Showing posts with label EQMM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label EQMM. Show all posts

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice


My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”

02 March 2018

Stories to Novels: Reading the Complete Continental Op


Over the last couple of months, I've been reading aloud to my wife Tara the stories in The Big Book of the Continental Op, the first print collection ever of all of Dashiell Hammett's stories featuring the unnamed detective. We've read fifteen of them so far, and as I write this, we're about three-quarters through the novelette "The Whosis Kid"—and on the edge of our seat each time someone new comes through the apartment door with pistol(s) in hand! (The room's getting crowded now, with the Op and five other people all vying for space to maneuver.)

Our readings stem in part from a New Year's resolution to read the whole collection this year—rereading stories in some cases—and the title doesn't lie, it's a big book, and it's a mammoth achievement too, thanks to the hard work of editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter. But I've been interested in Hammett and particularly the Op stories long before, even having taught some of them in my classes at George Mason University, and I was thrilled with the earlier gathering of these stories in an e-book series.  (See my 2016  SleuthSayers interview with Rivett on that project.)

I've read some of these stories before, as I mentioned, but some—even some well-known titles—I'm enjoying for the first time. And what's struck me at several times is how Hammett used the short stories as a testing ground for ideas, characters, and scenes.

I've said before—and will argue again (and again)—that short stories can't fully be apprenticeships for writing novels. While writing short stories can help writers learn some of the fundamentals of crafting characters and shaping scenes and sharpening dialogue, etc. But the short story and the novel are two vastly different forms, with different requirements and different challenges. The leap isn't entirely a natural one, and I've talked to as many fine novelists who say they've never been able to write a short story as I have with fine short story writers who've struggled to complete a novel.

That said, however, I've also written before about Hammett's own transition from short story to novel—with his first two novels loosely put together as novels in stories with the seams smartly covered up. Both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse appeared as serialized stories in Black Mask, each installment with its own narrative arc, even as the fuller narrative arc emerged only in the connecting of the story cycles. I've written about this before too; see my essay here for the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog. And one of the things I'm most excited about in the new Big Book of the Continental Op is seeing those story cycles in their original forms: "The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted—Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder," which became Red Harvest; and "Black Lives," "The Hollow Temple," "Black Honeymoon," and "Black Riddle," which became The Dain Curse. In these cases, it's not just that Hammett used the short story as a training ground for the novel but that he used the architecture of the short story as the building block for the larger structures.

Beyond those specific stories and those specific novels, the early stories in the new collection have been opening up new perspectives on Hammett's artistic process—exciting discoveries for me, even if others have likely written on them elsewhere. Take, for example, that scene from "The Whosis Kid" I mentioned above. The Op and a woman named Inés Almad and a guy named Billie are together in her apartment; then in comes the Frenchman Edouard Maurois and a fellow with a big chin (appropriately called Big Chin); and at our last stopping point the title character steps in, a black revolver in each hand. What everyone's doing there—well, neither the reader nor the Op know at this point in the story, but the Frenchman seems to be looking for something that Inés is supposed to have—and that she claims she doesn't but the title character does. And all through the scene, I couldn't avoid thinking about Sam Spade, Bridgid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Casper Guttman, and Wilmer Cook all crowding together in that pivotal scene in The Maltese Falcon. (Again, we haven't finished "The Whosis Kid" yet, but I'm thinking things don't look good for Inés here.)

Similarly, reading "The Golden Horseshoe," about the Op's hunt for missing Norman Ashcraft, who left his wife and disappeared, how could I not think of the famous Flitcraft Parable—and not just because of the echo between the names. That story from The Maltese Falcon—a digression that's been discussed and argued over endlessly—gets an earlier treatment here as a case itself, and it's fascinating.

Elsewhere, in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," Porky Grout (what a name!) seems a prototype for  characters in later stories and novels. (On a side note, I just read this New York Times review of the 1974 collection The Continental Op, which focuses on Porky Grout—and I disagree with the take here. In recent conversation, Peter Rozovsky mentioned Porky and talked about the story's moments of real emotion, a glimpse inside the Op's feeling—so true.)

And then beyond plot and scene and character, I've also found myself marveling as seeing Hammett's style evolving—and his boldness about his writing. Even in a very early story, "The Tenth Clew," he includes a chapter that seems more impressionistic, certainly less plot-driven, with the Op floating in San Francisco Bay, horns blowing around him, swimming, trying to survive. It's a marvelous passage, and one that another writer might simply have skipped (or another editor might simply have cut).

In short, reading The Big Book of the Continental Op has delivered not just some fine, fun stories, but also significant glimpses both into the evolution of an artist and into the process of artistic creation. Still many stories to go—and the rest of the year to read them!—and looking forward to them all.

BIT OF BSP


Since my last post here, Malice Domestic has updated its website with links to all of the finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. You can find them all here.

So pleased again to have my story "A Necessary Ingredient" among the mix here—and shout-outs again to two fellow SleuthSayers: Barb Goffman, my fellow Agatha nominee, and Paul D. Marks, co-editor of Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, where "A Necessary Ingredient" first appeared.




24 December 2016

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All


Melodie’ll be right with ya. Christmas Eve and there I am at the shop and whadya know. In drops Santa. Seems in Brooklyn, somebody stole the hubcaps off his sleigh, knowhatimean? So just happened to have a set in stock, came in fresh this afternoon, a perfect match, indistinguishable from the originals, if you get my drift. Vinnie slapped them on while Solly helped cinch down the loot, er, gifts in the back. Solly didn’t do so good ’cause when Santa lifted off, whadya know… there’s a few items what fell off the back of the sleigh.

We was real heartbroken about that, especially when Gina and Velma walked in and gave us hell. Don’t mess with Velma. My coglioni still hurts from last year when I told her, “Baby, I got yer yule log right here.”

Gina was a little mollified when Santa sorta dropped his December issue of Ellery Queen and there was a Steve Steinbock report all about her. Well, not exactly her, but her mouthpiece. Ya got to add the word ‘mouth’ to that or she gets all unaccountably insulted. Anyways, this is what the review gotta say:
Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter Caper, Raven Books, $9.95. Gina Gallo tries to steer clear of her family's questionable business dealings. But when she discovers the body of a local Peeping Tom in the alley behind her shop, fate forces her hand. She and various cousins find themselves in a topsy-turvy mess of missing bodies, a surplus of coffins, and geriatric misbehavior. Campbell's writing is always funny. The Goddaughter series, of which this slender novella is the fourth volume, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads imprint, making it a fast, fun read.
That put her in a lot better mood and she didn’t dislocate no more body parts. She thinks you might enjoy it too, maybe find one in your stocking, capisci?

