08 December 2019

Maple Syrup Heist eh?



In Ottawa we celebrate maple syrup season by trekking out to a sugar bush, watching the maple sap being collected and indulging in large stacks of pancakes smothered in maple syrup at one of our many sugar shacks.

So, when Leigh Lundin suggested I write about the Canadian maple syrup heist, I thought ‘heist’ was a strong word for people running through the maple grove stealing buckets of sap.

It turns out that I was wrong, a heist it was: over twelve months, 3,000 tons of syrup, worth $18.7 million, was stolen. None of this was done by stealing buckets collecting sap. Worse, learning about this heist ruined all my lovely and naive sugarbush experiences and I’ll never look at another bottle of maple syrup the same way again.

The heist was possible because of three important facts that blew my preconceived notions about maple syrup out of the water.

 First, "maple syrup comes only from the red- and sugar-maple forests found in the upper right-hand corner of North America, just where you’d sign your name if this were a test." This means that Canada, particularly the province of Quebec, produces 71% of the world’s maple syrup.

Second, since 1966 the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has instituted quotas and rules that have increased the price of maple syrup to be, in 2016, "valued at just over $1,300 a barrel, 26 times more expensive than crude"’

Third, to control the supply of maple syrup, "members of the federation—Quebec’s bulk producers are required to join—give their harvest over to FPAQ… Some of it is sold immediately; the rest is stored in the Reserve…In this way, the federation steadies supply, filling the coffers in banner years, satisfying demand in fallow."


So, maple syrup production is not a cottage industry, adorably ensconced in sugar shacks dotting our maple groves. It’s a large profitable industry controlled and managed much like the oil industry. Total value of all maple products in 2018 was $384.4 million.

To give a visual recap:


The maple grove where I thought they stole maple syrup from:






The Reserve is in Laurierville, Quebec, where they actually stole maple syrup from:





A total of $18.7 million dollars of maple syrup was stolen from the Reserve in Laurierville. The  thieves used trucks to transport barrels, siphoned off the maple syrup, and refilled the barrels with water and returned them to the facility. Later the thieves siphoned syrup directly from the barrels in the Reserve and left them empty. The stolen syrup was then sold in the United States and in New Brunswick, Canada, to distributors, many of whom were unaware it was stolen.

When the theft was discovered in 2012, the Sûreté du Québec police began an extensive investigation aided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and U.S. Customs. The police arrested two alleged ringleaders and 24 other people. A large portion of the syrup would ultimately be recovered.

However, this not the end of the story because it raises interesting questions about the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

One of the ring leaders was Étienne St-Pierre, a maple syrup buyer from Kedgwick, New Brunswick, who bought the stolen syrup.

"You can't prove what tree the syrup came from," St-Pierre told the jury.

“St-Pierre also admitted he had long been an opponent of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, and resented their control of the market.

“The Crown produced evidence suggesting St-Pierre considered the federation to be akin to the Mafia.”

Is the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers like a maple syrup mafia? It is “a powerful marketing board with almost absolute control over the provincial industry…all Quebec maple syrup must pass through the federation, which dictates how much each producer can sell, and penalizes unauthorized production and selling.”

So, not a mafia, but certainly restrictive.

Before his sentencing, this is what St. Pierre said: he’ll continue to ignore those rules. And he’ll keep buying maple syrup from Quebec’s scofflaw producers. “I will never stop. I didn’t steal nothing.”

Étienne St-Pierre was found guilty of fraud and trafficking in 2017 and sentenced to two years less a day to serve in the community, as well as a three-year probation.

07 December 2019

More Experiments





In last week's column I talked a bit about experimental writing, and gave as an example one of my recent stories, which was told in such a nonlinear way almost the whole thing flowed backward. In that post I mentioned (and most of the readers' comments agreed) that trying new writing techniques can sometimes pay off, not only in sales but in the enjoyment of writing these "different" kinds of stories.

