Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

25 July 2022

What’s It All About, Reader?


A couple of posts on DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, got me thinking the other day. DLers read widely and voraciously, and are a great source of recommendations for both reading and watching that I might otherwise have missed. One topic under discussion on this particular occasion was how certain independently published authors attract a huge following. Someone mentioned an “independently published author with a large fan base” whose "series about ... art crimes consistently gets high ratings and apparently good enough sales to keep [the author] turning them out. I do not find the main character credible but I seem to be in the minority.” A disappointed reader who’d enjoyed a traditionally published author’s previous books commented that they have “written some really good mysteries,” but this book “is less about good character development and in depth stories and more about jumping from one thrill to the next.”

The first thought that sprang to my mind on reading these two comments was, “For me, it’s all about the voice.” And “voice,” while it’s not a new word, not a trendy 21st-century word in the way that “curated” is the new word for “selected” and “canceled” is the new word for “shunned,” is more or less what we used to call “the writing.” Amazon’s algorithms can’t detect voice, which is why they constantly make book recommendations I have no interest in buying for my Kindle. As I said last month, Lois McMaster Bujold takes space opera to the stratosphere of high art, marrying it with political thriller, comedy of manners, and other beautifully nuanced genres. Those algorithms can recommend ordinary space operas until the extragalactic cows come without piquing my interest. It’s not about what the book’s about at all. So slap all the “gripping” and “riveting” you want into the blurb, or worse, these days, the subtitle. When I start to read—for economy’s sake, the free sample if it’s not a known and beloved author—I want the voice to sweep me away.

My second thought was, “I can’t say it’s all about voice without mentioning character development, which is crucial to my enjoyment of a read. As a writer, I use character to convey voice in a variety of forms: dialogue, first person narrative, and more subtly in the third person narrative, ie where “voice” meets “writing.” I put down a book I was reading recently because I realized I was reading dutifully, which is my signal that it’s okay not to finish it. It was a Jewish historical novel, and those are of interest to me, because I write Jewish historical novels and stories myself. It wasn’t exactly in my period (18th century vs my 15th and 16th centuries), but it was about secret Jews still living in Spain (as my Mendoza family did until 1492) who had to flee with the Inquisition at their heels.

It could have been an exciting story. When I asked myself why it wasn’t, I decided the characters weren’t well developed. The wife is young and has a baby. The husband is older. She’s Jewish, he’s not. She puts the family in danger by not buying pork at the market on Friday. (That’s right, how could she not realize how stupid that is, just like the damsel going down the cellar alone without a flashlight or a cell phone when the serial killer’s on the loose.) She feels appropriate emotions: dread, fear, uncertainty, hope, love for her baby, determination to practice her religion, which she learned at her mother’s knee. But who is she as a person? The reader has no idea. The author tells us it’s a love match, and that the husband persisted until she said yes. Why did she fall for an older man? What did he think when he found out she was a secret Jew? We’re told he was okay with it because he loved her—stock emotions for a supportive husband, not character development. They flee to America. They meet a slave-holding relative. The situations are interesting, but somehow, the characters were not, at least to me.

Then I asked myself whether as a writer, I’ve done better at making my Jewish historical characters true individuals. Let’s take a look.

We first meet Rachel Mendoza in my novel, Voyage of Strangers, in 1493, escaping from the stuffy convent school where she’s been hidden. She plans to seek out her brother Diego, who is at King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s Court, having just returned with Columbus from the voyage of discovery. The first line from her point of view is in close third person narrative:

How hard could it be to be a boy?

After various adventures, Rachel finds herself in enough danger that Diego is forced to abet her escape from the guardianship of their strict converso aunt, temporarily abandoning his post guarding the half dozen Taino Columbus has brought from the Caribbean along with gold and brightly colored parrots to show the King and Queen. Diego says:

“I must contrive to leave the Taino in good hands. I don’t want them to suffer because of my absence. I believe my friend Fernando will be willing to take my place. He doesn’t care for the Indians as I do, but he has a good heart.”

I glanced over at the Taino, who still slumbered in their poppy-induced stupor. “You can’t imagine how robust and comely they were,” I said, “when we first came upon them.”

“Perhaps,” Rachel said, “being slaves in Spain doesn’t agree with them.”

27 June 2022

Lois McMaster Bujold, Queen of Genre-Bending Fiction


My apologies to readers for getting this post up late. I could blame either my granddaughter's high school graduation this weekend or the fact that the keyboard on my big computer died and the replacement we rushed in wouldn't "recognize" my iMac (hmmph!), but instead I'll hope none of you got up too early this morning.

Some of my favorite authors don't live on the crime fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries. This doesn't mean they don't write crime fiction. Lois McMaster Bujold, a brilliant writer however you categorize her, writes novels and novellas in which the structures of mystery, thriller, and suspense are embedded in science fiction or fantasy. While she's at it, she creates characters that not only leap off the page but burrow into our hearts and builds worlds rich in history, politics, sociology, and theology as well as physical environment. She's funny, clever, and compassionate, and oy, can she create a crisis.

She's the author of several series, but her masterwork is the Vorkosigan Saga, which has won three of her four Hugo and two Locus awards for best novel, a Hugo for best series, and both the Hugo and Nebula for best novella plus a ton of nominations, not to mention winning all three awards for best novel in an unrelated fantasy series and a Hugo for best fantasy series.

