22 February 2024

Bad Influence


The Norseman's Bar is the oldest in Laskin, South Dakota. That doesn't mean the building is old or impressive. The original Norseman's was a sod house, and when that finally collapsed, its replacement was a board shanty, which burned in the dirty 30s, and up went the cinderblock building. But it's always been in the same place, same name. As well as a lot of the same names sitting in the same place, being served by the same people year after year. Norwegian Lutherans don't like change. As Detective Jonasson once said, "The main similarity between the Norseman's and the Lutheran church is that everybody knows their pew and keeps to it."
— Eve Fisher, "Bad Influence."

In case you haven't heard, Murder, Neat: A Sleuthsayers Anthology dropped on Tuesday, February 13th, and the above is from my story: "Bad Influence."

Now I have a long history with bars, beginning with parents who loved to go to Tahoe and Las Vegas to gamble (back in the days when big goombahs watched 24/7 to make sure no one stole any money or messed with the kids whose parents were busy losing at slots or cards). And later, I too have pulled all- nighters with friends, ending up with a last beer in a dive bar at 7AM. (Too old for that now. Shudder just thinking about it.) And I've been living in South Dakota for over 30 years now, and I have been a number of different bars all across the state, because... where else are you gonna go?

Here's the deal: South Dakota has 436 towns, 350 have a population of under a thousand, and over 100 of those have a population of less than 100 – and they all have a bar. And in those small towns, the bar is often the only place to get something to eat. Beer, whiskey, burgers, fries and chislic are the staples.

Beef chislic at a restaurant in South Dakota. Wikipedia

If you're lucky, they might have a grilled chicken sandwich, but I wouldn't count on it. Some places do have a special on Saturday nights: one place has prime rib, another (don't ask me how) really good Indonesian food, another hot roast beef sandwiches to die for. But by and large, no. Just the standards.

But really, what else are you going to do in a small town where the reception is poor, there is no cable, during the long Dakota winter nights, or the even longer summer late afternoons? Granted, you're going to pretty much talk about the same stuff you did last night, last week, last year… But there's something about the rehearsal of dreams, grudges, stories, and suspicions over a cold beer and hot fries that warms the soul. And can trigger the occasional fight, where everyone invites themselves to watch, until their cojones freeze, their beer runs out, and/or the cop(s) show up, and they have to go back inside. It's even better when a Poker Run comes to town, or there's a street dance. More opportunities for mayhem, mischief, and multiple arrests.

One thing that is certain is that the people serving and the people drinking remain pretty much the same. Sometimes a waitress or a bartender gets fed up and moves on to the next small town bar. Sometimes a waitress or a bartender is let go, and rumors of sexual assault, embezzlement or other misconduct fly. But here's the thing: they'll always get hired again. You'll see them down the road, at the next bar, the next town. South Dakota, especially rural South Dakota, just doesn't have enough of an employment pool to find new blood.

So what happens when old blood, bad reputations, an ex-con, and a Poker Run all combine on a long hot summer night in Laskin, South Dakota? Well, you'll just have to read "Bad Influence."

Enjoy!



Murder, Neat on Kindle and in paperback, is now available at Amazon HERE.

A great, great read, all the way through!

21 February 2024

Stealing From The Best



 I hope you aren't sick of hearing about Murder, Neat, because here we go again. I am thrilled to teeny little sub-atomic bits to have a story in the SleuthSayers anthology.  

In "Shanks's Sunbeam," Leopold Longshanks has lunch in a tavern with a fellow mystery writer who tells him that a mutual acquaintance has been accused of Doing a Bad Thing.  It is probably not a spoiler to tell you our hero saves the day.

But what I want to talk about is the name of that lunch companion: Procter Ade.  I made up the first name but the last is a homage to my inspiration.

I have written here before about George Ade.  Early in the last century he was a midwestern humorist and journalist.  He is mostly remembered for his Fables in Slang.  These were a series of short stories he wrote which satirized human nature and social mores.  Since he wanted people to know that he knew slang didn't belong in a newspaper he capitalized all the guilty words and unusual uses (Much as I did above with "Bad Thing")



.  Here are three of his opening sallies:

"One Autumn Afternoon a gray-haired Agriculturalist took his youngest Olive Branch by the Hand and led him away to a Varsity."

"Once there was a home-like Beanery where one could tell the Day of the Week by what was on the Table."

"Once there was a Financial Heavy-Weight, the Mile-Stones of whose busy life were strung back across the Valley of Tribulation into the Green Fields of Childhood."

