03 March 2024

Music, Neat


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

“Stephen, Lady Ga-Ga on line 2.”

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

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

Murder, Neat

sung by Stephen Ross

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

Murder, Neat

lyrics by Rob Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 March 2024

Howtellums: They're All Mysteries to Me


  

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that, for now, is a mystery.


01 March 2024

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I just followed along …

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

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

That's all for now,

www.oneildenoux.com

29 February 2024

Golden Parachute - Can Money Buy Everything?


 

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

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

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

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

AI-generated (Copilot) image

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

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

The author trying not to look too dark




28 February 2024

Getting More Than You Bargained For


Image by Freepik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had any of it encouraged his appetites?

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

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


 


 

27 February 2024

Lyrics and Music


     Like the other authors in the Murder: Neat lineup, I'm using this blog as an opportunity to talk about my story in the new SleuthSayers anthology. I jumped at the chance to contribute a story as well as the opportunity to write about it here. My tale, "Lyrics and Music," kicks off the anthology. 

    I love listening to ballads on the radio. By definition, they tell stories. Not surprisingly, that's something I admire. But a ballad does the storytelling in short stanzas, set to music, and makes the words rhyme. A good one makes my attempts at story craft feel entry-level. 

    As my traveling companion can attest, with me, usually the sappier the ballad, the better. If you tell Billy not to be a hero, like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods did, I'm right there with you. 

    Sappy is a loaded word. These days, it's never a positive. Tag anything with
"sappy" and it is weighed down with the baggage of cheesy or saccharine. But "sappy" used to be a good thing. In its origin, it meant full of vitality, like a young sapling. Somewhere around the early 17th Century, the meaning changed to excessively sentimental. The change may have been due to the stickiness of sap, the syrupy goo oozing from the young green stalks. 

    When the opportunity to contribute a story presented itself, and the only requirements were a crime story and a bar, I immediately thought about a saloon singer with a tale. Love, alcohol, a villain, and a problem to be solved: a ballad could be written about each. Instead, let's put the four together, I thought. That'll drip sap. 

    I turned up the volume on a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad and settled in at my computer. 

    But what bar? In Fort Worth, the bar is Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky tonk. It has a main stage, ample dance floor, various watering stations, and plenty of dark corners where all sorts of mischief might occur. 

    Billy Bob's Texas, however, felt too big for my setting. I needed something smaller. I remembered a great evening my traveling companion, and I spent at the Stagecoach Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, many years ago. In my mind, the place was like Billy Bob's Texas, only dried on hot. It had the same features and drew a diverse crowd but occupied less real estate. It felt more intimate. The place lacked a mechanical bull or a gift shop. The Broken Spoke in Austin also offered a similar vibe, at least before the new construction crowded in on all sides. 

    With a mental picture of the place and a vision of a woebegone protagonist, I began to type. The resulting story introduces the reader to Jimmy West, a country singer trapped by a bad contract and forced to perform at a bar run by an unscrupulous proprietor. Jimmy can't get out from under his ironclad contractual obligations. There is no escape for him...or is there? 

Vitality and sentimentality, "Lyrics and Music," I hope, embraces "sappy" in all its definitions. 

    Running a finger down the list of contributors to Murder: Neat makes a guy feel pressure to put the right words in the right spots. My name stands alongside some heady company. I'm grateful to Barb and Michael. Their skilled editing helped shift the errant words to the places they were supposed to be. They've wrung out the excess syrup. I hope you'll enjoy the results. 

    Until next time. 

26 February 2024

Room of Ice


I have a new story, Room of Ice, and it appears in the new SleuthSayers' anthology Murder, Neat. The alcohol reference in the anthology's title is on purpose. All the stories in the book have a finger, or other, in a drinking establishment. A glass or two of my story is set in a London pub.

