears, K Mart, and now Walmart. And Walmart is running scared of Amazon. Before you decide Amazon is unstoppable, let me point out that Jeff Bezos says that one day, Amazon will go out of business. Hard to argue with the man who rode into space on the most expensive phallic joke in history.

It's even more pronounced in the realm of online platforms. Who was like CompuServe (or, as those of us who couldn't afford it called it, Compu$pend)? Who could stand against them? Well, AOL could. But AOL got knocked off its perch by Yahoo, who toppled before MySpace, which got crushed by Facebook. What makes anyone think Facebook is invincible or immortal?

Maybe they are immortal, but as a wise man from Hamilton, Ontario, once said, you're only immortal for a limited time.

Inertia killed CompuServe, the first big shared platform of note. (There were others - GEnie, Prodigy, FidoNet.) It also reduced MySpace to that site where booking agents find bands (and much less blinding these days.) But hubris killed Facebook and will most certainly destroy Facebook. Already, a simple solution to the damage they cause has been posited: Chronological feeds instead of using the algorithms to guess which posts people will get twitchy enough to click. But Facebook's revenue is too dependent on an divisive model that change, if it comes, will come too late.

Meanwhile, someone will build a new mousetrap to collate data and connect your online world without being so damn creepy. They'll likely partner with someone like salesforce.com or Google or even Microsoft and/or Apple. All four companies have shown an interest in a more effortless way to manage content. All it takes is one person to do with the social network concept Mark Zuckerberg played with at Harvard and do like Bezos and Musk are doing with Project Mercury and Apollo. Duplicate it, fight off the patent trolls, and give people a less stressful platform.

Will the last person on Facebook please turn off the lights?


14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






13 October 2021

Endeavour


I was a big fan of John Thaw as Morse, and an even bigger fan of Lewis, when they brought Kevin Whately back for the sequel.  Then there’s cross-casting, Clare Holman in Island at War, for example, which also featured Laurence Fox (who later shows up as Lord Palmerston in Victoria).  She pops in on an episode of Death in Paradise, and she and Kevin have separate guest shots on New Tricks - his the more sinister.  A treat, watching them out of character, playing against their familiar type. 

Why, then, does the prequel Endeavour leave me cold?


Perhaps it’s a resistance to origin stories.
  In both the series Inspector Morse, and in Colin Dexter’s books, Morse is already established, and somewhat opaque.  He has a history, but it doesn’t appear to weigh on him overmuch.  He has associates - you wouldn’t quite call them friends – but doesn’t play favorites.  He has eccentricities, some of them fixed, some fluid, but in fact he seems almost flat, as a character, and not fully in the round.  John Thaw gives him a larger presence than he has on the page.  Colin Dexter himself said, after Thaw’s death, that there could be no more Morse, that he couldn’t imagine another actor in the part. 

The cleverness of Lewis is that they don’t try to revive Morse, but they do give him imaginative echoes.  Lewis, now the senior, has a less procedural junior, instead of the other way around.  Lewis is luckier in love than Morse, or at least not star-crossed.  The puzzles are, if anything, more tangled, and the resolutions sometimes more uncertain.  They have a classic shape, but they’re less than final.




Mysteries have a formality.  We want them to satisfy.  The rules are bent, the public compact is broken, and what’s gone wrong needs to be put right.  You can push and pull at these boundaries, but that essential balance remains a constant.  If a mystery doesn’t do this, then it’s actually something else.  I’m not complaining if it is something else, but the mystery qua mystery is deeply conservative, in a social sense.  It can be a novel of manners, à la Christie, or Sayers, or even Ross Macdonald.  It can be a novel of bad manners, for that matter, like Lehane or Dutch Leonard, but it shares that same unity. 

My apparent issue with Endeavour isn’t that it doesn’t play fair.  Not at all.  The exec producer and writer is a guy named Russell Lewis (coincidentally), who wrote “The Way Through the Woods” for Morse, five episodes of Cadfael, two out of three episodes for Heat of the Sun, a Trevor Eve series, and five for Lewis, among a host of other credits.  Clearly, no slouch.  My crankiness is that I don’t find the impulse to explore Morse’s back story in any way needful.  In other words, the show would work for me as a standalone, but as part of the canon, it gets on my nerves.

OK, so I’m a grump.  I think if you had little or no experience of Morse, or Lewis, you could well enjoy Endeavour as another ingenious and not overly gimmicky Brit police procedural.  For me, too much previous.  But don’t take my word for it.  The show has many strengths, the writing, the cast, the production values.  We’re back in Oxford, for one, with its evocative locations, and back in the 1960’s, with a little of the rough-and-ready, so far as the cops go.  You could do worse. 




