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

06 March 2023

The Rashomon Effect

My February SleuthSayers slot missed Valentine's Day, so I'm belatedly sharing a link (at end of this post) to my love story published on Yellow Mama at that time, a flash-plus piece you might find cynical. But it really isn't. Rather, it uses the Rashomon effect to demonstrate, as all such tales do, that truth is in the experience of the individual. In the original Japanese movie Rashomon (1950), filmmaker Akira Kurosawa showed an event, the death of a samurai, from four different points of view, without reconciling them or concluding the story with a version of what "really happened."

Since then, much has been written about the Rashomon Effect in movies, literature, and real life, even in the courtroom. Kurosawa's great theme, the ambiguity of truth, is more or less important to each storyteller who uses this powerful technique. I suspect this is why some of the examples often cited are better examples of the unreliable narrator—or unreliable narrative, with its deceptive twists and turns—than of the Rashomon Effect. The Usual Suspects, for example, appears on Rashomon lists, but does it belong there? How about Gone Girl?

For fun, I watched a couple of movies I hadn't seen in many years that are always cited as Rashomon Effect stories: Les Girls (1957) and Courage Under Fire (1996).

Les Girls was a musical that won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical). It's still lots of fun, silly in the way that all Fifties musicals were, and worth seeing for Cole Porter's songs, Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor's apache dance, and Kay Kendall's performance, which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical). Her drunken rendition of Carmen's "Habanera" alone was worth the $2.99 I paid to see the movie on Amazon Prime. The Rashomon Effect is applied to events that occurred many years before the present, in Paris in the spring, where Gene Kelly's act, Les Girls, was appearing, featuring three young women: an American (Gaynor), an Englishwoman (Kendall), and a Frenchwoman (Taina Elg). Now Kendall has published a book about those events. She is being sued by Elg. Each of them has a different story to tell about which one had a fling with Kelly, which of them tried to kill herself . . . you get the idea. Finally, Kelly appears as a surprise witness to offer yet another version that actually is the truth—though maybe not the whole truth. Filmmaker George Cukor, less subtle than Kurosawa, pounds the Rashomon message home with a guy pacing back and forth in front of the courthouse carrying a sandwich board that says, in giant letters, WHAT IS TRUTH?

Courage Under Fire paired Denzel Washington, as a Gulf War commander tormented by the memory of a fatal error in combat, with Meg Ryan, breaking out from her usual romcom roles, as a candidate for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Investigating the incident that made her a dead hero to evaluate her worthiness for this high honor, Washington finds that each of the men she saved tells a different story. In the end, it turns out they all lied.

If it's a solvable mystery, is it still a Rashomon story?

Here's my story, "Perfect," in Yellow Mama #96.

06 February 2023

My DNA—Oh, the Places It's Been!

DNA evidence is one of the hallmarks of contemporary crime investigation, separating it from the cruder forensic methods, interviewing of witnesses and suspects and Sherlockian reliance on deductive reasoning, of the past. But access to DNA solves many mysteries besides those of murder. We now have easy access to the information coded in our own DNA, and I, for one, am finding what I'm learning, even at the most superficial level, fascinating.

Liz as Greek goddess: a fun feature of
This isn't about genetic markers for disease or health issues, though for a lot of people, it has been crucial information that would not have been available to them before. It's about my roots and familial relationships. We live in a nation composed largely of immigrants: the voluntary, the involuntary, and the desperate. My own parents were born, respectively, in what was then called the Ukraine and ruled by the Czar of Russia and in Hungary. With their own parents and nearest siblings, they came through Ellis Island as young children in 1905 and 1906. My father's extended family on both sides emigrated too; he grew up in Brooklyn alongside dozens of cousins. My mother knew the aunts and uncles and their twenty children on her father's side, but her mother's equally large family remained in Hungary and was eventually lost to the Holocaust.