The Vorkosigans are one of those families that you fall in love with and wish would adopt you and take you home with them. Home is the planet Barrayar, a lost colony of Earth that endured a prolonged Time of Isolation from the rest of the galaxy, during which it developed an aristocratic warrior caste called the Vor, who have rigid notions of honor and a backward attitude toward the role of women. This ends when their wormhole is rediscovered by way of invasion from the planet Cetaganda. The Cetagandans were definitely human until they did some very sophisticated tinkering with their genetic material. The citizens of Komarr unwisely let them through and got conquered by Barrayar in revenge after they repelled the Cetagandans. Komarr is rich in wormholes and thus a gateway to the rest of the galaxy, which has space travel and a lot of up-to-date technology, including uterine replicators, which will radically change the lot of women on Barrayar by freeing them from "body births." Komarr is a planet that thrives on commerce, opening the way to stories about financial intrigue on a grand scale as well as political and sociological intrigue. Another prominent planet is Beta Colony, egalitarian, advanced in science and not at all military-minded, and offering to its citizens and visitors all sorts of freedoms, including sexual exploration. Old Earth plays a role, and there's also a planet devoted to corruption, chicanery, and the art of the deal. In other words, it's a huge canvas, and Bujold and her readers have a wonderful time with it.

But the real draw is the Vorkosigan family. They're brilliant, funny, and superb at inspiring loyalty, making friends, and doing the unexpected. The first two books feature Cordelia Naismith from Beta Colony, captain of a scientific team hoping to claim an uninhabited planet, and Aral Vorkosigan, commanding a Barrayaran military team bent on the same mission. He takes her prisoner, but she quickly figures out that the reason he's alone is that his crew has mutinied. Thrown into survival mode together, they make a good team. Not surprising they start to like each other...

The protagonist of most of the series is the couple's son, Miles Vorkosigan. Born stunted and with brittle bones thanks to an assassination attempt involving poison gas during Cordelia's pregnancy, he has a hard time not only being fragile in a military culture but looking like a mutant on a planet that has a horror of mutants in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks by the Cetagandans a generation earlier. But Miles is not only the smartest person in the room, the space ship, or the planet at any time, he's also the most determined, and he proves it in an infinite variety of ingenious ways. He has the brain of a genius, the soul of a hero, and the heart of a romantic. His friends refer to him as a "hyperactive little git." A Civil Campaign, my favorite book, is space opera + comedy of manners. There's a moment I love after he's made an egregious, public, and deeply embarrassing faux pas in his courtship of the woman he wants to marry. To no one’s surprise, she never wants to speak to him again. My favorite bit is when his mother suggests a remedy.

"The—the kindest word I can come up with for it is blunder—was yours. You owe the apology. Make it. I realize you don't do abject very well, but I suggest you exert yourself."
Abject.
He went back inside Vorkosigan House to his study, where he sat himself down to attempt, through a dozen drafts, the best damned abject anybody'd ever seen.

While still in his teens, Miles accidentally finds himself in command of a mercenary space fleet and invents a persona to fit. At one point, he plays the role of the fictitious Admiral Naismith and not one but two imaginary clones. Eventually, he finds a job for which he's even better suited: Imperial Auditor for the Emperor of Barrayar, ie an investigator with unlimited powers who's been picked precisely because he's a loose cannon, but one Emperor Gregor has known his whole life and trusts completely.

I started with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, the two Cordelia books, and they pulled me in just fine. For thriller and mystery lovers who want to meet Miles right away, I'd recommend starting with Komarr, which is space opera + political thriller and Bujold writing at the height of her powers. It starts with what appears to be a routine crash that damages the solar mirror essential to the domed cities of the planet with its unbreathable air. The plot thickens into one in which bumbling terrorist conspirators and kidnappers whose plans have gone awry may unleash enormous powers of destruction. It's a perfect job for Imperial Auditor Vorkosigan. An abusive marriage and a moving love story of great complexity are seamlessly tailored into the interstices of the political plot. Its sequel is A Civil Campaign, which has more politics and sociology, including some issues that have come more into the open in our own world since Bujold wrote it, more brilliant characterization, and a feast of laugh out loud moments.

30 May 2022

Crime Fiction Rules: Rules, Schmules


At the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Watercooler, the group's monthly Zoom gathering, as well as on its lively e-list, members frequently comment about the absurdity of trying to hold short fiction to rigid rules. It's been said that a short story should have only three characters and that it should always have four scenes (I think that one was a joke, a well-known writer's answer to a newbie's earnest question). More seriously, we tend to think a story should have a twist at the end.

The same is true for crime and mystery novels, though those rules have changed drastically between when I started reading them in the 1960s and today. The classic structure of a mystery was crime, investigation, and solution. Its template was a coat hanger on which you could hang anything you wanted—bell ringing, making cupcakes, or hunting the whale. (Isn't Moby Dick a suspense novel? And doesn't it end in death?) The beginning of a mystery novel was devoted to a leisurely setup foreshadowing murders and motives and introducing the characters who would become victims, suspects, and witnesses.

When I started writing mysteries in the early 2000s, things had changed. A modern traditional mystery had to start with a body on the first page or at least the first chapter. If not, we were told, neither agents, editors, nor readers would read on. In other subgenres, the story had to start with "a pie in the face." (I heard this term from Chris Grabenstein, who attributed it to James Patterson.) Suspense had to build constantly. One body was not enough. And even an amateur sleuth had to face personal danger at the climax.

For those who wanted rules, those who make rules are happy to supply them. There must be subplots. There must be an antagonist to give the protagonist a hard time. Third person is better than first. Prologues, alternating points of view, and present tense narratives are to be avoided.

In both short stories and novels, all these rules are constantly broken. We've all read and written successful fiction that ignores them. In particular, alternating or multiple POVs and present tense narrative are ships that have not only sailed, but vanished beyond the horizon. I would say almost half the crime fiction I read these days is written in present tense.