The more I thought about that, the more I looked back through my old stories, trying to remember other times that I'd broken or at least bent the rules of storytelling. For what it's worth, here are thirty examples that I found:



"Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, 2018) -- A single story consisting of three different mystery cases and three different crimes.  (This was an installment in a series, so I felt a little safer trying something like that.)

"The Home Front" (Pebbles, 1995) and "Command Decisions" (The Odds Are Against Us anthology, 2019) -- Two stories told only in the form of letters mailed between characters.

"Life Is Good" (Bouchercon 2017 anthology) -- A story told in three scenes about three separate characters, each in that character's POV. All three scenes have similar beginning lines and similar ending lines. (If you've read it you know what I mean.)

"Careers" (AHMM, 1998) and "Radio Silence" (new) -- Two stories told using only dialogue.

"Benningan's Key" (Strand Magazine, 2012) -- A 4500-word story using no dialogue at all.

"Denny's Mountain" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A 20,000-word mystery written in two parts, and sold and published as two separate entities.

"In the Wee Hours" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A story that takes place entirely in a dream.

"Mission Ambushable" (flash fiction contest, 2008) -- A 26-word story told with each word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. (The link is to a 2013 SleuthSayers post about this story.)

"The Willisburg Stage" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A Western horror story.

"On the Road with Mary Jo" (EQMM, 2019) -- A 4000-word story in which almost half the dialogue is from an Alexa-like device in a self-driving car.

"A Stranger in Town" (Amazon Shorts, 2006), "Over the Mountains" (Dreamland collection, 2016), and "The Miller and the Dragon" (new) -- Three very long stories told only in verse, reminiscent of Robert W. Service's poetry style.

"Lucy's Gold" (Grit, 2002) and "The Donovan Gang" (new) -- Two stories about passengers inside a stagecoach. (The link to "Lucy's Gold" is to a reprint of that story in Saddlebag Dispatches, 2018)

"Christmas Gifts" (Reader's Break, 1998) -- a story about passengers inside an elevator.

"The Red-Eye to Boston" (Horror Library, Vol. 6 anthology, 2017), "Business Class" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2015), and "Creativity" (Mystery Time, 1999) -- Three stories about passengers inside an airplane.

"The Barrens" (The Barrens collection, 2018) -- A children's fairy tale, with witches and monsters.

"Perfect Crime" (Woman's World, 2014) -- The only story in my longest-running mystery series that's told from the villain's POV. This was more risky than experimental. I was surprised they published it.

"The Midnight Child" (Bouchercon 2019 anthology) -- A story told in reverse.

"Dreamland" (AHMM, 2015) -- A present-day mystery/fantasy story using characters based on Robin Hood and his men.

"Mum's the Word" (Flashshot, 2006) -- A 55-word story using only dialogue.

"The Music of Angels" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2018) -- Sort of a romance story whose three main characters have the first names of our oldest son's three children. (This story was written for them; I think they liked it.)

"Dentonville" (EQMM, 2015) -- A story that includes the killing of a pet--something I don't like, editors don't like, and readers don't like. But this pet is a devil-dog whose death is justified (think No Country for Old Men) and necessary to the plot. The story also includes a seven-foot-tall woman, so it's different in several ways.

"Mythic Heights" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A mystery using nursery-rhyme characters: Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, etc.

"An Hour at Finley's" (Amazon Shorts, 2006) -- A story told in three equal parts (scenes), with each part "titled" with the name of its POV character.



I admit that these aren't stellar examples of experimental writing, but all are far different from the way I usually write, and--again--all of them were a lot of fun to create.

Having said that, I want to mention once more that almost all my stories are mysteries told the usual way--linear, past tense, first- or third-person, traditional beginning/middle/end, etc. I'm not as adventurous as my characters. I am, however, fond of inserting plot reversals if possible, not only at the end but throughout my stories--because that's something I like to encounter when I read the stories of others.


