20 June 2021

Wicked Plots


Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot book cover

I’ve been reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, recommended by my friend/editor/teacher Sharon. The title, of course, is a double entendre as is its book-withn-a-book, Crib.

One of the characters confides she’s the type who, five minutes into a movie, figures out the plot. Mind racing ahead, I often do the same. Unlike her character, I generally keep it to myself until the show is over.

The same technique may work on The Plot. The author plays fair sprinkling numerous clues. By the halfway point, I grew certain where the story was headed, and every passing page convinces me I’m on the right track. We shall see.

Jacob Finch Bonner

Korelitz raises issues about plagiarism and ‘stealing’ stories. Her protagonist agonizes the unique plot of his bestseller was glommed from someone who managed to get himself killed, although characters and setting and words are all the author’s. The plot, however, is so unusual, it defies categorization within the seven basic plot lines we constantly hear about. Hence the accusation of stealing from a dead man who, it turns out, acquired the plot elsewhere. In today’s tender sensitivities atmosphere, the protagonist committed the ultimate appropriation sin.

Frey, Glass, and Mortenson

Korelitz’s beset author isn’t in the same league as a half dozen infamous authors she mentions who either plagiarized or falsified narratives. Some such as James Frey and Greg Mortenson bounced back, barely affected, and to a lesser degree, Stephen Glass at least arrested his descent into infamy.

Kosiński and Rosenblat

Jerzy Kosiński (The Painted Bird) is a different matter for me. Like Herman Rosenblat (Angel at the Fence), he was a Polish WW-II survivor. Also like Rosenblat, he combined fiction with reality, sometimes difficult to tell which was which. It would be fairer to describe their books as embellished memoirs or fictionalized biographies.

Jerzy Kosiński

Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, believes the taint of scandal brought about Kosiński’s death. His suicide note read, “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.”

Demidenko and Hegemann

Occasionally writers who falsify (e.g, Helen Darville a.k.a Helen Demidenko) or plagiarize (e.g, Helene Hegemann) are rewarded for their deceit. How they win prizes after their false narratives are exposed and Laura Ingalls Wilder falls victim to #CancelCulture escapes me.

Konrad Kujau

The Hitler Diaries took hubris, but Konrad Kujau was pretty certain Adolf wasn’t likely to pop up in Buenos Aires, Brasília, or São Paulo and say, “Hallo? Entschuldigung…”

Clifford Irving

For sheer audacity, it’s hard to beat Clifford Irving, because Howard Hughes, as far as anyone knew, was very much alive. And he did indeed pop up in Acapulco or Houston or somewhere and say, “Hello? Excuse me,” not that anyone believed him at first. And then… And then after he wrote a 1981 explication called The Hoax, Irving sued the movie company because the resulting film was too, well, hoaxy. Damn, that took nerve.

Charrière Castaneda

Please excuse me. I must return to writing my fictionalized memoir. Kindly ignore any perceived exaggerations, embellishments, or inconsistencies you may notice about my life amongst the Goajira and Yaqui…

19 June 2021

Moonlight & Misadventure


  

As some of you might've heard, Canadian writer and editor Judy Penz Sheluk released a new crime anthology yesterday called Moonlight & Misadventure: 20 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. This is the third of her Superior Shores Press mystery anthologies--the first was The Best Laid Plans in 2019, the second was Heartbreaks & Half-truths in 2020. It's been my honor to have a connection to all three books: I wrote a cover blurb for the first and I have stories in both the second and third. And although I'm fond of all three anthologies, I'm especially pleased with the stories in M&M.

 

As for the title, which is also the theme, not all the criminal activity in these stories happen at night, but much of it does, and all the stories are connected in some way with the moon. As for misadventures, there are plenty of those, which is as it should be. If everything goes exactly as planned, where's the fun? (I seem to recall that in each episode of Mission: Impossible, the mission should have been impossible because circumstances managed to screw it up every time. But the team somehow came out okay in the end.)

Back to the topic. I wanted to mention at least a few of the twenty stories in Moonlight & Misadventure, so I chose three written by longtime friends of mine. For what it's worth, here are some observations about their stories:

"A Currency of Wishes" by Kate Fellowes. This one starts off with a guy trying to go straight and a pestering uncle trying to talk him into a get-rich-quick heist. Throw in a woman who's interested in the guy but who doesn't know about the uncle and the possible theft, and the tension starts building. It's one of those stories where nothing is crystal clear until the end, and at that point everything comes together in a way that (as Aristotle said) is both unexpected and inevitable. You'll like it.