And since the stories were fables they all ended with morals:

"In uplifting, get underneath."

"A good Jolly is worth Whatever you pay for it."

"Give the People what they Think they want."

Dublin

Not too long ago I was thinking about one of my favorite Fables and I realized I could steal a plot device from it.  The result is "Shanks's Sunbeam."  If you would like to read my inspiration you can find it here. But I urge you to read my story first.  I'd rather spoil Ade's story than mine.

By the way, "Sunbeam" also involves memories of my pre-Covid trip to Ireland.  I'm sure that makes future visits tax deductible, right?

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Murder, Neat.







20 February 2024

Murder, Messy


My fellow SleuthSayers had been discussing a group anthology long before I graduated from occasional guest poster to a regular spot in the rotation. They had a theme (crime and drinking establishments) and a title (Murder, Neat), and Paul Marks had agreed to serve as editor. Unfortunately, while the anthology was still in an embryonic stage with only a few stories written, Paul became ill, and the anthology went into a holding pattern.

Given that many of my fellow members have edited at least one anthology, I’m uncertain how the editorship landed in my lap, but once it did, I asked Barb Goffman to join me. I think I’m a good editor, and I know Barb is a great editor. We worked together to solicit stories from the other SleuthSayers, to edit them for publication, and to organize them in a way that takes readers (those who actually read anthologies from front to back) on a literary journey through crimes that happen in and around drinking establishments.

This is the first time I’ve edited an anthology where no publisher was attached prior to soliciting stories, so the work—from contributors writing their stories to Barb and I editing and organizing them—was an act of faith on all our parts.

Once we had a finished manuscript, I created a proposal and pitched the anthology to various publishers. While other publishers dawdled with their responses—or didn’t respond at all—Level Best Books accepted the anthology the day after I pitched it.

Between the time they accepted Murder, Neat and its release, Level Best Books established a new imprint—Level Short— specifically for anthologies and collections, and Murder, Neat is the inaugural title for the new imprint.

I wish Paul had been able to see the project through to completion—unfortunately, he passed away shortly after Barb and I stepped in—and I think the twenty-four exceptional stories in Murder, Neat honor the work he did to get the project started.

BAR NONE

“Bar None,” my contribution to Murder, Neat, finds the protagonist caught between a disastrous disagreement between a bar’s manager and his alcoholic brother.

The Kindle edition of Murder, Neat was released February 13; the trade paperback edition will be available soon everywhere books are sold online.



19 February 2024

Messing with Your Mind: Where Cons and Conspiracies Meet


When Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered on ABC in 1974, pre-teen me was primed and ready.

The show starred Darren McGavin (TV's first Mike Hammer) as a frumpy Chicago news reporter who inadvertently got tangled up in the supernatural, only to have his stories quashed and the truth covered up by higher powers.

In other words, every episode was a mini conspiracy theory. Chris Carter, X-Files creator, was paying attention.

The spooky element lured me in, but the show promised more. Kolchak presented zombies and aliens and Aztec mummies as verifiable truths that could be brought into the light with journalistic reporting, as well as by Kolchak's trusty Rollei 16 camera. The real bogeymen were the FBI agents, police chiefs, and politicians who but the kibosh on Kolchak's news stories.

Pre-teen me subscribed to Official UFO magazine, various marvel comics, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Starlog. Kolchak was just what I was looking for. A few years later, so was In Search Of. By the time Art Bell and X-Files rolled around, I was far from convinced that flying saucers and little green men were real, but I still found purveyors of the unknown totally entertaining.

I've become much more of a skeptic, but I haven't lost my love of a good conspiracy theory. I recently listened to the ten-episode run of Who Killed JFK, the excellent podcast series created by actor/director Rob Reiner. Each installment left me on the edge of my seat. Its conclusions are based on decades of multiple investigations, and there are interviews aplenty. Who Killed JFK makes a compelling case that sinister forces in our government were much more involved in Dallas than in Area 51.

Art Bell

I can't say that many of the big conspiracy theories making the rounds these days are grabbing me. Many, including those fueled by a certain school of on-line political discourse, seem like they are purely in the service of demonizing prominent Democrats and casting doubt on the 2020 election. These conspiracy theories have hi-jacked the stuff I'd stay up for when Art Bell was hosting his late-night radio show Coast to Coast AM. Art Bell dealt not only in UFOs and JFK, but all things out there, including clones, satanic groups, and even time travel. He was Kolchak with a microphone and 50,000 Watts.