Because of the Holocaust, there were significant gaps in the record. Synagogues, cemeteries, whole villages in Europe were lost. Registers of births, marriages, and deaths as well as countless family documents and photographs were destroyed. Memories and family stories were killed en masse along with the people who carried them. Without these, Jewish genealogists ran into blind alleys, with no way to tell whether people with the same name shared a common ancestor. DNA changed that, along with the potential for people to reach out to possible kin on the Internet.

Liz as Persian princess
I've had my DNA tested by both, which I got as a gift a couple of Xmases ago, and, which I did later on. I pay a monthly fee to MyHeritage, and as a result, I get more ongoing information, notably a weekly list of DNA matches, ie people who share segments of DNA with me and some of the people I share DNA with who also share DNA with those people. Most of the folks whose names they offer me share only 1% or 0.9% of my DNA. The cousins I've made contact with, with whom I actually share known family members, are a 4.1% match on the Hungarian side and 2.8% (mother) and 2.3% (son) match on the Ukrainian side.

Janos, a Hungarian about my age who has lived in Denmark since 1957, is the grandson of my my mother's mother's sister Paula. Gran, whom I adored, always said that Paula was her favorite sister. I learned from Janos that she almost survived the War; she died of starvation in the Budapest ghetto in 1945. Gary told me his mom, Leni, was the granddaughter of my father's mother's sister Basya or Bessie, who was thus his own great-grandmother. Gary lives in New Jersey.

Liz as Edwardian lady
Now, here's the mystery. As I scroll through the lists of DNA matches and their matches to my matches every week, I find dozens of people who share not only bits of my DNA, but also bits of DNA I got from my mother, born in Pápa, Hungary, and bits of DNA I got from my father, born in Ekaterinaslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine. My mother always said she didn't even know Russian Jews were human until she grew up and met my father in law school in 1921. There's always a pecking order. I guess the German Jews who emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century considered themselves above the Hungarian Jews, and the Sephardim (the Iberian Jews who got kicked out of Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1493) a cut above the Ashkenazim (the Eastern European Jews) in general. One study says that the Ashkenazim, who seem to have arisen as a genetic and linguistic entity in Europe in the eleventh or twelfth century, originally consisted of only 350 people. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that my Hungarian side and my Ukrainian side are connected. But I still marvel.

Liz as Art Nouveau poster girl
Bigots and would-be world dominators have been trying to wipe the Jews out for five thousand years, and they haven't succeeded yet. We may not all define our Jewishness the same. We may not all practice traditional Judaism. We may reshape it to accommodate contemporary concepts of spirituality and family. But we are everywhere. Segments of DNA that matches mine are walking around in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, the United States, United Kingdom, and Uruguay, keeping my genetic heritage alive all over the world.

09 January 2023

Weaving the Past into the Present

Leslie Budewitz, my guest blogger today, is one of my oldest mystery writer friends. We met in Sisters in Crime Guppies, of which she was a founding member back when we really were the Great UnPublished. Liz

by Leslie Budewitz

I love curling up with a good historical novel. While most of my work is contemporary, my newest standalone suspense novel, Blind Faith (written as Alicia Beckman), weaves together a contemporary cold case investigation and historic scenes going back nearly fifty years. And I’ve dipped into historical mystery with several short stories set in the 1880s and a novella set in 1910. But the past is always present. Sneaking a bit of history into a contemporary tale can add layers to the plot and setting, and even character, that make for a richer, more textured read. Plus, it’s fun.

One way to use history in a contemporary novel is to weave in the history of place. My Spice Shop mysteries are set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which was founded in 1907. It’s a farmers’ market, but also home to locally-based retailers, craftspeople, and restaurants, as well as several hundred residents. It was the first mixed-use residential and commercial property listed on the National Historic Register. History is key to the place and to the experience of it.

And so my main character runs a spice shop and tussles with Market managers over exterior signage (“If it wasn’t there in 1937, there’s no putting it up now”) and funky wiring. She hangs a map showing the origins of her spices over cracks in the plaster that no caulk can fix. She chases baddies down cobblestone streets and up hidden staircases. She curses the place for its quirks and loves it for the very same reason.