"Strawberry Moon" by Judy Penz Sheluk. A young lady on her way back from a camping trip has to cross over from Canada to the U.S. The problem is, if you're trying to cross a border in a mystery story, you can be pretty sure there's going to be trouble with the border guards. This suspenseful story, a little shorter than most of those in the book, is another that packs a great punch in the final few paragraphs. Since this is also the editor's story, it needed to be a good one, and it is.

"Crown Jewel" by Joseph S. Walker. Joe Walker is no stranger to mystery anthologies, and I think his story here is one of the best in the book. It begins with Keenan Beech's twin brother Xavier cheating and stealing from him, and when Keenan tries to get back what was stolen he meets a group a lot more devious than the two Beech boys, and meaner too. This tale has fascinating characters, plenty of crimes and threats and double-crosses, some interesting information about an unusual hobby, and plot twists galore. The kind of story I like to read!

And if you want to see the kind of story I like to write, my contribution to this anthology is called "Reunions." It starts off with two passengers on a domestic airline flight, neither of whom know each other. They meet in an unusual way, chat for awhile, and then, when the flight's over, go their separate ways. Any reader of course knows their lives will probably intersect again in some way, but over the course of the story I've included what I hope are enough plot reversals to keep things interesting.

One quick note: It probably won't surprise you to know that the idea for my story--a random meeting of two travelers who later reconnect--came from a personal experience (as so many ideas do). In this case I was flying home once on an IBM business trip to Atlanta and got into a conversation with the guy sitting beside me on the flight. We didn't talk long, but we exchanged names and a few pleasantries before we landed and parted company, and the following day we unexpectedly wound up sitting at a conference table together for a planning meeting at a downtown bank. In real life, this wound up being nothing more than a couple of pleasantly surprised travelers, but in my story the two businessmen re-meet under far different conditions, and with far different results.

Anyhow, these are only a fifth of the stories in this book, and I can honestly tell you I enjoyed them all. I think you will too.


 Thanks, Judy, for letting me join the party, and congratulations on another fine mystery/crime anthology!



18 June 2021

Still Writing in the Dark


In my April 2019 SleuthSayers’ posting, I mentioned how writers evolve. Most of this posting is a repeat of what was posted before.

When I began writing novels, I made detailed outlines and after completing the books, I saw I always deviated from the outline to make the story work. No problem. I also wrote a detailed synopsis of each book to satisfy agent/editor/publisher.

That was then. Now, I begin with a character with a problem. Add setting, time and a couple conflicts listed in sketchy notes so I don't forget. Sometimes the character walks off in another direction and the sketchy notes are ignored. I follow the character and write what he/she says and does.

Writing in the dark. I'm not alone in this. Better writers have been doing this for a while. Me, only recently. When it is time to get back to Lucien Caye, to rejoin his world, go back to 1951, I put him in motion and tag along. I miss him and that world so it is great to be back. Same with my other series characters.

I follow in the footsteps of James Sallis and Dean Wesley Smith and many other good writers.
James Sallis – DRIVE (made into a movie with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan out of this novel), the Lew Griffin New Orleans novels – THE LONG-LEGGED FLY, BLACK HORNET, MOTH, BLUE BOTTLE, EYE OF THE CRICKET, GHOST OF A FLEA – and many other novels, books of poetry, non-fiction books, and essays.

Sallis explains "After years of writing the well-made story," he became disaffected and bored and if he was bored, possible his readers would be bored. He sometimes goes back to Raymond Chandler's – when in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. He decided to challenge himself and improvise.

Sallis says, "I would start with a scene. I would start with a bit of conversation, with a plot point and would see where it took me. And I would try to surprise myself." He goes to to explain writers go every way with their writing, some have to have it all clocked out and some can't do that. There is a danger to all creative work. Sallis adds how writing this way can be like throwing yourself off a cliff.

LINK to Sallis interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuXCz2gv3pc

Dean Wesley Smith has over a hundred published novels and more than 17 million copies of his books in print. Dean wrote a book about this: WRITING INTO THE DARK: HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL WITHOUT AN OUTLINE.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-into-Dark-without-Outline-ebook/dp/B00XIPANX8/

Dean says it will start with a scene or conversation and he sees where it takes him looking for a surprise. When addressing writing into the dark, he explains, "To be vital you have to change." He goes on to remind us, "You are the God of your book."