— Pietro ‘the Limp’ Peyronie (as dictated to Velma)

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl… only not so bad today)

Last year, I had the honour of being guest speaker at the Hamilton Literacy Council AGM.  This wonderful organization provides one on one tutoring to adults in Hamilton who don't know how to read.  The teachers are marvelous.  They are mostly volunteers.

The theme for the AGM was all about wishes.  Dream Big.  That sort of thing.  And so the staff came up with a brilliant idea for centrepieces for the AGM.  Each table had a crystal globe in the centre of it, like a snow globe.  Each globe had a different note inserted into the middle.  And on the note was the dream of one of the students from the literacy council.

I picked up the globe on my table. The note inside it read:

"I want to work in a store someday."

I felt my throat constrict.  My eyes started to tear.

Many of us work in stores when we are in high school or college.  It is our 'starter job' - the one we can't wait to leave after graduation from school to get the better job for which we trained.  I remember working at a mega grocery store.  Eight hours on my feet, unrelenting noise, and lots of lifting.  I was so grateful to leave it.

I thought about our student who wrote that note.  What she wanted most in the world was to become literate so she could work in a store.

Because she couldn't work there now.  She couldn't read labels.  She couldn't read sales slips.  Most stores have computers.  She couldn't read the text on the computer screen.

She couldn't even fill in the application form to work there.

Literacy has always been a cause dear to my heart.  I write a series of crime books for adult literacy students who are reaching the advanced certificate stage.  I donate all the proceeds from my book launches to the literacy council.  But at the AGM, this student opened my eyes and reached my heart.

In our society, we expect everyone to be able to read.  Jobs today require it.

All my life, I have imagined how sad it would be to be unable to read a book.  Imagine how it would feel to be unable to fill out a job application.

My fervent wish this Christmas is the gift of literacy for everyone.  May everyone in my town, Hamilton, and my country, Canada, be able to read.  May everyone in the world have the chance to learn, and may teachers and tutors everywhere continue to make it happen.

Merry Christmas to all.

03 October 2015

Milestone


I've been writing for so long now--21 years--that I no longer have many "first-time" happenings, in this business. But I did finally reach one of my goals recently: I had my first story published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In the past, editor Janet Hutchings has been kind enough to buy a couple of my "mystery poems," but unlike many of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I had never before been able to sell her a short story. (Not for lack of trying, by the way.)

When I last saw her, Janet told me that one of the things that swayed her this time was that my story (it's called "Dentonville," in the November 2015 issue) was so offbeat. That's probably a good description. After all, one of the lead characters is a woman seven feet tall, with an attitude that's different as well--she's normally kindhearted but can be formidable when the situation requires it, and several situations in this story require it. The other main character is an easygoing accountant with a seven-year-old son and a shady past whose old enemies are being released from prison with revenge on their minds, and for most of the story he's not quite sure who (including the aforementioned giant mystery-woman) is friend or foe. The plot soon becomes complicated, with strange alliances and hidden agendas playing a big part in the outcome.

As for other reasons why "Dentonville" might've been accepted for publication, all I know is that we as authors occasionally run into a story that is just plain fun to write, and this one was. And sometimes I think that kind of enthusiasm comes through to the editor who's making the buy-or-don't-buy decision. Whatever the case, I'm thankful that this one made the cut.

Also, I received my author's copies a couple weeks ago, and I found--no surprise, here--that the other stories featured in the November issue are excellent. One of my favorites is "The Lake Tenant," by Brendan DuBois, a mystery that's told with almost no dialogue but paints an unforgettable picture of small-town New Hampshire. It also contains a lot of humor and some delicious twists and turns. Another favorite is "Ninth Caller," by Philip Lowery, from EQMM's Department of First Stories. It's a delightful account of a couple of women who decide to swindle a radio-station call-in program.

In the magazine's lead story, a group of ladies are again up to no good: veteran author Carolyn Hart spins a devious tale of murder between girlfriends in "What Goes Around." Later, in Katia Lief's "The Orchid Grower," a suburban housewife takes us on a fast-moving adventure in survival, and Brazilian author Raphael Montes's "Black Widow" introduces us--in a yarn told almost entirely in dialogue--to a suspicious but remarkable woman who has watched several husbands die after only a year or two of marriage with each. I won't spoil things by giving you a body count on any of these stories, but I will say there's plenty of misbehavior going on, and much of it by the fairer sex.

There are also stories about murder among the Florida elite ("A Killing at the Beausoleil" by my friend Terrie Moran), the ins and outs of professional women's wrestling ("The Female of the Species" by Chris Muessig and Steve Seder), and a serial killer with a Jack-the-Ripper-style M.O. ("Like Jack" by Peter Turnbull). On the lighter side, Golden Derringer Award winner James Powell gives us a story called "Guy Talk" about a private detective who just happens to be a hummingbird.

The quality of these other authors' stories in the November issue makes me even more proud to be featured among them.

Thanks, Janet, for allowing me into the party.

30 July 2014

Staying Afloat


I recently got my hands on a hoard of very old Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, and have been skimming them for dusty gems.  Came upon a little oddity in the April 1969 issue.  The first odd thing is that the story was a reprint - it had first appeared in EQMM in 1947.  And the editor -- that would be Frederick Dannay -- reports that upon the original appearance "(a)lmost without exception, readers and critics disapproved of the story, and editor-EQ [Dannay], to put it mildly, was pilloried."  Now, he reports, people have been asking to see "that prophetic story."  He suggests that he and the author were ahead of their time.

Well, we will get into that.  The story was "The President of the United States, Detective," by H.F. Heard.  Now, I would bet a shiny new quarter, featuring the Everglades National Park on the reverse side, that that title came from the editor, not the author.  First of all, Dannay was addicted to title-tinkering.  Second, it stinks of special pleading:  "This isn't science fiction!  It's a detective story.  See?  It's in the title."


It is science fiction.  The story takes place in the year 1977--

Okay, let's pause for a moment and deal with this crazy-making real-life time travel.  The story was written (or at least published) in 1947.  It was reprinted in 1969.  But I just read it (while flying around in my jetpack, of course) in the year 2014, which means this reader is further removed from the date of the story than Heard was when he wrote it.  Mind-boggling.

The hero of the story is President Place, "a mammoth of a man.  His hands were bigger even than George Washington's, he was taller than Lincoln, he weighed more than Taft. 'The biggest president ever.'"  Clearly not modeled on Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, both of whom graced the Oval Office in 1977.

