Showing posts with label Josh Pachter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Josh Pachter. Show all posts

19 April 2021

Remaindrance


Our friend Josh Pachter has appeared in these pages before. He won the 2020 Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to writing and translating, he edited The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down & Out Books), The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads), and The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press). He co-edited Amsterdam Noir (Akashic Books) and The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press).

You can find Josh at www.JoshPachter.com

— Velma
A Note about Remainders
As kids, we sometimes saw comics or paperbacks with the upper half of the covers ripped off. Those were ‘remainders’, a publisher’s overstock. Likewise, bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble and Walmart are likely remainders too, excess copies deeply discounted by publishing houses. In extreme cases, publishers will ‘pulp’ books, grinding them to powder to be recycled into… books.

Remaindrance of Things Past: A Memoir

by Josh Pachter

Chapter 1: The Remainder Bind

In the Olden Days, BigFive Press would agree to publish your book. Their marketing geniuses would do the math and decide on a first printing of X copies. In principle, those copies would all sell, and BigFive would go to a second printing—and then a third, and so on ad infinitum, until you were wealthy enough to buy a little cottage on the Sussex Downs, where you could keep bees and lord it over your serfs.

In practice, though, what was much more likely to happen was that BigFive would wind up with unsold copies of your baby. Those copies took up valuable warehouse space, and if BigFive later needed that space for newer books, they would “remainder” the remaining copies of yours.

That meant that they would sell your leftovers to Wal-Mart or one of the other big-box retailers for pennies on the dollar, and Wal-Mart (or whoever) would dump them into a big bin—the dreaded remainder bin—priced higher than what they paid for them but way lower than the original retail price.

So, for example, let’s say I opened a vein and poured onto the page my magnum opus, Gone Girl With the Wind in the Willows. BigFive would slap a retail price of $20 on it and print five thousand copies. Only three thousand of those copies would sell: two thousand to liberries (remember liberries?) and a thousand to my mother, who would give them away as Christmas presents.

That meant that BigFive would be stuck with two thousand copies of a book they couldn’t sell. Those copies would sit in the warehouse for a while, until BigFive needed the shelf space for the eighth novel James Patterson “wrote” that month. At that point, they’d dump their remaining stock of GGWTWITW onto Wal-Mart for, say fifty cents a copy, and Wal-Mart would mark them up to two bucks apiece and toss them in the bin.

A win-win situation, right? BigFive got rid of some books they didn’t want to continue to warehouse, Wal-Mart cleared a three-hundred-percent profit on every copy they sold, and the customer got a $20 book for a tenth of its retail price.

Wait a second, that’s actually a win-win-win: everybody wins!

Well, almost everybody. The one loser would be me, since instead of earning a royalty of two bucks a copy (ten percent of the retail price), I’d only get a measly five cents a copy (ten percent of BigFive's remainder price)—and then I’d have to give fifteen percent of that to my agent, leaving me four and a quarter cents a copy for a book that ought to have earned me forty times that amount.

So I guess we’d have to call Remainderama a win-win-win-lose situation, with the author the one and only loser.


The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

The Beat of Black Wings anthology cover

Top Science Fiction cover

Top Fantasy cover

Top Horror cover

Top Crime cover
Chapter 2: Remaindeus Unbound

Those Sayers of the Sleuth who know me—or know of me—were perhaps surprised a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I suddenly began editing anthologies.

Since 2018, in fact, I've done eight of them for six different publishers with more on the way:

  • The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads)
  • Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel (Untreed Reads)
  • The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (Down and Out Books)
  • The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside Press)
  • The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press)
  • Amsterdam Noir (Akashic)
  • The Man Who Read Mysteries: The Short Fiction of William Brittain (Crippen & Landru)

My emergence as an anthologist wasn’t exactly “out of the blue,” though. Forty years ago, I was living in Amsterdam, and I edited half a dozen anthologies for a midsized Dutch publisher, Loeb Uitgevers. Loeb marketed four of them—Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, Top Fantasy and Top Horror—internationally at the Frankfort Book Fair, and various combinations of the four titles sold to an assortment of publishers in Europe and the Americas. Heyne Verlag in Germany, for example, did all four books in mass-market paperback editions (TSF in three volumes and TF in two volumes.) Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, and Top Fantasy were published in England by J.M. Dent & Sons in hardcover and paperback, and Top Crime had a US hardcover edition from St. Martin's Press (with one of the worst cover designs I have ever seen in my life, featuring a silhouette of a gun without a trigger — and what did that say about the twenty-five stories in the book?!).

But I digress. A couple of years later, I was living in what was then still West Germany and teaching for the University of Maryland's European Division on American military bases. One day, I got a snail-mail letter from J.M. Dent, notifying me they were about to remainder the last thousand copies of the hardcover edition of Top Science Fiction to W.H. Smith & Sons for something like a quarter apiece—and, as a courtesy to me, they were offering me the opportunity to buy some at that price.

I remember that I was in my kitchen with this letter literally in my hand, trying to decide whether to buy twenty-five copies or fifty to give away as Christmas presents, when my phone rang. On the line was the director of the UMED textbook office: another instructor wanted to use my anthology as the text for a course in the literature of science fiction, but he wasn’t sure where to find copies and wanted to know if I could help.

“As it happens,” I said, “I own all remaining copies of the book, and I'd be happy to sell you as many as you need.”