Here is a great interview of Dean Wesley Smith:
LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zjl66ZnrC7g/

I still like starting with the story running and catching up with the characters. Endings can be a surprise and when it works, it is like the satisfaction a homicide detective gets when the killer looks you in the eye and confesses.

That's all for now.

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

17 June 2021

All's Well That Ends in a Story


Since everything that happens could be turned into a crime, every crime can be used again, and everyone is a potential character, or at least part of a character.  And every story has another way it can be told.  (You should hear some of the ones I've been told at the pen.  Or at the laundromat.)

Ripped from the internet:


Well, there's a game that's hard to resist:

Gone With the Wind: Spoiled rich girl pines for married KKK guy.  Marries another guy for spite and 2 others for money.  She keeps the plantation.  (Historical Romance.  Warning:  Contains material that some might find offensive.)
The Fountainhead:  Spoiled rich girl pines for lusty architect, but marries 2 men for their power in order to keep him unsuccessful, because if she can't have what she wants, she'll destroy it.  (Warning:  Contains material so inane that some people have mistaken it for a political manifesto.)  

NOTE:  I'm beginning to see a pattern here...  

SECOND NOTE:  Speaking of political manifestos: 

The Communist Manifesto:  Classic apocalyptic thriller of good vs. evil, in which the proletariat rises up against the evil capitalists in a violent apocalyptic revolution. The resulting dictatorship of the proletariat causes the state, family and religion to wither away and die, and everyone lives freely in an endless paradise on earth.  (Claims scientific basis, but really based on German philosophy.)

NOTES:  Very poor experiential track record. Much easier to read than Das Kapital. Also suffers from what is now the libertarian mindset in that it assumes two "facts" that have never been in evidence when it comes to human beings: (1) that we always act rationally and (2) that we always care about their neighbors. 

Emile, or On Education:  Influential treatise on the education of young children, whose author put each one of his five children into an orphanage. 

1984:  The World State keeps everyone in line in a totalitarian oppression based on constant fear and propaganda.  

Brave New World:  The World State keeps everyone in line through unlimited sex, drugs, and entertainment.  

NOTE:  What is it with these patterns?

And back we go to spoiled rich girls:

The Razor's Edge:  Spoiled rich girl falls for dreamy new age guy, but marries for money.  Later kills his fiancee; is surprised when he doesn't appreciate it. He gets enlightened; she doesn't.

To be fair, there are also a whole list of novels / books / stories / plays / movies about spoiled rich guys:

Eugene OneginAnna Karenina, etc., there's a shoal of Russian characters, all interchangeable.
Adam BedeTess of the d'UrbervillesEast Lynne, and every other Victorian seducer.  
But let's let Tregorin in The Seagull sum it all up for all of them: 

The plot for the short story: a young girl... happy and free, like a gull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom.

The Southern version is different:  from Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:  A post Civil War Southern gentleman, neurotic, introspective, supposedly intelligent, spends his time whining and drinking, but almost never screwing.  (Which is why his sister / fiancee / childhood sweetheart ends up in bed with the roughest trade she can find.)

On to other things:

Finnegan's Wake:  An Irish wake (in case you don't know, endless drinking & talking) and a resurrection (or maybe not).
NOTE:  It helps if you read it aloud, while drinking Irish whiskey, with an Irish accent and a high pitched voice (like Joyce's, below).  Or you could read Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, and discover the joys of jacking in as well.  (Look it up.)  


Finnegan's Wake is best known for its polyglot language that includes English, Latin, Gaelic, and some words that he made up himself.  The opening line:  "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs" - can give you the impression that you understand it.  How about this?

"Wold Forrester Farley who, in deesperation of deispiration at the diasporation of his diesparation, was found of the round of the sound of the lound of the Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk."  

Speaking of interesting words, perhaps invented, the other day a friend of mine mispronounced "speculum" as "spacula".  I replied that a spacula was the offspring of Dracula and a kitchen utensil, which is exactly what a speculum often feels like.  

Ah, vampires:

The Twilight Series:  A handsome vampire likes to play with his food.

