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

29 June 2022

The Powers That Be



At the risk of sounding unAmerican, I have never been a big fan of comic books or graphic novels (with one notable exception). 

Superhero movies don't do much for me either.  In spite of that I think I have seen a dozen of them, and half of those were about Batman.  (Yes, I know he isn't a superhero.  But he is, of course, the World's Greatest Detective.)

I believe I have only seen one superhero movie in a theatre, and that was by accident.  The film I came to see broke so I agreed to see Superman II instead.  Didn't much care for it.

But a few years ago I was thinking about the public's love for such characters and an odd thought popped into my head: What if someone thought they had a super power?  Well, that might be interesting.

Of course, it would have to a pretty minor super power.  If you thought you could fly or become invisible you would soon be disillusioned.  After some thought I wrote this opening:

When Randolph was six years old, he discovered he could control gravity.   

Not completely, of course.  He couldn’t make things fall up, or even hover in the air.  But once something started to drop, he could influence its direction.

He figured this out one rainy day when his mother told him that, no, he couldn’t go outside, so he should find something to do and stop complaining or she’d give him something to complain about.

Randolph had sat by the window, looking into the street, and noticed a drop of rain poised on the glass.  It began to slip and he thought: Go to the left.

And it did, shimmying down to the far end of the pane.  So he could do that.

The rest of the story follows our hero (?) through his life.

Is Randolph delusional or does he really have a form of psychokinesis?  That is one question that lies at the heart of "The Lord of Falling Objects" in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on sale now.

The other question is of course: Why does this story belong in a magazine for crime fiction?  Read it and the pieces will, ahem, fall into place.


15 June 2022

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sophocles, and I



 I have a rather unusual book beside me as I write this, courtesy of Flame Tree Publishing.  They are a British firm that publishes beautiful volumes, including their Gothic and Fantasy line.  The latest example of that series is Chilling Crime Short Stories which features nine original stories plus tales by Poe, de Maupassant, Dickens, Sophocles (an excerpt from Oedipus Rex), Sir Thomas More (about the princes in the tower), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and... me.

Rather daunting company, that.

Before I move on some of you may be wondering what Fitzgerald wrote that qualified for this volume.  Well, the new book includes the entirety of The Great Gatsby.  This might shock "mainstream" readers who think of it as one of the great American novels, but the fact is you can't reduce the plot of that book to a single sentence without outlining a classic noir novel.  

But forget about Fitzgerald; let's talk about me.  They reprinted my story "The Present" which appeared originally in The Strand Magazine.  I had read that Flame Tree was looking for stories that would fit the theme of Chilling Crime so I submitted the story and they bought it.  

This was not the first time I have been reprinted.  I also successfully submitted two stories to a now-dead story-publishing site called Great Jones Street. I point this out because submitting  is not the way things always work in the world of reprints.

For example, last year, Barb Goffman reached out to me, wanting to republish my story "Shanks Gets Mugged" in Black Cat Weekly.  I was happy to agree.  As I have said before, being paid for a reprint feels like getting away with something.

The first time a publisher approached me about reprinting my material it was an Italian firm.  I had just won an award and they thought they might be interested in publishing my winning book in Italy.  (I assume my Sicilian surname was a factor.)  I told them that my winning work was a short story but I did have a novel available.  I sent them Such A Killing Crime, about murder in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Music Scare of the early 1960s,  and they wound up publishing it under a wonderful title that translates Folk Crimes. 

A few years later I received an email from an author who had been contacted by the same publisher.  Suspicious, she did her research and saw my name among their works.  She asked: Is this a scam?  I replied that if it was it was one of those rare scams where they pay you.

More recently my book Shanks on Crime was translated into Japanese with a title that Google tells me translates roughly as Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  O-kay.  That one sold so well that the publisher decided to produce an otherwise uncollected set of my stories with the English title The Red Envelope and Other Stories and the Japanese title (according to Google) Solve Mysteries on the Holidays at the Coffeehouse.

Since then several writers have asked me how to get their books published in Japan. I told them the process is simple: Open your email and find a note from Tokyo Sogen asking if you would like to sell them the Japanese rights.

Simple, yes.  I never said it was easy.


But the most delightful experience I have ever had with a reprint had to be the two books below, both of which contain "The Street of the Dead House," originally published in nEvermore!


The only downside is that in order to have a story reprinted you first have to write it, so I better get to work.  Can't let Dickens and Poe get ahead of me.