The caller was hesitant, because (he said) he usually bought texts in enough bulk that the publisher was willing to offer him a discount.”

“How much of a discount,” I asked, “do you usually get?”

Twenty-five percent off the retail price, he said.

“And how many copies do you want to buy?”

A hundred, he told me.

“Well,” I said, “I can give you a twenty-five-percent discount, but I’ll need you to take two hundred copies.”

And I’ll be damned: he agreed!

I hung up and immediately called Dent in London. “I got your letter,” I said, “and I want to buy some copies of Top Science Fiction at the remainder price.”

How many did I want?

“I’ll take all of them.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Finally, the voice asked if I realized how many copies that was.

“Yes, I read the letter,” I said. “I’ll take them all.”

Another pause. Did I realize how much storage space I’d need for a thousand hardcovers?

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I’ll take them all.”

An even longer pause. Did I realize how much the shipping charge for a thousand hardcovers would be?

“If you sell the lot to W.H. Smith,” I said, “you’ll comp them the shipping, so I expect you won’t charge me for it, either.”

And that’s the way we ultimately worked it. I bought a thousand books for two hundred and fifty dollars including shipping, having pre-sold two hundred of them to UMED for something like three thousand dollars plus shipping, making me the only person I’ve ever heard of who actually made money off a remaindered book.


Chapter 3: The Remainders of The Day

There’s a little more to the story.

Over the next couple of years, UMED reordered Top Science Fiction several times … and, each time, I told them the price had gone up. By the time I moved back to the US in 1991, I’d gotten them to buy almost all of my thousand hardcovers—and I’d also picked up the entire remaindered stock of the paperback edition.

I shipped the last of the hardbacks and several hundred of the paperbacks to the US, and I still have some of each in the attic—including one box of paperbacks that’s moved from Germany to New York to Ohio to Maryland to Iowa to Virginia over the last thirty-one years and is still factory sealed.

It’s a pretty cool anthology: twenty-five excellent stories by twenty-five of the greatest science-fiction writers alive in the early 1980s—Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, A.E. Van Vogt, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, more than a dozen others—each story selected and introduced by its author as their favorite of the stories they’d written up to that point in their careers.

Anybody wanna buy a copy? I make you good price, my friend!

21 February 2021

A Buffett Buffet


Why get stoned when there’s rock? Stone crabs and rock shrimp, of course, boiling in sea water seasoned with Old Bay, served outside a rusted beach shack. Delicious.

Unless you’ve been living under a conch shell, you probably heard Margaritaville has a new criminal element in town. Disreputable word-slingers have been spotted skulking amongst the happy drunks at beachside bars, gathered around a piratey privateer, Josh Pachter. This disreputable lot call themselves anthologists. Book 'em, I say, in fact, it’s already booked: The Great Filling Station Holdup.

The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

Let’s face it. Jimmy Buffett is a damn good lyricist. If he’d migrated from Nashville to Tin Pan Alley, he’d reside among the best of Broadway songwriters.

While Buffett is known for lighthearted, cheerful tunes, scratch many a surface and you’ll reveal more serious strata. Take as example the lyrics of Margaritaville:

But there’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searching for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
And I know it's my own damn fault.

A reviewer at AZLyrics.com opines:

The song is about a man spending an entire season at a beach resort, enjoying carefree Caribbean lifestyle with margarita cocktails. There is some lyric confusion about words ‘Wasted away’ in the chorus of the song.

Whut? Seriously? Are we listening to the same song? You can’t hear the tone of forlorn desperation? Sir, put down the rum and step away from the bar.

While many of Buffett’s songs carry a serious secondary layer, a few like ‘Southern Cross’ will break your heart, and some of his early work is downright dark and dangerous. And I like it. But, when Josh Pachter invited me to sail the Buffett brigantine, I was immensely flattered and simultaneously panicked. What the hell could I possibly come up with? Then parts fell into place.

I find it difficult to write about myself. Talk about my work, okay, fine, but talk about me, not so easy. To deflect scrutiny, I hatched the notion of writing about my SleuthSayers colleagues and their stories appearing in Josh’s latest and greatest anthology. Good excuse. And why not include Pachter’s headlining story as well? Let’s begin.

Spending Money
Beach House on the Moon
[musiclyrics]
John Floyd



John sent me his story first, so we’ll start there. Jimmy’s song, ‘Spending Money’, is a light-hearted, whistling ditty. Part of the chorus subtly hints at skullduggery,

A little spending money, money to burn.
Money that you did not necessarily earn.

John has molded his story into a morality play. Greek playwrights could recognize the plot. Russian authors might embrace such a protagonist.

In John’s story, a hint of a pending train wreck hovers in the air, a force that can’t be stopped. The main character has an issue with honesty, a shortcoming of which a rare friend, a waitress, tries to disabuse him of his wayward ways.

To tell you more would tell you too much. I’ve read many of John’s stories and haven’t encountered one like this. Enjoy it.

Tampico Trauma
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
[musiclyrics]
Michael Bracken



I’ve read Michael Bracken over the years, but I hadn’t absorbed what a master of atmosphere he is. From the beginning, you feel like you’ve been dropped into Tamaulipas– no, not a Taco Bell menu item, the Mexican Gulf state. In Michael’s story, you can smell aromatic herbs seasoning the broth, you can hear a touristy guitar.

