Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

21 August 2019

Made in the Decade


by Robert Lopresti

Back in January, when I produced my yearly thing I wrote: "I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me. I will have to do something to celebrate that in a month or two."

Well, more than a month has passed, but here we are. My first thought was to pick out the Best of the Best from the 151 stories that made my original list, but that seemed like a fool's errand for various reasons. Below you will find 15 categories, subgenres if you will, and in each I have listed five stories that made my best of lists in the last decade. They aren't the Best of the Best, just excellent examples of their subgenre.   Of course, some of these could have easily fit into several categories.

And by the way, there is a hidden category tucked away here: stories with twist endings.  There are many examples below but to point them out would be counterproductive.

As a lagniappe I have added a Classic story in each category. "Classic" here is defined as a great story that was published before I started reviewing.

Availability! In each case I have listed the original publication unless I thought there was a more available site. I provided links to a few stories that are available for free on the web. You may find others elsewhere on the web but I suspected those sites might be copyright-violators or malicious, so I skipped 'em.



AMATEUR SLEUTH
Palumbo, Dennis. "A Theory of Murder," available free at Kings River Lite.
Perks, Micah. "Treasure island," in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.
Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "The Wedding Ring," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.
Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015.
Classic: Kemelman, Harry. “The Nine Mile Walk” in The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories.

COZY
Cajoleas, Jimmy. "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.
Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.
Page, Anita. “Isaac’s Daughters,” in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.
Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," available free at B.K. Stevens's website.
Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.
Classic: Asimov, Isaac. “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” in Tales of the Black Widowers.

CRIMINAL’S POINT OF VIEW
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Howard, Clark. “White Wolves” in The Crooked Road, Volume 3.
Paul, Bryan. "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.
Sareini, Ali. F. "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.
Warthman, Dan. "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.
Classic: Francis, Dick. "A Carrot for a Chestnut," in Field of Thirteen.


ESPIONAGE
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational),” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.
Faherty, Terence. "Margo and the Silver Cane," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2013.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Rabb, Jonathan. "A Game Played," in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.
Classic: Household, Geoffrey. “Keep Walking,” in Days of Your Fathers.


FANTASY
Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.
Goree, Raymond. "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.
Law, Janice. "The Crucial Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,September-October 2017.
Classic: Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” in Deathbird Stories.

HISTORICAL
Levinson, Robert S. “Regarding Certain Occurrences In A Cottage At The Garden Of Allah,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2009.
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina,” free podcast.
Rutter, Eric. “Runaway” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009.
Thornton, Brian.“Paper Son,” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Williams, Jim. "The Hotel des Mutilées," on Williams's website.
Classic: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Collected Fictions.

HUMOROUS
Gould, Heywood. "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.
Maron, Margaret. "We On The Train!" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Schofield, Neil. "It'll Cost You," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Wiley, Michael. "Making It," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.
Classic: Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat,” in Thurber on Crime.

NOIR
Crouch, Blake. “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2011.
Gaylin, Alison. "Restraint" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.
Neville, Stuart. "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.
Pluck, Thomas. "The Uncleared," available free at A Twist of Noir.
Stodghill, Dick. “Deathtown,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November. 2009.
Classic: Kinsella, W.P. "Dance Me Outside," in Dance Me Outside.

PASTICHE
Faherty, Terence. "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 2015.
Lewis, Evan. "The Continental Opposite," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Warren, James Lincoln. "Shikari," in The 1% Solution.
Warren, James Lincoln. “Shanghaied” in The 1% Solution.
Zeltserman, Dave. “Julius Katz,” in The Julius Katz Collection.
Classic: Powell, James. “The Tamerlane Crutch,” in Christmas Forever.
POLICE
Alcalá, Kathleen. “Blue Sunday” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” in Detroit is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen.
Phelan, Twist. "Footprints in Water," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2013.
Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2011.
Classic: Westlake, Donald E. “Come Back, Come Back,” in Levine.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2011.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014.
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance," available for free on Moran's website.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” The Case of the Vanishing Boy.
Classic: Grafton, Sue. “A Poison That Leaves No Trace,” in Kinsey and Me.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
Brackmann, Lisa. "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.
Cody, Liza. "I Am Not Fluffy," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2013.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2010.
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2009.
Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg. "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,, March-April 2018.
Classic: Bradbury, Ray. "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

SUI GENERIS
Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," available free at  Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers.
Muir, Brian. “Dummy,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2009.
Rogers, Cheryl. "The Ballad of Maggie Carson," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016.
Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.” in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.
Weikart, Jim, "The Samsa File," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.
Classic: Faulkner William. “A Rose For Emily,” in A Rose For Emily and Other Stories.