12 June 2022

From the Memoirs of a Private Detective



This piece appeared in Smart Set Magazine in 1923. -Robert Lopresti

FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A PRIVATE DETECTIVE

by Dashiell Hammett

 1. Wishing to get some information from members of the WCTU in an Oregon city, I introduced myself as the secretary of the Butte City Purity League. One of them read me a long discourse on the erotic effects of cigarettes upon young girls. Subsequent experiments proved this tip worthless.

2. A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.

3. House burglary is probably the poorest paid trade in the world. I have never known anyone to make a living at it. But for that matter few criminals of any class are self-supporting unless they toil at something legitimate between times. Most of them, however, live on their women.

4. I know an operative who, while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track, had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.

5. Three times I have been mistaken for a prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.

6. Taking a prisoner from a ranch near Gilt Edge, Mont., to Lewistown one night, my machine broke down and we had to sit there until daylight. The prisoner, who stoutly affirmed his innocence, was clothed only in overalls and shirt. After shivering all night on the front seat his morale was low, and I had no difficulty in getting a complete confession from him while walking to the nearest ranch early the following morning.

7. Of all the men embezzling from their employers with whom I have had contact, I can't remember a dozen who smoked, drank, or had any of the vices in which bonding companies are so interested.


8. I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.

9. A detective official in San Francisco once substituted "truthful" for "voracious" in one of my reports on the grounds that the client might not understand the latter. A few days later in another report "simulate" became "quicken" for the same reason.

10. Of all the nationalities in hauled into the criminal courts, the Greek is the most difficult to convict. He simply denies everything, no matter how conclusive the proof may be; and nothing impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact, regardless of the fact's inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

11. I know a man who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world in the world for $50.

12. I have never known a man capable of turning out first-rate work in a trade, a profession or an art, who was a professional criminal.

13. I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.

14. I know a deputy sheriff in Montana who, approaching the cabin of a homesteader for whose arrest he had a warrant, was confronted by the homesteader with a rifle in his hands. The deputy sheriff drew his revolver and tried to shoot over the homesteader's head to frighten him. The range was long and a strong wind was blowing. The bullet knocked the rifle from the homesteader's hands. As time went by the deputy sheriff came to accept as the truth the reputation for expertness that this incident gave him, and he not only let his friends enter him in a shooting contest, but wagered everything he owned upon his skill. When the contest was held he missed the target completely with all six shots.

15. Once in Seattle the wife of a fugitive swindler offered to sell me a photograph of her husband for $15. I knew where I could get one free so I didn't buy it.

16. I was once engaged to discharge a woman's housekeeper.

17. The slang in use among criminals is for the most part a conscious, artificial growth, designed more to confuse outsiders than for any other purpose, but sometimes it is singularly expressive; for instance, two-time loser--one who has been convicted twice; and the older gone to read and write--found it advisable to go away for a while.

18. Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day.


19. In 1917, in Washington DC, I met a young lady who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.

20. Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.

21. The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.

22. I know a forger who left his wife because she learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison.

23. Second only to “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is “Raffles” in the affections of the daily press. The phrase "gentleman crook" is used on the slightest provocation. A composite portrait of the gentry upon whom the newspapers have bestowed this title would show a laudanum-drinker, with a large rhinestone-horseshow aglow in the soiled bosom of his shirt below a bow-tie, leering at his victim, and saying: "Now don't get scared, lady, I ain't gonna crack you on the bean. I ain't a rough-neck!"

24. The cleverest and most uniformly successful detective I have ever known is extremely myopic.

25. Going from the larger cities out into the remote, rural communities one finds a steadily decreasing percentage of crimes that have to do with money and a proportionate increase in the frequency of sex as a criminal motive.

26. While trying to peer into the upper story of a roadhouse in northern California one night--and the man I was looking for was in Seattle at the time--part of the porch crumbled under me and I fell, spraining an ankle. The proprietor of the roadhouse gave me water to bathe it in.

27. The chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem facing the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.

28. I know a man who once stole a Ferris wheel.

29. That the law breaker is invariably sooner or later apprehended is probably the least challenged of extant myths. And yet the files of every detective bureau bulge with the records of unsolved mysteries and uncaught criminals.


01 June 2022

Today in Mystery History: June 1



Today we have the 11th episode in our continuing celebration of the history of our field.  Enjoy.

June 1, 1879. Freeman Wills Crofts was born this day in Dublin, Ireland. He was a railroad engineer and an interest (or obsession) with railroad timetables showed up in many of his novels.  (Monty Python did a sketch I can't find on Youtube which is clearly a parody of  Crofts.)