Buffett’s song is barely 150 words, fewer than twenty lines. In contrast, Michael has fleshed out a complete story, a simmering plot spiced by the kind and compelling Hern├índez hermanas. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t borrow a refrain from another song:

First you learn the native custom,
Soon a word of Spanish or two.
You know that you cannot trust them,
Cause they know they can’t trust you.

Trust me, Bracken has smuggled a lot in a small packet.

The Great Filling Station Holdup
A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean
[musiclyrics]
Josh Pachter



Josh Pachter shuttles us through the dimensions of space, time, and sound, back to a Jimmy country song. Both artists convey an old-fashioned tone, a feeling when informal policing could accomplish more than modern day school resource officers and zero-tolerance policies.

We got fifteen dollars and a can of STP,
A big ole jar of cashew nuts and a Japanese TV.
Feelin’ we’dd pulled the biggest heist of our career.
We're wanted men– we’ll strike again!
But first let’s have a beer.

Josh delivers a surprisingly gentle story. He pays considerable attention to characterization, so by the time the story wraps, you’re glad to witness a happy ending.

And for enquiring minds who want to know, he’s a damn fine editor. He’s also donating a third of the royalties to two Buffett charities, Singing for Change Charitable Foundation and Save the Manatee Club,

Truckstop Salvation
Down to Earth
[musiclyrics]
Leigh Lundin



After Josh’s invitation, I sweated, coming up with zero ideas. As the acceptance deadline approached, I feared having to decline.

One evening, my scalpel-tongued brother Glen mentioned one of his ironic descriptors– dirty, furrin’ lovin’, commie, pinko, hippie, peace queers (considerably cleaned up for our refined audience). I tossed out, “Long-haired, greasy-looking ape,” and immediately wondered where that came from.

Googling found it in a song on Jimmy Buffett’s first album, Down to Earth. The lyrics of ‘Truckstop Salvation’ hinted at an off-camera not-so-pleasant ending.

A silly ditty floated in my brain to the tune of ‘Harper Valley PTA’ (written here in awkward pentameter):

I want to tell you about a valley in Eastern Tennessee.
Good folks and bad struggle in a place called Suwannachee.
No McDonalds, no mall, no factory, no future, no pay,
Then along comes a notice from the local valley TVA.

Those in Washington know you love your rustic neighborhood,
But Congress tells you to give it up for the greater good.
Though eminent domain puts your family in a jam,
Those vacate orders on your doors mean they don’t give a dam.

Once my brain juxtaposed my brother with his Tom Petty hair and live-by-his-own-rules attitude, a Southern gothic began to sketch itself in dark, dark tones. What if Edgar Allan Poe engaged in a forbidden romance with Bobbie Gentry? You know, Deliverance without all the fun and frolic?


Those rock shrimp and stone crabs are rolling to a boil. Beer tub in the sand, nutcrackers at the ready. Pick up the hammer and tongs, have at them.

Florida’s Broward College is sponsoring the launch party. It’s virtual. It’s Zoom. It’s free. It’s 11 March, 2021 at 07:30p. Sign up here!

And yeah, the Jimmy Buffett anthology has lots of damn good stories. Don’t be a crusty crustacean, pre-order at a discount. Do it quickly– it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

15 April 2020

My Misadventure on West Thirty-Fifth Street


Yesterday the mysterious Press published The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe,  which Publishers Weekly described as, ahem, "superb."  And who am I to argue?

I have a story in the book and I am racking my brains to say anything about Rex Stout and his wonderful creation that I didn't say here or here or even here. 

So let's take a different approach.  Last year Josh Pachter told me he was going to be editing a book of  different authors' takes on the world's fattest master detective and asked if I had anything to contribute.

I had to regretfully decline.  I don't really write parodies and I am not such a fan of pastiches (which I define as writing another story in the style of an already existing body of work.)

But then I realized that there was a third possibility: a homage.  To me this means you muck around in another writer's universe but don't create another work of the type that writer has already produced.

It can be a subtle difference, I admit.   If I write another Sherlock Holmes story, attempting to keep as closely to Conan Doyle's style as possible, that's a pastiche.  But when Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven Percent Solution, rewriting the history of Holmes and adding Sigmund Freud to the story, that was a homage.  Got it?

And it occurred to me that I could look at Wolfe and friends from a different viewpoint than Stout had done.  So I told Josh to give me a little time before he started the presses, so to speak.

An important fact about great literary characters: seen objectively a lot of them are annoying as hell.  Seriously, how long could you have tolerated the smug genius of Holmes before you strangled him?  How about Rumpole, Columbo, or House, M.D.?  Even Huckleberry Finn might have been pretty exasperating.  All of them are great to visit, but you sure  wouldn't want to live there.  As Ogden Nash wrote: "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance."

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a number of books about the Howard Families. To oversimplify, these are people who are much longer-lifed than most folks.  The one member of the group who never seems to age at all uses the name Lazarus Long and he is virtually worshipped by his fellows.

But, boy, he seems truly irritating to me.

In Heinlein's book The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, we finally see Long through the eyes of a non-Howard character and guess what? He loathes the guy.  I felt vindicated.   

So I wrote a story that looked at the residents of that famous brownstone on West 35th Street from the viewpoint of their neighbors who had to put up with late night meetings, the occasional shooting or bombing... And Josh made "The Damned Doorbell Rang" the last story in the book.

I call that superb.

07 April 2020

The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell


I'm delighted to turn my column over today to author and editor Josh Pachter, who has something special to share. Take it away, Josh!

