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

21 July 2021

Weird Doings in the Manor House



I just read (well, technically listened to an audiobook version) of a novel that might quite a lot of noise when it came out in 2018.  It doesn't appear to have been mentioned at SleuthSayers and it's worth a bit of chat.

The book is Stuart Turton's The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  (The 1/2 was added to the title in the U.S. and I think it's an improvement.)  I can describe it so it sounds like a typical Golden Age manor house mystery, but it is miles from that.

The story takes place  between the wars at Blackheath, a decrepid country estate.  There is a party going on, heaps of guilty secrets, and a threat that the daughter of the family, Evelyn Hardcastle, is about to be murdered.  Our hero hopes to prevent the killing, or, at least to solve it.

Sounds like pretty standard stuff, but don't be fooled.

On the first page our hero wakes up in the forest screaming a woman's name (not Evelyn's).  He has no idea who he is, where he is, or what is going on.  He eventually finds his way to the manor house and attempts to piece things together.  But this is far from an ordinary case of amnesia.

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Every morning Bill Murray wakes up on February 2nd.  Now imagine that every time that happens Bill is in the body of a different cast member.

That is our hero's fate.  Every time he falls asleep (or is knocked unconscious , or even killed!) he wakes up in the body of a different "host." But his mission remains the same: discover who will murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night.  Only then can he leave Blackheath.  Complicating things: he has two rivals, also trying to solve the mystery.  And only one of them can escape the trap...

If that sounds complicated, trust me, you don't know the half of it.  I would give a shiny new dime for a glimpse of the charts Turton must have used to keep track of what all the various characters are doing when and where.

But the cleverest part, as far as I am concerned, is this: Each of the host bodies our hero occupies has a personality of its own, and as each new event unfolds he struggles to determine if the reaction he is feeling is his (whoever he really is) or that of his host.

Clearly there are non-natural events going on here (though it turns out to not be as woo-woo as you might expect).  But there is also a genuine mystery with a non-mystical solution to be puzzled through.

Preparing to write this piece I discovered that Netflix plans to make a TV version.  I wish them luck. I don't know how they can make it all explicable to a casual viewer.

And writing about this book reminded me of another manor house mystery I read years ago: Farthing by Jo Walton (2013).  This book takes place in 1949 - admittedly a little late for a Golden Age style novel - but it has the classic elements: a manor house, a family and guests stuffed with secrets, and a killing  of a prominent figure.


So why does Walton remind me of Turton?  Well, the murder victim is the diplomat who, in 1941,  brokered the peace treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, allowing Hitler to control everything on his side of the English Channel.  In other words, this book is alternative history.

Your first reaction may be the same as mine: Hitler might have signed such a treaty but there is no way he would have honored it for eight years.  But Walton can explain that: Germany is still fighting the Soviet Union and has no appetite for a second front.

Like the best alternative history, Walton's book tries to think through the consequences and repercussions.  For example: I was surprised by who winds up being U.S. president, but it makes sense.

There are two more books in the series (ironically titled the Small Change trilogy) and I look forward to reading them.

Until next time, stay out of creepy old houses.

 

07 July 2021

Hiatus



 I didn't do much writing during May.  I wasn't having a health problem or writer's block.  I just had another project that took up the same time and mental energy.  (I was preparing a speech about my book When Women Didn't Count for the Eastern Tennessee chapter of Sisters in Crime and another about Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe for the Academy for Lifelong Learning.  There; you forced it out of me.)

But this break in the routine had interesting effects.  For one thing I came up with three story ideas. Two are for series I am writing and the third is for an anthology. Whether any of them will be finished, much less published, is yet to be determined, but I have finished a first draft of one and am halfway through a second.  Number three is, so far, just a topic and a motive for murder.  

The finished first draft is the story I am aiming at an anthology.  Therein lies a problem.  You see, the preferred length for the anthology is 3,000 to 5,000 words and my story is running to 7,700.  Oops.  I figure I can cut out every third word and call it experimental fiction, or leave off the ending and claim it's mainstream literature. 

Better yet, I think I will beat it into a more-or-less finished shape and then start trying to pare it down.  But I'll keep that full-length finished piece and send it elsewhere if the anthology rejects it.

