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

13 November 2023

How do I kill thee? Let me count the ways

  • Do you know how to pierce the heart when you stab someone from behind?
  • Know three commonplace items you can substitute for a silencer?
  • Have a list of slow-acting poisons you can buy without a prescription?
  • Have you ever discussed such things with friends over dinner at a restaurant?

You must be a mystery writer.

Mystery writers run neck and neck with murderers themselves in preoccupation with ways to kill. Unlike actual assassins, for whom discretion is both a tool of the trade and essential to staying alive, writers love to discuss these matters with their peers. Before the pandemic, when convivial dinners were the high point of monthly meetings of my local Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime chapters and I went to mystery cons all over the country, I looked forward to such discussions and participated with great relish. If they took place in public places, so much the better. It was great fun to imagine the party at the next table wondering what you were plotting, a real-life crime or just a story. I admit to a tad of vestigial adolescent exhibitionism, what I call a Look, Ma! element in keeping eavesdroppers guessing.

One of the most beloved figures in the mystery community is Texas pharmacist and toxicologist Luci Zahray, universally known as the Poison Lady. When I sat down to write this, I found a note in my files, Poison Lady—arsenic (Walmart story). I probably jotted it down as she spoke at a Malice Domestic a decade before. I remembered the gist of it but wanted to get it right, so I emailed her. The Poison Lady’s own words reflect how not only writers but mystery lovers in general think.

The year arsenic became illegal to sell in stores, I was walking through Walmart and they had a grocery cart full marked down to 50 cents a box. I naturally, as one does, started pushing the cart to checkout. Then I realized I didn't actually need that much arsenic or even have a good place to put it. So I picked out several, quite a few, boxes and bought them. I still don't need that much arsenic and don't have a good place to put it, but I sometimes regret not buying the whole cart full.

We’re equally interested in likely settings for murder and places to bury the body. For example, what's buried in the garden? My son recently told me that the sale of his in-laws’ house in New Jersey was held up because they discovered an oil burner buried in the backyard. I was charmed. An oil burner is dull, but what if there were a body in an oil burner? Even better—hold the oil burner.

Back in the Golden Age of mysteries, cleverness was valued more than it is today. John Dickson Carr was the king of the locked room puzzle, which depended on unexpected murder methods. Sherlock Holmes solved one case in which the lock was breached by a poisonous snake slithering through a pipe in the wall, if I remember correctly.

Roald Dahl’s short story, “A Lamb to the Slaughter” (1953), in which the murder weapon is a frozen leg of lamb, later cooked and served to the unwitting detective, is often cited as the best murder method in mystery fiction.

In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987)— the novel, on which the movie was based— Fannie Flagg rang a change on this. The murder was a simple skillet to the head. But the body disposal took place in the kitchen, and once again, the detective dined on the results.

Do we still relish ingenuity in the means of our fictional murders, or have we become so jaded that it doesn't matter any more?

To some extent, it varies according to subgenre. If it’s a cozy, the murder may be death by wedding cake or the victim stitched to death into a prize-winning quilt. If it’s Kellerman or Cornwell or their ilk, there’ll be a lot of gore, maybe torture described more lovingly than I want to read about. If it’s a technothriller, we’ll hear all about the gun and its accessories.

The best place to look for the far-out murder weapon these days is video. In shows like Midsomer Murders and Brokenwood, the giant cheese and unattended vat of wine are alive and well and killing people with enthusiasm. I get a kick out of watching and talking about these tricks. But in my own work, I like to knock the victim off quickly— bang on the head, push over the ramparts, car off the road— and get on with the story. For me, it’s not about the props. It’s always about the people.

16 October 2023

Central Park in My Life and Stories

Like many New Yorkers, I have a lifelong love affair with Central Park. I've been watching, fascinated, as its iridescent pigeons court, its sleek sea lions leap for fish, and riding its classic merry-go-round since childhood. I pushed my son, now in his fifties, in a stroller many miles along its walking paths and now walk or run myself around the Great Lawn or the Reservoir almost daily. I may take a break to sit on a park bench reading while watching ducks and rowers on the Lake, listening to jazz, or enjoying the sound of birdsong, the drift of cherry and apple blossoms in spring, or the changing color of autumn leaves.

