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

03 July 2024

Long Time Reviewing Shorts

Recently a discussion on the email list of the Short Mystery Fiction Society  (which you can all join for free, by the way)   led me to talking about my habit of reviewing short stories.  Some members wanted to know more and it struck me that it might be useful to go into detail here, rather than repeating myself to individuals.  So this may get a little deep into the weeds here.

In 2009 I decided to make notes on the best short mystery stories I read and I produced a list at the end of the year that ran in Criminal Brief.    I have kept that up ever since, moving it to SleuthSayers  when we started up.

In 2011 I added a wrinkle.  I started the Little Big Crimes blog where I reviewed the best short mystery story I read each week.  And I've been doing that ever since.

(By the way, I run Litle Big Crimes with Blogger, the same system that we use for SleuthSayers.  It is quirky - and that's being kind - but it has held up all these years - and it's free!)

Why do I review a story every week? Well, a bunch of reasons:

1. I enjoy reading a lot of short stories.  The reviewing process makes me feel like I am accomplishing something by reading them.

2. Since I like to read (and write and try to sell) short stories it is in my interest to encourage people to read them.

3. Finding something to write about every week forces me to think more deeply about the stories which increases my enjoyment and is good for my writing.

Why do I review the best story? I have no desire to write negative reviews of anything.  And as for producing a blistering attack on a short story - well, talk about breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

How do I decide which is the best story? That's easy.  It's the one i like the most.  If, as happens on rare occasions, I am torn between two stories, I choose the one I can think of the most interesting things to write about.

What do I get out of it besides the benefits mentioned above? One thing I don't get is any kind of payment.  It may sound odd to even mention that but I felt I had to say so in my blog a few years ago when there was a scandal about reviewers taking money.  Not that anyone ever offered!

On the other hand, some publishers (and editors and authors) have given me copies of books or magazines to review and I am grateful for that.  Last year I purchased 16 anthologies (plus magazines) so freebies are a nice change.

And that reminds me: since I believe in full disclosure I always mention at the beginning of a review if there is any factor that might have affected my choice, such as receiving a free copy, or the author being a friend of mine.  

That brings up another benefit: I have made friends with a lot of writers who thanked me for selecting them. (They hsve to find that out without help from me, by the way. Notifying them would feel like I was saying "Now what are you going to do for me?")

Another plus, of course, is that some readers find out about me because of my reviews.  This has led to my worldwide fame.  Okay, maybe not. But I do average about 1700 readers a week, and that ain't nothing.

Do I have any regrets about reviewing?  One, I don't read as many novels as I would like or even old short stories.  It's hard to keep up with even most of the mysteries.  I take off my hat to Michele Slung, who reads many more each year for Otto Penzler's best-of collections.

And another regret: I wish more women and people of color showed up in my best-of lists.  Next year I hope to keep track of how many I read of various groups and figure out how the percentages are working out.

The thing is, I really do pick the story I like best each week, and I can't change my preferences by an act of will.  One reason I have written this piece is in the hope that more people will be encouraged to write their own short story reviews.  Who knows? They may even disagree with me.  That would be very welcome!

19 June 2024

Mark Hochberg

Courtesy of Juniata College

I read recently that Dr. Mark Hochberg passed away in December. He was one of my favorite professors when I studied at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He taught English there for an incredible forty-six years, retiring in 2017.

He was smart, dedicated, and funny. According to his obit one of the most popular courses he taught was Dirty Books, but that was not on offer while I was a student there. I took several classes from him, and even had dinner on occasion with him and his wonderful wife, Sue.

You probably won't be surprised that the course that made the biggest impression on me was The Mystery Story. I've been wracking my brains to remember which novels we read for the course. Unfortunately I'm only sure of a few:

Dorothy L. Sayers. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Introducing us to Lord Peter Wimsey and the Golden Age mystery. I remember Mark delighting in a solicitor with the Dickensian name of Mr. Murbles. He pictured the lawyer sitting in his office murmuring "Murbles, Murbles, Murbles..."

Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon. Representing the hardboiled dick, of course. I have no memory of what we discussed about this book (I hope we covered the Flitcraft Parable) but I still have the copy I bought for the course.

James McClure. The Steam Pig. An introduction to both the police procedural and the mystery of social commentary. McClure's Kramer & Zondi novels focused on the awkward relationship between two South African cops, one White, one Black. Each novel exposed some horrible element of apartheid. This debut book for example, dealt with the laws again interracial sex.

I vividly recall Mark reveling in one sentence of the book in which the third person narrator described the detective's reaction to a murder victim's body: "This association of violent action with the violently inactive Miss Le Roux had the subtle obscenity of a warm lavatory seat." Yes, after fifty years I recalled enough of that line to find it with Google. (And can someone more familiar with formal literary terminology tell me whether the last half of the sentence is a metaphor?)

Surely we read other novels. but I don't remember which. I do, however, still have a textbook we used: Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise, by Dick Allen and David Chacko. It featured some classic stories of the field by authors you could guess off the top of your head: Poe, Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, etc.

But there were some surprises, as well, including my introduction to Shirley Jackson ("The Possibility of Evil,") and Jorge Luis Borges ("Death and the Compass"). Both stories still rank among my top fifty.

The section of the book on Theory included several classic essays such as W.H. Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" ("Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim...") and Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" (“[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.)