When we describe a scene, we’re giving our readers cues and clues that allow them to create it in their own mind. They’ll never see just what we see, unless we’re using a real place they’ve visited. But whether the place is real, like the Market, or entirely fictional, like the historic lodge in my first standalone suspense novel, Bitterroot Lake (written as Alicia Beckman), details that flesh out the characters’ relationship to a place and its history create a deeper connection to the setting and story.

The history of a place can also spark plot. David Edgerly Gates gave a great example of this last month here on SleuthSayers when he discussed the TV series Three Pines, based on Louise Penny’s books. The TV writers added a brilliant (to me) story line about the experience of Indigenous people in the region, rooted in the residential school, a building that still dominates the town. While the murder in the second pair of episodes did not stem directly from that history, the victim’s connection to the school gave the writers an opportunity to tell the story of the horrors inflicted and show how building’s continued existence kept the wounds open. And they were able to show how the townspeople came together to end that.

In Bitterroot Lake, my main character returns to her family’s historic lodge in NW Montana, seeking solace after her husband’s death. A murder the day she arrives ties into a tragedy she and her friends experienced twenty-five years before as new college graduates. While cleaning up damage after a windstorm, she discovers a scrapbook detailing the lodge’s construction a century earlier. Through the photographs, along with letters and journals she finds in an old trunk, she uncovers a mystery about the lodge that answers questions about tensions with a neighbor and eventually helps her unmask the present-day killer. I love old homes, art, and furniture, and had a great time creating Whitetail Lodge, using memories of private and public lodges I’ve visited, and poring over real estate listings, magazine articles, and local history books.

That’s also how I discovered the region’s history of ice houses, including a survivor now in the parking lot of a building supply company in the next town. Closed up but well-preserved, it sits alongside a path built where railroad tracks once ran. With drawings of the plans and my site visit in mind, I staged the novel’s climax in a similar relic. And if I introduced readers to lodge culture, timber and railroad history, and social issues of a century ago, even better.

Every community has inherent tensions, often with origins that are no longer visible. In Six Feet Deep Dish, debut cozy author Mindy Quigley uses her fictional Wisconsin town’s beginnings as a summer refuge for wealthy Chicagoans to illustrate continuing conflicts between the haves and have-nots. She also mines it for humor, decorating her protagonist’s pizza joint with old photographs of mobsters, including Al Capone as a baby. Fortunately, the homicide detective, a direct descendant of the crime boss, takes it in stride.

Crime fiction often involves an incident in the past that triggers a present-day conflict, whether it occurred in 1925 or 1985. In Blind Faith, a cold case investigation draws us deep into the past, untangling the threads that tie a prominent family to the unsolved murder of a priest. Both personal history and stories about the community help us understand the motivations behind a series of crimes that continue to have ripple effects.

Our lives are influenced by the past on every level. And when we use history to explore events in the present, we can tell richer, more meaningful stories.

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. As Alicia Beckman, she writes moody suspense. She is the winner of three Agatha Awards, including the 2018 Agatha for Best Short Story, “All God’s Sparrows,” set in Montana Territory in 1884 and featuring a real-life figure, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields. A past president of Sisters in Crime and MWA board member, she lives in NW Montana.

12 December 2022

When the Characters Run Away with Your Series

DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, is often the source of inspiration for me in thinking about why I write what and how I write. A while back, a DL reader was “disconcerted” when an author who had written the first few books of a series from the sole point of view of the first person protagonist brought out a new book with multiple POVs: some chapters from the protagonist’s POV as before, and others from the third person POV of other characters.

original 2008 hardcover

In the case of my Bruce Kohler Mysteries, a series which includes both novels and short stories, I intended to write from the POV of a first person protagonist. But it never happened. I also intended to have a bestselling hardcover series with a major publisher that sold for $27.95 that appeared in paperback a year later and continue writing it forever, but that never happened either. How the world has changed in the twenty years since I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober.