Sure, writers, editors, and readers all have their preferences. One mystery lover on DorothyL has mentioned more than once that when she reads a mystery novel that alternates a narrative set in the present with a narrative set in the past, she skips the chapters set in the past. If I'd carefully constructed a book that way and knew a reader was doing that with it, I'd be tearing my hair.

I've written short stories with alternating POV for a variety of reasons. In one case, I have an ongoing series with a familiar character. In one story, I introduced a new character with a different voice in an entirely different setting and then told a story involving her with my ongoing character. This livened things up for me as a writer and enriched the series as a whole.

In another case, I had a particular story I wanted to tell and couldn't decide how to tell it. I ended up with several beginnings in different voices and decided to use them all. It worked— the characters and stories came together, and the rest almost wrote itself.

The next challenge was placing a 3,500-word story with five different POVs. All my usual markets turned it down over a two-year period. I did blinch a little, as Piglet says. (Do you know Winnie-the-Pooh is now in the public domain?) But I sent it off again and got an immediate acceptance from an editor who said, "I love how you alternated the third-person POVs, finally ending with the first-person POV." You can read "Suds in the Bucket" on the webzine Yellow Mama.

So rules, schmules— if you believe in your story, there's an editor for it out there somewhere.



02 May 2022

Edgars Week in New York: April 27-28, 2022


The Edgars in New York, like the Oscars in LA, has always been a time for mystery writers to put on their party duds and have a blast with their peers and peeps. Thanks to the pandemic, the last couple of years have been lonely ones for writers. But this spring, a lot of people got on planes, a lot more came off Zoom and closed their computers, some went to Albuquerque for Left Coast Crime, some to Bethesda for Malice, and a splendid aggregation foregathered in New York. Some of us, who actually live in New York and have been known for years for going to all the parties, were jumping with joy and ready to climb however many subway stairs it took to join in the festivities.

I gave the banquet a miss—expensive, and I knew I’d see all the nominees I knew elsewhere. SleuthSayers's own R.T. Lawton won the Edgar for Best Short Story with "The Road to Hana." Way to go, R.T.! When I saw him, he was a contender, along with Michael Bracken and co-writer James A. Hearn, who goes by Andrew, and Gigi Pandian, an old friend from Guppies in the early days when it actually meant Great UnPublished. I did attend the book launch for the MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, edited by S.J. Rozan, at the legendary Mysterious Bookshop, and the pre-Edgars Dell party, which honors the EQMM Readers Choice Award winners as well as Edgar nominees for Best Short Story whose stories appeared in Ellery Queen’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Fellow Sleuthsayers are doing great this year: David Dean is a Readers Choice top four, and Steve Liskow has a story in the MWA anthology. I was also the first to volunteer when Michael Bracken asked who wanted to come out to lunch with him and Andrew Hearn. I didn’t know what Texans eat in 2022, so I took them to Restaurant Row on West 46th Street near Broadway, which offers everything from museum quality vegan to death by cholesterol and let them choose. Let’s put it this way: we didn’t eat vegan. Them Texans!

The rest of this will be a photo essay. I live to schmooze—when you see me taking pictures with my phone, never think I’m not also talking a mile a minute with the people I’m actually with—and I was in heaven. I took too many pix and not enough. Among folks you know whom I talked to but didn’t get a chance to snap were the ladies of Dell themselves—Janet Hutchings, Linda Landrigan, and Jackie Sherbow, whose hair is bright green these days—Art Taylor, Brendan DuBois, S.J. Rozan, Joe Goodrich, Richie Narvaez, Jacqueline Freimor, Michele Slung, Barry Zeman, and more. I wish I’d had a chance to say hello to Charlaine Harris, Toni L.P. Kelner aka Leigh Perry, and Charles Todd. Overall, I certainly got my writer people fix for a while.

Liz with Andrew Hearn and Michael Bracken
David Dean, Liz caught mugging, R.T. Lawton
Michael Bracken & Andrew Hearn at Bareburger
Liz with Gigi Pandian
Liz with Steve Liskow and Crime Hits Home
Jonathan Santlofer and Jane Cleland
Kevin Egan
Kiti and R.T. Lawton
Stacy Woodson at Mysterious Bookshop
Bill McCormick (or is it Reacher?) with Liz
Connie Johnson Hambley and Liz Zelvin
Liz Zelvin and Gigi Pandian
Liz with Meredith Anthony and Larry Light
Liz with Otto Penzler and Neil Nyren
Liz and Shelly Dickson Carr

04 April 2022

Tulip Season in Amsterdam


It's tulip season in Amsterdam. What an evocative thought that is. I'm happy to say it's an experience I've had rather than one I was saving for my bucket list. (What bucket list? Don't have one.) My husband and I spent a week in Amsterdam the last time the peak of tulip season coincided with both Easter and my birthday in mid-April, as it does this year. We stayed with Dutch friends in a wonderful neighborhood that reminded us (and them) of the Upper West Side, except it's cleaner, prettier, and has a canal (not one of the famous ones) and more little independent shops: a butcher, a baker, a pastry shop, a chocolatier. At the supermarket deli, they'll open a package and give you a taste of something exotic, like sliced ham with asparagus.

Their apartment was only a ten or fifteen minute tram ride from the old town with its ring of canals, cobblestone streets, and narrow 17th-century houses and from the superb museums. We went to the Concertgebouw to hear the St Matthew Passion. (The famed concert hall performed nothing else during Easter Week back then; this year, I see, they give concertgoers a couple of days' respite from Bach's overwhelming work.) And Keukenhof, the spectacular gardens that more than lives up to all the fuss about the Dutch tulips, was only a half hour bus ride away. A few hours at Keukenhof left me drunk on flowers.

Are ten pictures worth 250 words? You tell me.