— Barb Goffman

The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell

by Josh Pachter

Today is pub day for The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, which I edited, and which is being released in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats by the good folks at Untreed Reads.

I came up with the idea for this book about two years ago, and was blown away by how eager the authors I contacted were to contribute. I could go on and on about the project, but I’d rather turn the microphone over to the writers and let them tell you about their choices, their challenges, and their triumphs.

Given the opportunity to pick a song from one of Joni's seventeen studio albums, why did you pick the one you picked?

Marilyn Todd (“The Pirate of Penance,” from Song to a Seagull): The lyrics, pure and simple. “She dances for the sailors / In a smoky cabaret bar underground / Down in a cellar in a harbor town.” As soon as I heard those lines, the story wrote itself.

John Floyd (“Bad Dreams,” from Shine): This song is a look at the way we’ve managed to screw up our world, and it got me to thinking about the fact that even the worst dreams sometimes do turn out well. That kicked off the idea of having someone see a terrible vision that might not only come out okay but might even work to his advantage.

Alison McMahan (“Harlem in Havana,” from Taming the Tiger): Not many people know this, but this song is about a real revue, Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana. I was fascinated by everything I read about it. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Cuba a couple of times; the first time, I took my husband on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday to fulfill a bucket list item: his great-uncle, who lived a fascinating life, is buried in Havana, and we were able to visit the grave and pay our respects. By picking this song, I had the opportunity to write about the actual revue and my husband’s great uncle.

Adam Meyer (“Shades of Scarlett Conquering,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns): This song jumped out at me because it’s so character-driven. It paints a portrait of a beautiful Southern woman who is “dressed in stolen clothes,” feels “dark things” and has “blood-red fingernails,” is trained in Southern charm but also cruel, burns with passion but is ice cold at the same time. She was perfect for a crime story.

What was your biggest challenge in writing your story?

Edith Maxwell (“Blue Motel Room,” from Hejira): The story is set in Atlanta, where I have never been—but, hey, that’s what friends and the Internet are for. My writer pal Jim Jackson has lived around there, and he helped me out with a well-known jewelry store and a classy old-school restaurant. Online maps, photos, and my imagination got me through the rest.

Donna Andrews (“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” from For the Roses): This has always been one of my favorite Joni songs, maybe the favorite. Once Josh told me that I could have it, I re-listened to it, loved it as much as ever, and realized—with a frisson of alarm—that any story that did justice to it would have to be light years away from the humor I usually write. I had to write from a place that was very different from my usual inspiration, someplace much darker. Not the first time I’ve done that, but one of the rare times lately that I’ve had something like this published.

Tara Laskowski (“Both Sides, Now,” from Clouds): My husband, Art Taylor, and I were excited to try to write a story together, as we’d never done anything like that before. We decided we’d write it as a series of letters back and forth between the main characters. However, we were surprised to find just how difficult it was to collaborate. Our methods of writing are very different. I tend to be a faster, get-it-on-the-page kind of writer, while Art—well, he’s very careful and good at what he does and it takes him a little longer. At first, we worried we weren’t going to be able to pull it off, but once we got into a rhythm, the story was actually quite fun to write.

Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow (“Talk to Me,” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter): Emily says, “I am primarily a poet, so the actual plot was the biggest challenge for me! I’m used to extremely short pieces that aren’t driven by plot but rather image and metaphor, so keeping a plot tight and compelling was something new and different.” And Jackie adds, “The biggest challenge might have been the story’s biggest asset, too, which was working collaboratively. Emily and I work very well together, so it was fun and fruitful to work with her—but we did need to plan out the methods we’d use.”

What about your story makes you the happiest?

Sherry Harris (“Last Chance Lost,” from Turbulent Indigo): It was fun to write something so different than the cozy mysteries I usually write. Getting out of my own head and convincing myself I could write a short story worthy of being in an anthology with such amazing writers was a treat!

Mindy Quigley (“Taming the Tiger,” from Taming the Tiger): All the cats! My story features real cats, literary cats, decorative cats, metaphorical cats, cat-like people, and even Cats, the musical. Unfortunately, it’s set in a time when Cats, the movie, didn’t yet exist. I can’t recommend hate-watching that movie highly enough, by the way. Sit back, consume your favorite hallucinogenic drug, and prepare to marvel at utter debasement of some of the silver screen’s most talented entertainers.

Barb Goffman (“Man to Man,” from Wild Things Run Fast): I loved being in the head of an unlikeable person and still finding ways to make her fun. Word choices. The reactions she has. The way she says things. Writing the character of Cecelia was so enjoyable. I aimed to create someone readers will love to hate, and I hope I’ve succeeded.

Greg Herren (“The Silky Veils of Ardor,” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter): The goal of my story was to illustrate how our memories of an important time in our lives are different from the way other people remember the same event—sometimes so completely different that the memories seem to belong to different occasions—with reality lying somewhere in the middle. Memory fascinates me, and I was very happy with how playing with that idea turned out in the final story.

We were originally planning a big multi-author launch event for The Beat of Black Wings in Reston, Virginia, close to where many of the contributors and I live, but of course COVID-19 knocked that plan right off the calendar.