To continue my questioning from last week: What are some of the rule-breaking stories and/or novels you've written? Are you working on any, currently? When you do write "experimentally," do you know it ahead of time or do you discover, as you write, that doing things differently might be better? Can you give some examples, and maybe even some links to any that might be available online?


Thanks for indulging me, on all this. See you in two weeks.







06 December 2019

Financial Advice from Travis McGee


Travis McGee and the Busted Flush
This is a complex culture, dear. The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways to steal. -Travis McGee, The Deep Blue Good-by

Why not take financial advice from a fictional character like Travis McGee? Is it possible that a made-up private eye (his business cards read Salvage Consultant, but he was cut from the same clothe as Chandler's Marlowe or Parker's Spenser) from fifty years ago still has something to say that's pertinent to our pocket book today?

It's not like the real-live experts have the greatest track record. Where were the warning bells from The EconomistBarron's, and the Motley Fools before our entire economy nearly went belly-up in 2008 in a sea of bad mortgages? Where was manic, in-your-face Jim Cramer? When the dust settled, and our tax dollars bought the whole mess with government bail-outs, only then did we learn how vast a con-job had been perpetrated on America.

Cramer and Stewart duke it out on The Daily Show, 2009.
At least Jim Cramer, to his credit, went on the The Daily Show and admitted that he and others should've done more to foresee the impending doom. Jon Stewart delivered a scorching rebuke, even while admitting it wasn't fair for Cramer to be the face of the burst housing bubble. "I understand you want to make finance entertaining," Stewart memorably said, "but it's not a f***ing game." It was a tiny glimmer of retribution for the financial crimes that no one seemed to be paying any legal price for. I cancelled my subscription to Barron's. They have yet to respond to my letter.

Since Travis McGee and the Busted Flush first sailed into our consciousness in 1964 with John D. MacDonald's  The Deep Blue Good-by, there's been plenty of bad faith, exploitation, and corruption in and of our economic institutions. Because of McGee's quirky ways of dealing with money, he would've skirted all of them. He likely would've avoided even the kinds of massive fraud that computers and the internet have made possible, two mainstays of modern life that John D. MacDonald couldn't have foreseen.

My favorite story about John D. MacDonald is what he did after being discharged from the Army in 1945 after serving in the Office of Strategic Services.  According to Hugh Merrill's excellent biography of MacDonald, The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald's wife Dorothy convinced him that writing would help him get over the bleakness of war. MacDonald listened, writing a 2000-word story titled "Interlude in India." Unbeknownst to MacDonald, Dorothy sent it to Story magazine. When MacDonald returned home from the war, his wife surprised him with the news that the magazine had bought his story for $25.

According to Merrill, at first MacDonald didn't think he was a real writer. Years later, MacDonald remembered thinking at the time, "My goodness, maybe I can actually be one." McDonald threw himself into being a professional scribe after his army discharge in 1946. "During his first four months as a writer he turned out more than 800,000 words and got a thousand rejection slips," Merrill writes. "He spent eighty hours a week at the typewriter and made sure that twenty to thirty stories were always in the mail." MacDonald lost twenty pounds in the process. That's amazing commitment.  MacDonald started selling stories to the pulps, and a legendary writing career was born.

It's also important to note that MacDonald graduated with an MBA from Harvard in 1939. Once MacDonald got the writing bug he turned his back on pursuing business and finance as a daytime gig, but economics played a big part in many of Travis McGee's cases. In Nightmare in Pink ('64), Travis has to unravel a gigantic financial scam run by a bank vice president. Pale Grey for Guilt ('68) involves inflated stock prices as part of a revenge plot hatched by McGee.  McGee and his partner Meyer pose as investors in The Empty Copper Sea ('80), a story involving life insurance, settling estates, and a millionaire who may have faked his death. I'd guess most of the Travis McGee novels center on elaborate financial schemes.