07 March 2022

I Didn't Get Reacher, and Now I Do


Let me start by saying that I'm very fond of Lee Child. He lives about a block and a half from me on the Upper West Side. The first time we met, at a party at the legendary Black Orchid bookstore, I was a mystery writer so green that I asked him who he was.

(I wasn't being disingenuous. I really didn't know.)

We graduated to such collegial contacts as sharing a taxi uptown after an MWA event (he paid) and me standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek in the bar at Bouchercon, back when we did such things. Lee is as tall as Reacher, though only half as wide.

So between my warm feelings for this very nice man and the high regard in which both readers and fellow writers hold his books, of course I gave Reacher a try. Several tries. It's evidence of how they failed to stick with me that I can't tell you which ones, except I remember one of them was the one in which he calls on several old colleagues to help him with the case. I gather this wasn't typical. I guess the writing was smooth and the story told expertly at just the right pace with suspense and twists and whatever thriller readers look for. But what makes a story stick to me is character. I understood that Reacher had it, or he wouldn't have screaming fans like the Beatles and Sherlock Holmes—okay, Holmes fans don't scream, but they're dedicated and enthusiastic, and so are Reacher Creatures. But all I could remember about the guy is that he never washes his underwear. He throws it in the motel trash and buys a new pair at what in my distant youth would have been Woolworth's. Where do you find men's underpants these days? Walmart? K-Mart? Does he need a Big and Tall men's store?

I like characters who have relationships. I gather Reacher usually finds a woman (don't get me started on "the girl" in fiction as a stereotyped place holder, however cunningly disguised as a character with depth). But at the end, he always leaves the woman and anyone else who's become attached to him behind. Like Shane, he rides into town at the beginning and rides off into the sunset at the end. For all I know, Shane never changed his underwear either, but 1950s Westerns didn't share that kind of detail with the audience. In short, Reacher left me cold.

When Tom Cruise optioned the books for the movies, I thought maybe that would help me get a better handle on the character. I heard all the arguments pro and con having an actor so physically unlike the Reacher of the series play the part. Lee Child, the person with the best right to an opinion, was very clear on the subject: one, who was he to turn down a hundred million in box office dollars or whatever the figure was; and two, he saw the books as one artistic entity, the movies as another, created not by him but by the movie makers. I was prepared to like the movie. Sometimes movies illuminate books for me. (Example: Merchant/Ivory's Henry James.) I found the beginning noisy and gratuitously violent. I didn't make it all the way through. So I can't tell if it stuck to the books. I don't know if Cruise developed Reacher's character or kept him a mere action figure.

So that's where I stood on the matter: Lee Child, a sweetheart. Jack Reacher, not for me. And then along came Amazon Prime's TV series, Reacher. This calm giant of a guy walks into a diner, orders a piece of peach pie, is just about to take a bite when the cops come blazing in. Reacher doesn't say a word. He doesn't take a bite. He doesn't run. He doesn't push over the table and assault the cops. He doesn't run his mouth. He sits there maintaining the most eloquent silence I've seen on TV since...hmm, what springs to mind is Jack Benny, a very long time ago, thinking over his options when the bandit says, "Your money or your life!" And I'm in love. Just like that, I finally get Reacher.

For Reacher, violence is the last resort. He never starts it. Well, almost never, unless getting the drop on the very bad guy is absolutely essential. There's been a lot of talk about the violence in the Reacher TV show. There is a very high body count, and bones get cracked both ante and post mortem. But I'd rather watch Reacher gouge and head butt and break bullies and conscienceless killers in pieces than watch serial killers slit the throats of women, which happened twice on the Swedish show Modus on high-minded PBS in the first episode (or maybe two), after which I stopped watching it, but I didn't hear anybody complain about that. Reacher knows how to wait. He cares about the details, using his encyclopedic knowledge, keen observation, and reasoning powers to work a case. He even has a sense of humor, though you have to watch closely to see that little quirk at the corner of the perfectly cast Alan Ritchson's mouth.

I can't wait for Season 2 of Amazon's Reacher. And Lee Child is an executive producer on the show. So I won't feel guilty if I never get back to the books. And kudos to Lee Child for Reacher's success, whatever form it takes.

07 February 2022

A New Cross-Genre Hero: Murderbot


After reading mysteries for sixty years and writing them for twenty, I've become an appallingly picky reader. I seldom discover a new-to-me author whose book I want to read all the way through, much less one on whose series I rush to binge. Yet that's exactly what happened when I heard about fantasy author Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries on DorothyL, the venerable e-list for mystery lovers. Someone said, "They do have 'murder' in the title, and they're wonderful!" Someone else said, "I love Murderbot!" Others chimed in enthusiastically, pointing out that crimes and at least one murder mystery could be found in the series. So I picked up the first novella, All Systems Red, and I was hooked. I literally bought and read straight through the whole series before going on to any other reading. And I was in good company. All Systems Red won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards for Best Novella.

Murderbot is not your typical antihero. If I said it's the most lovable android since R2D2, you'd get completely the wrong idea. First, you'd better not call it Murderbot. That's private. It's SecUnit to you. Second, don't touch it. Pats on the head, the shoulder, the back, or the arm are not welcome. Third, if you value your life, don't ask it how it feels. It has a thousand ways to kill you, and it doesn't give a damn that you meant well.

Murderbot is a rogue SecUnit who's hacked its governor module and is making a break for freedom. As the story arc unfolds, we begin to understand what being controlled by a governor module was like for a sentient being and why Murderbot is chronically grumpy and doesn't trust humans. Unlike the humanoid androids in most science fiction, the last thing it wants is to be human itself. Humans are stupid. They think slowly. They invariably do the wrong thing in a crisis. They constantly put themselves in danger, from which SecUnit is programmed to rescue them, even at the cost of its own life. Somehow, even without its governor module to punish it for failing, it can't help doing that.