And now I should put in a SPOILER ALERT because I am going to reveal the plot of this almost seventy-year-old story. 

During one day President Place gathers info from several sources that convinced him that the Commissar of the USSR is up to no good.  The Commissar was Yang Chin, a Mongolian ("China, as usual, had swallowed those who rashly tried to get her into their clutches").  And as it turns out Yang had dropped atom bombs on his own permafrost, melting the ice, which would inevitably lead to parts of Europe and the Americas being flooded.

Ah, but he didn't count on shrewd President Place who, the same day, (apparently Environmental Impact Statements don't exist in this version of the 1970s) ordered the Air Force to bomb Greenland and Antarctica, causing their ice packs to melt, causing the land to be lightened, and therefore rise up.  

I told a friend about this and he said "Physics no do that."  He is a native English speaker,   but he was stunned.

An aside: the late author, H.F. Heard, also known as Gerald Heard, was an interesting guy.   His web site, which doesn't seem to mention our target story, does tell us about a Sherlockian novel, A Taste For Honey, and a lot of religious texts.  Apparently he was a big influence on the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous as well.

Getting back to the short story, one interesting point, obviously, is its prediction of human-made climate change.  I went on the web searching for comments on the story and  found Cli Fly Central, a website dedicated to climate change science fiction, which it suggests should be called Cli Fi.  Mr. Heard's piece is one of the earliests entries.  There is even an award for Cli Fi novels: The Nevil. 

This is of special interest to me because it appears that my own contribution to Cli Fi will be published in the next year.  It is, I assure you, crime fiction, not SF.  Even though it doesn't have "detective" in the title.  In the mean time, stay dry.

02 April 2014

Time to Accessorize


by Robert Lopresti

I am somewhat stunned to report that my morning granola was interrupted today (April Fool's Day) by the news that my "The Present" had won the Derringer Award for best short story.  Talk about a present!  I can't think of anything to say about the story that I didn't say here.  But thanks to the Derringer judges, the voters, and The Strand for publishing in the first place.  Now, on to more good news...

On the day my last blog entry went up I came home to a pleasant surprise: three copies of the June issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I knew they were publishing a story of mine but I had no idea when that happy event would occur.

"The Accessory" is my second appearance in EQMM in 38 years of trying.  Yes, you read that right.  It's a story about --

Well, let's pause for a moment.  This is a golden opportunity to rehash that favorite topic: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  This time, by category!

1.  Personal experience.  At three in the morning one night a policewoman rang my doorbell to tell me my car had been "prowled."  The first two pages of my story "Shanks on the Prowl" are almost a literal description of that scene.

2.  Someone else's personal experience.  One day I watched an elderly, over-the-hill musician being disrespected by his accompaniest.  "Snake in the Sweetgrass" was conceived while they were still on the stage.

3.  News story. 
Or other piece of nonfiction.  "Crow's Lesson" began with a New York Times article about a school system hiring private eyes to follow students and see if they really lived in the catchment district.

5.  Out of the clear blue sky 
One day I had a vision of a short man attacking a much bigger man on the street for no obvious reason.  "Hammer and Dish" was my attempt to find out why and what happened.

And finally...

4.  Fiction.  To some extent ALL fiction comes from other fiction we have read.  For example, I read "My Life with the Butcher Girl," by Heath Lowrance, a very nice story about a man who becomes romantically obsessed with a woman who killed three men in sexual situations.  That got me thinking about people who correspond with convicted criminals.  The main character of my new story, "The Accessory" is a woman who does just that.  Now the man is out of prison and has apparently killed someone who testified against him.  The cops want to find out what she knows...

I hope you like it. 

01 April 2014

Honey...I'm home!


I know what day this is, but this isn't a joke--I'm back.  None the wiser for the hiatus, mind you, just back...and glad to be here.  I noted in my absence, that Terry raised the bar for Tuesdays so that I am almost guaranteed to disappoint.  Thanks for that, Terry.  Thanks a lot.

If you recall, dear reader, I took the time away from SleuthSayers to pen another of my unsellable novels.  It is with some pride that I report--mission accomplished!  "Starvation Cay" is complete!  My thanks, by the way, to my fellow Tuesday scribbler, Dale Andrews, for overseeing some of the technical aspects of the story.  Besides his literary value, he has a wealth of knowledge regarding all things nautical.  Useful to me, as I set nearly the entire story on board boats.  Thanks again, Dale.  Through no fault of his, I am now in the process of collecting rejection slips and arranging them in order of snarkiness.

On another note entirely, my son and heir, has gotten hitched to a truly lovely young woman.  Robin and I absolutely fell in love with her too, and apparently she was too smitten to heed that time-honored warning--Look to the parents!   

The wedding took place in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia where they both teach.  My son's side was not only represented by mine and Robin's families (The Georgia-Jersey Axis), but also by a large contingent of his college rugby buddies who double, apparently, as the school's male dance team.  Her side was family from both Jersey and Michigan.  Both sides were duly impressed with the athletic abilities of rugby players and their women, even if the dance floor became a dangerous place for the infirm and elderly.  The bride's family went very quiet during their dance interpretation of John Denver's "Country Roads," which also included a sing-along.  Fortunately, the nuptials had already been performed so there could be no "take-backs." 

As if this wasn't enough good news, our Christmas present from them was a grandparents' album.  Robin got it almost immediately.  I, however, being a former police officer, stared at it for several stupefied moments before understanding dawned.  Robin was crying and hugging the young couple, as I was still turning the album over and over in my hands, murmuring, "They're trying to tell us something...but what?  What could it be?"

Besides working on the novel, I also managed to knock out a few short stories along the way.  I'm happy to report that those did sell, and will be (or have already been) published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

As if all these things weren't enough, I've actually read a few books, as well.  But more on that at another time.

I've missed you guys.  Though I have duly followed SS every morning (it's the first thing I read), it's been a little lonely out here.  Writers are not thick on the ground in South Jersey, and as you all know, it's a solitary profession at the best of times.  So, it's good to be back amongst friends, if only virtually, and even better to have been asked.  Thanks all.   

     

 


 

24 September 2013

Herewith, the Clues


       Last week I received an eagerly-awaited package in the mail -- my author’s copies of the December, 2013 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. SleuthSayers is well represented with two stories – one by David Dean and the other (I admit that this is the one for which I was waiting) by me.