Meyer, Travis McGee's occasional partner in crime, is an academic, a world famous economist. Meyer's boat is called the John Maynard Keynes, after the influential British economist who said "The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." In a November 1986 article from Psychology Today, Dr. Raymond Fowler concluded that MacDonald and Meyer had nearly identical personalities. Apparently economics remained very important to MacDonald.

So what were the financial tenets that would've kept Travis McGee not only solvent, but able to pick and choose his gigs, free to enjoy boat parties and Fort Lauderdale's nightlife? From The Deep Blue Good-by:

...I do not function very well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.

Green Stamps
Travis McGee could be an amiable jokester and some of this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I mean, who didn't love Green Stamps? I was too young to use them when they were around, but I still fondly remember sticking them all over my room. And libraries? Both McGee and Meyer had plenty of books on board their boats, though MacDonald did facetiously call McGee an illiterate. I get what McGee is really saying, though. He just didn't trust all the things honest citizens were supposed to trust. Emotion rarely clouded his judgment. He wouldn't be a sucker for emails from a Nigerian prince requesting bank account numbers and wire transfers.

McGee wouldn't be hurt by all the rampant credit card schemes that have been stalking the rest of us because he didn't use one in his name.  He wouldn't  be "skimmed" at a gas station. He wouldn't be phone-scammed by crooks who can spoof phone numbers. He'd be immune to phishing. His private info would be safe from the hackers who stole the data from 160 million credit cards in 2013. Or the Target breach from the same year. Or earlier and later breaches.

Not the Zinger of my youth.
Payroll deductions were a joke to McGee. As were retirement benefits. McGee took 50% of the loot he recovered, hiding his cash away from prying government eyes in a safe aboard his boat. I pay my taxes and appreciate all the good things our tax dollars can do. Like the rest of us, I'm also outraged when our money seems wasted. McGee didn't have to worry about any of that. As far as retirement bennies, we've all heard stories about people unfairly losing their retirement plans due to heartless business practices. Enron, anyone? I have a relative who lost his benefits when Hostess folded.  Plus Zingers are now half the size that they used to be.

When the housing bubble burst, and homes in some areas stood hauntingly vacant, McGee's 52-foot houseboat would've been safely parked in Bahia Mar Marina's Slip F18. Sure, he had to scrub barnacles, but for Travis McGee boat maintenance was much more of an enjoyable work-out than actual work.

McGee wasn't totally disdainful of economic tools, he just didn't trust them. In Travis McGee's final bow, The Lonely Silver Rain ('85), McGee discovers that he has a daughter. His ultimate financial move, his last investment, is to take all the money he has on hand (minus a couple hundred bucks to live on until the next job comes along) and place it in a trust fund for her. It was a total Travis McGee move, the kind of generosity that McGee showed to others throughout his long run of adventures. He couldn't have predicted that he was done after this last act of selflessness, anymore than MacDonald could have guessed that heart surgery with an 8% fatality rate (that's what the experts told him, according to Hugh Merrill) would kill him in 1986.  Perhaps that's the final investment advice we can take from the late great Travis McGee. People first, money second.



I'm Lawrence Maddox. 
My novel Fast Bang Booze is available from DownAndOutBooks.Com. 
Feel free to harass me on twitter, Lawrence Maddox@MadxBooks. Or at MadxBooks@gmail.com.





05 December 2019

The Nutcracker


by Eve Fisher

Thanksgiving week was a humdinger up here in South Dakota.  It snowed every day.  Along with the occasional freezing rain and ice.  Plus there were the usual hazards associated with Thanksgiving.  I, for one, stay away from all Black Friday events, because I hate crowds, malls, and crazed people in search of something that's so much of a super-bargain that they are willing to risk trampling and maiming to get it.  And the idea that now stores are open Thursday afternoon, so that people go out immediately after Thanksgiving Dinner, belching turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, to find their bliss only makes me lock all the doors and pray that the Monsters don't come down Maple Street.