In the course of its adventures, Murderbot gradually comes in contact with a few humans who treat it as a fellow being rather than as a piece of equipment. It doesn't want to care about any of them. Caring isn't in his programming. It tells itself this unfamiliar response must be a system glitch. But caring as well as curiosity keep leading it into new friendships (sorry, Murderbot, I didn't mean to use the F word) with both humans and other machine entities as it hitchhikes through space investigating the mysteries in its own past.

Because Wells is a highly experienced and imaginative writer who serves up a unique brew of world-building and character and humor and plotting that is superior to all the "gripping, compelling, if-you-like-Martha-Wells-you'll-love" imitators I'm sure will come along if they haven't already, she avoids easy solutions. For example, at the end of one of the novellas, the human SecUnit finds the least intolerably stupid, slow, disorganized, and irrational, one who's almost possible to work with in a crisis involving humans, offers it a home. Her world is free from the corrupt influence of Murderbot's former corporate owners and of bigotry toward bots. But our hero is not a bot. It's a SecUnit—a valuable piece of lethal equipment—and although its not-a-friend might call it her teammate or family member, whichever it prefers, she would have to be its legal owner to get it onto the planet. In other words, it would be a slave again. So Murderbot, who can't possibly be feeling a bit conscience-stricken, slips away to have more adventures. Since these include investigating murders as well as stopping various bad guys from preying on both humans and sentient machines, Murderbot fans can rejoice. By the way, don't tell Murderbot it has fans. It would be so embarrassed. If SecUnits could get embarrassed.

Artificial Condition, the second in the five novellas that make up The Murderbot Diaries, also won the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novella.

Network Effect, the Murderbot novel, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novel and was a New York Times bestseller.

Rumor has it that Wells has signed a contract for several more Murderbot works.

10 January 2022

Resolving Anew to Make No New Year's Resolutions


I start every new year with one form or another of this manifesto. I have plenty of precedent.

"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." For many years, I've been running around attributing this to Proverbs in the Old Testament, but oops! it's from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:34.

"One day at a time." Alcoholics Anonymous. They also say, "It works!"

"Nothing is set in stone." That one is a proverb.

In 2019, according to statistics on discoverhealthyhabits.com, 48% of those who made resolutions wanted to lose weight. 59% wanted to exercise more and 54% wanted to eat healthier, and I bet those were looking sideways in the mirror too. In 2020, the last two made the most popular list. My take on that is that resolution-makers are getting more ingenious in wanting magic when they look at the scale. In general baby boomers and midwesterners care the most about losing weight. What percentage of these January hopefuls have kept their resolutions by the end of the year? The stats range between 2% and 12%. According to cnbc.com, "Diet and weight loss have grown to be a $71 billion industry, yet according to studies— 95% of diets fail."

Let's rephrase that, because I'm dying to use QED in a sentence. 95% of diets fail; diet and weight loss are a $71 billion dollar industry; QED. And resolving to lose weight every January, with the end result of losing and gaining and losing and gaining hundreds or even thousands of pounds over a lifetime that represents the triumph of unrealistic expectations—or superstition—or self-hate, if I may put my shrink hat on for a moment, is an unhealthy, even dangerous waste of time.

But let's put weight and dieting aside. The stats I mentioned say that Gen Z, today's kids, make resolutions about finding love, dressing better, and improving their style. Millennials resolve to get a raise or a promotion. Oh, you poor kids! America has taught you that life is nothing but a series of goals, and everything in between is panting, sweating, and striving. Reading between the lines, I notice that the competition and winning that are implicit in a goal-oriented society have gone underground. Today's corporate-speak is all about "teams." But it's meaningless. If you writers and appreciators of words are close to anyone who works in such an environment, you'll know what I mean.

Notice too, what a bill of goods the new crop of kids have been sold about what matters. Lumping love in with dress and style, whatever that means? And making resolutions about it? I'd be better pleased with them if they resolved to hook up less and pay less attention to how they look, more to how they feel and how much they care about others.

But to get back to my starting point, it's not really the nature of the resolutions that puts me off them. It's the fact that I have achieved so much peace of mind from dealing with my life one day—and sometimes shorter increments, if that was all I could handle—at a time. It's amazing how easy it is not to feel overwhelmed when I'm not fretting about what I'm supposed to achieve next month, next week, or even tomorrow. If it's not today's problem, I'm free to turn my attention to what I need to accomplish—and enjoy—today. And that's enough. It works. It really does.

By the way, my posting date came around a week later than I thought it would when I originally wrote this piece. How many of you made New Year's resolutions on January 1 this year—and have already broken them?

13 December 2021

Fifty Opening Lines


Back in 2018, Leigh Lundin posted an opportunity for SleuthSayers readers to identify 100 books and authors by their opening lines. His source was American Book Review's list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels. I got about 25 of them and recognized more that I couldn't identify off the cuff. Let's play again. My list of 50 includes some of ABR's, some culled from various other lists, and some favorites of my own.

As I compiled this list, I realized that the body of common knowledge it depends on is shrinking, but not because people are necessarily reading less. In the culture many of us have lived most of our lives in, to some extent, we all read the same books.

Even crime fiction readers, until ten or twenty years ago, could talk about the classics and favorite current authors and series in the expectation that most other readers of the genre would be familiar with them. That is no longer true. Attendees of Malice Domestic and of ThrillerFest may have widely divergent reading lists. On eclectic mystery lovers e-list DorothyL, reading recommendations have grown exponentially more varied. In the past couple of years, members' Best of Year lists have had almost as many titles as submitters, with only a handful of authors garnering five or six votes. And this year, as we all know, two widely circulated anthologies of the best mystery stories of the year have included widely divergent representatives of the genre. How many lines from any of them, if any, will be remembered in fifty or a hundred years?