June 1, 1923.  An important day indeed!  The issue of Black Mask with this date featured Carroll John Daly's story "Knights of the Open Palm." It is the first appearance by Race Williams, who is recognized as the first hardboiled private eye character.

June 1, 1929.  Thriller Magazine featured "The Judgement of the Joker," apparently the first short story to feature Lesley Charteris' immortal character Simon Templar, alias The Saint.


June 1, 1934.
Dime Detective featured "The Corpse Control" by John Lawrence.  It stars New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said the Blue stories were "all rendered in pulpster Lawrence's trademark first person, over-boiled prose style, full of gunflights and plot holes."

June 1, 1950. Michael McDowell was born in Enterprise, Alabama.  He co-wrote several mystery novels with Dennis Schuetz under the name Nathan Aldyne.  He also wrote a very weird series of detective books about Jack and Susan, who never age.  He is probably best known for a non-mystery screenplay: Beetlejuice.

June 1, 1959. Sax Rohmer died in London.  Born Arthur Henry Ward, he became famous for inventing the ultimate sinister Oriental, Dr. Fu Manchu.  For obvious reasons, his works are not held in high regard today.  Ironically (?) he died of the Asian Flu.

June 1, 1968.  Not really mystery, but maybe mystery adjacent?  On this date Patrick McGoohan's  fascinating, infuriating, spy-science-fiction-sui-generis-none-of-the-above TV series, The Prisoner, made its American debut on CBS.  It looks dated today, but it was a stunning piece of storytelling for its time.


June 1, 1969.
The front page of the New York Times Book Review  was a rhapsodic review of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novel The Underground Man, crafted by famous screenwriter William Goldman.  It was supposedly a deliberate attempt by editor John Leonard to promote his favorite mystery writer to bestseller-dom and recognition as a major mainstream writer.  The review achieved at least the first goal. 

June 1, 1991.  The publication date for The Summer of the Danes, Ellis Peters' eighteenth medieval mystery featuring Brother Cadfael.

June 1, 2021.  The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey's third novel of 1920s India, was published.  It was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery.


18 May 2022

Albuquotes



Two weeks ago
I wrote about my adventures at Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque last month.  Those of you who read my column regularly, if such there be, know that that will be followed with my favorite words of wisdom from the con.  As always, I have removed all context to make things more interesting.  Enjoy.

 "There's always someone in the audience who asks about writer's block.  Who volunteers to be that person?" - Reed Farrel Coleman

"Wasn't the world better when it was better for me? Spoiler alert: No." - Catriona McPherson

"I don't start writing chapter one, page one, until I have about ten thousand words of notes."  - Mick Herron

"I wanted to write a book that would be Speed with canoes." -William Kent Krueger


"What the reader wants is not always what the reader needs." -Glen Erik Hamilton

"I've been the eye candy for Torrey House Press." - Scott Graham

"I do the research after I've written the book." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm interested in sharing the things about human beings that make me glad to be a human being." -Thomas Perry

 "I'm a New York Times bestselling author because I buy a lot of my own books." - Reed Farrel Coleman

"I've had people say 'I could read a whole novel in that voice' and I think 'My God, I could never write whole novel in that voice.'" - Amy Drayer

"It looked more like a breakdown than a career move." - Catriona McPherson

"I am addicted to semi-colons. I can hardly write a text message without them." - Mick Herron

"I talk to myself constantly, and I didn't know that until my husband started working from home." - Jamie Mason

"I can always win a contest of who has the most useless dissertation." - Catriona McPherson

"If I could I would write an entire book with a group of people locked in a room being unpleasant." - Mick Herron 

"I may have a tendency to be a preacher, but I don't like being preached at." -Karen Keskinen

"Overreacting in advance saves time later." - Catriona McPherson

"When you're writing a short story you need to distill a character to a single sentence." - Raquel V. Reyes

"Patience is one of the hardest parts of writing." -Amy Drayer

"Someone once said 'You're plots are just this side of ludicrous' and I thought 'Challenge accepted." - Catriona McPherson


"Part of why you write is to find out what you think." -Thomas Perry

"Writing a series about a lot of characters is like there's already a ghost novel waiting." - Mick Herron

"No crying on the yacht." - Catriona McPherson

"I like to think that not all my characters are needy all the time" Laurie R. King

"I love the time when I've finished a book and no one else has seen it so I can live the lie that it's great." - Jess Lourey

"People say that in the past racism was acceptable.  It never was. It was just acceptable to some White people." - Catriona McPherson

"I spent my first Bouchercon behind a potted plant." -Tracy Clark

"I'm barring anyone from saying 'I'm just a reader.'" - Catriona McPherson

"If you want to write about another culture, fall in love with it a bit." - Tori Eldridge

"It's quite easy to work out who the mole is in Wind in the Willows." - Mick Herron

"If you want to visit 1920s Scotland, just go outside.  It's still there." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm basically an evil man." -Thomas Perry

"It's important for children to read widely, not just the good stuff.  Quantity is important at that age." - Mick Herron

"A word of advice: Don't Google nun's underwear." - Catriona McPherson

04 May 2022

The Tribe Gathers in Albuquerque


The last big event for the mystery community before Covid was Left Coast Crime 2020 in San Diego.  It was shut down on the first day.