Instead, on Black Friday I went to The Nutcracker.  Now, I know the music by heart, because I took ballet lessons as a child, where I was told, mercifully early, that I would never have the "line" for ballet.  ("Line" is code for "thin.")

I also worked as an administrator for a couple of ballet companies on the East Coast, and, as everyone knows, The Nutcracker is THE fundraiser, so the rehearsals, with music, start in September.  The administrative office is never far from the rehearsal studio(s).  By first night, the opening bars of "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" were enough to make us all break out in hives.  But enough time has passed so that I have recovered, and can now go see my godchild's children - one of them was a purple butterfly - without having to take Benadryl.  I had a lovely time, and really enjoyed the music for the first time in years.

Now some SleuthSayers have been talking a lot about music lately, so I thought I'd add to the theme.  All children grow up on their parents' music, and my parents' music was big band, country (specifically, my mother loved Hank Williams, Sr., and original bluegrass, which she passed on to me), and crooners of the 1940s and 50s.  I liked it all.  But by the 1960s, there was a lot of other interesting music out there that my parents couldn't stand - specifically rock n' roll.  Being a snotty teenager, that's all I wanted to hear.  Except...

There were two truly great moments in music when I was a child, and they were totally out of the blue.  One was when my mother and I were making a bed, with the radio on, and what came on was (I later found out) Dave Brubeck's Take Five.  I stopped tucking sheets, stood up, listened, and breathlessly asked, "What's that?"  "That's jazz," she replied.  "We don't like it."  Well, I did.  But I stored it away future years, when I could buy and play anything I wanted, because I'd just heard something like a whole new way of life.  And I loved it.



But even more overpowering was what I heard in ballet class, and I never spoke of it to either of my parents.  There I was, in my little black leotard and ballet shoes, while the teacher lined up the needle on the record player.  And what followed was a tremendous wall of sound, that came from behind and above and literally took my breath away with its absolute power.  I had never been so moved by any piece of music in my life, and I couldn't figure out if I was afraid, ready to cry, or overjoyed.  It was Tchaikovsky's Swan Theme from Swan Lake.


BTW, Tchaikovsky is to the romantic period what Puccini is to opera.  Masters of emotional manipulation through music, who will make you cry whether you want to or not.  (If you don't believe me, listen to Maria Callas singing Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly)
NOTE:  I've been racking my brains to think of similar master manipulators of emotion in writing, other than poetry, and so far what I've come up with is Beth's death scene in Little Women and Old Yeller.  
Meanwhile, I love watching good ballet.
The women dancing as if putting all your weight on your big toe and then whirling, leaping, and landing on it is the easiest thing in the world.  No, it's not.  It hurts.  And it requires considerable strapping sometimes.  I've known dancers who broke a bone in their foot, or sprained an ankle, strapped it up tight, and danced anyway.  Ballet dancers are more like football players, stripped down to minimum weight.  Same grit, determination, and apparent obliviousness to pain.  At the moment.

And the men who do grand jetes across the stage and look like it's the most normal thing in the world to hang in space.  Watch Sergei Polunin:


Looks easy-peasy doesn't it?  Well, I've helped backstage with costumes, etc., and I can tell you that to dance like that means that, as soon as they're backstage, they are on their knees trying to breathe.  But moments later, they're back on their feet, pretending like they don't need oxygen.

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to figure out how The Nutcracker became a holiday tradition.  Fine, it's set at a Christmas party, but there's no Santa, just a fairly creepy magician (Drosselmeyer) roaming the house at will.  And what young girl would choose a nutcracker as her favorite toy / present?  Especially one old enough to also dream of a charming prince?  BTW, where does Drosselmeyer get his literal living dolls from?  And what's with all the mice?  Is this where C. S. Lewis got the idea for Reepicheep?  But of course it makes no more sense than, say, The Magic Flute.  Opera, ballet, if you're looking for plots that make sense, stick with mysteries.