Writers of fiction have found Central Park an irresistible setting. Among the best known are J.D. Salinger, whose Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, meditates on where the ducks in the Pond go in the winter; and E.B. White, whose Stuart Little in the eponymous book wins a race on the model sailboat pond, formally known as the Conservatory Water.

Crime fiction writers have also used Central Park as a setting. Anne Perry's A New York Christmas gives readers a glimpse of the Park in 1904. In Linda Fairstein's Death Angel, the victim of a serial killer is found at the foot of the Bethesda Fountain, one of the Park's best known landmarks.

I’ve strewn a few dead bodies in Central Park myself. In the short story, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” Bruce Kohler and his friend Barbara, finishing an early morning run in Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial, find a corpse flung across the Imagine mosaic, the Park’s most beloved tourist attraction. In “Death Will Finish Your Marathon,” the winning runner stumbles across the finish line and trips over the body of a New York character known as the Ancient Marathoner. In “Death Will Give You A Reason,” Bruce’s girlfriend, NYPD detective Cindy, and her partner fish a body out of Harlem Meer, the artificial lake at the north end of the Park.

“The witnesses know nothing,” Natali said. “Coupla dog walkers. The dogs all started barking when the body bumped up against the bank.”

“Photos?” Cindy asked. Some bystander always had an iPhone.

“Professional dog walkers,” Natali snarled. “Six leashes in each hand. Labs, beagles, terriers, dachshunds. Two dozen witnesses. If we had someone who spoke Bark, we might have eyewitnesses instead of shit. By the time anyone else realized the circus had come to town, the leashes were all tangled up in each other and doggy legs and corpse’s arms.”

“What did you do, arrest the dogs?”

“I was tempted,” Natali said. “The idiots tried to pull him out—without letting go of the leashes. They seemed to think I’d give them a medal for obeying the leash law. By the time the uniforms arrived, the scene was already compromised.”

“Let’s see the deceased,” Cindy said.

“Go ahead. I already looked. I sniffed him up and down too. The pooches inspired me.”

“Anything of interest?”

“Alcohol and weed.”

“Lake or marijuana?”


The aroma of marijuana in the Park has increased from occasional to omnipresent since legalization. The dogs have always been there. I read recently that there are more dogs in New York City than there are people in Cleveland, and I believe it. Even though most people obey the leash law except in designated areas, the Park’s a paradise for dogs and a perfect meeting place for dog lovers. It also allows drop-in admirers like me to learn, for example, that Australian shepherds are In this year. I see a dozen of them within a week tugging different people along. Maybe one of those shaggy, alert gray-and-black-spotted dogs with brown legs will participate in an investigation one day.

Central Park is only half a mile across, and New York is a walking city. Since Bruce lives on the East Side and Barbara and Jimmy on the Upper West Side, they are constantly crossing the Park to visit each other. Bruce and Barbara run around the upper and lower loops formed by the East and West Park Drives and the 79th Street Transverse and around the Reservoir track. In the novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Bruce’s early love interest Luz was almost run down by a bicycle crossing the Park West Drive. This could still happen, and the offender doesn’t have to be a possible murder suspect. Cyclists—not the tourists on Citi Bikes, which didn’t exist back then, but the experts on fancy bikes with fancy gear—have a great sense of entitlement. On the other hand, today I couldn’t write the scene in which the horses that had shed their riders came galloping along the bridle path and out of the Park, where they stopped for the light at Central Park West and trotted with docility back to the Claremont Stable on West 93rd near Amsterdam. Only occasional mounted police now ride the bridle path, and the Claremont is no longer a stable—but it still was when I saw that happen in real life.

My biggest set piece in the Park was Barbara and Jimmy’s wedding near the end of Death Will Pay Your Debts, which I wrote as “under the gazebo near the lake.” I was thinking of a cross between the Ladies Pavilion, very popular for weddings, and the Hernshead Boat Landing, where a jazz band often plays, both on the west side of the Lake, south of the Ramble. So I didn’t want to be tied down to real-life details, although the “big rock” that Bruce and Cindy sit and talk on at the end of the party is the real-life Hernshead Rock. That’s the beauty of writing fiction about a real-life magical place you’ve known forever.