The first big event in the after-we-hope times was, appropriately enough, also Left Coast Crime, this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was there.  It was lively and, I think, bigger than usual, because as one writer told me, it was the first gathering of the tribe in so long.

The first time I heard the mystery community referred to as a tribe was in 1993 when Donald E. Westlake was named a Grand Master by the MWA.  During his speech at the Edgars Banquet he said "You're my tribe!"  And so we are.

So let's talk about some of the highlights.  If you find yourself at an LCC in the future (like in Tucson, next spring) there are a few special events you don't want to miss.  One is the Author Speed Dating.  Twenty tables are set up and fans pick one and stay while forty authors make their way from table to table.  Each author has two minutes to explain why you should definitely buy their book and not all the other trash that's being promoted.  (Well, nobody says the last part.)  I have been on both sides and I can tell you it is much more fun being a listener at these things than a talker.  (Imagine giving the same elevator pitch 20 times in a row.)

Another treat is the New Author's breakfast where rookies  have a very brief moment to talk about their debut works.  I came away with a list of half a dozen books I wanted to check out.

The table hosts.

And then there's the Awards Banquet. I was lucky enough to host a table with the inimitable S.J. Rozan where we attempted to entertain seven guests while the food somewhat slowly appeared (more about that later).

The award winners, by the way, demonstrate one of the exciting trends we are seeing in our field: the increase in diversity of authors (and I hope readers). 

I moderated a panel on secondary characters, which gave me a chance to introduce Bonnar Spring, Greg Herren, Karen Odden, and (ahem) this year's MWA Grand Master Laurie R. King.  That was fun.

I was also on a panel on short stories.  As a major supporter of the brief mystery I was thrilled that there were three panels on that subject - and all were well-attended.

This weekend was my first opportunity to listen to Mick Herron who is flying high since Apple TV just premiered a series based on his Slow Horses spy novel series in April.  Literally true: When I heard that Gary Oldman had been cast as the main character I signed up for Apple TV, just like that.

Members of the Short Mystery
Fiction Society met for breakfast.

Herron was interviewed by editor Juliet Grames, who said that since Sir Mick Jagger had sung the theme song for Slow Horses they were obviously best buds now and needed a clever couple name.  Herron suggested The Micks, logically enough.    

The committee that ran LCC did a great job against, let's face it, an extreme degree of difficulty.  Covid kept some people away, made changes to seating arrangements, and probably accounted for some of the problems with the conference facility.  The hotel actually changed its name a week before the con, making finding it a bit exciting, and the staff seemed both undersized and undertrained.  Calling down for service felt a bit like, to steal a line from Don Marquis, dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo.  (When we went down to check out there was literally no one visible on the large ground floor. We strolled behind counters and into offices looking for people for about five minutes before someone showed up.)

But perhaps the biggest adventure came after the con when we filled our swag bags with tons of books we had picked up and walked them a few blocks to the Post Office.  We bought an official USPS carton, filled it with our treasures, sealed it with the official USPS tape and mailed it off.

It arrived a week later, and here you can see the contents.  What you cannot tell is that at least ten books had vanished from the box.  On the other hand, a bag of cheap Easter candy had been added.  I don't know whether that had belonged in some other damaged package or some postal clerk included it by way of apology.

Interestingly, some of the missing volumes were books I wrote and took to the con in hopes of selling (some did sell, I hasten to add).  Apparently nobody at the post office could guess that multiple copies of books written by Robert Lopresti probably belonged in the box that was addressed to Robert Lopresti.  

Hooray for insurance.  

But enough whining. It was great running into a lot of old friends and making new ones.  They had a lot of interesting stuff to say and next time I shall regale you with my favorite words of wisdom.  Till then, stay tribal.

20 April 2022

Common Senses



  A decade ago I wrote a story called "Shooting at Firemen," inspired by some events in my childhood.  Because one of the characters resembled my sister Diane Chamberlain I sent her a copy before submitting it for publication, to make sure she was okay with it.  She was, but besides being my sibling she is also a bestselling novelist, so naturally she had a few suggestions.