       Like the previous stories I have been fortunate enough to place in the pages of EQMM, my latest story, Literally Dead, is an Ellery Queen pastiche. Since it is written, as close as I can make it, to the style of Ellery it is a “fair play” mystery -- that is, all the clues are there, but are hopefully presented cleverly. Sleight of hand is at the heart of all golden age fair play mysteries.  While interest in this genre may have waned somewhat in recent times, mysteries premised on obscure but solvable puzzles have been with us a long time, at least since the days of Poe and Doyle. But the genre really hit its stride in the middle of the twentieth century. 

a Detection Club dinner
       An organized approach to writing fair play mysteries dates at least from the 1930s when a number of famous (or soon to be famous) British mystery writers, including Christy, Sayers and Chesterton, to name but three, established the Detection Club with the intention of establishing standards for “fair play” detective stories. Each of the members of the club took the following oath, reportedly still administered today:
Do your promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
       The members of the Detection Club went on to establish rules of fair play that, by and large, have governed the writing of fair play detective stories ever since. The most important of those rules is that every clue necessary to solve the mystery must be revealed, in advance, to the reader. 

       The task of actually revealing all of those clues in advance can be a thorny one. After all, one cannot do it in too obvious of a way.  Often, describing a clue in a manner that conveys its full importance to the reader can amount to revealing too much, a too-easy tip to the ultimate solution. Moreover, some clues are simply difficult to describe in narration. The description may bog down if embodied in the detective’s first person narrative or the third person narrative of the author, or the clue itself may be difficult to "show" to the reader.  As an example, a typewriter may have telltale discrepancies, such as cuts in some letters, that will allow the detective to tie a message to a specific machine. But how do you fairly show this in the context of a narrative? Or another example -- how do you show one important aspect of a newspaper article -- do you highlight it by presenting it alone, or do you risk boring the reader by presenting the entire article, none of the rest of which is relevant? 

       There is a simple solution to all of this, although the solution requires a degree of author control that is unavailable in most publishing venues. But the solution is still there -- if the author has the means, he or she can simply include all of the clues in their entirety along with the narrative. Like most simple solutions this one is not at all simple to put into practice. But it has, nevertheless, been tried. It’s interesting to take a look at two different attempts, separated by about 75 years.  

Dennis Yates Wheatley
       In the 1930s an English writer, Dennis Yates Wheatley, was famous for his series of mystery and occult novels. Extraordinarily prolific, Wheatley also authored the Gregory Sallust espionage series that many credit as the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Searching for a clever way to present fair play whodunits Wheatley teamed with a fellow wine aficionado, art historian James Gluckstein Links, and produced a series of fair play mysteries that the team referred to as “Mystery Dossiers.”  The dossiers featured mysteries constructed by Links and then written by Wheatley. The first of these, Murder off Miami, was published in 1936 and quickly sold 120,000 copies. It was followed by Who Killed Robert Prentice, (1937), The Malinsay Massacre, (1938) and Herewith, the Clues, (1939). The dossiers were mysteries of a different ilk -- while they contained narratives setting forth the underlying story, they also gave the reader a lot more.


       Accompanying each mystery was a series of clues -- real clues, such as entire newspaper articles, burnt matches, strands of hair, an arsenic pill (from which, the dossier explained, the poison had been removed). And in each case the solution to the mystery was contained, at the end, in a sealed envelope. The game, then, was for the reader to examine the clues along with the narrating detective as the story progressed; the approach allowed the reader to see precisely what the detective sees, that is, the wheat along with the chaff. 

       The approach intrigued the reading public, but, as can be imagined, the production costs for these mysteries were inordinately high. It is reported that hair samples required by one of the dossiers were secured from European nuns. Matches were burned seriatim by employees of the publisher for inclusion in one of the dossiers. And many of the clues had to be wrapped in wax paper, and then affixed by hand with staples to the appropriate page in the final volume. Little wonder that pristine copies of the original dossiers -- with the clues still encased, and with the ending still sealed in that envelope, sell for many hundreds of dollars.

       The Wheatley/Links works were re-issued in the late 1970s by Hutchison and Company Publishers in London, but even with modern technological advances the cost of publication inspired few imitators. 

       Between the 1970s and today advances in computer technology and computer gaming saw similar attempts to offer up not only the story but the clues -- several computer simulation games based on Sherlock Holmes stories accomplished this with varying degrees of success. But, at least to my knowledge, a full-blown attempt to harness these technological advances in the context of published literature was not attempted. Until this August, that is, when Random House published Marisha Pessl’s brilliant (there. I’ve said it) new occult thriller and mystery Night Film

Marisha Pessl and her great new book
       Night Film, to be clear at the outset, is a mystery, but not a classic fair play mystery. What it is is a really fine book. It grabs the reader, holds the reader’s attention, and then deposits the reader, at the end, a slightly different person. The narrative is so compelling at times that the reader may even begin to perceive the world differently -- I know that I did -- simply as a result of having read the story.

       But Night Film also employs a startling gimmick -- when evidence appears in a magazine story the narrative stops and the magazine takes its place. The same is true of police reports, college newspapers, slips of paper, a CD album cover -- all are reproduced between the covers of the book.  And not content with this, the book goes further -- if you read it equipped with a smartphone loaded with the Night Film app (free for the downloading) additional content appears on your phone when various pages of the story are scanned. The result is a near complete immersion into the world created by Pessl. 

       The Links and Wheatley mystery dossiers of the 1930s similarly wrapped the reader into the narrative, but were often criticized as being too much gimmick and too little story. That cannot be said of Night Film, which is a near perfect blend and weighs in at over 600 pages of mesmerizing story. The addition of forays into the actual evidence only serves to heighten the reader’s involvement. 

       You probably get the idea that I think Night Film is a sensational read. As I have said many times, I am loath to dish out spoilers in a review.  So, beyond what I have said already, you will just have to take my word for it!

       Oh, yeah. And when you buy it at a bookstore, or download it for your e-reader, why don’t you also pick up a copy of the December issue of EQMM!

21 August 2013

Five Red Herrings V


1.  Sherlock and key

Got a from Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine in early March describing a fascinating event in their lives.  Like good citizens they had purchased the right to use the Master's name on their magazine.  Unfortunately the person who sold them said rights apparently didn't own them.  Oopsies.  Do a search for Andrea Plunkit and Doyle estate if you want the gory details.

2.  Insecurity Questions

Wondermark is one of the most delightfully bizarre comic strips on the web.  Monty Python goes cyberpunk, sort of.




3.  Harlan Coben, here is the plot for your next novel

When Lori Ruff died in Seattle she left a strongbox full of secrets.  They made it clear that the wife and mother was living under a stolen identity.  But who she was originally and why she changed her name, well, her husband would sure like to know.  From the Seattle Times.