As John Franklin once lectured in Laskin, SD, in a hopefully soon to be finished story by yours truly


"Continental European vampires are predators, pure and simple. But the fictional vampires of England and America are like cats:  they play with their food. And only Americans would come up with vampires that not only play with their food, not only fall in love with it, but want to have sex with it.  That and American Pie makes one suspicious of American kitchens."

BLATANT SELF PROMOTION:

My story "Collateral Damage" is in Murderous Ink Press' Crimeucopia: We're All Animals Under the Skin.  Available at Amazon.

And my story "The Sweet Life" will be in the July/August Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  That's my 30th story in AHMM!  Thank you to the late, great Cathleen Jordan and the current editor, Linda Landrigan!  


16 June 2021

Keeping You in Suspense


 

I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably.  There is an overlap, but they are not identical.

I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense.  If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised.  But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.

Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation."  While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.  

As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense.  But does all suspense fiction involve crime? 

A few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories that do not involve crime.  It led to some interesting discussions.  First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short stories: novels, plays, and even a poem.  ("Casey at the Bat" certainly is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect Worldcat mentions.) 

But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments.  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it  crime fiction?  Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.


Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?

Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's  "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first.  But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point.  By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.*  However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.

The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense.  See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."  


Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson.  His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake.  An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.

What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes.  Please add your own suggestions.

Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."

Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."

London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."

Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."

Saki - "The Open Window."

By the way, there was a great radio show called Suspense and Bob and Ray used to mock it with... Anxiety!

* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."


15 June 2021

Cleveland


    A few years ago, my family and I visited Cleveland. We spent a great day wandering around inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I had a good meat at a nearby bar my wife learned about through an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If I swing back to Cleveland, I'd like to take a little time and visit the James A. Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery. I've been fascinated by Garfield since I read the biography, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. 

    The larger point is that while I have visited Cleveland and enjoyed myself, I have not even scratched the surface of the city. I will, therefore, happily defer to anyone who might be in a better position to speak to today's question. What has made Cleveland a hotbed for the development of search and seizure law? 

    On June 10, 1968, the United States Supreme court handed down Terry v. Ohio. The case's facts are straightforward. A Cleveland police officer stopped a man he suspected was about to commit a robbery and patted him down. The officer found a gun. The Supreme Court recognized the right of a police officer, with reasonable suspicion based on his or her training and experience, to detain and frisk a suspect. The stop and frisk was born. 

    The pre-Terry world had two categories of police/citizen contact. A voluntary encounter--an officer has a conversation with a civilian--and an arrest. Terry v. Ohio introduced the concept of a "detention." Consider the consequences. If the police saw a masked man holding a prybar and shining a flashlight outside your house at midnight, the Terry decision is the officer's authority to detain him for an investigation. 

    Consider the consequences. If a misguided police officer wants to harass someone, the Terry decision provides a lower bar for the opportunity. (Chief Justice Warren discussed this issue at the time of the decision.) 

    The Supreme Court gave this round to the police. 

    I can't count the number of cases I've looked at which were some variation of a Terry stop. 

    But Cleveland cases go the other way as well. Mapp v. Ohio was a win for defendants. 

    On May 23rd, 1957, Cleveland police got a tip that a bombing suspect might be at the apartment of Dolly Mapp. The police knocked and asked permission to enter. Mapp refused to admit them without a search warrant. 

    Later, more police returned. They forced their way inside the apartment. The police showed Mapp a piece of paper. She grabbed it and stuffed the "warrant" inside her dress. The police recovered the fake search warrant. The handcuffed Mapp and searched her apartment. They found the suspect, some gambling paraphernalia and a small stack of pornographic books. Mapp claimed an earlier tenant had left the magazines. 

    After Mapp refused to testify at the trial of gambling higher-ups, she was prosecuted for the pornography. She was convicted even though the search warrant was never produced. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed. Although the search warrant's validity was sketchy, the police had not used the kind of force which "shocks the conscience." This holding was in line with existing precedent. 

    The U.S. Supreme Court pivoted. They held that "all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is...inadmissible in state court." 

    There may be other ways to treat police misconduct, civil liability or increased training and supervision. The court, however, held that without the exclusionary rule, the Fourth Amendment's protections would merely be "form words" that would be "valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties."

    That round to the defendants (Or, perhaps to those who want to be secure in their homes, safe from unreasonable government intrusion.)