And the one that I remember best was this: I had written a story about a twelve-year-old boy set in 1967 and never mentioned music.  

Well, duh.  I put in some references to hits of the day and sold the story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (July/August 2015).

But since then I have always tried to remember the advice offered by some writer (not, I believe, my sis): Your story should connect to all five senses.

Sure, you will describe what your characters are seeing.  But have they heard any sounds besides dialog?  Music, car noise, bird calls?  What do they taste or smell?  When they sit down, how does the fabric of that chair feel?

A few months ago I set a story in the Peloponnese and so I found myself trying to remember what the Lousios Valley smelled like.  (In brief: woodsy.)





  






Of course, you can put in too much detail about this (as you can with any other element) of the story, but a little of it can make things feel more real to the reader.

And let's not stop with five senses, shall we?

 No, I am not referring to the sixth sense, unless we are about to enter a Bruce Willis movie  (And don't get me started on non-paranormal fiction in which a person miraculously and accurately senses that they are being watched.)

But here are some other senses I found listed on various websites:

Balance.

Hunger.

Movement.

Pain. 

Pressure.

Proprioception.  (Where your body parts are in relation to other body parts.  It is how you can touch type.  It is also what cops are testing when they ask a possibly intoxicated person  to touch their nose.)

Thermoception.  (Heat and cold.)  

Thirst.

Time.

You probably include many of these in your fiction without giving them a second thought.  But when you are trying to add depth to a story, you might run down this list and learn more about what your characters are feeling.


06 April 2022

Finding Your Story A Forever Home


 I have a new story out this month and I thought would try something different: taking you along the path that led to its eventually finding a publication.  The path turned out to be quite different than I thought it was when I began writing this piece.

Back in 2017 I got an idea for a story.  Here is the log line:

The Witness Protection Program sends a minor criminal to Indiana and orders him to keep quiet, make no waves, because mobsters want him dead.  But someone is stalking his beautiful neighbor....

Truly, our protagonist has a dilemma on his hands.

When I finish a new mystery story my first target is usually the Dell Magazines: Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock.  I generally try EQMM first even though I have much better luck with AHMM (3 sales versus almost 40) because Hitchcock takes about four times as long to make a decision as Queen.  (Of course, if a character has appeared in AHMM before I send it there first.)

But as it happens, I did not go the Dell route this time.  By 2019 I had the story ready to send (I rewrite a lot). But then a new contest was announced: the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction.  Entries were supposed to be set in Bill's home state of Texas so I shifted my action from Indiana to the Lone Star State and  sent it in. 

I didn't win.

Fair enough.  Bouchercon was also producing an anthology so I submitted my story to that.

Strike two.

Logically I should have now sent the story to EQMM, but I had a memory lapse and thought I had already gone the Dell route  before switching it to Texas.  So, I shifted my poor protagonist back to Indiana (he must have been tired of packing and unpacking) and shipped it to a different magazine.

Which rejected it.

Again, if I had checked my records, which I do keep scrupulously, I would have noticed that I  hadn't sent the stories to the Dell twins, but I didn't.  The story went into the file of the Great Unpublished, where it sat until last year.

That's when I saw that Jack Calverley was looking for stories for an anthology.  I have worked with Jack before: in the early days of podcasting he ran an outfit called Crime City Central.  They did an audio version of one of my stories, which you can hear here.  (Hear hear!)

Jack was working on an anthology to be titled Death of a Bad Neighbour: Revenge is Criminal.

Hmm.  There in my files was a story about neighbors (or neighbours... Jack is British.)  I didn't think it was a perfect fit (I assume Jack was mostly getting stories about X being mad at Y who lived next door and so X planned to do wicked deeds against Y) but I have found over the years that sometimes a tale with a tangential connection to an anthology theme will sell at least partially because it is different than the other stories received.

But notice the subtitle.  Revenge is implied in my story but I don't think the word actually appeared in it.  That was an easy fix; I made the revenge theme explicit, and I sent it in.

And lo and behold, "Lambs and Wolves" finally found a happy home.  It is the lead-off story in the book, out this week. 

Unanswerable question: If I had remembered to send the story to EQMM or AHMM might it have been purchased there?  We will never know.  But I am delighted that it landed in a book with stories by some of my favorite writers.  And oh, a really great cover too.  

Whether my fictional story has a happy ending you will need to read to find out, but this nonfiction one worked out great. 