But The Nutcracker is and will be a perennial, because it allows every dance troupe / school the chance to include everyone, from the littlest 3 year old to the season subscribers.  (Yes, a lot of those older party guests are season subscribers, who get - as a perk - the chance to stand around in the background, sometimes with real champagne, and attend the cast party later.)  Anyway, this means big money in the till, because every relative is coming to watch Betsy as a chocolate cupcake and Ralphie as a mouse.  And more power to them.  In these United States, the arts need every penny they can get.

Meanwhile, here's The Nutcracker Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux.  Enjoy.











04 December 2019

I, Robot (Author)


I am delighted to have a story in the December issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, my first appearance there.  "Robot Carson" is, I guess, the second time a story of mine began with what you might call a vision.  Not a dream, because I was wide awake.

The image that popped into my head was a woman answering the door and finding a chest freezer on her stoop.  Not literally a freezer, just an object of that size and shape.  Turned out to be a robot, working for the cops.

And as you may deduce, its name turned out to be Carson.

That's pretty much all I have to say about the story.  It's short.  Go ahead and read it and see what you think.  You can read the first page here.

My first encounter with robots (well, barring Lost in Space and similar kiddy stuff) was in the ninth grade when I bought a paperback of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. It's a collection of short stories   (The movie of the same name, by the way, has very little in common with the book.)

The stories are loosely connected by an interview with Dr. Susan Calvin, who appears in some of them.  She is the chief robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Perhaps the most famous thing about these stories is the Three Laws of Robotics.  (And by the way, Asimov coined the word "robotics."  He assumed it already existed.)   Many other authors have silently adopted the Laws or otherwise played with the concept.  Here they are:

 First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
The worst from dozens of available covers.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
 
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Asimov found many clever ways to play with these rules (Example: If a robot could read minds, would hurting feelings count as harming a human being?)

Asimov went on to write a series of mystery novels featuring a pairing of human and robots, beginning with The Caves of Steel.

His robot cop appeared to be human.  As far as I know, none of his robots were ever mistaken for a freezer.  So I can claim at least that much originality.










03 December 2019

No Flux Capacitors Here


When I sent out my call for stories for Crime Travel, the crime/time-travel anthology I edited--coming out this Sunday from Wildside Press--I eagerly wondered what ingenious methods of time travel the submitting authors would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

Sadly, no one used a flux capacitor and a DeLorean, the magnificent means of time travel from the wonderful eighties movie Back to the Future. (And I didn't even need a time machine to see that movie in the theater when it came out. I was in high school, just like Marty McFly.) But the authors whose stories I accepted did come up with interesting means of temporal transportation, some a bit conventional, others ... well, let's take a look.
Doc Brown built a time machine out of a DeLorean.
Photo credit: JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com

In addition to pods and wristbands and watch-like devices, the Crime Travel authors used: sneezing (Anna Castle has one hell of an imagination); a particle-beam weapon (because, why not?); a closet (my closets just have clothes in them--so disappointing); a clear-walled cube with barber chairs with seatbelts (gotta have safety measures when you're traveling through time); a gold circlet (it's a hair accessory and a time machine all in one; talk about making it work--Tim Gunn would be so proud); and two elevators. Two of 'em. (Linwood Barclay may have a new book with elevators that send people to their deaths, but we have elevators that send people through time!)

One method of time travel used in the book is so unusual but cool that I don't even know how to describe it outside of its story's context. Eleanor Cawood Jones ... care to take a whack at that description? And in Art Taylor's story ... was it the pendant, Art, or the candles or a mere touch of the hand that set things in motion? Maybe we should leave it for the reader to decide. And in David Dean's story, well, sometimes you just have to want something bad enough.

This wasn't the photo but it's similar. So lovely.
As for me, I used a bicycle, an all-white one that only appears on the anniversary of mistakes--things that wrongly happened in its family's past that the bicycle thinks someone needs to go back in time to fix. (Don't look at me like that. If a bicycle can travel through time, it also can think.) A few months before I wrote my story, "Alex's Choice," I saw a picture of an all-white bicycle with beautiful flowers in its basket. That image stuck with me, and I decided to use the bike in my time-travel story.