In fact, my Bruce Kohler short stories, starting with “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” have been solely in Bruce’s first person POV until recently. That first novel originally had two alternating first person protagonists, Bruce, the sardonic recovering alcoholic with an ill-concealed heart of gold, and Barbara, the nice Jewish codependent from Queens who can’t resist helping and minding everybody’s business. When an editor finally showed interest in publishing Death Will Get You Sober, the first thing he said was, “Bruce is a terrific protagonist, but Barbara would be better as a sidekick.” So I rewrote the book, putting her chapters in third person. I also fixed some awkward scenes, like having Bruce tell us what Barbara told him she overheard in the ladies room. Sometimes you really need another POV.

Every writer hears the starting bell for the next work differently. In this series, I start with the title. I had Death Will Get You Sober in my head for years, though I didn’t write it till I quit the job on the Bowery that I fictionalized in the novel. And then, I wait for Bruce, Barbara, Jimmy, who’s Bruce’s best friend since childhood and Barbara’s boyfriend, now husband, to start wisecracking in my head. I take my marching orders from them.

Over the years, each character has developed. I haven’t developed them, any more than I planned for my son to grow up to be a decent man and a terrific husband and father who wears his hair very short and earns a six-figure income in the fantasy sports industry. (Take that, hippie parents!)

An e-publisher changed the titles
but the artist got Bruce's wry grin

Bruce, with his distinctive first person voice, is at the heart of the series. He once described himself as “ham on wry.” He’s still sardonic, but his compassion is closer to the surface as his sobriety continues. The main character arc is that of his recovery and personal growth. As he said recently, in “Death Will Take the High Line,” “At seven years sober, I’d be a sorry excuse for recovery if I still thought about alcohol all the time.” The main characters are his circle of friends.

Barbara has agency. As the series goes on, she’s become the one who pushes the others to investigate and instigates the moments of confrontation. She’s also funny. She works on her codependency issues, but if she ever recovered completely from being nosy and bossy for the good of those she loves, she wouldn’t be funny anymore. Luckily, she keeps backsliding.

Jimmy provides stability and serves as a foil for the others. His passions are AA, the Internet and all things tech, and Manhattan. He can get culture shock in New Jersey, if you can get him there, or even in Brooklyn or the Bronx. He and Bruce have some Mr Jones-Mr Bones routines they’ve been doing since they were kids in Yorkville. They keep coming up with ones I’ve never heard before, usually when I’m lying on the floor doing my stretches.

The unified e-series edition –
this novel is an e-book only

Cindy, Bruce’s NYPD detective girlfriend, became necessary when the device of amateur sleuths in New York City became harder and harder to pull off realistically, even in the mystery story context of suspension of disbelief. When she first appeared in the trio’s clean and sober group house in the Hamptons in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Bruce didn’t know she was a cop. And I didn’t know she would become a permanent member of my cast of series characters. But it was time for Bruce to have a serious relationship. We both needed Cindy. So there she was again when we needed her: in Death Will Pay Your Debts, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” and “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

But Cindy really sprang to life when I gave her a story of her own in “Death Will Give You A Reason.” I absolutely didn’t “flesh her out.” Cindy and I went through the process of discovering who she was in depth together. In that story, Cindy’s about to celebrate her tenth anniversary of sobriety, a very big deal in AA, when a case pulls her back into a painful part of her past. Solving it, we found her essence. Cindy belongs to two tribes, NYPD and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bruce appears briefly at the beginning and end of “Death Will Give You A Reason,” because I thought fans of the series might object to a “Death Will” story that left him out. After her big evening at AA, he falls asleep beside her as she thinks about all that matters to her.

Besides taking [the murderer] in to be booked yesterday, she’d had to trace the knife, mobilize a social worker … and fill out a ton of paperwork. In a couple of days she’d be able to think about her anniversary, the love that had come pouring in when she’d told her story. It was nice to take a break from being a cop, if it didn’t last too long.

14 November 2022

Love, Murder, and The Crown

In Shakespeare's day, royalty and the nobility were the only celebrities. Writers and players were merely part of the hoi polloi, to be dazzled and fascinated by their doings and, in the Bard's case, to write about them.