Instead, we’ll be doing a Zoom launch tonight, April 7, starting at 7 PM Eastern Time. If you’ve got the free Zoom software for your computer or tablet or the free app for your phone—and, if you don’t, did I mention that they’re free?—all you have to do is click on this link to join us. Please disable your webcam and microphone, so the focus stays on the authors, but you’ll be able to ask questions via chat. (In case the above Zoom link doesn't work, try this one: https://zoom.us/j/7953912062.)

If you haven’t already ordered the book and would like to have a copy, you can get the hardcover or paperback directly from the publisher (with a 15% discount!) at this link and the e-book from the ’Zon here; the authors and I have agreed to donate a third of our royalties to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni’s name, so you'll benefit a worthy cause at the same time you provide yourself with some awesome quarantine reading!

And if you’ve got an Apple Music subscription and would like to listen to the songs that inspired the book’s twenty-six stories, check out this playlist.

Thanks, Barb, both for your own contribution to the book (“Man to Man,” from Wild Things Run Fast), and for turning your SleuthSayers slot over to The Beat of Black Wings today!

24 March 2020

The Possibly Last Case of Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac


Over the course of two-plus years, I’ve written stories for three anthologies edited by Josh Pachter and, publishing being what it is, all three anthologies are scheduled for release this year, two of them in April, within seven days of each other.

“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” will appear in The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads), scheduled for release April 7.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo” will appear in The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), scheduled for release April 14.

JONI

When Josh first approached me about contributing to the Joni Mitchell anthology, I was intrigued. Though I listened more often to hard rock (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Mott the Hoople, and the like) when I was younger, I was quite familiar with Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and many other singer/songwriters from that end of the musical spectrum.

Several hours after receiving the invitation from Josh, I tried to claim “Woodstock.” By then I knew the protagonist and had roughed out a plot. Unfortunately, one of the conceits for the anthology was that every one of Joni’s albums would be represented by at least one song, and someone had already claimed a song from her album Ladies of the Canyon.

I put that idea aside and binge listened to Joni Mitchell for the rest of the day, finding and reading lyrics whenever a song caught my ear. Thirteen hours after receiving the invitation, I had locked down my claim to “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” from the album Night Ride Home.

“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”—the story of a young woman, her boyfriend, and what happens in the back seat of his father’s Cadillac—caught my attention because I thought there was a story hidden between the lines of the lyrics and because I remembered my mother’s big-finned 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville.

The writing came easily, and six days later I turned the story in. After a few minor editorial adjustments and correction of a few typos, Josh accepted the story.

My take on “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”: When Ray’s dad’s winning streak turns into a losing streak, his Cadillac is repo’d by his bookie, and Ray’s girlfriend takes it upon herself to get the car back.

NERO

Alas, writing “The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo,” my Nero Wolfe parody, did not go as smoothly. I seriously under-estimated my knowledge of the Nero Wolfe canon, and I found myself doing quite a bit of research, writing and abandoning several ideas, and not turning in the initial version of the story until nearly three months after accepting Josh’s invitation.

That’s when I learned I hadn’t done enough research, and during the following six months Josh guided me through two start-to-finish revisions of the manuscript. The story remains essentially the same as in the initial draft—at the insistence of his longtime assistant, an aging detective long past retirement and near the end of his life takes a new case—but I relied heavily on Josh’s suggestions and revision demands to shape the story into its final form.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”: Convinced someone is stalking her, Baldy Badloss’s dance partner Ruth Entemann hires his boss Tiberious Dingo to learn who and why, and the investigation uncovers more family secrets than any of them expect.

LESSONS

If there are any lessons to learn from these diametrically opposed writing experiences, they may be:

1. Inspiration (“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”) and perspiration (“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”) both produce publishable fiction.

2. A good editor knows when a light edit is appropriate (“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”) and when to demand significant revisions (“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”).

3. A professional writer appreciates a good editor.

JONI, AGAIN

And the story inspired by Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” that Josh nixed when I proposed it? A year later I returned to the idea, wrote the story I had imagined at the time, and “Woodstock” (the story) will soon appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

17 March 2020

When Extroverts Must Stay Home


Sometimes current events coincide with stories you've already written. This is one of those times.

A friend asked me this morning how I was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I said that since I work from home, I don't go out much anyway. Consequently, self-quarantining so that I don't inadvertently catch this newest strain of the virus and pass it on to someone with a compromised immune system is not a big problem for me. As the joke goes, I'm an introvert, so I've been preparing for this moment my whole life.

I've seen increased focus in the media and social media over the past decade on us introverts. How we do better working solo than in groups, how we need alone time to recharge, how the world is often so oriented toward extroverts that we introverts sometimes are penalized for not excelling at activities geared toward extroverts. I'm grateful for this focus on introverts, which hopefully has helped open some people's eyes.

We don't usually see people worried about extroverts because much of society is geared toward them. Until now, that is, now that people are being asked to self-quarantine the best they can to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I've seen people post on social media that they don't want to self-quarantine because spending more than a day or two at home makes them anxious, that they need to go out and be among people. If not, they get depressed.

Depression is no little thing. It can affect your emotional and physical health. As someone who understands how the need to be alone can suddenly feel urgent and overwhelming, I get how being cooped up might affect someone who needs to regularly be among people, especially someone who doesn't have family or roommates to spend time with at home. It's something I was thinking about last year as I wrote a story called "Man to Man," whose main character is an extrovert who becomes socially isolated.

This story is coming out in a new anthology, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, which will be published on April 7th by Untreed Reads. The anthology, edited by Josh Pachter, has all of Joni Mitchell's albums represented. My "Man to Man" story is inspired by the song of the same title from her 1982 album, Wild Things Run Fast.