4.  James Powell is going to happen



I don't know if you follow Something Is Going To Happen, the blog at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but they recently published a wild piece by Jim Powell who demonstrates that at an age even more advanced than my own he has a crazier imagination than any teenage gamer every dreamed of.  Watch him free associate...

Though it isn’t a mystery story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” may be the short story at it’s best, for there are really only two characters, the man and the crowd. (Speaking of Poe, it has been a long time since the Sherlock Holmsing pigeon drove the Raven “nevermoring” all the way, from its perch on the bust of Pallas just above Poe’s chamber door only to come back to us again as a good part of Johnny Depp’s Tonto headgear in the new Lone Ranger movie. Sherlock’s pigeon would be replaced a few years later by the Maltese Falcon. I wonder what kind of bird will come next to roost on that well-encrusted and put upon piece of statuary?)

5.  They were steampunk before steampunk was cool.

Have you seen the website Murder by Gaslight?  True crimes of Victorian England.  Quick, Watson!  Call C.S.I.! 

10 May 2013

May in Manhattan


When I was on the MWA Board of Directors, they would pay my freight twice a year (once in January and once in May) to attend board meetings in Manhattan. I always took Kiti along so she could see NYC. While I sat in meetings, she got to run around the city and see the sights. Turned out she enjoyed the place and wanted to go back again, but I went off the BOD about five years ago and thought I was safe. Then in a rash moment, I happened to utter one of those throwaway statements to the effect that if I ever got nominated for an Edgar (didn't happen) or got a story accepted into one of the MWA anthologies I would take her back to New York City for another trip, this time completely on our own dime. I don't know who she bribed, but Brad Meltzer and the five submission judges accepted my short story, "The Delivery," for The Mystery Box anthology. Next thing I knew, reservations were made and airline tickets got bought. We were going.

Mysterious Bookstore
United landed us at La Guardia mid-afternoon on Tuesday and a race car taxi whisked us to the Grand Hyatt before I could change my mind. Since the book launch was in Lower Manhattan, we had to figure out the subway system in order to get to there. A very helpful sales lady in a bookstore down in the bowels of Grand Central Station explained the necessary procedure and told us to catch the 6 Train. Thanks to her, we didn't end up in the Bronx or even Georgia by mistake. The 6 Train screeched up to the Grand Central stop and we squeezed in. Kinda had a sardine feeling to the whole operation. Nice thing was I didn't have to worry about my wallet because there was no room in that crowd  for a pickpocket to bend his elbow far enough to get it out of my hip pocket. I'm not saying we were close in that container, but I may now be related to some of those people in that train car.

Brad Metzler on ladder
With the use of a good folding plastic map from Barnes & Noble, we managed to locate Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookstore. What a large turnout for the book signing. Otto climbed up the store's ladder for a pulpit to address the crowd, then Brad Meltzer got on the ladder and had all the anthology authors introduce themselves. James O. Born made it a point to take me over and introduce me to Otto and Brad before everybody got too busy. A very friendly group. Not sure, but I think I signed about 70-80 anthology books. Even ended up signing my own copies in all the mass confusion.

Signing books inside the Mysterious Bookstore
On Wednesday morning, we again caught the 6 Train south to the same area and met with Linda Landrigan (AHMM) and Janet Hutchings (EQMM) for breakfast at a nice little restaurant named Edwards. The editors were kind enough to buy, so we all ate well. Also got to converse with Steven Steinbock and Doug Allyn. (Note to David G.: If your ears are ringing, it's because Doug and I talked about you.)

Spent the rest of the day riding the double-decker Red Bus like common tourists, from the new World Trade Center building under construction on the south end and up to Central Park in the north. That night, we went to our first Broadway play, something we hadn't been able to schedule during prior trips. Newsies is a high energy musical with great singing, excellent dancing and acrobatics, plus fantastic use of constantly moving stage props. If you get the chance, go see the play. www.newsiesthemusical.com/

Brooklyn Bridge
Thursday morning was a hike on the Brooklyn Bridge. Surprisingly, no one tried to sell it to me. Probably just as well, it wouldn't have fit in my back yard anyway.

That afternoon was the AHMM/EQMM cocktail reception for their authors. I got to talk with fellow Sleuth Sayer Dale Andrews again, plus meet with fellow bloggers David Dean, Janice Law and Liz Zelvin for the first time. Nice people. At this get-together, David Dean  received a plaque for 2nd Place in the EQMM Reader's Award for "Mariel' and Doug Allyn got his tenth First Place plaque, this time for his "Wood-Smoke Boys." Me, I just feel grateful that Linda buys some of my stories for AHMM.

Breakfast: Janet Hutchings, Steven Steinbock & Linda Landrigan
Since we still had 48 hour passes in our pockets, we hopped the Red Bus north to 49th Street and went up to the top of the Rock (Rockefeller Tower) to watch the sun set from on high. After that, it was time for some liquid refreshment back at the Grand Hyatt bar and pack our bags for the return leg to Colorado. Fortunately for us, we had flown out of Denver on one side of Snow Storm Achilles and come back on the other side, thereby missing the closing of Denver International Airport due to all the white stuff on the ground. Not sure when the weather people started naming big snow storms, but since this one's name began with an "A" it may have been the first.

Now that we're home, Kiti says she would like to go back to New York City one more time. Guess I'd better get to writing something new just as soon as I hear what the next anthology theme will be.

07 May 2013

Day Trip to New York, May 2, 2013


On 2nd May 1952, the era of commercial jet passenger service began as a BOAC de Havilland Comet carrying 36 passengers took off on a multi-stop flight from London to Johannesburg, South Africa.
                              Associated Press
                              Today in History
                              May 2, 2013

           Fast Enough to get there,
           Slow enough to see,
           Moderation seems to be the key.

                              Jimmy Buffett
                              Barometer Soup
   
The reception:  Mystery writers everywhere!
     What better way to celebrate the anniversary of jet passenger service than to follow Mr. Buffett's advice and take a train trip?

    The beginning of May is many things to many people. To mystery writers there is a special anticipation that comes with the first Thursday in May, this year May second, since that is the day when the annual Edgars award celebration takes place in New York City. And for a smaller subset of mystery writers, those whose passion is the mystery short story, the day offers up a related treat -- the annual authors cocktail party hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

     I’ve never been a fan of air transportation. it is a necessary evil when my family heads off to favorite vacation spots in the Caribbean, and sometimes one surrenders to the indignities of air transportation when held hostage by time constraints. But I fail to understand anyone who travels between Washington, D.C. (my home) and New York City by any means other than rail. And that is why this piece begins as I find myself  signed on to Amtrak’s wifi service, comfortably ensconced in a window seat and typing away on Amtrak’s Acela headed north. The trip is 2-1/2 hours each way, and deposits me a pleasant 30 minute walk from the Andrew Haskell Braile and Talking Books Library where the cocktail party takes place at 3:30.
  