In the sixteenth century, the sovereigns of England ruled as well as reigned. Shakespeare would never have dared to write the Netflix TV series The Crown, which bares the most scandalous shenanigans and dysfunctional family secrets of the House of Windsor. Nor would the Lord Chamberlain's Men have dared to produce it at The Globe. Even in the history plays, Shakespeare was careful to make the current dynasty, the Tudors, the good guys. His Richard III was such a powerful a piece of propaganda that a lot of us didn't know a case could be made for the justice of the last Plantagenet's cause until we read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, one of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.

There are plenty of murders among Shakespeare's characters. Indeed, some of his plays end with the stage strewn with bodies. Some murder for love—Othello kills Desdemona in a fit of jealousy. But more often, unhappy lovers kill themselves—Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet. There's an occasional McGuffin in Shakespeare—the handkerchief in Othello springs to mind. But most of Shakespeare's plays are about winning, losing, and pursuing power. His characters usually murder for power and ambition. The Macbeths, Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, all the killers like Julius Caesar's faithless friends and schemers like Iago and Edmund the Bastard want to topple those above them and either take their place or manipulate those who do for their own advantage.

In The Crown, there are no murders. I'd say this is because modern monarchs have no power. Indeed, landed aristocrats whose titles go back for centuries no longer sit in the House of Lords, ousted in favor of Life Peers, who according to the Parliament website, "have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health and public service. They bring this knowledge to their role of examining matters of public interest that affect all UK citizens." (My personal favorite is Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who wrote mysteries as Janet Neel, using her civil service experience in the Department of Trade and Industry. Death's Bright Angel is another of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.) There is no ambition the members of the royal family can fulfill by killing one another. Watching the real Charles take up the burden of his throne at his mother's funeral, I didn't think he looked triumphant, but as if he'd just taken the weight of the world on his shoulders, knowing he doesn't have the power to fix it. Watching the dramatized Charles agonize his way to a divorce, which only takes place when his mother finally agrees it's the only course, can you imagine him having killed Diana to gain his freedom instead? There isn't even any malice in the ways they repeatedly hurt one another.

In one episode of Season 5, having come as close as she ever will to apologizing to Princess Margaret for forbidding her marriage to Peter Townsend many years before, the Queen says, "I love you very much." Margaret says, "I love you too." (Or maybe it's the other way around.) Then there's a shocked silence. The Queen says, "How middle class! Let's never do that again."

First I was amused. Then I thought, How would she know what middle class people do? She's never met one except to shake hands. It reminded me of a moment in Murder in Provence, where Roger Allam, playing a French detective in the Police Justiciaire in a very English way, leans over in bed, pecks his wife on the cheek, and says, "Night night. Love you—as the Americans say." That was funny too. But does it really make us hopelessly banal to express our love verbally on a daily basis? Not to guilt-trip Roger Allam or the Queen (or their clever British scriptwriters), I've done it ever since 911.

It is readily apparent, as we watch the royal family live their lives in the spacious environs of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, and their other stately dwellings amid beautifully landscaped grounds, why the middle classes commit murder over love while royalty does not. Space and money make quite a difference. I enjoyed the divorce episode in which several ordinary couples who've applied for their divorce decrees explain their irreconcilable differences. Then comes a scene in which Charles and Diana, attempting to have a moment of amicable closure, can't help turning it into yet another squabble. But they do it with plenty of room to get away from each other. Kensington Palace Green and Kensington Gardens stretching away beyond the palace give them a huge bubble of peace and privacy. The settlement at issue is a matter of millions of pounds. They don't even have to attend the divorce decree hearing personally.

How many of the murders we write in which love turns to hate take place when the characters are cooped up together with no place to go and one or both of them don't have the financial means to start over?

17 October 2022

A Room of One's Own

City desk

Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, declared that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” We all know that this is an ideal. That’s why writers’ retreats exist. We’ve all heard and told anecdotes about successes and failures keeping the family at bay while we write.

The ultimate room of one’s own belonged to Woolf’s friend and sometime lover, novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, who with her husband, author and diplomat Harold Nicholson (oh, that Bloomsbury Group!), created the most beautiful gardens in England at their home — a castle, what else? — at Sissinghurst in Kent. Nestled among flowers in Sissinghurst Gardens is not a room of Vita’s own, but a whole house.