18 September 2023

What Is A Hack

The answer, like the answer to so many questions, depends on how old you are. If you were born before the Flood, or even before the War (what Flood? what War? see what I mean?), a hack is a New York taxi cab. If you're a Boomer, a hack is an uninspired writer, for example, a journalist, who churns out derivative or formulaic drivel without inspiration, passion, or creativity. If you're a millennial, it's an illegal but brilliant incursion into the best guarded secrets of cyberspace. If you're Gen Z, apparently, a "hack" can be anything.

Because I was born before the Flood (okay, before the start of the Baby Boom), I remember the old game "coffeepot," in which you replaced any chosen word in a sentence with "coffeepot" and the other players had to guess from context what you were talking about. I also read Alice in Wonderland, in which Humpty Dumpty says, "There's glory for you!" He explains to Alice that when he says it, glory means, "there's a nice knock-down argument for you," because "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean."

If I thought that Gen Z were emulating Humpty Dumpty, I'd have no quarrel with them.

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be master---that's all...They've a temper, some of them---particularly, verbs, they're the proudest---adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs---however, I can manage the whole lot!"

I doubt the Gen Zers who use "hack" to coffeepot language can explain what Humpty Dumpty means. I've seen a video of an "omelet hack" displayed on the wall of my local subway station. An article in the Harvard Crimson, of all places, referred to another online article about "life hacks every student should know" that led to articles on such important coffeepots as "hacks for DIY manicures, hacks to survive delays at the airport, and even hacks for what to do when you just can’t finish those last three pieces of sushi." Remember real language, when we used such terms as "life skills" and "recipes?" And when you didn't send your kids to Harvard to figure out what to do with the last three pieces of sushi? Oy gevalt.

If these kids think Chatbot is going to let them relax while they let it write their term papers and emails and still take over the world with their Harvard degrees and sublime sense of entitlement, they're deluding themselves. They're clearing the field for Chatbot and the more sophisticated AI that's sure to follow it to take over the world. And AI doesn't drink the water or breathe the air, so don't expect its goals to be the same as ours. It's not there yet by any means. I was reassured to see on a giant bus shelter a digital poster that claimed, "Montrealers are non-stop festivals!" It was lousy copywriting, and I understood why when I read the fine print: "AI-generated review of Montréal, based on thousands of visitor comments." AI will learn. Will human kids? Not if they lose the skills to hack language before time coffeepots out. There's glory for you!

21 August 2023

Pet Peeves and Anachronisms

Do readers under forty remember the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard? Moreover, do they care if characters living in the Sixties, World War II, Tudor England, or the Roman Empire speak as if they lived in 21st century America? If anyone in that demographic reads this post, those questions are not rhetorical. I'd like to know, because I remember, and I care.

"I have feelings for you." I recently watched a TV episode set during World War II in which one character declared to another, "I have feelings for you." In 1980, when my current husband moved in and I went off the love market, that wasn't what people said when they felt emotionally attracted to someone. They didn't say "into you" or "not that into you" either, not for another three or four decades.

"I'm sorry for your loss." I remember the first time I heard this, on an episode of Judging Amy, a courtroom/ family drama that ran from 1999 to 2005. Before that, if you couldn't find something spontaneous and personal to say, you said, "My condolences." When I offer sympathy to bereaved strangers, or if I didn't know the deceased, I go with, "I'm so sorry," letting my tone of voice express my concern. The addition of "...for your loss," to my mind, distances the speaker, conveying, "I'm all right, Jack."

"passed away" for "died" I was brought up to say "died" and "dead." I don't know when the euphemism "passed away" took such universal hold, but it's ubiquitous these days, and as both a writer and a shrink, I believe it's a big mistake. Death is a fact for all of us, and being mealy-mouthed about it doesn't help. We're not skittish about anything else these days. Young women rock stars' favorite stage move seems to be writhing around on the floor in costumes in which they look almost naked. We're living in the run-up to either World War III or an unlivable planet without reaching a consensus about doing whatever it takes to stop it. But "dead" is too raw to say aloud.
If an analogy helps, it reminds me of a 1972 Luis Buñuel movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which using the toilet is a social activity but eating is done in private.