Janet Hutchings
   Now that walk in Manhattan is not as easy as it sounds -- 14 Manhattan short blocks followed by 2-1/2 Manhattan long blocks is exercise, but it should otherwise be pretty simple.  New York City, however, has always been a little daunting fot me. So the walk is always just long enough to convince me that my chances are equally divided between finding the party and roaming forever on the streets of Manhattan. (At least Charlie got to sit down on the MTA.)
   
Janice, Liz, R.T.
     But, as always, I get there. And, also as always, the party makes up for all of the investment. The EQMM/AHMM pre-Edgars parties have descended a notch from the glory days of yore, when they were held at the Manhattan Club and other storied locales, with several full bars and waiters hovering with platters of shrimp. But the wine bar, served up by magazine employees, and the table of hors d'oeuvres is just fine.  And it is also not why we are here.  What this occasion offers is the opportunity to visit with those who share common interests in mystery short story writing, to connect with people who otherwise are known only on-line.   Janet Hutchings meets me at the door, and a few minutes visiting with her, and then with Linda Landrigan, is itself worth the price of admission.

      At last year’s reception SleuthSayers was represented by David Dean and me, but this year we are out in force. R.T. Lawton and his wife Kiti are standing near the window as I enter, and within a short time Janice Law Trecker, Liz Zelvin, David Dean, R.T. and me are together for the first time in the non-cyber real  world.
   
Liz, me, David and R.T.
     Another great thing about the reception is getting that first lead on  things mystery-related that are about to happen. This year Peter Kanter, who presides over Dell publications, announced a pending major re-vamp of the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock websites, which promises a new level of interaction among writers and readers.  This could be fun!

     Awards, of course, were announced, including the second place Readers’ Choice award won this year by our own David Dean for his story Mariel, which appeared in the December issue of EQMM.   David also reports that he is making good progress on his new novel, which has kept him away from SleuthSayers for some time now.

  
Joe Goodrich
     Some of the best tidbits I picked up during this year's party were from Joe Goodrich, who, as SleuthSayer readers will recall, is the author/editor of Blood Relations, the recent volume collecting the letters of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Joe recently adapted the first  Ellery Queen Wrightsville novel, Calamity Town, for the stage.  The work, as previously reported, had a read-through performance last January at the New Dramatists Playhouse in New York City.  This summer Joe reports that the play will have its first full-stage production, under the directorial hand of fellow Queen scholar Arthur Vidro.

     Equally interesting is the locale for that presentation:  the play will be performed by the Off Broad Street Players in Claremont, New Hampshire.  The Off Broad Street Players are no stranger to the works of Ellery.   In fact, beginning tomorrow the company is presenting an on-stage production of two classic Queen radio dramas.  But the claim to fame of Claremont itself runs even deeper. Those familiar with some of the more obscure clues in the Queen backstory may recall that Claremont has been rumored to be the model for Queen’s New England town of Wrightsville.  What better site for the world premier of Calamity Town? The troop's production of Calamity Town is likely to run only two nights, probably this coming September 7 and 8.

    On other fronts, Joe also spent time this last year adapting a Rex Stout mystery, The Red Box, for the stage.  The play has already been scheduled for an extended run next summer at the Park Square Theater in St. Paul.

     Oops.  It’s 5:00. Time for me to see if I can find my way back to the train station!

16 October 2012

Mariel


By the time you read this, my story "Mariel" should be out in the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. At least, I hope so as she, or it (the story), is the subject of my posting. I've written before that I've never found it necessary to make characters up out of whole cloth, as there are such an abundant number of inspirations running around. The character of my recurring clerical sleuth, Father Gregory Savartha, as I once posted during the final days of "Criminal Brief", is based on a wonderful priest with whom I was fortunate to have a friendship. The wise, dignified, and valorous Chief Julian Hall… well, I'm sure there's no need to explain where he was drawn from. But there have been many others… and Mariel is certainly one of them.

I once wrote to Janet Hutchings that I found the suburbs endlessly entertaining and fruitful ground for fiction. This was because she had just accepted a story of mine inspired (ever so loosely) on some neighbors with whom I had never spoken a word. The girl who provided the inspiration for Mariel comes from the same neighborhood, though her contributions to my creative process were more tangible. In fact, for a period of her young life, it seemed as if I was forever being made aware of her presence, either directly or indirectly. She had a way of appearing when you least expected it, and not being one to stand on ceremony, she never waited for an invitation. On more than one occasion, my neighbor two doors away awoke to find her sleeping on the couch in his living room. And he was sure that he had locked his doors. Being only eight years old, it was all rather troubling. It was only later that he deduced she had apparently discovered his emergency key (under a flower pot by the front door--first place burglars look). Clearly, the fact that she rarely spoke was not indicative of her abilities.

His was not the last house she visited during her leisure hours. My immediate neighbor to the north looked up from his computer one day to find her standing in the room with him. He said it scared the bejesus out of him. I should mention that she was not a conventionally attractive child, being quite large and heavy for her age. She also had an unblinking stare that could unnerve even the innocent. You can imagine what it did to the rest of us.

This little girl came from a family in crisis, which appears to be the state of about half the families in America these days. Her parents were involved in a stormy break-up and both had demons of their own to wrestle--they were not winning. She and her two brothers were the only kids in the entire neighborhood that had, during different stages of their development, ridden their bikes into my unmarked police car. Yes...each of them. Parked car...thank God. They were unhurt; the front quarter panel suffered only a little. These events were always timed to occur when I was at dinner and the car plainly in my sight at the curb. I'm convinced that this had somehow become a rite of passage. Oddly, I found the ritual itself pretty funny.

Once, when I was home during the day after a night shift, I witnessed her crossing my neighbor-to-the-south's back yard. He was away at work, as was his wife. Her body language was almost comical in its furtiveness. Just as she approached a shed on his property and began to open the door, I called out her name from behind a curtain, and in my best spectral voice intoned, "You don't belong there." She stepped back from the door as if burned, her Shirley Temple curls bouncing on her head. Surveying her surroundings carefully, she reversed course; returning the way she had come. Her expression was more troubled than frightened, containing a touch of stubbornness– she would be back, it said to me. Did I mention that she "collected" things left untended by her neighbors? "Untended" covered any unlocked door, or unsecured object. In this way she contributed to the security-mindedness of on our little street.