South Cottage is a fairytale cottage and a dream house for a writer. And yes, Virginia, you would need lots of money to own such a perfect refuge. I first saw Sissinghurst in 1969. I was visiting friends who lived right down the road in a 16th century half-timbered farmhouse, memorable for the roses climbing all over the outside and the low oak beams within, on which visitors invariably bumped their heads when passing from room to room. But that cottage and that garden — the cottage garden, as the English term a small garden stuffed with flowers in a riot of colors, embracing South Cottage, not the whole breathtaking expanse of Sissinghurst Castle Gardens — became my vision of the perfect garden and the perfect writer’s room of her own.

Country desk

I am a lucky woman and a lucky writer. My writing, unlike Shakespeare’s, won’t be remembered four hundred years after my death, but neither will I die unsung and, more important, unheard, and “buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle,” the fate Virginia Woolf envisions for her imaginary Judith, Shakespeare’s equally gifted sister.

In the city, I have a workspace that is mine in an apartment that’s all mine when my husband is at his full time job. When he’s home, he hangs out in other rooms. He may pass through, occasionally addressing a remark to me. His remarks range from what happened in Ukraine that day to what Maria Theresa said to Frederick the Great to “Do we need milk?” He also frequently talks to himself. Even more annoying, he breathes. But I have only to bark, “Writing!” and he moves on. It’s not ideal, but Jane Austen wrote under far worse conditions.

In the country, where I have a very small house, I have a modest version of my ideal. I spend the summer there on my own.

Yes, my husband has to work. But the real key to my precious solitude is that he hates the country. Sirens are music to his ears, but the chirping of birds is the howling of the hounds of hell to him. And the beach! Yes, he inspired the character in Death Will Extend Your Vacation who turns as red as a lobster in about the same time it takes the lobster. So all summer I have my little house to myself. And my cottage garden, a riot of flowers, sits on the deck in pots right outside the door. It’s heaven.


Do I write better when I’m uninterrupted 24/7, or as we used to say, around the clock? Absolutely. My train of thought was never interrupted, not even by a breath.

If my characters started talking in my head or a line of narrative bubbled up as I lay in bed, I got up and went to the keyboard, whether it was time to get up or two in the morning. I wrote and wrote until what Jo March (and presumably Louisa May Alcott) called “the vortex” passed. I wrote four short stories in a little more than four weeks, including revisions, and they were good.


Yes, Virginia, a room of my own is writer’s paradise. To write surrounded by flowers is lagniappe.

19 September 2022

Hiding in Plain Sight, or, Oh, My God, Everyone’s Jewish! by guest blogger Kenneth Wishnia

My guest this month is Ken Wishnia, co-editor with Chantelle Aimée Osman of Jewish Noir II, just out from PM Press. The anthology has a foreword by Lawrence Block and a remarkable variety of Jewish voices and settings packed into twenty-three powerful stories, including my own contribution. Ken also edited the Anthony Award-nominated Jewish Noir.

Kenneth Wishnia’s novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity Awards. His short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, and elsewhere. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apparently didn’t learn that she was Jewish until 1996, more than 55 years after her parents sent her away from Czechoslovakia to the UK for safekeeping on the eve of WW II.

Cardinal John O’Connor, leader of the Catholic Church in New York City for 16 years, apparently died without ever learning that “his mother was born a Jew, the daughter of a rabbi” (see Cowan, Alison Leigh. “The Rabbi Cardinal O’Connor Never Knew: His Grandfather.” New York Times, 10 June, 2014).

Even Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” who was in the first Jewish Noir collection, told me that he had learned of some Jewish ancestry in his lineage. It turns out he was referring to his paternal grandfather--not exactly a distant relative--who changed his name from something very Jewish and foreign-sounding to make it easier to find a job when he emigrated to California a few generations back.

This raises some serious issues regarding the suppression of Jewish ethnicity during less enlightened times. I mean, how many Americans “discover” that they have Christian ancestors? People don’t discover they’re Christian, or part-Christian, because in the US that identity never needed to be suppressed or hidden.