The present tense is used so frequently these days to tell a story that there's no point in rejecting it. If you're a fiction lover, it would be like throwing every third spoonful into the trash every time you eat a bowl of ice cream. No, what gets to me when some authors use the present tense is what a hash they make of the past tense. The transitions ought to be simple, smooth, and consistent.

I follow the trail of blood into the kitchen, where it drips from the rim of the sink and pools on the floor. The tiles were clean when I entered the room last night.

Instead, too many of them write:
I follow the trail of blood into the kitchen, where it drips from the rim of the sink and pools on the floor. The tiles had been clean when I entered the room last night.
or worse:
The tiles had been clean when I had entered the room last night.

I learned from submissions to the late Marvin Kaye of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine to keep "had" to a minimum. It's a small word, but I've come to agree with Kaye that it's hardly ever needed.

Then there's the twenty-first tendency to use nouns as verbs, creating awkward phrases to replace perfectly good existing locutions. Nero Wolfe couldn't stand the use of "contact" as a verb. The erudite detective (who our own Eve Fisher has suggested might have been a descendant of the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson) once burned a dictionary for allowing "imply" and "infer" to be used interchangeably. "Gifted with" instead of "gave" or "given" would have made him reach for the matches, and "tasked with" instead of "assigned" or "ordered to" would have driven him crazy. I don't like it in a contemporary work of fiction or video. But I go bonkers when a Roman centurion declares, "The legions have been tasked with destroying the Druids."

24 July 2023

The Bowery — A Vanished World Revisited

The protagonist of my long-running Bruce Kohler mystery series got sober at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, written in 2003 and published in 2008 by St Martin's (back before the birth of Minotaur), on Christmas Eve in detox on the Bowery. I wrote the following in a SleuthSayers post called "Down on the Bowery" in 2012.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter. I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a fiction writer, much less a clinical social worker with a master’s degree or a psychotherapist. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right.

I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street. The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

The shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.

Ten years after I wrote this—the blog post, not the novel—Project Renewal still runs programs for the homeless out of the old Men's Shelter. I've heard they bought the building from the City for a dollar. It's been thoroughly renovated, and the word PUBLIC in faded, giant letters, with the L missing, is no longer visible on its side to give passersby a smile. At the Bowery Hotel, as of July 2022, you could book a room for Christmas Eve ("room only") for between $515 (queen) and $1,281 (suite) a night. If you imagine yourself facing south at Astor Place and the point where the north end of the Bowery (it is a street) meets Lafayette Street as the prow of a ship, its figurehead is the Cooper Union, in whose Great Hall Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that propelled him to the Presidency. That's still there. It's a landmark building. But the Bowery as a neighborhood with a flavor of its own, even a changing one with fern bars overtaking the dereliction, is gone. The buildings, glass and steel and chrome, were built in the twenty-first century, after I left my job and finally had time to write Death Will Get You Sober, which I'd been talking about for years.

26 June 2023

Déjà Lu: I've read this book before

This post was inspired by author Carolyn J. Rose, who wrote on the mystery lovers e-list DorothyL: "Firmly in the category of things I hate is not realizing I've already read a book."

I agree that it's annoying to spend money on a book—alas, among our vanished pleasures in the electronic age is "plunking money down"—only to find that it's familiar because I already own it. Sometimes, as in Carolyn's example, I forget I've read the book until it starts to seem familiar. I've made my peace with my aging memory. I'm seriously ticked off, however, with publishers who reissue a book under an alternative title without a warning label that's accessible before purchase.

On the other hand, there are many circumstances in which I reread books deliberately. They fall into several categories.

Mystery and suspense to which I can't remember the solution In this case, failing memory is my friend. The mystery unfolds as a surprise that is as fresh the second time as it is the first. Unfortunately, my decades of mystery reading and twenty years writing crime fiction have started to work against this convenient reading trick. I can no longer forget the solution to many fictional crimes, including some fiendishly clever ones that were original in their day: Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, Dorothy L Sayers's Unnatural Death, Josephine Tey's To Love and Be Wise, Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods, to name a few classics.