SUSPENSE
Buck, Craig Faustus. "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.
Day, Russell. "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.
Estleman, Loren D. “Rumble Strip” in Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection.
Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
Tippee, Robert. "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.
Classic: Cail, Carol. “Sinkhole,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

VICTIM’S POINT OF VIEW
DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot," in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.
Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.
Law, Janice, "The Double," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.
Opperman, Meg. "The Discovery," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Classic: Ellin, Stanley. "You Can't Be a Little Girl all Your Life," in The Specialty of the House and Other Stories.

07 August 2019

Smoke Gets In Your Line-Up

by Robert Lopresti

Earlier this week I needed to do some business at a government office and I knew there would be a wait, so I got there fifteen minutes before they opened.  Naturally other people had the same idea, so there was already a line.

Directly ahead of me was a man of about thirty, with several neck tattoos.  In front of him was a gray-haired man in his sixties, wearing a rather dapper soft hat.  Both of them were smoking.

Now, I have asked people not to smoke on more than one occasion, but it never even occurred to me that day.  I could smell whiffs of the burning tobacco but it was a pleasant and breezy morning and the smoke was no problem for me at all.

What really had my attention was the conversation between the two men.  They were discussing their alma maters, by which I mean the prisons they had attended. Tattoo had recently been a guest of the taxpayers of our fair state, while the older gent had involuntarily spent some time in Texas.

While they conversed the line extended behind me and--

"Excuse me!"

He was a preppy-looking guy, in his thirties, perhaps five people behind me in the queue.

He was glaring at the two ex-cons.  "Would you mind stepping out of line if you're going to smoke?  Some of us are non-smokers."

Tattoo immediately stepped away from the crowd.  Because the line bent at the edge of the parking lot this actually put him closer to the man who had complained, but at least he had tried.

The dapper gent stood his ground, literally and figuratively.  "I'm not in the building," he said, mildly.  "Smokers have rights too."

"No one's saying you shouldn't smoke," said Preppy.  "But the law says you're supposed to be twenty-five feet away from the building.  We'll hold your place."

"I'm twenty-five feet from you."  Which wasn't true.

Then the doors opened and everyone's attention turned to the slow shuffle to the security desk where our bags were inspected before we were allowed to await our turn at a service window.

I couldn't help wondering: If Preppy had heard the subject of their conversation, would he still have confronted the men about their cigarettes?

17 July 2019

Because It Isn't There

by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to give in to peer pressure and follow Steve Liskow, Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and O'Neil De Noux in addressing the question: Why write?

* When I was in second grade I brought a pencil and notebook to school determined that I would write a new Winnie-the-Pooh story.  I remember my shock in realizing that I had no idea how to do that.  Why did I want to write?  Because there were only two Pooh books and that clearly wasn't enough.

* In sixth grade our English teacher encouraged us to write short stories.  I wrote a few spy stories (in slavish devotion to The Man From Uncle)  and Mrs. Sonin, bless her heart, would let me read them to her after school while she graded papers.  I hope to heaven she didn't listen because they were uniformly awful.  Why did I write?  Because I loved to read and wanted to add more stories to the world.

* While living in a dorm at graduate school I found time to write a novel, which I had the good sense not to submit anywhere.  I still have the handwritten draft but, as Robert Benchley said about his diary, no one will see it as long as I have a bullet in my rifle. Why did I write? Because I wanted to be a writer and I needed something to do other than study cataloging.

* At the same time I started submitting terrible short stories to magazines.  Why?  Because I thought I might have a career as a writer.

* After three years of trying I sold a story to Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. The rush I got from seeing my name in print gave me a reason to write for many years.

And other stuff happened, but that's enough.

Let's sum things up, shall we.  Why do I write?

As Thomas Berger said: "Because it isn't there."

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore

by Robert Lopresti

An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy

The author (R) with lampshade.
by Robert Lopresti

I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.  At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful website TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 

05 June 2019

Five Red Herrings, Volume 11

by Robert Lopresti 

1. Pictures from a Prosecution. Back in 2017 the Library of Congress held an exhibit of unusual art: drawings by courtroom illustrators. Fascinating stuff including such sinister types as Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and (?) J.K. Rowling.