Though I did find a good bit of humor in her antics, it was the pathos of her situation that inspired me to write the story, "Mariel." It's completely fiction, of course. But the real Mariels of the world, sadly, are not. There are far too many feral children these days wandering the streets like wraiths–unsettling and terribly vulnerable.

I once responded to a call of two children found wandering– the little girl was three, and she was towing her year and half old brother along by the hand. When I arrived on the scene I recognized them from dealings with their parents– an alcoholic couple. I called for the youth and family services rep, and after turning them over to the bureaucracy developed to deal with such things, I went to their apartment. I found the father passed out on the couch, reeking of alcohol; the front slider open– the only way the children could have escaped. The mother was at work and we were alone. You might imagine the things that passed through my mind, having three kids of my own. I contemplated the many misfortunes that might befall such a person: He might resist arrest--many before him had done so. Or, he might flee through the closed half of the slider in his drunkenness. He might even fall down the concrete steps leading up to his porch being so unsteady on his feet. I thought a lot of things that could happen that morning… yes, it wasn't even lunch time, yet… but I didn't do them… I resisted temptation. And when I shook him awake all he could do was stare at me in bewilderment and fright. He didn't offer the least resistance and he was arrested "without incident," as cops say. In the end, I felt sorry for him, too; but not as sorry as I was for those kids, and way too many like them.

It's because of situations like that, and many, many more, that I wrote "Mariel," and why so many of my stories feature children dealing with adult situations. It's a tough world out there, and way too often, kids are left to go it alone. It rarely turns out well.

04 September 2012

Jersey Fresh


Not being a native of the place one lives in can sometimes offer a fresh perspective.  And even though I have dwelt in the Garden State for over twenty-five years, I do often find the place fascinating.  First of all, let's face it, Jersey takes an awful beating as a result of Snooki and the Gang, corrupt politicians, and the view from the infamous Turnpike of oil refineries, chemical factories, and rubber plants.  To some, these may look unappealing ( and I include Snooki and friends with this).  But there is a whole other New Jersey out there that is largely hidden away from the tourists on their way to NYC.  It is a place in which I often set my stories, and bears little resemblance to Soprano Land: a place of leafy suburbs and rolling farmland; salt marshes and barrier islands; pineland forests and windswept beaches.

The county I live in is called Cape May, and named after a Dutch explorer by the name of Mey who sailed by sometime in 1623.  He was too busy exploring, apparently, to bother landing on this new cape that he had discovered.  Of course, he had only discovered it for the Europeans who were to follow.

Native Americans had fished and hunted the area for thousands of years before Captain Mey bobbed by in his little ship.  The historical tribe was known in their own tongue as Lenape, an Algonquin peoples.  The Whites would call them the Delaware after the river, which was in turn named after Lord de la Warre, who saw to it that the English, and not the Dutch or Swedish, would dominate this part of New Jersey.  The poor Dutch got stuck with Soprano Land and NYC; the Swedes just went home.

The first European settlers to the area came mostly from New England, Virginia, and Long Island, and they came for the whaling.  In those early days, whales often traveled along the Atlantic coast side of what would become Cape May County, and even into the vast Delaware Bay that washes the western half of the peninsula.  The locals would simply row out to harpoon the great beasts and tow them back to shore.  Even back then, with only a sparse population of whalers, it didn't take long to deplete the animals and virtually kill the industry.  The English turned to farming and fishing, and for the next several centuries this was what they did.
Pirates frequented the region as Jonathan Dickinson wrote in 1717, "We have been perplexed by pirates on our coast and at our Capes, who plundered many of our vessels."  Captain Kidd, that most unfortunate of pirates, spent some time in the area, as did Edward Teach, of "Blackbeard" fame.  Naturally, tales of buried treasure abound.  Most of these are baseless, but try telling that to all the folks with metal detectors walking the beaches… fugedaboutit!  It never made much sense to me that pirates would risk hiding their treasure on land.  After all, sometimes they might be gone for months or even years.  But then it was explained to me that this was mostly done when the boys in pantaloons were planning a visit to a large town, such as New Amsterdam, to replenish their stocks and provisions.  There was always the chance that they might be recognized as pirates and arrested.  The treasure trove on board could be damning.  Hence the lightening of the load prior to docking.

The Jersey Devil legend sprang up in this period as well, and comes out of the haunted pine barrens.  It seems that the dirt-poor and miserable Mrs. Leeds of that neighborhood, upon learning that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, cursed him; wishing the devil would take him.  Apparently, she had some pull in hell, for her son was born with wings and hooves and flew out the window to begin a reign of terror over that dark and lonely region.  He does so to this day.           

Cape May became a county in 1692, via a charter from the Crown. In those days there was a West and East Jersey--Cape May County being in the west.  There is a cemetery at the county seat, Cape May Court House, that dates to 1766; prior to that people were buried in their back yards, a custom still observed for former business partners in North Jersey.  By the way, nearly everything in the county is named Cape May Something: There is the aforementioned Court House, wherein sits a several hundred year old (you got it) court house, there is also Cape May City, West Cape May, Cape May Point and North Cape May.  There was even once a South Cape May, but the sea claimed it as its own some time ago.  God's judgement, perhaps, on one Cape May too many.  Enough already with the Cape May.

New Jersey became known as the "Cockpit of the Revolution" during the War of Independence because of all the important battles fought on her soil.  Washington slept everywhere, and New Jersey named not one, but several towns, after the father of our nation.  Having a maritime economy, the southern half of the state was affected by the War of 1812.  This region also produced one of our nation's earliest naval heroes in the person of Richard Somers.  This young man was to lead what amounted to a suicide mission against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli.  Sailing directly into their harbor under cover of darkness, he and his crew boarded a captured American vessel and blew it up in spectacular fashion.  Though the resulting explosion and fire damaged and destroyed many of the pirates' ships, it also took the lives of the brave American sailors before they could get away.  Their graves still lie in a small plot in Libya.  His home exists as a museum in Somers Point, the town named for his family.  I have had the privilege of visiting it.

As the northern half of the state embraced the industrial age, the south remained agrarian, not unlike the nation as a whole at that time.  The capitol even boasted the proud motto, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," in huge letters across a bridge spanning the Delaware River.  It's there to this day.  South Jersey, meanwhile, continued to make the Garden State just that.  Most of the "industries" practiced in the south related to the exploitation of natural resources: cedar mining (the reclamation of prehistoric cedar trees from the fresh water swamps for shingles and ship building), bog iron collection from the streams of the Pine Barrens (this naturally occurring iron tints the water the color of tea), harvesting salt hay from the marshes for both animal feed and lining coffins, the production of glass from the fine sands of the region, etc... Then came the trains.