16 March 2022

Insert Block Pun Here



  I am delighted to have a story in Issue #11 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and I would like to say a few words about the author who inspired it.  You might even say my tale is a homage to him.  "Rip-off" is such a judgmental word.

Lawrence Block is one of our most versatile crime writers.  He has won an obscene number of Edgar Awards for both novels and short stories (plus the Grand Master Award).  He produces gritty P.I novels about recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, and frothy comic capers about burglar-bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr, not to mention gonzo tales of foreign intrigue starring Evan Tanner, who literally can't sleep and fills the endless hours working for lost causes.

And then there's Keller.

John Paul Keller is an assassin with, well, definitely not a heart of gold, but let's call it a rich inner life.  In his first appearance, the Edgar-winning short story "Answers to Soldier," the native New Yorker visits a small town in pursuit of a target and falls in love with the place.  In other tales he adopts a dog, hires a therapist, and pursues multiple other hobbies.  And there is always stamp collecting, the expense of which keeps him hard at the deadly grindstone.

I think of him as the antithesis of Parker, the burglar invented by Richard Stark (actually Block's friend Donald Westlake), who seems to have no life outside of his profession at all, not even a first name. Yes, he has a girlfriend, but other than that he seems to spend all his time smoking and gazing out into the dark night.  Even Westlake admitted to wondering what he did with all the money he stole.  Oh, and he probably kills more people in the average book than Keller.


But let's get back to our hit man.  In the novel Hit and Run Keller finds himself living incognito in New Orleans, claiming to be from Wichita.  "Sooner or later, he thought, someone familiar with the place would ask him a question about life in Wichita, and by then he hoped he'd know something about the city beyond the fact that it was someplace in Kansas."

When I read that my writerly instincts lit up.  What would happen if someone responded to that introduction by saying: "I grew up in Wichita!  Which neighborhood are you from?"

Well, Keller being Keller we know what would happen.  The happy Kansan would suffer an immediate and tragic accident.

But not every shady character is as fatal as this guy.  

In my story Larry (not Block) goes to a dinner party  and meets Matt, new to the neighborhood.  Matt explains that he is from Topeka.

“I love Topeka," Larry replies.  "Spent most of a year there a while back. Met my wife there.”

Matt immediately changes the subject.  Hmm...  Later Larry tells his wife: "I don’t think he knew Topeka from Tacoma.”

And Larry becomes obsessed with learning Matt's secret, if indeed he has one.  But secrets, of course, can be dangerous...  

You may wonder: why Topeka instead of Wichita?  Because "The Man From Topeka" scans better as a title, of course.

I like to think my story has a Block-ian feel to it.  But that's for you to decide.

And finally in honor of Gary Brooker, the voice and composer of Procol Harum, who died last month:




            

16 February 2022

The Beat Goes On


 Mea culpa... I forgot to mention in this article that James Lincoln Warren also critiqued the current novella for me, for which I was very grateful...


Back in 2011 my friend James Lincoln Warren asked me to critique a piece he was submitting for the Black Orchid Novella Award competition.  I did and naturally "Inner Fire" won.  (Oh, all right.  It would have won even without my two cents worth.)

But that got me thinking.  Maybe I could come up with a BONA-worthy entry of my own.  The contest is co-sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the Wolfe Pack, which is the Rex Stout fan club.  It celebrates the Novella form in which Stout wrote more than thirty adventures of Nero Wolfe.

While the contest does not require it, most of the winners have followed the classic Stout formula of having a younger narrator who assists an older detective.  Warren's did.

Design by James Lincoln Warren
So what I came up with was this: Thomas Gray, fresh out of business school in Iowa in 1958, moves to Greenwich Village to take over the coffeehouse founded by his late uncle.  There he meets Delgardo, he of the ever-shifting first name, a beat poet who supplements his shaky literary income by solving crimes.  The resulting story "The Red Envelope," won the BONA in 2012.

It was always my plan to write a sequel, and hopefully a series.  I set two rules for myself: 1) each title would be one word away from a Stout title (for example, he wrote The Red Box), and 2) each story would move ahead one month through time.

The first novella took place in October so I used my librarian superpowers to see if anything interesting happened in New York in November, 1958.  And I hit the jackpot: that was the moment when the great quiz show scandal hit the fan.

So I knew that my story would have Delgardo trying to help a friend who had been a big winner on a game show and  was now afraid of getting caught up in the scandal.

Next I needed a name for the game show, which could also serve as my story's title.  I realized Stout's penultimate novel gave me the perfect one-off name.  And so "Please Pass the Loot" was born.  You will find it in the March/April issue of AHMM.