Story settings aside, drinking establishments are excellent places to tell a story. The social atmosphere, comfortable seats, warmth, and alcohol invites (nay, demands) story telling. When the wine comes in, the wit comes out. I mean, if you're sitting there with a group of friends, you've got to do something while you're drinking. And pretty soon, someone will be off and running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

Our desire to gather with friends somewhere warm and convivial, and tell a story, is innate. And it predates drinking. Many thousands of years ago, our caveman ancestors sat around the fire on dark winter evenings. The whole clan. The extended family. They'd spent the day hunting and gathering, they'd eaten. They sat there sated and sleepy, nothing else to do – drawing pictures on the cave wall was so last era. Someone said, "You know, a funny thing happened to me today. There was this woolly mammoth…" And off he or she went, running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

The invention of alcohol meant there was now something to do while the stories were being told. And that swiftly led to the creation of places to do all of this in: pubs, inns, bars, taverns, and so on. The public living room.

I digress.

So, what's my story (Room of Ice) about? Well, no spoilers, it's about two things: Hammer Films and perception.

Hammer Film Productions is a British film production company that had its heyday from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. They specialised in horror films with a Gothic flavour (e.g., vampires, mummies, Frankenstein). Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were probably the studio's two biggest stars. According to Wikipedia, the studio made 295 films (between 1934-2019). In addition to horror, Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, noir, and comedies. I grew up watching Hammer Horrors (along with their American counterparts, the Vincent Price Edgar Allen Poe movies).

In my story, I imagine Hammer made a horror film in 1959 called Room of Ice.

My story is from the point of view of a middle-aged man – "Tim" – who, as a child, was an extra in that movie. Tim tracks down the movie's now elderly star, because he has, in later life, remembered something about the filming – something he saw. It isn't a spoiler to say that Tim is a blackmailer.

This is a story about perception. Something witnessed as a five-year-old, and then remembered at 45, with a now adult's perspective of the world (my story is set in 1999).

Room of Ice is about movies (I'm film mad, don't you know?). Making them, remembering them, worshipping them. And, as such, I made a trailer for the story to help promote it. And rather than do my usual, I made a "movie trailer" for an imagined re-release of the movie Room of Ice. You can watch the trailer here:


Well, I'm off to read all the other stories in the anthology. Should be a treat!


25 February 2024

The Bar


Most people have memories from various bars over the course of their lives. These memories may be good ones from the times when they were the happy center of attention or it was a gathering of good friends, a time they hoped would never end. But then, some could also be bad memories. A time when bad happenings affected their life, or they made bad decisions not easily undone.

My memories of bars started in a 3.2 joint in Wichita, drinking red beers and playing pool with, at that time, a good buddy. We were both underage, but other customers in this establishment were scarce and the bartender didn't ask to see IDs. Next came my part-time employment in one of the first Pizza Hut franchises. The owner of a 3.2 beer joint leased space in a defunct barber shop next to his bar, set up the pizza shop in that space, and sawed a window in the interior wall between the two businesses so that beer could be pushed through one way while the pizzas went the other direction. The boss' waitress cum mistress usually took care of any business conducted at the window. It wasn't exactly Cheers, but everyone seemed happy to be there. After that came the Army's NCO Club, which advanced ten-dollar chit books to its clientele, so that any broke NCO who wanted to could still wet his whistle. Of course, come payday, the chit book recipient immediately paid off his debt to the club.

Then, in early '71, a new job came along and the memories changed. Seems criminals and undercover Special Agents tended to operate in the dark corners of life. Bars were one of the accepted meeting places. Turned out, anything could happen in a bar.

One night, I dropped into a mob owned bar in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Sitting up to the bar counter with a drink in hand, I gave a dollar to the waitress and asked her to to get me a pack of cigarettes. She took the dollar and walked to several places in the bar before disappearing in the back room. At no time did she approach the cigarette machine set along a nearby wall and in plain view to me. When she returned, she handed me a pack of cigarettes. The pack had no license or tax stamps on it. This pack was either stolen from a warehouse, or bought clandestinely out the back door of a tobacco factory. No idea how many cartons of smokes were involved.

On a different night, but still on the Missouri side of the river, my partner, a KCMO vice-cop, and I had a federal arrest warrant for the son of a capo. We went to a night club owned by the capo, found a secluded table and ordered drinks. When the waitress brought the drinks, we told here we wanted to speak with the capo. Five minutes later, he showed up at our table. My partner explained that we had a federal arrest warrant for his son, but we did not want to disturb his wife or his home life, so we came to him here. He replied that his son would be in our office early Monday morning. Then. to show his thanks for our discretion, he said the drinks were on him. We did now wish to offend him by rejecting his offer, nor did we want to be in his debt for anything, so we left a tip for the waitress large enough to cover the drinks plus a nice tip.