2. Man, that's succubustic. I have mentioned Lowering the Bar before. A wonderful website about all that is ridiculous in the world of law. This entry concerns a California attorney who used (invented, really) the word "succubustic' to describe the behavior of a female judge who refused to grant him the attorney's fees he wanted. (Apparently the lawyer worked very hard on the case, clocking 25 hours in a single day, for instance.) He also referred to the "defendant's pseudohermaphroditic misconduct." Stylish.

3. Write like a girl. Useful for all of us boy author types: Women Share the Biggest Mistakes Male Authors Make with Female Characters. Here's one from jennytrout: "We have never, ever looked in a mirror and silently described our nude bodies to ourselves, especially the size/shape/weight/resemblance to fruit, etc. of our breasts."

4. Write like a cop. From Robin Burcell, Top Ten Stupid Cop Mistakes (in Fiction). "Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid..."

 5. "Dieoramas." Article from Topic Magazine about Abigail Goldman, who  is an investigator for the Public Defender's office in my county. Her hobby is making tiny 3-D "reproductions" of entirely fictional murder scenes. Creepy...

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



by Robert Lopresti

When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  

In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

15 May 2019

Today in Mystery History: May 15


by Robert Lopresti

For the second time I am pillaging my files to report on highlights of this day in our field's history.  Enjoy.

May 15, 1923.  The issue of Black Mask Magazine  published on this date featured "Three Gun Terry," by Carroll John Daly.  It's not such a great story, even by Daly's standard, but it is a huge piece of mystery history: it is considered the first hard-boiled private eye story.  "For every man I croak--mind you, I ain't a killer, but sometimes a chap's got to turn a gun--I get two hundred dollars flat."

May 15, 1926.  Two great playwrights were born on this day.  Coincidentally, they were in the same room.  Okay, no coincidence.  Anthony and Peter Shaffer were twin brothers.

Anthony won two Edgar Awards: Best Play for Sleuth, and then Best Screenplay for same. He also wrote screenplays for Frenzy and The Wicker Man.

He co-wrote three mystery novels with brother Peter, who was best known for non-mystery plays such as Equus and Amadeus.

May 15, 1933.  Dime Detective Magazine for this date proudly contained "The Brain Master," by John Lawrence, a pulp writer whom Frances M. Nevins, Jr. referred to as "king of the unremembered."  This was part of a series featuring New York private eye Sam Beckett, not to be confused with the guy who waited for Godot.

May 15, 1948.  Jeremiah Healy was born on this date in Teaneck, NJ.  He was best known for his novels about Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy.  Half of these books were nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Novel.  The Staked Goat won.


May 15, 1961.  The second episode of Whispering Smith appeared on NBC.  This was a western but definitely a detective story.  Audie Murphy played a nineteenth century Denver cop.  (If you aren't familiar with Murphy, look him up.  During World War II he won practically every medal available to a U.S. soldier, including the Medal of Honor.)  

So why should we care about the second episode of a long forgotten TV show?  Well, first of all, I can't tell whether the first episode ever showed.  The source of all wisdom (i.e. the Internet) says the show premiered on May 8 and also says it missed its premiere date.  So who knows?

But more importantly, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was so disturbed by the violence in the May 15th episode, "The Grudge," that they actually showed it at a hearing.  According to Wikipedia the assembled senators got to see: a fistfight, a mother horsewhipping her son, a false charge of sexual assault, a report that a man laughed after shooting another guy six times in the stomach, and a woman accidentally killing her daughter while aiming at someone else.  All it needs is dragons to pass for an episode of Game of Thrones.

Oh, the actor who got horsewhipped was  a kid named Robert Redford.  Whatever happened to him?


May 15, 1993. This date saw the publication of Charles Willeford's book The Shark-Infested Custard.  I know nothing about this crime novel, but I love the title.  Don't you?

01 May 2019

Lefty Propaganda

Nervous panelist in the Green Room, striving for wisdom.
by Robert Lopresti

As promised two weeks ago, I am providing here a collection of wise words from authors (and a few editors... see if you can spot 'em) who served as panelists at Left Coast Crime back in March.  You may remember that I have done this at past mystery hootenannies. 

As always, if anyone feels I misquoted them I would be happy to correct it.  If you would prefer to deny being there at all, I take all major credit cards.