    Mapp and Terry will be included on most lists of landmark 4th Amendment cases. Both changed the trajectory of the way police operate in this country. Perhaps it's the water, the mix of Lake Erie with a splash of Cuyahoga River which makes the city ripe for 4th Amendment litigation. Maybe we need a resident to weigh in on this one. This much remains clear. Regardless of where they are set, criminal legal thrillers and police procedurals all carry a little bit of Cleveland around in them. 

    Until next time. 

14 June 2021

Character Twists


It’s fairly common at readings and panels for writers to be asked whether character or plot provides the starting point for their work. Where do you begin? Which motivates your process most? 
 
But here’s a twist on those questions that I personally find more interesting—particularly for short story writers: Is your focus primarily on plot or character at the end of your stories? 
 
 In my essay “The Short Mystery” from the recently released How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America, I made the following statement: 
 
Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line. The ink was an exotic poison! The money was counterfeit! Those women were twins! But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective. A new perspective on a character the reader has gotten to know, a secret desire that complicates motives, an unexpected action that nonetheless seems perfectly in character—these might provide the reader a deeper satisfaction. 
 
Crafting the essay for that new handbook challenged me to think more critically about the principles and strategies guiding my own writing—and to reflect as well on some of the stories I’ve best loved and admired as a reader—all of which led to that paragraph being, from my perspective at least, one of the most important in the essay. So I was grateful when my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti emailed to ask specifically about the idea of a character twist—and to invite me to return to the blog to write about it at a little greater length. (Rob is also a contributor to How to Write a Mystery, I should add—along with another SleuthSayer, Stephen Ross. Even more reasons to check out the book!) 
 
Unfortunately, in the same way that writing the handbook essay helped to clarify things for me, trying to draft this post—several drafts, in fact—has driven home something I hadn’t fully thought about: It is terrifically hard to write about endings and what makes them work. There are two reasons for this. 
 
First, the best endings are integrally related to many aspects of the larger tale—not just plot but character and theme and motif and tone and even small turns of phrase, building on and resonant with that larger design. As Poe wrote, talking about the ideal tale, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design”—as he called it, the “certain unique or single effect” intended by the story. In order to feel that ultimate effect, a reader needs to have experienced all those other words first. (Three italicized words there, I know—emphasis intended!)
 
The second reason: spoilers! …primarily in terms of “surprises I shouldn’t spoil for the reader” but also in another way. Trying to summarize and explain Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” the first story I planned to talk about here, I realized how much I was simplifying and flattening and spoiling at a more basic level the experience of one of my own favorite stories.
 
I wanted to discuss “Red Wind” in part because of Chandler’s own essay “The Simple Art of Murder,”
in which he argues against the “arid formula” of some detective fiction (British and traditional primarily) and complains about that tradition’s characters as “puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” doing “unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.” Chandler’s plots, of course, took on their own formulas, and some of his characters ended up inhabiting their own one-dimensional unreality, engendering their own kinds of cliches, but I do love so much of what he wrote.
 
The trouble is, “Red Wind” has a fairly complicated plot. As detective John Dalmas himself remarks, “a murder and a mystery woman and a mad killer and a heroic rescue and a police detective framed into making a false report”—and his summary arrives not even halfway through the story. 
 
Whenever I teach the story, I have to reread it carefully, having myself forgotten most of the twists and turns and how they work and why they matter and, honestly, whether I should care. But one key thread of the plot stays with me: a strand of pearls, a gift to a woman named Lola from a lover who’d died in the war, a strand of pearls she has lied about to her husband, to dodge his jealousy. As Lola tells Dalmas: “If it hadn't been for [Stan’s death], I’d be Mrs. Phillips now. Stan gave me the pearls. They cost fifteen thousand dollars, he said once. White pearls, forty-one of them, the largest about a third of an inch across. I don't know how many grains. I never had them appraised or showed them to a jeweler, so I don't know those things. But I loved them on Stan's account. I loved Stan. The way you do just the one time. Can you understand?” 
 
The pearls have been stolen and—skipping big portions of that byzantine plot—Lola needs Dalmas to get them back.
 
…which he does, but unlike Lola, Dalmas recognizes that they’re fakes. 
 
The character twist happens in the wake of that realization—and this is the point at which, in my drafts of this post, I saw how laborious it was to summarize the story, how much my summary undermined what I see as the story’s beauty, how much trying to explain the experience of an ending generally is like trying to explain the punchline of a joke… a move which inevitably ruins the joke.
 