So while we still can, let's savor and honor these memorable lines and see how many of them you can identify by title and author.

I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a giant cockroach.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

You better not never tell nobody but God.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

In the ancient city of London, on a certain autumn day in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, a boy was born to a poor family of the name of Canty, who did not want him.

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. I am he that was called in those days Billy Bocksfuss—cruel misnomer. For had I indeed a cloven foot I'd not now hobble upon a stick or need ride pick-a-back to class in humid weather. Aye, it was just for want of a proper hoof that in my fourteenth year I was the kicked instead of the kicker; that I lay crippled on the reeking peat and saw my first loved tupped by a brute Angora.

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

Mother died today.

Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and resdiscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, and triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the recharger, and only realized I'd done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn't work. How odd, I thought. Recharging the battery, and the maneuver needed to accomplish it, had become such second nature that I had done them instinctively, without conscious decision, like brushing my teeth. And I realized for the first time that I had finally squared my subconscious, at least when I was awake, to the fact that awhat I now had as a left hand was a matter of metal and plastic, not muscle and bone and blood.

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robed clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no sign of fatigue.

His green-and-vermilion topknot was as colorful as a parrot's, and in Colleton County's courtroom that afternoon, with its stripped-down modern light oak benches and pale navy carpet, a cherryhead parrot couldn't have looked much more exotic than this Michael Czarnecki.

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother."
"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."
"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"
"If we have to."
"I thought you said you liked this kid."
"If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favorite uncle."
"All right. We're saving the world, after all. Take him."

The day they drowned Dendale I were seven years old.

...it was green, all green, all over me, choking, the water, then boiling at first, and roaring, and seething, till all settled down, cooling, clearing, and my sight up drifting with the few last bubbles, till through the glassy water I see the sky clearly, and the sun bright as a lemon, and the birds with wings wide as a windmill's sails slowly drifting round it, and over the bank's rim small dark faces peering, timid as beasts at their watering, nostrils sniffing danger and shy eyes bright and wary, till a current turns me over, and I drift, and still am drifting, and...

A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it. Many citizens, seeing the women flying toward the High Street, leaving their children crying at the open doors, hastened to don the cuirass, and supporting their somewhat uncertain courage with a musket or a partisan, directed their steps toward the hostelry of the Jolly Miller, before which was gathered, increasing every minute, a compact group, vociferous and full of curiosity.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best as I could, but when he went upon insult I vowed revenge.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see twinkling lights. This had happened before as I came out of a blackout. I rolled my head heavily sideways on the pillow. The light came from a drooping strand of blinking bulbs flung over a dispirited looking artificial pine. A plastic Santa, looking as drunk as I remembered being when I went into the blackout, grinned at me from the treetop. I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day.


And for extra credit: Which opening solves a mystery in the first four words?

15 November 2021

Making An Impact


It may take me a while to respond to comments on today's blog for the best of reasons: I'll be hanging out with readers. The readers are students in Professor Ken Wishnia's Intro to Lit class at SUNY Suffolk, and we'll be talking about my story, "Never Again," in Me Too Short Stories, an anthology I edited. Ken is himself an accomplished crime fiction author, whose anthology, Jewish Noir II, including my story, "The Cost of Something Priceless," will appear early next year. The students are a truly diverse group in age and socioeconomic status as well as ethnicity, race, and gender. Some come from troubled families; many must struggle to achieve a community college education.

"Never Again" is a challenging story. We learn on the first page that Valerie's father abuses her sexually from the age of four. For ten years, her attempts to speak out and get help fail. We also meet Frances, abused by the preacher's son at age nine in her close-knit churchgoing community. She hides her pain in compulsive overeating and obesity and marries an alcoholic who abuses her physically, verbally, and emotionally. Two intolerable situations, one girl, one woman who say, "Never again!" and embark on a collision course. What will happen when they collide?

I've visited Ken's classes, whose students have not only read the story but written a one-page paper on it, several times, both virtually and in person. Ken has said, "These stories [in the Me Too anthology] are the first pieces of fiction to truly come alive on the page for some students." He and I have discussed how academic assignments had changed since our own youth, when Shakespeare and Victorian novels were the norm, and how the first wave of "relevant" reading material, beginning in the Sixties, ran to books like Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist these students would see as a bored rich white kid with no problems worth mentioning.

Last year, to illustrate the students' visceral response, he shared with me some comments from their papers.

Not a lot of literature has really brought me to tears, but her story had me close to fully crying.
This story had me genuinely tearing up and putting the book down after the first few sentences, which is something that has never happened before.

Sometimes the writing in a story is so good that you physically react and that’s what happened.

Never Again demonstrates the lack of voice that women have when speaking up about sexual abuse. People question why victims exposed to any abuse cannot speak up. These victims want to tell someone that they are suffering, but it is hard for them to confide themselves to someone who will listen to their story.

Do I write in the hope of moving readers this powerfully? You bet I do. Did I write "Never Again" to make an impact? Absolutely. I'm awed and grateful that these young readers were so receptive.

One more comment, from a young man whose opinion I'd rather have than a New York Times reviewer's:

I cant even compare this short story to the others because this one is by far my favorite. By the end of the first page i was instantly hooked, the darkness of this story is absolutely wild. The way how the author describes so specifically the dark twisted things that go on in Valerie's household puts me on the edge of my futon that i was reading this on. The fact that i wanted to rip the father out of the pages and beat him up for touching and treating his daughter like that was a feeling Ive never felt before reading a story.