By the late 1800s, the great population centers of both Philadelphia and New York had discovered what would be forever more known as the Jersey Shore.  Trains made it possible.  The industrial era had given the working man both stable wages and a few days off a year.  He spent both at the shore.  The tourist boom was on and the great shore towns began to spring up--Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Wildwood, Avalon, and yes...Cape May.  Of course, many decided to stay, and the local population took a decidedly Irish and Italian turn.  Catholic parishes began to pop up amongst the Baptist and Methodists.  The small town of Woodbine was founded as a Jewish colony, while the town of Whitesboro became the the county's first predominantly African-American municipality--a by-product of the Underground Railroad, not the one from Philly.

By the mid-1970s tourism was king.  Though farms remained, they had grown smaller and began to adapt to specialized crops in order to survive.  Commercial fishing survived, as well, by both downsizing and growing more efficient.  The waters off New Jersey continue to be one of the greatest producers of scallops and clams along the eastern seaboard and oyster farming is making a comeback in the Delaware Bay.  But the tourist dollar, and vacation real estate, are the mainstays of the current economy--battered by the recession, but still king.  Unemployment here in Cape May County during the off-season (roughly from November to April) can reach 12% or worse.   But you take the good with the bad, and this is the place I happily call home.  My literary characters, Chief Julian Hall and Father Gregory Savartha, both live here, as does a ponderous and troubling little girl named Mariel, who is the subject of my next story in EQMM (Dec. 2012 issue).  The bewildered protagonist of "Tap-Tap", though he meets his fate in Belize, worked for a tourist agency here, while Kieran, the young kleptomaniac of "The Vengeance of Kali," lives just around the corner.  There are many, many more.

So, as you can see, after twenty-five years in a place, you make some friends; form some ties.  And luckily for me, having a fresh perspective, a "Jersey" fresh perspective on my adopted home, made it all possible.

20 March 2012

Jenny's Ghost


Last week, I went to one my editors pleading brain-freeze on the subject of my next post.  Actually, I did this in the figurative sense, in that I called my daughter, Bridgid, and asked for her advice.  It should be noted that Bridgid is intolerant of foolishness and dithering in general, and my lame pleadings and excuses in particular.  She is what is sometimes known as a harsh task-mistress.  She also has a very heavy hand when it comes to editing my stories even though I am her natural father and deserve better.  But, I dither.
"Write about how you write," she demanded.  "That's what people are interested in--they want to know how writers come up with their ideas and how they put them to paper!"

She stopped short of adding, "Duh!"

"Yeah, but..." I began; anxious not to be chastised further, "I've kinda done that in a few previous blogs...you know, talked about animals and nature and things..."

The sigh on the other end of the connection was long and heartfelt.  "You've got some stories coming out this year, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, there you go then--just write about how you came up with the plots, characters, etc...I enjoy reading Neil Gaiman's intros and essays on his stories almost as much as the stories themselves."

"I forbid you to invoke that name in my presence," I commanded.  "You know he's one of my competitors for the Edgar Award in April!  I won't have it!"

"He's terrific," she agreed.  "I wish I could go with you and mom to meet him."

"We're not going there to meet him!  There will be no fraternizing with..."

"Gotta go, dad, Robbie's home and we're going out to dinner.  Love you; love mom."

The connection went dead.  My only question at this point was, 'Why did I have children?'

The following day, however, the blank screen loomed ever more largely.  'Okay,' I muttered.  'Alright then!  If that's what she wants, then that's what she'll get!' 

Jenny's Ghost:  This story is scheduled for the June issue (the next out) of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, both a publication, and editor (the wonderful Janet Hutchings) with whom I have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship.  It's not a long story, as my stories go, and has all of its action contained within a major American airport modeled after Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International (except for a brief flashback to the main character's college days).  Why there?  Simple answer: I've spent weeks of my life in this place.  When you live in New Jersey, but have family in Georgia, it's where you must go...over...and over...and over....  You get the picture.  I've been to a lot of airports in my life; everywhere from JFK to Amsterdam; Dublin to Frankfurt, and nowhere have I been in a busier airport than Atlanta's.  It's a city unto itself, and not a small one in either size or population.  It even has it's own subway system.  Not a place for ghosts you would think.  But when you spend a lot of time waiting for planes it's easy to get melancholy; especially if both ends of the journey entail leaving people that you love behind, as in my case.  So, as I have sat so many, many times in this teeming, heaving micropolis, thoughts of remorse and sadness have sometimes pervaded my thoughts.  Generally, I am a pretty optimistic and cheerful person...but not always and in all circumstances.  The airport seems to be one of these.

During one of these enforced meditations awaiting a return flight to Philadelphia, I wondered what it might be like to meet the ghost of someone once held dear in such an unlikely place.  The idea would not go away and kept returning to mind for several years after it's inception.  I was getting haunted by it and so had to consider exorcism in the form of a story. 

Haitian Voodoo culture, amongst many others, has always considered crossroads a place to avoid after darkness, as wraiths and apparitions haunt them.  They believe crossroads can form an intersection between the living world and that of the dead.  Well, what is an airport other than a great big crossroad comprised of many dimensions?  So, maybe not such a bad setting after all?

I also had to consider why my protagonist ( I had decided upon a young family man in his early thirties awaiting a plane for home) would experience this unlikely phenomenon...and how?  After all, I didn't think a ghost story, as such, would sell to EQMM.  So, I came up with a different sort of ghost.  I know that sounds like a teaser, but I don't want to give the plot away.

It appears that much of the lore concerning ghosts and hauntings regard suicide and murder as the premier causatives.  Violent death begets unquiet spirits.  I would add that violence in general instills a disquiet in the living, as well.  Remorse and regret play a big role, too.  How many of us wince when we recall something from our past that we wish we could take back, un-do, or conversely, have acted to prevent, but didn't?  I suspect there's no one reading this who hasn't longed for a chance to remedy something that they regret not doing, or repent for having done--sociopaths, perhaps...but they stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

It's no different for me--Catholics have always had the sacrament of confession in order to obtain forgiveness for their sins, but this does not always serve to erase a thing from one's mind.  Knowing that one is forgiven by God, sadly, does not lead to selective amnesia.  The human conscience can be a bleak and frozen landscape, and it is in just such a place that we find my protagonist, Connor, at the opening of the story.  He hears a young woman's laughter ring out above the tumult of the crowded airport concourse...a laughter that he recognizes and loves; but a laughter that cannot possibly be real...and therein lies the tale.

I hope you enjoy it.