Comfort reads, subcategory guilty pleasures These are books I reread when I'm feeling so tired and lazy that I have to get into bed and turn my brain off, but I'm not ready to turn out the light. I inherited a complete set of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, printed in the 1950s and now crumbling past readability, from a maiden aunt who died at 96, and they were already well worn with use. These days, Heyer is damned with faint praise as the author to read "if you like Bridgerton." In fact, you read Heyer if you liked Jane Austen and Heyer inspired a whole genre of romances and romance-laced mysteries with Regency settings, spirited heroines, and a leaven of humor. I seldom read them any more, partly because I've finally tired of the masterful heroes and partly because I know them by heart. I've also stopped rereading Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries because I already know them line by line.

Comfort reads, subcategory old friends While I've outgrown apologizing for my guilty pleasures, there's a separate category for rereads for which no one need apologize. I've written many times about my very favorite series, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. After many reads, I don't need much energy to slip once again into the Vorkosigans' familiar and intriguing world. Make that worlds. Martha Wells's Murderbot series now belongs to this category. What makes such well written books comfort reads? Superb storytelling and exceptionally lovable protagonists.

Series in order In the age of Kindle, it has become easy and convenient to binge on a whole series of mystery novels, in the same way that we binge on TV series. Perhaps my favorite mystery subgenre is the police procedural with a hefty dose of the detectives' personal lives and character development. One of the best is Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series, now up to its nineteenth installment. I have some of the earlier books in hardcover, some in paperback, and some on Kindle, and I may have given a couple away in a burst of shelf-clearing a few years ago. I thought I'd read them all.

But after reading the new one, when I checked the titles, I found there were some gaps. A glimpse of Kincaid and James's current domestic status made me curious to remind myself how they got there. So I started over, one book at a time. Not only did it feel, as I read the books in order, as if I never really knew Kincaid and James at all, but also that I now have a deeper appreciation of what an excellent writer Deborah Crombie is. This is partly due to the fact that I gave her work a closer reading and partly to the fact that I'm an experienced mystery writer myself. I read the first ten books before I published any fiction at all. This time around, I savored each book as a mystery and as a complex novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed the series as the vehicle for Kincaid and James's story. It's a great example of the essence of a good reread: there's always something new.

29 May 2023

How much of a misfit can a writer be?

I have never been able to write harmless fiction. My characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations keep drifting outside the lines. And by "harmless," I don't mean just harmless cozies with cupcake-baking divorcees trading quips with hunky police chiefs over the latest corpse. I also mean harmless noir: PIs in Humphrey Bogart hats slouching in out of the mean streets and trading quips with femmes fatales with "legs out to here" and four-inch stiletto heels. ("Out to here," if you want an exact measurement, is twice the length of an average Ashkenazic Jewish woman's legs, ie my kind of legs.)

In today's publishing, there are a lot of rules based not on literary values but on the marketplace, as the industry tries to predict the unpredictable and control the uncontrollable. The underlying rip current is fear, determined by neither art nor business but by the chaotic politics of the moment. How far outside the lines am I allowed to color? As far as I want? Or only up to a limit defined by others?

In recent years I've become interested in writing from a Jewish perspective in my fiction. But anti-Semitism is on the rise globally. Jews are not getting a clear message that we're included under the sheltering umbrella of "diversity." So can I tell as many stories as I want, or just a token number? When will I be told that it's enough?

I've recently become interested in writing about trans people. I'd like to see trans characters integrated into crime fiction the way they are in speculative fiction. I have had one such story published, but I was disappointed when the editor allowed my preferred title to be vetoed by a low-level staff member who was trans. My 62-year-old nonbinary nibling (formerly my niece) commented: "I loved your title. The word police are mostly under forty."