But we’re writing about noir, aren’t we? Glad you asked!

Hedy Lamarr in
The Strange Woman (1946)
As co-editor of Jewish Noir II, naturally I’m a fan of film noir, and any such fan can tell you that one of the primary stylistic precursors to American film noir is German Expressionist film of the 1920s and early 1930s. Until recently, I had no idea how many of those influential practitioners of the art were German and Austrian Jews who would flee for Hollywood when Hitler came to power. This list includes: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann (Austria); Robert Siodmak, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls and John Brahm (Germany); as well as Anatole Litvak (Ukraine).

Jewish directors who emigrated before 1933 include: Michael Curtiz (Hungary), Lewis Milestone, Charles Vidor and William Wyler (Germany); Hugo Haas (Czechoslovakia), and László Benedek (Hungary). (Note: I am indebted to Vincent Brook’s film study, Driven to Darkness, for this information.)

Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart in
Dark Passage (1947)
I started to dig deeper, and learned that a large number of actors in film noir were also Jewish, almost always working under anglicized or completely invented names, a common practice in Hollywood till this day (I’m looking at you, Winona Ryder). The list includes: Lauren Bacall (b. Betty Joan Perske), Turhan Bey (b. Turhan Gilbert Selahattin Sahultavy), Lee J. Cobb (b. Leo Jacoby), Tony Curtis (b. Bernard Schwartz), Howard da Silva (b. Howard Silverblatt), Lee Grant (b. Lyova Haskell Rosenthal), Peter Lorre (b. Laszlo Lowenstein), Zero Mostel, Simone Signoret (b. Simone Kaminker), Sylvia Sydney (b. Sylvia Kosnow), Cornell Wilde (b. Kornél Lajos Weisz) and Shelley Winters (b. Shirley Schrift).

Cornell Wilde & Gene Tierney in
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
I compiled an appropriately obsessive list of Jewish directors, writers and actors who contributed significantly to the film noir canon; the list goes on for 14 pages in 10-point type.

Family note: My parents were both born in 1931, so of course they lived through the classic era in Hollywood. My dad was incredulous about Lee J. Cobb, asking, “Are you sure he was Jewish?” My mom’s response: “Cornell Wilde was Jewish?”

Crime writer S.J. Rozan’s response: “Fritz Lang was Jewish?” I know, his mother converted to Catholicism, mainly to avoid anti-Semitism in Germany, and Lang himself denied being Jewish for most of his life, but his mother was indeed Jewish, and converted when Lang was 10, meaning he was born Jewish. Under basic civil law and traditional Jewish law, Fritz Lang was Jewish.

Simone Signoret in Diabolique (1955)

Other Jewish (or part-Jewish) actors from the film noir era whose names might surprise you include: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Doug Sr. b. Douglas Ullman), Leslie Howard (b. Leslie Howard Steiner), Paulette Goddard (b. Marion Goddard Levy), Paul Henreid (family name originally Hirsch), Hedy Lamarr (b. Hedvig Kiesler), and a real outlier: Ricardo Cortez (b. Jacob Krantz). Not sure why the ethnic masquerade of Latino identity, since in so many cases Jews masqueraded as Anglophone Christians.

Of course, many performers did this, regardless of their ethnicity (just ask Lucille LeSueur --I mean Joan Crawford). But why am I still finding out that so many key figures in world culture were Jewish? Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned (from their obituaries!) that several prominent artists I had no idea were Jewish were in fact Jewish, including the British-born theatrical innovator Peter Brook (family name originally Bryk) and the composer of the James Bond theme, Monty Norman (b. Monty Noserovitch). I also just learned that Frank Oz, best known as the puppeteer for Miss Piggy, Bert, Grover and Yoda, was born Frank Oznowicz. And this happens all the time. Once again, people don’t hide their Christian identities. But Jews? That seems to be a case of, “Gee, mister, the name Issur Danielovitch Demsky doesn’t exactly spell box office gold on the marquee. How about we call you Kirk Douglas?”