I can hardly wait to find out what this year's crop of students have to say.

11 October 2021

An Outsider Love Story:
Rachel Mendoza and Her Taino Husband


It's Columbus Day, now also known as Indigenous People's Day, and so it should be. My novel, Voyage of Strangers, tells the story of what really happened when Columbus and a fleet of Spanish soldiers with sharp-edged steel weapons and horses, greedy for gold and blinded by Christian zeal to the humanity of any who didn't share their faith, descended on the agricultural Taino, who had neither. The Taino solved disputes by playing batey, a game akin to soccer, based their spiritual life on nature gods, and were governed by the principle of matu'm, generosity. The Taino were doomed from the moment Columbus set foot on Caribbean soil.

I've written posts about Voyage, Columbus, and the Taino before. I've written and spoken about the original protagonist of the Mendoza Family Saga, Diego, the young Jewish sailor who appeared unbidden in my head one night and demanded I tell his story, which began in "The Green Cross" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Marching onto the deck of the Santa Maria in 1492, he gave me a way to tell the familiar—and long distorted—story through eyes unfiltered by Christianity. His friendship with the boy Hutia gave him entrée into the appealing culture of the Taino, allowing my story to move beyond the Eurocentric.

Diego's sister Rachel, who first appeared in Voyage of Strangers, was originally meant to be a secondary character. But she's become an enduring series protagonist with at least a forty-year lifespan in 15th-16th-century years, beloved by readers of the "Harem" stories in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and my own favorite character among those I've created. Rachel and Hutia, later called Ümīt, are perennial outsiders as a couple yet also exemplars of resilience, the power of love, and the ability to make a home and family no matter what.

The Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 into a hostile and wartorn Europe, mostly without resources, were decimated by the time they arrived, as the Mendozas do, in refuges like the Ottoman Empire. So many had died that girls were under pressure to marry as young as twelve to start rebuilding the Jewish people—an attitude that reappeared in some sects of Judaism after the Holocaust. The Mendoza parents don't believe in child marriage, but they certainly want her to marry a Jewish boy.

By the time Rachel and Diego rejoin their parents in Istanbul in 1497, Rachel has drunk deeply from the cup of freedom. She has climbed the rigging of a sailing ship, felt sun on her limbs, traveled half the world, fought for her life, and fallen deeply in love with Hutia. He, in turn, has witnessed the systematic massacre of his people. By 1496, at least one-third of all the Taino had been killed. Many committed suicide by drinking cyanide extracted from raw yuca. Until recently, the Taino were believed to be extinct. For the purposes of my series, Hutia is the sole survivor. He intends to stay with his people, fighting to the death, but at the last moment he puts love first and sails for Europe with Rachel and Diego, posing as their slave.

Once in Istanbul, Rachel has to convince her parents that this is the only boy she'll marry. Being wise and loving, they put up a fight but eventually give in. I made Hutia a bit of a paragon: handsome, smart, and good at everything he tries, including languages. He's saved both their kids' lives a few times, too. Hutia is perfectly willing to convert to Judaism. But the stodgy rabbis of Istanbul won't allow it. A savage in the synagogue? Absolutely not.

Hutia has a brilliant solution. He changes his name to Ümīt, which means "hope," and converts to Islam instead. Jews are tolerated in the Ottoman Empire, but only Muslims are admitted to all its privileges. And unlike the Jews, Islam welcomes converts eagerly. As a Muslim, Ümīt will be well placed to protect the whole family and advance its interests. Rachel finds just the right job as a kira, a purveyor or personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. It's not long till Ümīt is working at the Palace. By the 1520s, he is one of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent's valued advisers.

Their children, as Umit says, "study Torah and the Qur'an with equal enthusiasm and question everything."

Rachel says, “If we had not learned to tolerate a great deal of inconsistency, not a single Mendoza would have made it out of Spain alive back in 1492."

20 September 2021

100 Years Ago, My Mother Went to Law School


One hundred years ago this month, my mother went to law school. A brilliant student who had sailed through school, she was not quite nineteen years old.

Brooklyn Law School, founded in 1901, was her alma mater. According to Wikipedia, "From its earliest days, Brooklyn Law School opened its door to minorities, women, and immigrants, and it offered night classes for those with full-time jobs." Columbia University Law School would not admit women until 1927, Harvard, 1950, and Yale, 1969. In any event, the Ivy League institutions were far beyond the means of a young Jewish woman from Hungary who had come through Ellis Island in 1906 at the age of four and was working during the day to support her recently widowed mother and younger sisters.

Brooklyn Law was exceptional in being receptive to populations that a hundred years later, as we have been appalled to see vividly demonstrated recently, are still struggling for equal treatment. Both my mother and the classmate who became my father would have encountered anti-Semitism if they had dared to approach the Ivies. According to Kimball & Coquillette in "History and Harvard Law School" (2018), Fordham Law Review 87 (3) p 897, "Red Scare hysteria... began in 1919"...leading to "spreading fear of foreign and left-wing influence." In the 1920s, the Law School "severely restricted the enrollment of nonwhite students at Harvard, absolutely forbade the enrollment of women, and sharply reduced the enrollment of Jewish students and employment of Jewish faculty."