Those currently playing politics with conspiracy theories are doing them a great disservice, and "Deep Time" is my opportunity to hi-jack them back.

"Deep Time" is my contribution to the SleuthSayers crime anthology Murder, Neat, edited by Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman. Murder, Neat features crime fiction set in drinking establishments. I set "Deep Time" in the fictional upscale pub The Burke, located in Yorba Linda, CA. It's important to note that Yorba Linda is the most conservative city in California, according to the Sacramento Bee. When the events of "Deep Time" occur, The Burke is open illegally during the darkest days of the Covid pandemic.

The Richard Nixon Library
Yorba Linda, CA

In "Deep Time," a team of con artists descends on The Burke. Their mark is a regular who is also the
founder of the alt-right conspiracy blog Deep Time. He's a self-proclaimed expert on "tracking the Deep State through time, space, and all dimensions in between." He's also the scion of a wealthy businessman, and the grifters aim to blackmail him. Things get strange when what could be a genuine unexplained phenomenon shows up in The Burke's men's room.

To quote Carl Kolchak, "Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here."

Larry Maddox



Lawrence Maddox is happy to be once again roaming the hallowed halls of SleuthSayers, though he swears he's being followed. For more tales of cons and marks, check out The Down and Out, Lawrence's installment in the excellent A Grifter's Song series, from Down and Out Books. You can reach Lawrence at madxbooks@gmail.com.

18 February 2024

Razing the Bar


Imagine if you will a lonely pub, a neighborhood taproom caught between urban blight and city renewal, the setting for my story in the first SleuthSayers anthology, Murder, Neat. Its owner Barney and his loyal friend and assistant Grace serve those who wander in. One taciturn customer takes a table by himself. He rarely speaks and never removes his baseball cap.

As Barney locks up, baseball man thrusts a revolver in Barney’s throat. He demands Barney serve up Glenfiddich, an under-the-counter scotch far outside the affordable range of local patrons. Sipping his drink, the man commences a pattern of checking the time with his cell phone.

As menacing clues accumulate, Barney grows alarmed. He realizes robbery isn’t on the stranger’s agenda but his life is. Our bartender has minutes to figure out who the stranger is and why he wants him dead.

Plot Points

This is one of my shorter stories, weighing less than 2000 words. Almost a one-act play, it’s a quick read. The idea for it came quickly, too.

I’d been working on another story, one that hasn’t yet sold. In a flash of inspiration, I realized its crucial plot point could be applied to this new project in an almost unrecognizable way.

The original tale features a broken hi-tech genius in a gradually evolving twist. Now in a faster paced narrative, this new story in Murder, Neat centers around a bartender who struggles to count down a cash drawer. Place the two stories side by side, they are so different, few readers– including me– could identify the nexus, and yet without that plot point, the story would be entirely different.

Title Bout

John Floyd is especially adept coming up with smart titles. The hazard for many writers is the risk of an almost clever name, a title that sounds smart at first blush, but proves gratuitous and not particularly applicable.

Three miles down the street from me abides a tavern called The Bar Code. Its outdoor signage features a large scannable UPC code.

I toyed with a title of Bar Code, stretching its context to disguise the ragged gap in its meaning. It was cleverish, but not satisfactory. And then inspiration struck:

Razing the Bar

I was pleased. Best of all, you, my reader, will discover the title is especially apt. Do enjoy the read.

17 February 2024

Two Dozen Writers Go into a Bar . . .


 

Last Tuesday was publication day for Murder Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology, by the Level Short imprint of Level Best Books. As others this week have said, this project is close to our hearts here at SS. Discussions about it began long ago, and thanks to our two fantastic editors, our "team" anthology is finally here. 

All of us talked, mostly via emails, about everything from what the theme of the anthology should be (besides crime, which is a given) to what the title should be, and in our case the title--Murder, Neat--came from the theme: All twenty-four of these stories are set in some kind of bar, tavern, pub, dive, honkytonk, or waterhole. (Not that any of us are at all familiar with those kinds of places.)

I think one of the reasons we decided to use a drinking establishment as our linchpin was probably the same reason the creators of Cheers set their TV series in a bar. It's one of those meeting-places that attracts all kind of characters at some time or another--good, bad, simple, complex--and all of them have stories to tell.

At the beginning of my story in the anthology, which has the misleading title "Bourbon and Water" (I love double meanings), the bar is in a place yet unknown and the two characters sitting at a dark corner table--a man and a woman--are themselves a mystery. We don't know who they are or why they're there. What we do know is that the woman has had a terrifying dream about a couple who seems much like the two of them, and her dream is my story-within-a-story, the one she tells to the man.