On the Kansas side of the river was a biker bar known as Mother Pearls. I once bought a small quantity of crystal meth in one of their rest rooms. The purchase turned out to be crystal, but not methamphetamine. In those days, if the U/C guy got burned on a buy, he either got the money back, or he made the burn up out of his own pocket. Making up a burn was usually a long, involved story concerning bad decisions on someone's part. Sorry, but these stories are best told in a bar......if told at all.

Further up the river in St. Joe on the Missouri side one night, I was in a bar with an informant and a surveillance team. After a couple of beers and a no-show on the potential defendant's part, I made a trip to the head. As I stood there, a large, rough-looking guy appeared on each side of me. "Hi, Pockets," one of them said. "How's your evening going?" Turned out they were ATF agents that I knew. I was there to buy drugs and they were there to buy guns. Trouble was, our informants were trying to buy from each other. We called it a night and drove home.

There are plenty of other bar stories, but I'm not at liberty to tell most of them.

Like I said, anything can happen in a bar, plus everything may not be as it first appears. Mysteries abound, plots hatch, and con men flourish. Perhaps it is safer to curl up with a good book, like the Murder Neat anthology, and just read about what happens to other people in a bar. Someone might get murdered in their bed, or even in a dark alley behind a bar, but at least it won't be you.

23 February 2024

Roman à Clef? Murder, Neat: A Former Model Confesses


MURDER, NEAT… and a little bit twisted.

Who could guess that my past would be all over the short story, ‘The Mob, The Model and The College Reunion’, in the anthology MURDER, NEAT?

A few years ago, I was on stage for a book event, hearing happy applause. A hand went up, and a young gal with somewhat questionable social skills said, "You don't look anything like your protagonist."

I swallowed my wounded pride, dug deep into the wit-basket and quipped: "Not only that, I don't look anything like my author photo!" That brought the biggest laugh of the evening, of course.

But the incident prompted me to rethink a related question I get asked frequently. How close is the protagonist to the real me?

I've written 18 books and over 60 short stories. If the protagonist was me in all of those, it would be a pretty boring adventure for readers. And for me, as well. Part of the fun of being an author is putting yourself into the skin of others. Becoming the character you are writing, for just a little while. Leaving yourself behind.

However, sometimes I just want to write myself into a fun story (always a fun one...never a fearful one!)

So in ‘The Mob, The Model and The College Reunion’, I let the real me show through.  Okay, I may be older now than Donna di Marco, the protagonist, is in this tale, but she carries my background, my on again – off again modeling career, my outlook on life, and definitely my wit.  She even looks surprisingly like me.

Have you ever wanted to write a character who says what you're thinking?  The things you don't actually say out loud?

Donna does that for me! And oh, it was fun to write them.

College reunions?  I'm not a big fan.  There were few women in my Commerce program, and the misogyny at the time was pretty brutal.  Competition was savage between the young men, and my memories are mixed at best.  Sometimes I was the bone to be fought over.

But I've discovered an interesting thing.  Reunions sure are good for setting conflict.  Old grievances resurface, even among the bank executives and corporate buccaneers of my class that have done so well financially. They don't forget the old days.

So I had a bit of sport, writing what might have happened if I had gone to our last reunion.  In fact, I didn't go.  Maybe self-preservation?  Maybe I was too busy celebrating my recent marriage to an old college classmate?

Yes, the John of this story is the John Michael O'Connell who persuaded me to the altar not long ago.  And yes, our classmates were shocked.  So you can see how easy it might have been to concoct such a tale, and to lace it with the loopy humour I just can't seem to leave behind.

Not to mention the mob elements that always seem to sneak into my work.

Roman à clef? I'll leave that to your imagination.

The author at college:


The author today:

• Buy link for MURDER, NEAT   

Bad Whiskey



A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.



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