In my story, my main character, Cecelia, ends up effectively self-quarantined at home. She's not physically ill, and there's no virus at play, but Cecelia is cut off from her social network. So she starts staying home, which makes her depressed. Her lack of connection with others makes her depression grow, and her negative feelings spiral, especially regarding her husband, the only person she sees anymore. It doesn't help that Cecelia is spoiled and self-centered. Here she is, thinking about her situation:

"I had nothing happening in my life. No social groups. No events. No trips I was planning. I could barely pay attention to what was on television. No one ever called me, and I had no one to call.

"It felt like I was in solitary confinement. Sure, I was in an upscale high-rise, but the isolation was overwhelming. And things didn't get better when David came home at night. He made me so angry sometimes, I wanted to scream."

Before I wrote the story I'd been thinking that the world is largely geared to extroverts, so I could understand that if an introvert couldn't get alone time, it might make her feel edgy and unhappy and might result in her acting out. (Not excusing bad behavior, just understanding what might prompt it.) Then I started thinking about the other side of the coin. What if an extrovert lost all her outings and interactions, the things that energized her and made her who she is? How might she react? I thought this would be an interesting approach to a character. That's how Cecelia came to be.

I never imagined that my scenario might be playing out all over the world around the time the story was being published. I hope all the Cecelias out there can safely resume their regular lives soon. In the meanwhile, for all of you looking for something to do while stuck inside, you can pre-order The Beat of Black Wings. It will be coming out April 7th in e-book, trade paperback, and hardcover. Pre-ordering of the paper versions is only available from the publisher. You can do it by clicking here. Pre-order of the e-book version is available in the usual places. One-third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell's name, which means you can get a fine book of short stories for you and help a good cause at the same time.

So are you under self-quarantine? If so, how are you spending your time? And to my fellow authors with stories in the book, please tell us about your stories.

11 February 2020

Life of Crime Leads to Writing Crime Fiction



Several fellow crime fiction writers, including a handful of SleuthSayers, became crime fiction writers while working in, or after retiring from, law enforcement occupations. I approached my crime fiction writing career from the other direction.

I stole cars.

I don’t remember exactly how many I boosted during my relatively short career, but I would venture to guess at least a dozen, all different models from the same manufacturer.

These weren’t well-planned thefts; they were crimes of opportunity. Though I was too young to legally drive, that didn’t stop me. I saw cars I wanted, waited until the owners were distracted, and took them.

Back at my place, where I had the tools necessary to alter the vehicles’ appearances, I repainted them, and I turned at least two hardtops into convertibles. Then I wheeled them around for a few weeks until another opportunity presented itself.

And another opportunity always presented itself because the boys in my neighborhood were careless, always leaving their Matchbox cars unattended.

FROM CARS TO MOTORCYCLES

I came by my criminality honestly. My stepfather was an “Honorary Hell’s Angel.” At least, that’s what the card in his wallet said.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if it was some sort of gag, but my stepfather co-owned a service station, back when service stations did more than sell over-priced snacks and make you pump your own gas, and he actually employed Hell’s Angels as mechanics. Every time I visited the station, usually in the company of my mother, the bikers were there, sometimes working, sometimes not, and their choppers were parked behind the building along with several cars awaiting repair or awaiting pickup after being repaired.

The rest of this story may or may not be true, but this is the way I heard it, and there’s no one left to confirm or deny any part of it.

A group of Hell’s Angels lived in a house across the street from my stepfather’s service station. One night, one of them looked out the window, realized the service station was being robbed, and saw that the guy working that night was in trouble.

So, he shot the robber.

I don’t know if that event was the impetus, but shortly after that, my stepfather sold his part-ownership of the service station and we moved to another state.

FROM MOTORCYCLES TO BICYCLES

My junior high school was probably not as rough as I remember, but I wasn’t the only student who carried a knife for protection, and I once had a revolver shoved in my face while waiting at the bus stop after a school dance by a kid who wanted my bus money.

I was, by that point, building badass bicycles from parts I found in a ravine below a bridge a few miles from my home. I don’t remember what all I discovered during my initial visit, but I returned to the same spot several times and, over the following months, collected frames, handlebars, seats, wheels, and more.

I was much older before I realized I had probably stumbled on the dumping ground of a bicycle thief and that I might have been in possession of stolen goods.

FROM BICYCLES TO STORIES

I was going to wrap this up by suggesting my life of crime led me to write crime fiction, and then I remembered the story of my first professional fiction sale, which I wrote about in my initial post as an official SleuthSayers member. “Smooth Criminal” began “I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.”

So maybe my life of crime didn’t actually end when I began writing. Maybe it was just the beginning.

Coming April 14: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), edited by Josh Pachter and featuring “Rollicking new stories written especially for this collection by Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti.”

16 July 2019

Community Standards


This year’s Malice Domestic in North Bethesda, Maryland, provided ample opportunity to spend time with several writers I count among my friends and with many more who became friends during the convention, and I realized how different life is when a large group of like-minded writers live in close proximity.
With Josh Pachter and Art Taylor at Malice Domestic 2019.
At some point during the convention, Josh Pachter and I discussed how the mystery-writing community in and around Washington, D.C., contrasts with the mystery-writing community in and around Waco, Texas. Many of the writers attending Malice see each other several times a year—at readings, book signings, Noir at the Bar events, library presentations, and the like—and they see each other so often that they rarely have reason to email one another. The mystery-writing community in and around Waco consists of, well, me.