I would have thought that's all I had to tell you about my decision to turn a bicycle into a time machine until this past week when I saw a new commercial for Xfinity using the cuddly alien E.T. from the classic movie of the same name. In the ad E.T. returns to Earth to visit Elliott. The long version of the commercial (available here) shows grown-up Elliott's kids riding their bicycles into the sky with E.T., just as the kids did in the movie way back in 1982. I don't think I've seen E.T. since the summer it was out in the theater, yet that scene with the kids riding their bikes into the night sky must have stuck with me because in "Alex's Choice" the bicycle flies too, and at night to boot.

That's the beauty of fiction--be it short stories or novels, movies or TV shows--when done right, fiction can take you to another time, be it in your imagination or your memory or even to something you didn't realize you remembered. I hope the stories in Crime Travel do that for you.

The anthology's official publication date is this Sunday, December 8th, which is Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The book will be on sale in ebook, paperback, and hard cover. I'd be honored if you'd time travel with us to past decades and even past centuries. I'm confident you'll enjoy the ride.

And if you're in the Northern Virginia area, please come to our launch party this Sunday at Barnes and Noble, 12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr., in Fairfax. The event will run from 1 - 3 p.m. Authors James Blakey, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley will join me to celebrate. We'll  talk about our stories and our inspirations and some of us might even dress up in the time period of our stories as we pretend to be time travelers. Eleanor dressed as a 1960s flight attendant? James as a 1950s PI? Adam as a 1980s security guard? And Cathy ... well, that's going to be a surprise you'll have to come to see. Other than actual time travel, I can't imagine what would be more fun than that.

02 December 2019

Patio Writer


As I recall, I first encountered Joseph D'Agnese when I read his first story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and rated it the best story I read that week.   We had a chat and later shared a lunch with our editor Linda Landrigan.  Yes, that was name-dropping. Suffer.

Joe has a new book and I asked him to tell us about it. But first, let's talk about the man himself.  

Joseph D'Agnese is a journalist, author, and ghostwriter who has written for both adults and children alike. He has won a Derringer Award for his short mystery fiction, and one of his stories appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology. D'Agnese lives with his wife in North Carolina. Joe has been called “The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction,” but prefers to think of himself as The Susan Lucci. Visit him at josephdagnese.com  -Robert Lopresti



PATIO WRITER

by Joseph D'Agnese

Once upon a time I wrote a novel, and it was awesome. At least my parents and I thought so. And why wouldn’t we all think that? I was all of 15 years old.

My parents did not actually read the book, and never would. Neither of them had finished high school. They were, as people are fond of saying, not big readers.

But for some reason, they thought it was wonderful and perhaps a little strange that their son preferred sitting on the patio banging away on a manual typewriter, instead of doing things his brothers or other kids did. All summer long, when it came time for dinner, my mother would scoot me off our picnic table in the Jersey suburbs so we could fire up the grill and eat dinner al fresco. She would say things like, “You’re gonna ruin your eyes!” “What is this, your office?” and “How long is this thing going to be?"

The story in question had something to do with a bookseller who solved mysteries in his spare time. He had a bookshop in New York City, and a nephew who was a professional gumshoe who helped investigate. The nephew narrated; the uncle solved the mystery. A complete Nero Wolfe rip-off—er, dynamic. Aside from the fact that I’d never set foot in a Manhattan bookstore in my life, I figure the story was about as clever as a kid my age could make it. A kid who obsessively read mysteries, that is.

In my defense, I also had a summer job of sorts. When I wasn’t reading or writing, I worked for my dad, who was a pattern maker in New York’s Garment District. (Astute readers will recall that my very first story to appear in AHMM was set in that world.) Dad brought home extra work to make a little money on the side, and I helped him out nights and weekends in his shop in the garage.