Why did Mom go to law school? It certainly wasn't from any lofty notion of serving justice and protecting the weak and innocent. I have tapes of an interview with her that I made when I was getting my master's in social work in the 1980s—on cassette, alas, so I currently have no way to replay them—in which she says she simply needed to make a living. The obvious choice was to become a teacher, but that was out because a cousin she disliked was a teacher. (Brilliant yes, psychologically savvy no. One of my best known poems is titled, "My Mother Rejects the Unconscious.") I already knew why she couldn't be a doctor, because I inherited her squeamish gene. She was a Jewish intellectual who claimed to despise business, insisting it required mere shrewdness rather than intelligence. I suspect the roots of that belief were her father's failure and early death. He was a tailor who did poorly working for others. When he set up shop for himself, his high-quality skills were wasted on an immigrant clientele who couldn't afford to pay. So what was left but the law?

The Class of 1924 at Brooklyn Law Night School consisted of one hundred men and twelve women. Family tradition says my father fell in love with her at first sight in 1921. They never said if he waited the three years till graduation before proposing the first time. We know she turned him down, that time and again and again. Why didn't she marry him? She wanted a career. She didn't know how hard that was going to be for her and every other woman in her graduating class and in her law school sorority, whose members—all Jewish, because no other sorority would have them—became lifelong friends. Also, my father, hardworking, guileless, and incurably honest, made the mistake of telling her—I may have told this one before—"Judy, I'll never be rich." Oy, is that the wrong thing to say when you propose to an ambitious girl!

She finally gave in, and they were married in 1936. They had a long and happy marriage until his death at the age of 91. She lived till 1999. On her tombstone is the epitaph she wrote herself and tucked in among her papers where she knew we'd find it: "20th century feminist from start to finish." She told me how she would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to work in Manhattan every day with cheese sandwiches for lunch in her pocket. She was a small woman, but I called the poem I wrote about that "Colossa." She still casts a long shadow, and I still miss her.

23 August 2021

The Pandemic—A Touchy Subject for Writers


I wrote the following piece at the end of the first year of the pandemic, and I've had to rewrite this introductory paragraph twice—once when large numbers of Americans got vaccinated and were repopulating restaurants and flying across the country to visit their grandchildren and now, again, when the Delta variant of the virus has forced those of us who thought the pandemic was almost over to realize it's on the way to becoming chronic.

Some writers took the year of freedom from distraction the lockdown provided to hole up and write prolifically. Others were so distressed by the isolation human contact and the global ambiance of fear, death, and chaos that they couldn't write at all. Fiction writers were certainly in no hurry to tackle the pandemic in their work, whether as theme or primary subject or as the fabric of reality in "the present."

Poets were not so hampered. Waiting to have something to say, I came up with my only pandemic poem very late, just in time to be included in the anthology When the Virus Came Calling (Golden Foothills, September 2020). I read a significant number of 2020 short stories, including entries for the Derringers, and only a couple mentioned it. As for novels, I don't remember seeing any references in 2020. When Donna Leon's latest Commissario Brunetti book, Transient Desires, came out in March 2021, it referred delicately to the pandemic as if it were already over:

For years we Venetians had wished the tourists to disappear and give us back our city. Well, we'd had our wish, and look at us now.

At around the same time, a mystery reader who happens to be a writer posted on DorothyL:

I’m curious as to what folks are thinking about the intrusion of the pandemic into our reading. Are any of you welcoming it (maybe as a way to process)? Are we all avoiding it?

I responded, as is my wont, truthfully and without thinking of looking around for the thought police:

I've been working on a short story that takes place in New York during the pandemic. Everyone wears masks, and the amateur sleuth investigates via Zoom, phone, and walks in the park with witnesses and suspects, keeping social distance. The case looks like an accident and is given short shrift—no autopsy or further investigation—because the morgues are full and law enforcement has more important things to do. It's been fun to write, but I don't know that I'd want to do it for the length of a novel or even additional stories.

No one criticized my comment, but when I heard someone say they didn't want to read anything about COVID-19 because it evoked pain and suffering they had no desire to dwell on, it made me think twice about my use of "fun." Next, I saw submission guidelines to a journal that stated pandemic stories, like erotica or sword & sorcery, would be a "hard sell," just short of "hard passes" like torture or child and animal abuse.

Hey, wait a minute! How can we veto a whole category of literary work that writers' imaginations have barely begun to process? What assumption does avoiding the whole thing make about what pandemic stories will be about?

The analogy that leaps to my mind is the child abuse story, which is so easily banned unseen by editors trying to appear "correct." The flaw in their reasoning is that they can only imagine stories in which children are being graphically and disgustingly abused. As my anthology Me Too Short Stories amply demonstrated, abused children can have a voice, a chorus of voices. They can even survive and grow into women who fight back without becoming the pulp-fiction fantasy action figure with a big bust, two guns, and a skimpy bathing suit.

I think the stories of courage and loss, pain and survival we saw in 2020 need to be told by those who need to tell them, and only those who want to read them have to read them. But illness and death were not all that happened during the pandemic. The part of 2020 that I used, the part I dared call fun to write, was how we New Yorkers went about our business under abnormal conditions—wearing masks, maintaining social distance, using Zoom to congregate, and somehow making the best of it. For the purposes of crime fiction, I asked myself: How would that affect an investigation, both official and unofficial?

One more example of how many different ways writers may find to explore the pandemic: A masterful short story I read blind, so I can't tell you who wrote it, but it was a puzzle story in which an amateur sleuth solves the crime without leaving her house, because the extended lockdown has left her agoraphobic. I could appreciate how brilliantly the author rendered the agoraphobia, because I've been in lockdown too.

So far in 2021, I haven't observed much more willingness to address the pandemic in fiction than in 2020. But on DorothyL, readers, many of whom are writers, have been discussing a shift in their reading habits. Some of them are reading less crime fiction—and these are hard core lifelong mystery lovers. They are turning to other genres for a variety of reasons. I can't help wondering if I'm the only one for whom crime fiction is too dark for these dark days.