Several romance writers live in the area, as do a few literary writers and poets of one type or another, but the only mystery writer living near me isn’t producing much new work these days. Because I don’t comprehend poetry or poets, and because literary writers don’t tend to hang with us genre types, I feel as if I live in a writing desert.

So, I’ve little opportunity to spend time with genre writers (of any genre) other than at conventions, and only in the past few years have I had the financial resources to travel more than a few hours from home to attend Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. Prior to that I attended some regional science fiction conventions (ArmadilloCon and the now-defunct ApolloCon), Bouchercon when it came to Austin many years ago and Left Coast Crime when it came to Santa Fe several years ago.

A gaggle of wordsmiths at Malice Domestic 2019.
Yet, I always remembered what life was like when I lived in Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. I was a young, barely published writer, and several times my then-wife and I had dinner with John Lutz and/or Francis M. Nevins, Jr., and their wives. And at least twice I attended the Nevinses’ Christmas party, where I met, among others, Elaine Viets when she was still a newspaper columnist.

I wondered if such a thing were possible in Waco, in a state where writers may live hundreds of miles apart, and Temple and I had several conversations about how we might duplicate those Christmas parties. Rather than a holiday event, when everyone is juggling family and work obligations, and rather than an evening event, which would cause guests to drive home in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to try a Saturday afternoon event in the spring.

Texas writers crowd the Bracken/Walker living room
during the 2019 Spring Writer Gathering.
We hosted our first Spring Writer Gathering the Saturday after Mother’s Day 2016, and we’ve hosted it the same weekend each year since. Though the event is open to all writers and their significant others, and most genres are represented in one fashion or another, we tend to draw a significant number of mystery writers from all across Texas. A few of our guests have joined us every year, a few only once, and many have attended two or three times.

This isn’t a critique group, and there’s no agenda. It’s just writers hanging out, talking about whatever strikes their fancies. Sometimes it’s writing, but the conversation is just as likely to cover dozens of other subjects. Sometimes we sit in a large group in the living room; sometimes we break into smaller groups that drift into the kitchen or the dining room.

Some of our guests are writers I’ve known for at least two decades, while others are recent acquaintances, and some I’m meeting in person for the first time when they arrive at our doorstep.

In doing this, my writing community is growing. Though it may never reach the size of the writing community in and around Washington, D.C., and even though our gathering may never draw the number and diversity of attendees as the Nevinses’ Christmas parties, I am quite pleased with the event’s success.

So, if you’re a writer living within driving distance of Waco, Texas, or think you might be traveling through our area the Saturday after Mother’s Day, drop me a line. Temple and I would love to have you join us next year for our annual Spring Writer Gathering.

My story “Oystermen” appears in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Three Brisket Tacos and a Sig Sauer,” the second story of season one of the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, releases August 1. Subscribe to season one here and receive six novellas—one each month beginning with July—and receive a special bonus story at the end of the season.

21 December 2018

The Best of Brittain


by Josh Pachter

One spring day when I was in the ninth grade, my English teacher — Mary Ryan — handed me a copy of the June 1966 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and told me she thought I might find it interesting. She was right, and her thoughtful gift wound up changing my life.

That first EQMM basically dropped into my hands, like manna from Heaven. The next month, though — and every month thereafter until I graduated from high school and went off to college — I had to pedal my bike up Old Jerusalem Road in Levittown, New York, to the candy store a mile away to buy a copy of the new issue (along with the latest Mad, of course) from their magazine rack.

My second issue, dated July 1967, contained a delightful story called “The Woman Who Read Rex Stout,” by someone named William Brittain. It was the fourth entry in a series that had begun the previous year, with Brittain’s “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr” and “The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” appearing back to back in the December ’65 issue.  (The third “Man Who Read” story, intriguingly titled “The Man Who Didn’t Read,” came out in May ’66, just before I became a regular reader.)

A fifth story, “The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie,” was published in December ’66, and the next year Brittain created a new series character, Leonard Strang, science teacher at Aldershot High School. Mr. Strang featured in three 1967 stories, and a fourth case for the science teacher and a sixth “Man Who Read” story came out in 1968.

Mr. Strang’s fourth adventure was in the December 1968 EQMM, and that was a very special issue for me, since it also included my own first-ever published piece of fiction, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” written when I was sixteen years old and published shortly after my seventeenth birthday, when I was a high-school senior.

Since I was now officially a “professional” author, I was eligible for membership in the Mystery Writers of America. I joined, and — though I was too young to drink the cocktails — began taking the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan for the MWA’s monthly cocktail parties in its offices in the shabby old Hotel Seville. The membership — all at least a couple of decades older than me — treated me with amused tolerance, and I became friendly with an assortment of people who, over the previous couple of years, had become my heroes: Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Hilary Waugh, Lawrence Treat, Robert Bloch, Hans Holzer, Chris Steinbrenner (who tended the bar and could be counted on to slip me a couple of those cocktails I wasn’t old enough to drink), and others.

Four married couples — in each of which it was the husband who was the crime writer — took me under their wings and made me feel as if I was truly a member of a warm extended family: Ed and Pat Hoch, Stan and Marilyn Cohen, John and Barbara Lutz … and Bill and Ginny Brittain.