Shelley Winters & Richard Conte
in Cry of the City (1948)
This phenomenon, which still feels like a job requirement in certain professions, can also be turned against the Jews as an example of our allegedly uniquely perfidious nature: the poet T.S. Eliot appears to mock Jews who try to erase their ethnic identities when their crude manners (and propensity for evil) give them away every time, in his 1919 poem, “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” where the sixth stanza ends: “Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.”

During Hollywood’s Red Scare, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi made a show of “outing” a number of prominent entertainers by revealing their birth names, implying that they were hiding their true identities in order to subvert American values from within, as if Danny Kaye (b. Dovid Daniel Kaminsky) and Eddie Cantor (b. Edward Isskowitz), two of Rankin’s examples, were planning to oppress American Christians by sneaking in communism between comedy routines, or something like that.

That’s one reason it was so much fun working on the Jewish Noir II anthology, in an era when we’re free to use our foreign-sounding, often polysyllabic names: Kirschman, Markowitz, Schneider, Sidransky, Zelvin and Vishnya (the Slavic pronunciation of Wishnia).

And speaking of my family name, it may be a liability on the bookstore shelves—I’m usually down on the floor with the rest of the W-Z authors--but it’s an asset in the world of Google searches: if you google “Kenneth Wishnia” you don’t get 100,000 other guys with the same name. You get me.

And by the way, I’m Jewish.

22 August 2022

In Defense of Midsomer Murders

As I’ve learned by reading literary novels, it is fashionable for highbrow British connoisseurs of film and television and noiristas everywhere to consider the long-running TV show Midsomer Murders the epitome of whatever they consider naff (Britspeak for tacky), fit only for whatever group they designate the hoi polloi—whether it’s nursing home residents, the working classes, drinkers of something called stewed tea with milk, or readers of Agatha Christie. Snobbery is nothing but a relish for contempt, and Midsomer Murders has survived it for 22 seasons (series in Britspeak), with another on the way.

I've been re-watching the earliest episodes of the show with John Nettles as the original DCI Tom Barnaby, not for the first time, and I'm noticing how firmly the show's collective tongue (writer's, presumably director's and producer's, and certainly those of the ensemble of fine actors) is in cheek. It's not just cozy mystery set in the picture-perfect imaginary Midsomer County. It's brimming with verve and stylish in every detail. Nor is it lacking in wit.

The thought that it's so commonly misunderstood as silly and even as pitched for unintelligent viewers reminds me of the misconception of that brilliant satirist Jane Austen's work as "sweet." Intellectuals would never make that mistake, of course, scholars having long since canonized the Austen oeuvre. Indeed, it's taken movies and Elizabeth and Mr Darcy murder mysteries and mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to remind us Austen's characters are also also fun and playful. But I digress.

The TV show is based on only seven excellent mystery novels written by Caroline Graham. Anthony Horowitz wrote the scripts for the first two, The Killings at Badger’s Drift and Written in Blood. Each episode serves up with glee a splendid stew of crime and detection, humor, English village life in idyllic surroundings, and the grotesque. Cottages are thatched. Village dwellers ride bicycles, if not horses, depending on their class and means. From cottage to stately home, every dwelling has a glorious garden. And the police are always offered a cup of tea.

Burglars and murderers invariably wear black wash leather gloves. When about to be murdered, the victim has invariably come downstairs to investigate a suspicious noise, saying, “Hello?” or “Who’s there?” or opened the door to someone we can’t see, exclaiming, “You!” or “What are you doing here?” But it’s all in good fun, like the audience yelling, “Look behind you!” at a pantomime in London at Christmas. The village characters are beyond eccentric, and some of the means of murder downright hilarious.

Some critics think the show has long since jumped the shark or has been disappointing since DCI John Barnaby took over for his cousin Tom many seasons ago. But for a cheeky yet nostalgic look at the perfect English village that never was, where you can always count on several murders and a solution at the end—and light relief from reality, which all of us need once in a while these days—you can’t go wrong with Midsomer Murders.

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."
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