Another interesting thing that happened in May: I sold two stories.  One publisher required me to send them an invoice for my services.  That has never happened to me for a short story before.  The other publisher just sent the same generic note to all his accepted authors that said, basically, "I want the story.  Usual rights. Payment is X.  Let me know if that's okay."

Two very different ends of the formality continuum.  And the funny part is: they were both English publishers.  

Anyway, that's how I spent May and June.  How about you?

Oh, one more thing: At 7 PM tonight, Pacific time, the Mystery Writers of American - Northwest chapter has a free event: authors reading some of their works.  I'm on the list.  Join us, won't you?

30 June 2021

Lending Library


 

 Last summer we had a minor household disaster.  The water heater burst and half of our possessions spent several months in a storage unit in our driveway while flooring was removed, new doors installed, etc.  Everything is fine now, better than ever.

But I had an interesting experience when I was reorganizing the fifty or so shelves of books that reside on our lower floor.  Specifically I noticed a certain category of books scattered throughout.

These are the books we have more than one copy of.  There are a few books that I buy an extra copy of whenever I spot it in a used book store.  Why?  So I can give them away, and not worry about getting them back.

As a dedicated reader and a recovering librarian I have a strong desire to proselytize, to tell people "You just HAVE to read this book!"  Not surprisingly they tend to be books I reread every few years.  So let's talk about a few of them, in chronological order.


Don Marquis.  archy and mehitabel.  (
1930)  Marquis wrote a newspaper column which, by God, had to be filled with something every day.  And so one morning he claimed to have found a cockroach jumping up and down on his typewriter keys.  The literary insect was archy (he couldn't reach the capital letters), a free verse poet who had been reincarnated as a bug.  mehitabel was his friend, an alley cat who claimed to have been Cleopatra in another life.  "you want to know / whether  i believe in ghosts / of course i do not believe in them / if you had known / as many of them as i have / you would not / believe in them either"

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle For Lebowitz.  (1959) One of the great post-apocalyptic novels, and a very Catholic one.  It concerns the bookleggers, an order of monks who salvaged the few remaining books from the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific riots that followed nuclear war.  Canticle consists of three novellas spread over a thousand years  - and one character appears in all three. 


H. Allen Smith. The Great Chili Confrontation.
(1969)  One of the funniest nonfiction books I have ever read.  Smith wrote an article about chili which so offended some Texans that they challenged him to a contest.  And so the Terlingua Chili Cook-off came into existence - and Smith fell in love with the Lone Start State.  Here is a Texan discussing his wife's views on religion: "She believes things a mud turtle would blush to believe."

Donald E. Westlake.  The Hot Rock. (1970)  One of the funniest crime novels ever, it concerns a gang of burglars who have to steal the same emerald over and over.  "I've heard of habitual criminals, but never the habitual crime."  Westlake intended it to be a standalone novel but John Dortmunder was such a great character, the smart but luckless sad sack, that he appeared in a dozen books.


Russell Hoban.  Riddley Walker.
  (1980) Another post-apocalyptic novel.  Thousands of years after a nuclear war progress is just beginning to show its head.  And that ain't necessarily a good thing.  What makes this book unique is the language it uses, a simplified English that is just starting to be written down again.  Take for instance one phrase that appears in the book several times: "the hart of the wud." Depending on context this could mean a deer in the forest, a kiln (hearth of the wood), charcoal (heart of the wood), or the human spirit (heart of the would) - or all of them at once.  It will blow your mind, just as it destroyed Hoban's ability to spell.

Thomas Perry. Island.  (1987) Harry and Emma are conmen who steal a ton of money from a very bad guy and flee to the Caribbean.  Their problem is how to invest their loot.  So they take an unclaimed island, barely high enough out of the water to stand on, and pile junk on it until it's big enough to be a country.  The plan is make a fortune off loose banking regulations and no-extradition laws.  But it turns out you have to think about other things, like: What should be illegal?  Do you accept refugees?  Turns out running a country is complicated.  Who knew?