How careful am I supposed to be with titles from now on? Will I be free to inform the development of all the characters I write with the full measure of my empathy and imagination? Does the publishing industry realize that the younger generation doesn't know anything? I remember trying to tell a young woman that the derogatory term "boujee" came from the word "bourgeois," for middle class. "No it doesn't," she said. "It's just itself." I didn't argue. People believe what they want to believe.

At this point in my life, I'm happy writing short stories. If I ever wrote another novel, it might be about two lifelong friends, a Jewish girl with Communist parents and a Black girl from Harlem with roots in what she calls a "good family" in the South, who first meet in the early1950s. But I have no incentive to write it. I wonder why not?

01 May 2023

Yorkville—RIP, Colorful New York Neighborhood

My mystery series protagonist Bruce Kohler lives in a railroad flat in an old-law tenement in the Manhattan neighborhood once known as Yorkville. It used to be his parents' apartment. Yorkville was a white working class neighborhood that successive waves of immigrants called home. Ralph and Alice Kramden (look 'em up, kids) would have felt at ease there. My husband grew up there in the 1950s. Each street was a village. The kids played stickball and jump rope in the street, and everyone's mother sat on the brownstone stoops and considered it her right to yell at any kid she saw misbehaving.

In the oldest of olden days (or as they're now called, back in the day), the area bounded by 96th Street on the north, 79th Street on the south, Third Avenue on the west, and the FDR Drive with the East River beyond it was known as Germantown. My husband, who grew up there in the 1950s, could remember bitter old men drinking German beer in the dark corners of German bars, muttering in German about who should have won the War. The avenues and 86th Street abounded in shops where you could buy superb sausages and chocolates. My husband still tends to compare any sausage he tastes to the sausages of his youth. Today, that abundance has dwindled to one restaurant, the Heidelberg, and one butcher shop and German market, Schaller and Weber, both on Second Avenue.

By then, though, it was Yorkville, and he belonged to its dominant group, the Irish. The St Patrick's Day parade in all its glory marched up Fifth Avenue, turned right on 86th Street, and marched east with flags flying and bagpipes skirling. His birthday falls on St Patrick's Day. As a child, he believed the parade was just for him. The Ruppert Brewery was the chief source of local employment, and the whole neighborhood was redolent with its fumes.

In 1956, in the wake of the failed Hungarian Revolution, immigrants from Hungary flocked to Yorkville. The Hungarians brought their own cuisine, available in restaurants and pastry shops as well as the kitchens of my husband's friends' mothers. In a story to be published in AHMM in 2023, Bruce says, "Second Avenue in the 80s is where all the Hungarian restaurants were. There’s only one left now, unless it’s closed too. Farewell to goulash and palacsinta, along with the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Xerxes blue butterfly.”

My mother's side of the family were Hungarian Jews. In fact, my mother was born in Hungary. I have a vivid memory of dinner with my Aunt Marta in a Hungarian restaurant on Second Avenue. I was just back from the Peace Corps, so it must have been 1966. We were probably eating goulash or chicken paprikash. We were talking about how my mother, as the oldest sister, had to watch Marta and my Aunt Hilda, the baby, because their mother was a young widow and had to work. Marta was telling me how bossy they thought my mother was and what a hard time my grandmother had.

"After all," she said, "she had to raise four daughters on her own."
"Don't you mean three daughters?" I said.
And that's how I learned the family secret—I had an aunt who'd been a gifted pianist, had a "nervous breakdown," and spent the rest of her life in a mental institution.

European immigrants of various nationalities, including the Polish and Italians, brought their cultures and cuisines to Yorkville. But by 1985, high-rise luxury apartment buildings had begun to threaten the character of the neighborhood to such an extent that some of the side streets had to be protected by a new zoning law. In the long run, it was futile, because eventually working class families and small restaurants and retail businesses could no longer afford the gentrified neighborhood their community of villages had become.

In "Death Will Take the High Line," published in AHMM in 2022, a newcomer to the city asks Bruce, "Are you a real New Yorker?"

“Born and raised,” Bruce says. “In Yorkville, a neighborhood that’s so New York it doesn’t exist any more. The fashionable Upper East Side is planted on its grave."

03 April 2023

What Makes You A Writer?