So I’m going to cut the five paragraphs I wrote to summarize and explain the ending, and instead, I’m going to urge you to read the story, which is widely available, and then to leave this assessment instead: Throughout the story, Dalmas has been the prototypical Chandler hero— tough guy, loner, wisecracking, cynical, disillusioned, hardboiled to the core—but in the final scene, he reveals concern and empathy and he gestures toward a moment of grace, preserving Lola’s illusions even as he finds own disillusionment unfortunately confirmed.
 
The twists and turns of “Red Wind”—I struggle to remember those, to keep them straight each reread. But that final scene, the final image of Dalmas by the ocean—that’s a keeper. That’s art.
 
Apologies here, but for the other stories I’m going to mention, I’m taking the same approach—not risking deflating the power of a story by summarizing it and instead talking in more general terms about what stands out. I’ll encourage you to read each and provide links where I can. 
 
Stanley Ellin
Stanley Ellin is another favorite author and another who seems a master of the character twist. His “Moment of Decision” famously stops short of explaining what happens next at a pivotal and potentially life-endangering moment in a bet between the two main characters, but as I explain when I teach it, the story is nonetheless complete—because the focus isn’t on plot but on character. “The Moment of Decision” closes on the moment when the philosophy held so dearly by one of those characters—his massive surety of self, his belief that “for any man with a brain and the courage to use it there is no such thing as a perfect dilemma”—when that belief is irrevocably upended. 
 
Another of Ellin’s great character twists comes in “The Question,” which focuses on a father and son relationship and explores the morality of the death penalty. The father—the narrator—is an “electrocutioner,” a term her prefers to executioner, and his monologues reflects on his work, how he came to this duty, questions of criminality and justice and responsibility, and then his relationship with his son: “The truth was that the only thing that mattered to me was being his friend.” In the final scene of the story, that son asks his father a question about his work: “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”—which seems to be the question of the title, but it’s not. The important and revealing question is the final line of the story, another surprise, another upending, a revelation about the narrator that’s been hinted at throughout the story and then, in the final line, dramatically brought into view. 
 
A couple of years ago, I taught “The Duelist” by David Dean, another fellow SleuthSayer, and it may well be my favorite of Dean’s stories; it originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Here again, trying to summarize the story would inevitability reduce it, shearing away the story’s suspense and its emotion and more. In short, however, it’s the story of a “fearsome marksman,” Captain Horatio Noddy, and of his unlikely challenger, Darius LeClair, a “small, portly stranger” who seems to fumble his way through every encounter and into his own duel with Captain Noddy. The story’s surprises are many—unexpected twists and tensions nearly every step of the way—but it’s only in the final lines that an element of Darius’s character steps to the forefront as a motivation, something that’s been mentioned briefly in earlier scenes but which takes on greater depth, quietly devastating depth, in the final, heartbreaking reveal. (You can hear David Dean read the story at the EQMM podcast—and you should.)
 
My own story “Parallel Play” also deals, in its own way, with a showdown between two people—a mother home alone with her son and the father of a boy who attends the same pre-school playspace. That man has become fixated on the woman and ultimately holds her hostage one rainy afternoon while trying to explain himself to her—explain the connection he feels between them. At the end of the story—spoiler alert—she kills him, but in telling the story I skipped over that scene, skipping ahead to the aftermath, and only returning to the killing in the final lines of the story. I remember a member of my writing group asking why I’d decided to do that—why not just keep the story linear? But my goal there wasn’t to emphasize what happened but rather to explore why it happened, to explore something about that young mother that I had touched on throughout the story, even as I’d tried to keep an aspect of that “something” hidden until the final lines… where I’d hoped to emphasize that hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of character inside the violence of the scene I’d saved for last.
 
In all these cases, I recognize that I’ve been analyzing endings without explaining the endings… but I also hope that I’ve encouraged you to actually read these stories with an eye toward the point I’m trying to make. There are others that jump to mind as possibilities for exploration: Ruth Rendell’s “The Fallen Curtain” and “The New Girlfriend,” for example, and Karin Slaughter’s “The Unremarkable Heart,” just off the top of my head. And I’m sure that others here might add their own to the list—and, in fact, I hope you do. 
 
As you might imagine, I’m always looking for more good stories to read. 
 
Art Taylor is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His work has won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.