All the same, I have to say, I’d rather go back and revisit those nine seasons of Lewis.  It was charmed.  That easy.

12 October 2021

Protect Your Inner Life


Reacting to Lan Samantha Chang’s essay on LitHub.com, “Writers, Protect Your Inner Life,” Trey R. Barker (my Guns + Tacos co-creator/co-editor) posted on Facebook:

Michael, dressed for the
convention that never was.

The essay “at least partially misses what is actually the death of a writer’s inner self: the outer world. The world must take precedence, which makes it incredibly difficult to find time to do the actual writing, much less time to: A - think up the story, and B - do the foundational thinking that leads someone to the questions that become the basis for any writing. That is the inner life writers need to protect. It seeps away little by little and most often, a writer doesn’t even realize it. Not until it is nearly completely gone do they recognize what they’ve lost and by then? It can be too late to get it back.”

The loss or significant constriction of a writer’s inner life, which results in a reduction in creative output, is not the same as writer’s block. Writer’s block is an inability to write. Losing one’s inner life degrades, and potentially eliminates, one’s desire to write.

I should know. Events the past several months have wreaked havoc upon my inner life.

The eighteen-hour-a-week job that provides a steady base to my wildly fluctuating freelance income turned, for several months, into a thirty-hour-per-week job; health issues (nothing life-threatening, thank you for asking) demanded time I didn’t have to give and attention I didn’t want to give; and editing projects that I voluntarily took on consumed much of the time not otherwise filled.

When I wrote—and I did write—the stories I completed were adequate, probably even publishable, but lack a key element that comes from a rich inner life: They lack heart.

Without a rich inner life and the time to explore it, one loses heart, the quality of one’s creativity diminishes, and, thus, the desire to write evaporates.

Temple has noticed the light fading from my eyes—she says I’m happiest when I’m writing and happiest of all when writing is going well—and she’s asked what she can do to help me re-engage with my inner life. She’s even offered to use part of a recent bonus to fund a weekend getaway so I could lock myself in a room somewhere and do nothing but write. Though tempted by the offer, I know now is not the right time. I would likely spend much of the weekend mulling over the many outer-world concerns that have already invaded my inner world.

As Chang writes in her essay, one must “[h]old onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing.” She further notes that “[t]he single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.”

So, I think what I need to do is regain a firm grasp on the part of me that first compelled me to start writing—the youthful exuberance that made me think other people would be interested in the stories I had to tell—and combine it with a careful rebuilding of the inner world that allowed me to write so many stories over the years. Only then will my stories have heart, and only then will I regain a compelling desire to write.




My story “Remission,” first published in Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018), was reprinted in the first issue of Black Cat Weekly as a Barb Goffman Presents selection.

11 October 2021

An Outsider Love Story:
Rachel Mendoza and Her Taino Husband


It's Columbus Day, now also known as Indigenous People's Day, and so it should be. My novel, Voyage of Strangers, tells the story of what really happened when Columbus and a fleet of Spanish soldiers with sharp-edged steel weapons and horses, greedy for gold and blinded by Christian zeal to the humanity of any who didn't share their faith, descended on the agricultural Taino, who had neither. The Taino solved disputes by playing batey, a game akin to soccer, based their spiritual life on nature gods, and were governed by the principle of matu'm, generosity. The Taino were doomed from the moment Columbus set foot on Caribbean soil.

I've written posts about Voyage, Columbus, and the Taino before. I've written and spoken about the original protagonist of the Mendoza Family Saga, Diego, the young Jewish sailor who appeared unbidden in my head one night and demanded I tell his story, which began in "The Green Cross" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Marching onto the deck of the Santa Maria in 1492, he gave me a way to tell the familiar—and long distorted—story through eyes unfiltered by Christianity. His friendship with the boy Hutia gave him entrée into the appealing culture of the Taino, allowing my story to move beyond the Eurocentric.

Diego's sister Rachel, who first appeared in Voyage of Strangers, was originally meant to be a secondary character. But she's become an enduring series protagonist with at least a forty-year lifespan in 15th-16th-century years, beloved by readers of the "Harem" stories in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and my own favorite character among those I've created. Rachel and Hutia, later called Ümīt, are perennial outsiders as a couple yet also exemplars of resilience, the power of love, and the ability to make a home and family no matter what.

The Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 into a hostile and wartorn Europe, mostly without resources, were decimated by the time they arrived, as the Mendozas do, in refuges like the Ottoman Empire. So many had died that girls were under pressure to marry as young as twelve to start rebuilding the Jewish people—an attitude that reappeared in some sects of Judaism after the Holocaust. The Mendoza parents don't believe in child marriage, but they certainly want her to marry a Jewish boy.