Terry Pratchett.  Small Gods.
(1992) A British reviewer said Sir Terry is the greatest satirist in English since Chaucer.  His Discworld books consist of at least seven separate (and interconnecting) subseries. I urge people to start with Small Gods because it is one of the best and because it is a standalone.  Brutha is a very minor novice in the Omnian religion so he never expects to meet the great god Om - especially in the form of a tortoise.  Om is having a bad millenium...  “The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish.”

Harry Turtledove.  Guns of the South.  (1992) The greatest alternative history novel I know.  Some Afrikaners build a time machine and decide to nip Black independence in the bud by selling machine guns to the Confederacy.  A brilliant piece of fiction and a meditation on American history.

So, what are the books you try to talk people into reading?

16 June 2021

Keeping You in Suspense


 

I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably.  There is an overlap, but they are not identical.

I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense.  If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised.  But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.

Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation."  While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.  

As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense.  But does all suspense fiction involve crime? 

A few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories that do not involve crime.  It led to some interesting discussions.  First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short stories: novels, plays, and even a poem.  ("Casey at the Bat" certainly is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect Worldcat mentions.) 

But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments.  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it  crime fiction?  Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.


Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?

Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's  "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first.  But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point.  By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.*  However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.

The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense.  See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."  


Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson.  His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake.  An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.

What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes.  Please add your own suggestions.

Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."

Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."

London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."

Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."

Saki - "The Open Window."

By the way, there was a great radio show called Suspense and Bob and Ray used to mock it with... Anxiety!

* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."


02 June 2021

A Legend on Klickitat Street


It started in Yakima in the 1940s.  A small boy complained to a librarian that there weren't any books about kids like him.  And, of course, he was right.  Most children's books were European fairy tales or stories of upper class English children.

So the librarian decided to write a story about a boy growing up in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

By the time that librarian, Beverly Cleary, died in March at the age of 104 her books had sold 90 million copies.  Portland has honored her by naming a school and a library children's room after her, and by placing statues of some of her characters in a park near where they (supposedly) lived.


Not bad, huh?

Her first book was Henry Huggins, about a little boy who lived on Klickitat Street.  But she truly found her muse when she started writing about Ramona Quimby, the younger sister of Henry's friend Beezus (Ramona's pronunciation of Beatrice.)

It's hard to explain what makes Ramona so special because she was, well, so ordinary.  No super-powers, no daring adventures.  Just a bright kid trying to cope with everyday dilemmas and injustices.  Did her teacher think she was a nuisance?  Did another kid get credit for for her work?  And (more seriously) will her father find a new job?  Read Ramona the Pest and see how a master can turn the minutiae of a kid's life into literature. 


Cleary won the Newberry Award for Dear Mr. Henshaw, which I highly recommend.  If you wanted to get all high-brow you could say it's a book about writing therapy.  It was inspired by two kids who each  asked Cleary to create a novel about divorce.  In the book sixth-grader Leigh Botts writes a letter to his favorite author full of very standard kid-to-writer questions and Mr. Henshaw responds with a snarky list of questions of his own.  That leads Leigh to begin a diary and he uses it as a way of coping with his family trauma while, at the same time, learning to write.  

Moira MacDonald, who writes for the Seattle Times, decided to read (or re-read) Cleary's books after her death and came up with an interesting insight.  Cleary's young adult novels, she said, seem hopelessly old-fashioned and dated, but her children's books are fresh as springtime.  


Which may mean that there's something universal about being a kid (in spite of what that blessed little boy in Yakima said).     

And that reminds me.  I have been reading the Mystery Writers of America's excellent new manual How To Write A Mystery (full disclosure: I have one page in it), and Chris Grabenstein has an essay about writing for children.  He says: "[D]on't put a chalkboard in your classroom scene.  Nobody uses chalkboards anymore.  They are dusty relics.  Do try to remember how it felt to be in front of a class, unable to solve a math problem because, oops, you didn't do your homework.  The feeling is the same."

Universal.



05 May 2021

Today in Mystery History: May 5


This is the eighth in my occasional series about the history of our beloved field.  I haven't run out of days yet. 