As usual R.T. Lawton critiqued it for me and so did James  but I also owe a thanks to Steve Steinbock, mystery writer and critic.  I needed a particular kind of clue for the story and I knew Steve would be able to provide it.  He hasn't read it it and I hope he likes it when he does.

I hope you do too.

One added note: I haven't seen the issue yet but if I am reading the AHMM webpage correctly my piece is the last one in the magazine.  This gives me a warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling.  Back in the late  1960s when I started reading AHMM the last story was always the one and only novella.  Makes me feel a connection to Fletcher Flora, Clark Howard, Bill Pronzini, Pauline C. Smith, George C. Chesbro,  and so many other greats...


02 February 2022

All the Best to You


Personal request: If you cite this list (and I would be happy if you do) please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti’s ‘Best of the Year’ list at SleuthSayers,” not as the SleuthSayers' 'Best of the Year' list.  It's just me bloviating here, not the whole gang.  Thanks.

It is time for the thirteenth annual list of the year's best mystery stories as determined by yours truly.  It goes without saying that the verdicts are subjective, personal, and entirely correct. 

Sixteen stories made the list, one fewer than last year.  Ten stories were by men, six by women.  The big winner was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine with five stories.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine had four.  Two more came from the Mystery Writers of America anthology.

Four of the stories were by my fellow SleuthSayers, a talented bunch.  With no further ado, here is the hit parade:

Allyn, Doug. "Hit and Run," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021.

This is Allyn's third appearance in my best-of list.

Imagine you are stuck in traffic on your way to an important, even life-and-death meeting. Now imagine you get rear-ended by a woman who is not paying attention. But the frosting on the cake is that the accident makes your trunk fly open, revealing the bag of cocaine you are bringing to the meeting.  Many twists and turns...


Aymar, E.A. "The Search for Eric Garcia,"  in Midnight Hour, a Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction From 20 Authors of Color, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, Crooked Lane Books, 2021

The protagonist's life is going down the tubes.  His daughter died in an accident that he feels responsible for, although the authorities disagreed.  His wife is living with Eric Garcia, who owns the store where our hero works.  Eric is everything he is not: a confident, successful man.  And our protagonist feels that the world isn't big enough to hold both of them. This is a very clever story, one where the telling is  essential to the plot. 


Benn, James R., "Glass,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2021.

A superconducting super-collider goes boom and a piece of 21st-century technology is blasted back through time to 1965 where it is discovered by hapless recently-fired salesman Guy Tupper.  Guy brings it to his cousin Jerry who runs a repair shop.  Together they figure out just enough to get the device working, and then...  One plot twist made me gasp out loud. 

 

 Cummins, Robert.  "The Phone Message," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.  

This is the author's first story.  The beginning may remind you of Columbo.  In the first scene Carole Donaldson calmly kills her husband.  Later, and just as calmly, she tells the police officer leading the investigation that she had tons of motive.  But she also seems to have an unbreakable alibi...

Fisher, Eve.  "The Sweet Life,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

Eve Fisher is, of course, my fellow SleuthSayer.

Carrie is a teenager who has had a rotten life.  She considers her time with Ethan to have been a highlight because, while he made her sell drugs, he didn't force her into prostitution. 

When that arrangement collapses she lucks into a gig with an agency that cleans houses.  She likes the work, even though some of the customers are a little weird.  But then someone from her previous life threatens to ruin everything.


Goffman, Barb, "A Family Matter," Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021. 

Barb is another fellow SleuthSayer.

It is 1962 and Doris lives in a very nice suburb called The Glen.  Most of her friends are married to men who work for the big pharmaceutical corporation in town.  The neighborhood has standards.  

And the new neighbors do not meet them.   They raise chickens and hang laundry in their yard.  Doris is determined that these offensive violations of community norms will not be permitted.  But when she realizes a very different norm is being broken she has to determine what really matters in the neighborhood.

Harrington, Karen. "Boo Radley College Prep," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2021. 

Tony is fifteen years old, short on luck and, he will tell you, short on brains.  A hurricane has forced him and his mother to move in with the brother of his deceased father, and it isn't a happy or healthy home. 

Right down the block, however, is what his uncle calls "the Boo Radley house," a spooky-looking joint whose owner never appears in public.  Curiosity - and the hopes of earning chore money - causes Tony to visit.  He meets a grouchy old man with a lot of brains and good reasons to hide.  Can these desperate souls help each other?