Regrettably, all the context for these comments were lost in a tragic canoeing accident.  (Turns out moose can't paddle.  Who knew?)  Okay: wisdom commencing.


"This book is set in the 1590s.  Totally different from the 1580s." - Kenneth Wishnia

"This novel is set in San Diego.  There's a lot of beer in it." - Lisa Brackmann

"I think everyone in Scotland is funny.  I just moved to California so I could get paid for it."- Catriona McPherson

"I can't possibly write something serious, because I don't want to read it." -E.J. Copperman

"A first draft is crap by definition." -Laurie R. King

"In my second book I forgot to include a murder." - Cynthia Kuhn

"I avoid people as much as possible."  - Timothy Hallinan

"I picked Mumbai as a setting the way you would pick a lover." -Sujata Massey

"I had a great time writing it because I got to do a lot of research into the Texas taco scene." -Meg Gardiner

"Don't the spaceships always land in Pittsburgh?" - S.J. Rozan

"What could be more noir than Iowa?" -Priscilla Paton

"I wrote a book that many dozens of people read." - G.M. Malliet

"I once got into an argument with George Clooney about Janet Jackson's breasts." - Kellye Garrett

"The way I know that I really love a book is I lose time in it." - Chantelle Aimée Osman

"If you write novellas, write science fiction." - Kate Thornton

"This is actually true.  I got it off the internet." - Ovidia Yu

"It's not particularly funny if someone is behind you with a gun.  But if the gun has a hair trigger and the guy has the hiccups...." -Timothy Hallinan

"I have my thought back." - Judy Penz Sheluk

"I don't want to love your book as much as you do because if I do I'll be blind to what needs to be changed." - Chantelle Aimée Osman


"The subject of furry novels is a thing." - Lisa Alber

"Me and God talk.  We go way back."  - Laurie R. King

"Hit the spellcheck button.  My fifth grader can find it." -Stacy Robinson

"If you get in the 150,000 word range, go do something else for a while." - Kate Thornton

"You never had a blog critic or a Kirkus review like a defense lawyer whose client you're sending to prison." -James L'Etoile

"When you call a police officer and say you want to research guns, you have to preface it in a certain way." - Judy Penz Sheluk

 "I call myself a book therapist." - Zoe Quinton

"Our experiences are all of our senses." - Elena Hartwell

"I'm delighted to still be living in a country that puts a U in humour." - D.J. Wiseman

"There are a lot worse things to believe in than God." -Suzanne M. Wolfe


"Most of the criminals I work with don't read." -James L'Etoile

"I can bang a short story out in eighteen months." - Kate Thornton

"If you're writing about someplace you don't live, make the protagonist a visitor." - Elena Hartwell

"When I started writing police procedurals I found it was very therapeutic, because you can kill your boss." -Robin Burcell

"Then an auditor dies under mysterious circumstances, the best circumstances to die under." -John Billheimer

"If you have someone speaking in an accent in a mystery, call it literary." - Kate Thornton

"I studied comparative religion, which made sense because I am comparatively religious." -Laurie R. King

"One thing I love about writing about small towns is that I can legitimately have cell phones not work." - Elena Hartwell

"You can do research forever, because you don't have to write while you're doing research." - S.J. Rozan

"I lived in England for five years and I did not want to leave.  I was not forced to leave, I might add." -G.M. Malliet

"I was so good at living in California I could have moved to Portland." - Catriona McPherson

"It is really funny to go in a bar with six cops, because they're always going to want their backs to the wall, and there aren't that many walls." - R.T. Lawton



"The only thing better than holding a book is holding a book with your name on it." - Kate Thornton

"You have to be willing to give me your darling and know I will slash it to ribbons." - Stacy Robinson

"I'm exactly like my hero except she's young, tall, and has hands big enough to hold a gun right." - T.K. Thorne

"After  every first draft the flame goes out." -James L'Etoile

"You see those people wearing shirts that say I Love New York and it tells you they are not from New York." -Vinnie Hansen

"I'm a psychotherapist.  I heal by day and kill by night." - Bryan Robinson

"A short story needs to have one point and your reader needs to get it right through the heart." - Kate Thornton

"Morris dancing is next, right after the sex." - Jeffrey Siger

"I think there probably is humor in heaven, or earth wouldn't look like this." - Ovidia Yu

"I have the right to remain silent."  - R.T. Lawton