Some writers say you're not a real writer unless you write every day. I heard this view espoused by Walter Mosley at NoirCon in 2022. I hope his admirers realize that writing every day will never make you write like Walter Mosley. The divine spark can't be codified or taught. And speaking of the divine spark, many think it doesn't count unless you'd keep writing even if you knew nobody would ever see your work, unless you experience withdrawal symptoms whenever you try to stop. My fellow SleuthSayer Steve Liskow has described having this experience. Not me. Divine spark, yes. Withdrawal, no. If I was absolutely sure no one would ever see it? I don't think so. Writing is meant to give me a voice, not a tree falling in the forest.

An unpublished writer is in limbo. To many, you're a real writer, ie an author, only when you're published. They even have a variety of rules about where you're published and how and what you earn from your writing. There's an insidious doubt in many writers' hearts that even if you think you're a writer—and have the blood, sweat, tears, and hundreds of thousands of words to prove it—you're not a writer unless others think you're a writer. As King Lear said, that way madness lies. Not that that stops us.

In 2007, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Pre-Published Writers and the Glass Slipper":

Back at Halloween, I went to visit my granddaughters and found the 3-year-old decked out in full regalia as a Disney Cinderella. Young Cinderella reenacted the fairy tale over and over all afternoon, kicking off her transparent shoe (“Oh, no! I’ve lost my glass slipper!”) and trying it on again. There wasn’t any prince in her version of the story, and she was in no hurry to get to the happy ending. Instead, before trying to fit the shoe on her foot, she would slip something into it— a sock, a plastic spoon, a finger puppet—leaving no room for her foot. “Oh, no!” she would moan. “I’m not Cinderella!”

I’m reminded of how awful it sometimes felt to be a writer who had not succeeded in finding a publisher for whom my manuscript was a perfect fit, especially in the twentieth century. That would be before I found the legendary Guppies, my first network of other writers who knew exactly how hard it is and that talent gets most of us nowhere without incredible persistence and that bit of luck that can’t be willed or forced.

Back in the 1970s, when I was writing and then trying to sell my first three mystery manuscripts, I remember being asked a cocktail party, “What do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I said. “What have you published?” my inquisitor asked. “Nothing yet,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.” The guy’s eyes glazed over and he drifted away.

Today, I’d have a lot to say to my younger self...I could offer helpful suggestions...“Don’t let anybody call you a wannabe,” I would say. “You’re pre-published. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep sending out. Your mantra is “talent, persistence, and luck.”

For many years, I kept a Peanuts cartoon pinned up on my bulletin board. It showed Charlie Brown lying on his back on top of Snoopy’s doghouse, reading a rejection letter. “Your novel stinks,” it says. “I’ve never read such a terrible piece of writing. Stop trying to be an author.” In the last frame, Charlie Brown says, “It’s probably a form rejection letter.” The trouble with writers is that we need the hide of an elephant, but many of us have the skin of a grape, and most of us lack Charlie Brown’s optimism. An agent or editor writes (as they do so frequently), “Not for me” or “I didn’t fall in love with this.” “Oh, no!” we moan, like Cinderella. “I’m not a writer!”

I’m a lot better writer than I was when I started sending the first version of my book to agents. I was impatient and had to learn from my mistakes. I’m also a much better writer than I was at the age of seven, when I first said, “I’m a writer.” Looking back, I can see it served me better to keep saying, “I’m a writer” and keep on writing than to get so discouraged I stop writing because any given agent or editor’s glass slipper doesn’t fit my manuscript. So here’s another mantra for those working hard to achieve first publication: “I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.”

Back to 2023: Since I wrote all of the above, my writing has continued to develop. I've found my, ahem, mature voice. Over time, I've given up completely on commercial success. I don't have to convince myself of anything. I don't care whose eyes glaze over when I say, "I don't have a new novel," or, "I'm writing short stories these days."

And as for marketing my work, two days ago (April Fools Day—coincidence?) I woke up in the morning from a dream in which I ranted at a blogger, "I don't care if I'm on NPR! Ten or twenty years ago I would have killed to be on NPR, but not at my age!" Hmm.

What makes you a writer?

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.