Haynes, Dana. "The Waiting Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

This is my first encounter with Fiero and Finnigan who run  St. Nicholas  Salvage & Wrecking, which is actually a bounty hunter firm that chases international bad guys.  Finnigan has been kidnapped by very nasty Russians who want Fiero to revert to her old occupation of assassin. A cunning plan, but neither of the partners intend to play by the rules. I was reminded of that classic TV show The Avengers.


Helms, Richard, "Capes and Masks," Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2021.

This is Helms's second appearance in my annual best-of-list.  

"You know the story. Stolen by aliens who crashed my fourth birthday party.  Returned when I was seventeen, but I was somehow... different than when I left.  Well, duh,  I was thirteen years older, had all this weird hair growing where it never had, and my voice sounded like I was shaving a cat with a cheese greater."

If that sounds a bit... hardboiled... for a superhero story it is no accident.  He is Captain Courageous but his cover identity is Eddie Shane, private eye.  He mostly deals with divorce work but when a caped dude named Sunburst is found mysteriously dead, this is no job for a superhero.  We need a gumshoe to save the day.  

Jacobs, Tilia Klebenov , "Perfect Strangers,", in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Gershom is finishing his second prison term for armed robbery when his cellmate Dougal points out the new gold mine: marijuana dispensaries.  Cash-rich and security-poor, they are a robber's dream.  So when he gets out Gershom begins to plan an elaborate robbery, because he does not intend to go down a third time:  "If this went sideways, they'd lock me up and melt down the warden." 


Lansdale, Joe R. "The Skull Collector," in Collectibles, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2021.

He was a tough old guy, Ruby said.  Big, could crack walnuts with harsh language, chase a squirrel up a tree with bad breath. She had to use an axe handle to sort the guy out a little.  It wasn't too bad.  He was able to leave on his own, though not without a certain amount of pain and difficulty...  

That tells you a lot about Ruby, sure, but we also find out a lot about the narrator, especially that "It wasn't too bad." What does she consider a real problem?  How about having to steal a skull from a cemetery?


Light, Larry. "The Trouble with Rebecca,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2021.

Max is a "tech geek," working for a company that does hush-hush security stuff.  Because he hates the social side of work he invents Rebecca, a non-existent wife.  This imaginary person is his excuse to avoid after-work events and the like.  

Works great until he falls in love with a co-worker.  How do you rid yourself of a wife who does not actually exist? 


Thielman, Mark. "Catch and Release," in The Fish That Got Away, edited by Linda M. Rodriquez, Wildside Press, 2021.

This is the  third appearance in this column by my fellow SleuthSayer.

I let a murderer go today. That's how the tale begins. You might feel that the prosecutor is being a little hard on himself, because he did try his best to get Thomas Edmonds convicted.  (Didn't he?)

He walks you through the trial, through every maddening moment that caused his case to slip away.  And through it all Edmonds sits there, as cool as a bystander at a church picnic.  No wonder the narrator is so upset.  But then unexpected things happen...


Walker, Joseph S.  "Crown Jewel," in Moonlight and Misadventure, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2021. 

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

Keenan Beech is a compulsive collector of vinyl, and his golden fleece is The Beatles, better known as the White Album.  The first few million copies have a number stamped on the cover and collectors like Keenan keep buying, buying, buying them, trying to get closer to the elusive lower numbers. 

But his big problem is his identical twin Xavier.  Keenan is a hard working guy; Xavier is an unsuccessful scoundrel.  And when a record store offers Keenan a rare copy of the White Album for a mere five grand Xavier somehow gets his hands on it first by, duh, pretending to be Keenan.


Witt, Amanda, "Relative Stranger,"  in When A Stranger Comes To Town, edited by Michael Koryta, Hanover Square Press, 2021.

Glory Crockett lives on a farm and one day a stranger knocks on the door.  What's disturbing is that he resembles her husband, Owen.  Turns out his name is also Owen Crockett.  He's the bad-news cousin who has spent most of his life in prison, "a one-man crime spree."  Now here he is, with a glib charm that rings completely false.  And somewhere outside  is Glory's husband and four young sons...

Zelvin, Elizabeth.  "Who Stole the Afikomen?" in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021.

My fellow SleuthSayer has written a hilarious story.  Andy is a Catholic and he is about to meet his new fiance's extended family at their Passover dinner - his first experience at a seder.

Uncle Manny kept saying, "Focus, people, focus.  We've got a goal here."
"To get the Jews out of Egypt?" I whispered.
"To get past the rabbis to the gefilte fish," Sharon whispered back.
"Is that the Promised Land?"
"The pot roast is the Promised Land."