Because of that structure, this is, in a way, one of those "framed" narratives we've discussed often at this blog, the kind of tale that starts in the present, goes someplace else (usually the past), and ends once again in the present. The difference here is that the woman's dream--her glimpse of a of a life-changing event--serves not as the primary story but as sort of a setup. The crime is revealed later.

Not that it matters, but the dream sequence is the part that first popped into my head, when I started brainstorming the story. It happens that way sometimes: the crime part of a crime story needs to be central to the plot--we are, after all, sayers of sleuth, not sooth--but the Evil That Men Do is not necessarily the first thing I think of. Also a part of all this, in the planning stages, was the "bar" theme. How could I mix the required location with a crime and a twisty plot and come up with something that makes sense? Well, that's the fun of all this, isn't it? Create characters who are (hopefully) interesting, put them some kind of unusual location, throw in some criminal activity and other life-threatening incidents--there's a BIG one in this story--and see what happens.

I hope those of you who read it will find it not only mysterious but satisfying. It was certainly satisfying to write. 

I can't wait to read the whole book.

By the way . . .

To all you loyal friends and readers who stop in to visit us here at SleuthSayers: Thank you for that. Sincerely. We have a good time here, and hope you do too.

I think you'll like the anthology.


16 February 2024

Drink On, Drinkers!


 

Available wherever fine anthologies are sold. (Booze not included.)


Some years ago, I had this brilliant idea for a novel that never came to fruition for reasons that will become painfully obvious. I was absolutely convinced that before I could write a word of this hot new project, I needed to read a 400-page biography on the life of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast. We’ve all been there, am I right?

In that book was a reference to Nast’s favorite New York watering hole, Pfaff’s, a coffeehouse/cafe/bar that was popular with a burgeoning class of colorful artists, writers, and theater folks in Greenwich Village in the mid-19th century. Its heyday would have been the 1850s and 1860s.

In its lifetime, Pfaff’s had at least three different incarnations. Two locations—on Broadway near Bleecker Street—were situated in the neighborhood where I had worked for Scholastic back in the day. In my mind’s eye I could picture those old buildings with little effort. But I probably wouldn’t have done much with my newfound knowledge if it weren’t for synchronicity.

You know how you read about some obscure thing and it begins popping up everywhere you look? As months turned to years, whenever a piece about Pfaff’s appeared, I’d tuck that fresh article away on my hard drive.

Pfaff’s worked its magic on me. For a time, it was a rathskeller with vaulted-brick ceilings located under a busy hotel. (See images here and here.) Giant hogshead beer barrels. A gas lamp chandelier. Foreign-language newspapers on every table. It was an epicenter for America’s blooming literary and artistic culture. The round table before there was ever an Algonquin.

It was also New York’s first gay-friendly establishment, where male and female same-sex couples could hang out in a darkened vault in the back without fear of judgment. Patrons declaimed poetry, argued politics, drank heavily, and pleaded with Mr. Pfaff to let them ride the tab till their next payday. He often acquiesced, because thanks to these beautiful loons, Pfaff’s had become famous coast to coast.

Early on, I had the barest ghost of a story idea. Nast hung out here. So did Edwin Booth. But by far the most famous Pfaff’s regular was Walt Whitman, who left behind one unfinished poem about the joint. (One line of that poem inspired the title of this post.)

Cool, I thought, there’s a murder at Pfaff’s, and Whitman and Nast team up to solve it. Easy-peasy.

But I couldn’t possibly start writing based on such a flimsy premise, could I?

I am on the record as a serial over-researcher, knowing that my process often teeters close to obsession. I usually research until everything I read starts to sound repetitive. Then I know it is time to stop. This ritual is propelled by a fear that I will get something wrong, and incur the wrath of those who know better. This grew out of my years in journalism, when there might have been serious repercussions for getting a fact or assertion wrong. An old journalism professor of mine offered this advice on research: “You’ll never become an expert on a new topic. But with enough reporting, you can become a semi-expert.”

Fiction often doesn’t demand that level of research, but old habits die hard. This time around, however, there were signs that I had grown weary of my own shtick. I had just investigated the heck out of Manhattan in the days of the Dutch (1625 to 1660) and New York during the protest era (1960s) for two other fiction projects. I’d written an 1890s New York crime short, and a 1970s Serpico-like crime fantasy short, both of which were pubbed in AHMM. Thanks to that Nast book, I knew a ton about the artist, but I didn’t know if I could spare the time to “become a semi-expert” on Whitman. Indeed, I doubted such a thing was even possible.