May 5, 1902.  Bret Harte died on this day.  He  was best known for his short stories about the California gold rush but in our field he is remembered for "The Stolen Cigar-Case."  No less an authority than Ellery Queen called this story "probably the best parody of Sherlock Holmes ever written." In the field of true crime, he wrote about the Wiyot Massacre, in which more than 100 Indians were slaughtered by White settlers.  Death threats followed and he had to leave the region.

May 5, 1950. This is the birthday of Susan Grafton's great character, P.I. Kinsey Milhone.  I'll bet you didn't send her a card.

May 5, 1961.  Today saw the publication of Ross Macdonald's ninth Lew Archer novel, The Wycherly Woman.

May 5, 1973.  Peter Falk was the cover boy at TV Guide today, playing a certain L.A. police lieutenant. 

May 5, 1980. The issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with this date included Edward D. Hoch's very clever "The Most Dangerous Man Alive," which was an Edgar nominee.  I still remember it.

May 5, 1992.  Kinsey Milhone celebrated her birthday with the publication of I is for Innocent.  Exactly a year later came J is for Judgment.

May 5, 2014.  Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine blog, posted "Shanks Holds The Line," which I offered to them for free as a sort of public service announcement.

May 5, 2015. Craig Faustus Buck's novel Go Down Hard was published on this day.  It's about an ex-cop trying to solve the decades old murder of a rock singer.

21 April 2021

The Devil You Don't Know


So you want to write a short story, but you can't think of an idea.  Is that what's troubling you today, Bunkie? 

I have a suggestion.  Specifically, here's a writing exercise that might help you out.

I assume you read a lot of short stories.  (If you aren't reading what you want to write you are doing it wrong.)

So, the next time you are really enjoying a story, stop reading halfway through.

Painful?  You need to know what happens!  How does it end?

Good question.  So sit with it a while.  What happens next?  Is there a twist?  Does the protagonist get what she wants?  Work it out in your head.  Maybe write a paragraph or two.

Once you have decided how the plot is going to turn out, go ahead and finish reading the story.  Did you guess the ending?  If so, bravo to you for your discernment.

But if you guessed wrong - congratulations!  Now you have a story idea.

I'm not suggesting you should copy the first half of the original.  There's a name for that and it rhymes with "majorism."

But you can build on the original idea and take it in a new direction.


For example: Mensje van Keulen wrote a story called "Devil's Island," which appeared in Amsterdam Noir.  The narrator's friend can't get over his break-up with a girlfriend.  One evening in a nightclub he says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me.  And then a stranger arrives, asking for a light for his cigarette...

It's a fine story and made my best of the year  list.  But the key thing is that I thought I knew how it would end.   Turned out I was wrong.

But just because van Keulen didn't use the ending I dreamed up didn't mean it was not worth using.  So I wrote a story about an actor, sitting in a nightclub and complaining that an upcoming movie has a part that would be perfect for him, but he can't even get a try out.  "I'd sell my soul for a chance," he declares.

And up pops a helpful stranger.  "Call me Nick…"

My story, "The Fourth Circle," is in the current, May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Here's another example, which I wrote about here last year. Janice Law wrote a story called "The General," about a deposed dictator who fears he is losing the love of his son. 

I guessed wrong as to where Janice was leading and that gave me the idea for "Worse Than Death," about a dictator very much in power, whose son is kidnapped.  

You get the idea.  Will the exercise work for you?  Beats me.  If you try it, let me know.


07 April 2021

Get Under the Kanopy


 What I am about to tell you will probably delight a few people and annoy a lot more.  That is the risk you take in the hard-hitting world of bloggery.

I recently discovered that I have free access to Kanopy, a web-service that bills itself as "Thoughtful Entertainment."  I had known about it from my days working at the university, but I didn't realize that my public library had purchased access to it.

Hence the delight/annoyance I mentioned in the first sentence.  Some of you have access to a library that offers Kanopy.  Probably more of you don't. Sorry about that.  You can find out by clicking here.  If your library doesn't offer it you can try emailing them the suggestion.  They probably won't fine you for it. 

So what does Kanopy offer?  Movies and documentaries that are not found in the usual places.  And you can watch ten a month for free.  Here are a few crime related ones I found there.