Bill wound up writing a total of eleven “Man Who Read” stories and thirty-two featuring Leonard Strang, all published in the pages of EQMM between 1965 and 1983. Between ’64 and ’77, he also penned twenty-nine standalones, eight (including a pair credited to “James Knox”) to Queen’s, twenty to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (which ran his first-ever story, ironically titled “Joshua,” in its October ’64 issue, fourteen months before Bill cracked EQMM), and a single tale, his last published short story, “The Ferret Man,” to Antares.


After that, Bill decided to try his hand at writing books for younger readers, beginning with All the Money in the World in 1979 and ending with The Wizards and the Monster in 1994; bookended between those two were an even dozen others, including the Newbury Honor winner The Wish Giver in 1983.

Meanwhile, I went to college and grad school, taught for a year and a half at what was then Slippery Rock State College (now Slippery Rock University) in — I’m not making this up — Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and in 1976 I moved overseas, first to The Netherlands and eventually to Germany.

Bill and Ginny and I exchanged transatlantic snail mail for several years, but eventually lost touch.

And, to my regret, I never picked up the thread of our friendship after returning to the US in 1991. By then, Bill — himself a teacher, though he taught English at the junior-high level, not science to high-schoolers like Mr. Strang — had retired, and he and Ginny settled in Asheville, North Carolina, where they lived until his death on December 16, 2011, his eighty-first birthday. Not long after he passed on, Ginny returned to upstate New York to be close to their daughter, Sue Brittain Gawley.
 
Two years ago, in 2016, Dale Andrews and I decided to co-edit The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, a book I’d originally proposed to Frederic Dannay — who was half of the Ellery Queen writing team — in the early ‘70s. The book (which was published by Wildside Press earlier this year, and which you can order in hard cover, paperback, or for Kindle apps and readers here) consists of three sections: Pastiches (which are serious recreations of the Ellery Queen characters), Parodies (which poke fun at EQ, turning him into such bizarre incarnations of himself as Celery Keen and Elroy Quinn), and Potpourri (which includes stories inspired by Ellery the author, Ellery the editor, and Ellery the character).

One piece I knew had to be included in the Potpourri section was my old friend Bill Brittain’s “The Man Who Read Ellery Queen.” So I did some sleuthing of my own, and came up with a phone number for Ginny, who doesn’t use email. I called her, and we talked for an hour, our first conversation in decades. We had a wonderful talk, and she was happy to grant Dale and I permission to use Bill’s story in our book.

So happy, in fact, that I asked her how she’d feel about a possible collection of only Bill’s stories. That idea rocketed her straight up to Cloud Nine, and as soon as we got off the phone I emailed Doug Greene and Jeff Marks, the publishers at Crippen & Landru, to suggest a book I wanted to call The Man Who Read Mr. Strang: The Collected Short Fiction of William Brittain.

Within an hour, I had enthusiastic yesses from both of them, and I got to work.

A volume containing all eleven “Man Who Read” stories and all thirty-two of the Mr. Strangs would have been prohibitively expensive to produce, so we ultimately agreed to include all of the “Man Who Read” tales and seven of the Mr. Strangs (three from the ‘60s and two each from the ‘70s and early ‘80s).

Janet Hutchings, Jackie Sherbow, and Deanna McLafferty of EQMM graciously scanned and emailed me most of the stories, and Charles Ardai, Jon Breen, Mike Nevins, Bill Pronzini, and Arthur Vidro provided the rest of them. I typed them up and edited them lightly and wrote an introduction, Sue Gawley wrote a nostalgic afterword, and at Robert Lopresti’s suggestion I researched and compiled a comprehensive checklist of all of Bill’s publications for the back of the book.

In June of this year, I took my brand-new Kia Sportage out for its first road trip and drove from my home in Northern Virginia up to Rochester, New York, to have dinner with my old friend Patricia Hoch. The Hochs and the Brittains had been friends in Rochester before either Ed or Bill began to publish and had remained close for many years after both writing careers began, but they, too, had lost touch after the Brittains moved to North Carolina. So the next day I took Pat to Buffalo to have a splendiferous Italian lunch with Ginny and Sue., and this was the first time Pat and Ginny had seen each other in thirty years.

The original plan was for my book of Bill’s stories to come out in September, and I was eager to hand-deliver copies to Ginny and Sue. The book wound up delayed by a couple of months, though — due to no fault of the fabulous folks at Crippen & Landru! — and, by the time it finally came out last month, now titled The Man Who Read Mysteries: The Short Fiction of William Brittain, it was Thanksgiving weekend and I couldn’t get away. If you’d like a copy, you can order it directly from C&L here; I’ve arranged that whatever income I would normally receive for having edited the book will go directly to Ginny, so I hope you’ll buy lots of copies! It is now also available on Amazon.

I’ll go up to Buffalo and Rochester again in the spring, to share more time with Ginny and Sue and Pat and schmooze about the old days when I was a punk teenager just getting started in this crazy business and Ed and Pat and Bill and Ginny were much kinder to me than I could possibly have deserved. I’m looking forward to that.

Meanwhile, Dale and I are working on The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and Doug and Jeff tell me that, if The Man Who Read Mysteries sells as well as they think it will — according to Doug, Bill is “one of the authors most requested by Crippen & Landru readers throughout its 25-year history” — they’d like me to do a second volume, including the rest of the Mr. Strangs.

I can’t wait!

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror


Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.