Then came a call for submissions. Our editors challenged us to write a short crime story involving…a bar. If this was not fate knocking, I didn’t know what was. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to procras—er, I mean embark on a sensible course of research. The pandemic was still raging, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

I cracked open my Pfaff’s file. To whet my appetite, I read two long scholarly papers, and browsed a Pfaff’s-dedicated website maintained by Lehigh University. (Yes, Pfaff’s is that well known and revered.) I perused articles about an NYU professor who guides people on Whitman tours. It appears that one Pfaff’s location still exists. The current renters of the space sometimes allow Whitman geeks to parade through the basement so long as visitors are careful not to disturb the boxes of merchandise destined for their Korean grocery upstairs.

I had not read Whitman since high school. I bought two modern volumes, The Portable Walt Whitman and The Collected Poems. Digging into those introductions and hearing his voice in my head again gave me one of my story’s conceits. I would presume to write bad poetry in Whitman’s style, only to have my fictional character reject them as they came to his mind. Among other things, I learned that he loved walking the city, as anyone who adores that island does. Like any good flatfoot, he would have known his nabe like the back of his hand.

I supplemented the literary research by reviewing some of his letters and photos at The Walt Whitman Archive, and a couple of decent articles about his relationships. It broke my heart to learn that at the end of his life, knowing that his papers would be scrutinized upon his death, he edited his journals, changing the pronouns of some of his lovers from him to her. I read one piece about the playful cross-dressing that most likely went on at Pfaff’s, which planted the seed for my plot. I found a long, shocking article that claimed that many of the encounters Whitman described in his encoded, private notebook involved males of an age that would greatly concern us today. (Before you judge Walt, consider the relative ages of Mr. and Mrs. Poe; he age 26, she age 13 when wed.)

I was not qualified to assess those claims. I needed just enough details to write a detective story. I shifted to assembling my prosaic details. What sort of food did Charles Ignatius Pfaff offer his patrons? (Slabs of roast beef, German pancakes, Frankfurter wurst, raw clams and oysters, salt herring with black bread, and so on.) What sorts of drinks? (Fancy European tipples, of course, along with the delightful new style of beverage immigrant German brewers had gifted their new American neighbors: lager.) I researched old Hoboken-New York-Brooklyn ferry lines, the old NYPD Tombs building, New York’s horse-drawn transit systems, the first Bellevue Hospital, and the protocols for visiting early city morgues, 

I talked to a doctor about how one might successfully stab an obese man in the back. I researched how early physicians diagnosed various forms of cancer. I re-read a book by the historian Harold Holzer on Abraham Lincoln’s famous February 1860 speech at Cooper Union, because that (nonfiction) book was set in the very same neighborhood at about the same time as my proposed story. Holzer’s descriptions of Lower Broadway were incredibly helpful.

At the end of all this, our modern pandemic was still raging, I had 45 pages of copious, pencil-written notes, and had not written a single word of my story.

Instead of freeing me up, my much-vaunted “process” failed me. I was now terrified to write this thing, for all the wrong reasons. I am not a poet. I am not a historian. I am not a literary scholar. I am not gay. I was just a guy who loved beer and old New York bars.

I should have embraced those credentials and run with them. But no. I had just come across a book specifically about Whitman’s place in the bohemian world. Essay after essay written by People In The Know. In other words, academics. Oh cool, I thought. Maybe these experts could teach a wannabe semi-expert what he needed to know.

Skimming even just a few pages of that text convinced me to stop this bullsh*t already and write the damn story. It dawned on me that I had absorbed so much Pfaffian history that I could write the story blind. And I would need to, because that tome made my eyes bleed.

All of which to say, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bled” is now out in Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology. Go forth and read it lustily. It pairs well with a cool lager, pork schnitzel, and a robust German mustard. And yes, I probably left too much of my research on its pages, but you know what? Totally cool with it.

Let me assure you that I’ve long since recovered from my dubious labors, and am happily collecting material for two other historical “shorts.” One set during the American Revolutionary War, the other in Renaissance Italy.

Mark my words: I have resolved to never over-research again. In fact, I’m pretty confident that I’ll have both of these pieces wrapped in time for the 2068 SleuthSayers anthology. Go SLEUTHS!



See you next time!

Joe