By the time Rachel and Diego rejoin their parents in Istanbul in 1497, Rachel has drunk deeply from the cup of freedom. She has climbed the rigging of a sailing ship, felt sun on her limbs, traveled half the world, fought for her life, and fallen deeply in love with Hutia. He, in turn, has witnessed the systematic massacre of his people. By 1496, at least one-third of all the Taino had been killed. Many committed suicide by drinking cyanide extracted from raw yuca. Until recently, the Taino were believed to be extinct. For the purposes of my series, Hutia is the sole survivor. He intends to stay with his people, fighting to the death, but at the last moment he puts love first and sails for Europe with Rachel and Diego, posing as their slave.

Once in Istanbul, Rachel has to convince her parents that this is the only boy she'll marry. Being wise and loving, they put up a fight but eventually give in. I made Hutia a bit of a paragon: handsome, smart, and good at everything he tries, including languages. He's saved both their kids' lives a few times, too. Hutia is perfectly willing to convert to Judaism. But the stodgy rabbis of Istanbul won't allow it. A savage in the synagogue? Absolutely not.

Hutia has a brilliant solution. He changes his name to Ümīt, which means "hope," and converts to Islam instead. Jews are tolerated in the Ottoman Empire, but only Muslims are admitted to all its privileges. And unlike the Jews, Islam welcomes converts eagerly. As a Muslim, Ümīt will be well placed to protect the whole family and advance its interests. Rachel finds just the right job as a kira, a purveyor or personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. It's not long till Ümīt is working at the Palace. By the 1520s, he is one of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent's valued advisers.

Their children, as Umit says, "study Torah and the Qur'an with equal enthusiasm and question everything."

Rachel says, “If we had not learned to tolerate a great deal of inconsistency, not a single Mendoza would have made it out of Spain alive back in 1492."

10 October 2021

1977


“The hangman asked if Turpin or Lucas had any last words. "Nothing," they answered… The hangman yanked on a lever and the trapdoor fell open with a crash that echoed through the jail…On their way down, the men made no sound.”

These events took place on` December 10, 1962, the last time a Canadian would die from capital punishment.

“The death penalty was abolished July 26, 1976, with the passage of a bill barring its use introduced by the government of Pierre Trudeau.” 

A short year later, a gruesome rape and murder would test the resolve of Canadians to support this ban on capital punishment. 

On July 28, 1977, Emmanuel was shining shoes at Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto. His family had immigrated to Canada from Portugal three years earlier and, the family all worked to support the family, including 12 year old Emmanuel. 

He was lured away from his shoe stand with an offer of $35 to help move some equipment. This money was important to Emmanuel because it would allow him to buy dog food for a puppy he wanted.

Instead, for “12 tortuous hours, he was held captive and raped by the men in the third-floor apartment,” and finally murdered.

“The biggest thing that happened was a protest … on Aug. 8, where members of the Portuguese community came out and called for … bringing back the death penalty and they called for the eradication of homosexuality.” 

The protest was accompanied by angry articles and letters concerning the death penalty, but  capital punishment remained banned in Canada despite this pressure.

Unfortunately, this also fuelled a rise in homophobia and that had many consequences.

In June 1969, Parliament had passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968–69, which decriminalized sexual activity between men, but, “The murder of Emanuel Jaques put this idea into people’s minds that homosexuality was somehow associated with pedophilia … This sort of association that homosexuals were dangerous, perverted and somehow a threat to children.”

This attitude towards the LGTBQ community was echoed in the press, by the public, by police, and eventually resulted in the bathhouse raids of 1981, where four bathhouses frequented by the LGBTQ community were raided and the occupants were treated viciously. These raids resulted in “growing politicization and support of the gay community [and] fueled civil rights activism, made homophobia less acceptable, and have led to Pride becoming one of Toronto’s largest annual public celebrations.”

Ultimately, the LGBTQ community and their supporters prevailed. Their rights are stronger now with “anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, gay marriage, homoparentality, blood donations, transgender rights and outlawry of conversion therapies.”

In 2020, police chiefs of Canada issued a formal apology for oppressing and opposing LGBT rights.

This one grotesque and horrible murder of a child and the resulting protests, media coverage and anger threatened to topple decades of human rights progress. Eventually progress took its rightful place in pushing these rights further. 

They say history teaches important lessons. These are the days where the fabric of our rights, our scientific progress and our basic humanity feel threatened - nay, moving backwards. I find myself looking back often to turbulent times. Looking for hope. Looking for lessons.