I used my meager earnings to make two photocopies of the manuscript, which I presented to my parents. I have no idea what my mother did with her copy. My father tucked his into the plastic gray briefcase he took with him to work every morning, and showed it off to friends when they lunched in greasy spoon diners that catered to the men of New York’s Fashion Avenue.

School started up and I had tucked away my Olivetti until my next big writing season. My father returned home from work one night and announced with utter seriousness, “Next week, you’re coming to the city with me. An editor wants to talk to you about that book of yours!”

What the hell was this now?

If you’re looking for tips on how to break into the competitive literary market, pay attention. Apparently growing tired of lugging around the MS, my father had slipped it to the ladies coat buyer for Montgomery Ward, a woman whose sister happened to work as an assistant to an editor at some publishing house in New York City. A firm my father kept calling The Bantam.

Was I familiar with The Bantam? I was, Dad, highly freaking familiar. I had a ton of paperbacks published by them.

This news took me aback. This was not supposed to happen. The book was for private consumption only. My youngest brother, for example, had recently announced he might just read this book of mine, if he could squeeze it in between homework and clarinet practice.

I was simultaneously terrified and elated at the prospect of real-life editors reading my book. When that day arrived, I donned an ill-fitting jacket and tie and ascended an elevator with my dad at The Bantam offices at 666 Fifth Avenue.

The editor was lovely, and told me just what a kid who thought he sorta, kinda, maybe wanted to write needed to hear. My work was wonderful for a writer my age. My characters fun and funny to be around. Oh sure—there were a few implausibilities that made the book unsalable, but I had to keep plugging away. I should read widely and keep writing. I should learn what I liked. And learn how to edit myself. Learn the difference, if I could, between commercial and literary work. The editor’s name was Linda S. Price, but the hour she gave me that afternoon was absolutely priceless.

As I rode back to Jersey with my dad on the bus, a shopping bag of Bantam books at my feet, I felt the world had opened up just a bit. Although those of you who are writers will understand that I ignored all the positive things she said to me, and dwelled only on the negative. What the hell was an implausibility?

That manuscript went into my bedroom closet and was joined by others I cranked out on the patio over the remaining summers I was in school. Then, one day, when I was out of college and working in publishing in New York, I dug out the bookshop mystery and read it.

Guess what? The characters and scenarios were delightful, but the thing was positively riddled with implausibilities. The savvy 26-year-old me—who now worked in cosmopolitan Manhattan—snickered at the stupidity of 15-year-old me.

Still—I liked the characters. And the plot could work. I became convinced that I knew just how to fix it. So I rewrote the whole thing and shopped it around to the very same editors I’d met during my first big job hunt. No takers.

Versions 1 and 2 disappeared into a file cabinet, where they stayed thirty years, until I dug them out earlier this year.

Did I really want to do this again?

I did. So much so that I scanned those brown pages to make a modern digital file to work from.

This time, 54-year-old me stood up for the 15-year-old in ways that the 26-year-old could not deign to. In the course of the third rewrite, it became completely obvious to me that my amateur sleuth was never intended to be a man but a woman. In fact, the sleuth spoke just like an old elementary school principal of mine. She was the first Italian-American woman I’d known who’d completed college. She used words like unmitigated gall and enunciate. The 15- and 26-year-old writers had been blind to this connection, but I like to think the 54-year-old appreciated this truth for what it was—another gift from the grown-ups in his past.

My mother is no longer with us, but my father who is knocking on 90 had little trouble recalling our visit to The Bantam when he called to say he’d gotten the proof I’d dropped in the mail to him.

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” said the man who spends most of his day watching NCIS reruns and not-so-terribly historic programs on the History Channel.

“You could try reading it,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “You got a clear head, kid.”

So after three rewrites and 40 years, Murder on Book Row is finally out in the world. I reserve the right to clear up any lingering implausibilities when I rewrite it at age 80.