Conspicuously absent is the most famous attack on our genre, Edmund Wilson's "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"

But getting back to Mark Hochberg, there is one more important debt I owe him and it involves an author his course did not cover. When I mentioned to him that Rex Stout was my favorite he noted that in creating Goodwin and Wolfe, Stout had taken a newly developing archetype, the hardboiled private eye (whose stories were usually told in first person) and made him the narrating Watson for an old archetype, the armchair detective.

What stunned me was not so much this insight but the realization that there was more to be gleaned from Stout's books than just great characters and plots. I don't think I had ever tried to analyze mystery fiction before. I had been content that the stories worked without wondering how and why they did.What stAnd thinking about that set me on the road to being a better, and eventually published, writer. So, thanks for that, Professor Hochberg.

10 June 2024

Nine Levels of Pickpocketing

 Here's a cool video on  how to be a pickpocket.  I trust you will only use it for good.

05 June 2024

A Completely Unhelpful Guide to Being Published in Japan

Last week I wrote about my publication history at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and I mentioned being reprinted in Japan.  Several people asked me how I went about that.  I think I have discussed most of it at this site before but it might be best to put it all in one place. Unfortunately I doubt it will be of any use to you.

I self-published a book of my stories, Shanks on Crime, in 2014.  It contained 13 stories, most of which had first appeared in AHMM.  Two years later the same magazine published another  tale in the series, "Shanks Goes Rogue."

Not long after that I received an email from a literary agency in Japan. Did I own the international rights to the book and would I be interested in being published in Japan?  I answered yes and youbetcha. Turned out Tokyo Sogen, the oldest mystery publisher in Japan, wanted to translate and publish  my book.  (How did this happen? My speculation is that the publisher has readers going through AHMM and other magazines and one of them liked "Shanks Goes Rogue" and read in my bio note that I had a book available.)

They published Shanks on Crime (with the "Rogue" story added) using a title that the computer translates as Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer. To promote it they asked my permission to reprint one of the stories in their magazine which is titled Mysteries! Exclamation point in the original.  No pay, by the way.  I said, youbetcha.

The book sold well enough that they published a collection of my otherwise uncollected non-Shanks stories called The Red Envelope and Other Stories, or in Japanese Solve Mysteries in the Coffee Shop on Holidays (according to the AI translator). Both books made lists of the best foreign mysteries of the year, he said modestly.

I have had several Shanks stories published since them.  One of them, "Shanks' Locked Room," appeared in AHMM in 2021 and the Japanese publisher  decided to buy it for their magazine.  I am under the impression that Japanese readers like locked room stories (although mine was not traditional. The puzzle was: why would someone steal a room key and not use it?)  That one they paid for.

So now you know how to get a a story published in a Japanese mystery magazine.  It's a simple three-step process:

1. Get the story published in the USA.

2. Wait for an email from a Japanese literary agency.

3. Respond to the e-mail.

I said it was simple.  I never said it was easy.  Youbetcha. Ganbatte.

29 May 2024

44 and Counting

Last month R.T. Lawton did a piece crunching the numbers on his 51 stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with my more modest collection, especially since "Professor Pie is Going to Die" arrived this week in the May/June issue.  "Pie" is #43 and there is another novella awaiting publication, so my current total is 44.

R.T. made his first sale to AHMM in 2001.  I made mine in 1981 so not only has he sold more but he did it in a much shorter time.  He has made $21,376  while my stories earned $16,415.  His stories average out to 5,065 words while mine come in at 4,280, with a meridian of 3,400 words.  (I tend to write very short, but a few novellas bump up the mean considerably.)

I am doing far worse than R.T. on percentage of stories sold: 94 rejections give me a sale percentage of 32%.  Under the current editor, Linda Landrigan, I have been hitting 54.4%, which may have to do with her preferences but I hope is also because I have improved as a writer.  

R.T. also has more AHMM reprints to his credit than I do, but that depends on how you calculate them.

Here's the easy way to figure mine:

    Black Cat Weekly: $50

    Japanese Mystery magazine:  $350

However, I also self-published a book, Shanks on Crime.  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on it, but then a Japanese publisher bought the rights to translate it and paid me $3,600. Nine of the fourteen stories were from AHMM so: 3,600 x 9/14 =   2,324.

But, wait! There's more.  The book sold well enough in Japan that the publisher decided to put out a book of my otherwise uncollected stories, five of which were from AHMM. So: $3,600 x 5/9 = 2,000.

Since those books were published they have earned some royalties and the percentage from AHMM stories turns out to be $585.

Which brings us to:

AHMM: $16,415

Reprints: $400

Japanese books: $4,909

Total: $21,714

That's for 43 years worth of work. You will notice R.T. is still ahead of me.   He would probably agree that  it's a slow way to get rich.  But I've had fun.

15 May 2024

Saying Uncle

I am delighted to have a story in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Professor Pie is Going to Die" is about an actor who starred in a local children's TV show in the sixties, returning to that city for a nostalgia fair, and finding out some people there don't like him. Don't like him a LOT.

I wrote a piece about that at the AHMM blog, Trace Evidence, and you might want to read it before we go any further. It talks about the hundreds of local kiddie shows that were on the air during that era.  But I want to write about one that started a little later.

I read the Wikipedia article about this program and it disagrees with my memory on some important points. Of course, Wikipedia is never wrong so be warned, because you are about to read what I remember hearing when I lived in New Jersey.   You can always check out their view.

When I was growing up the Garden State had zero TV stations (okay, there was an educational channel in Newark, but no kid worth his yoyo would watch that).  

But in the seventies cable television came along.  There was one such station in West Orange which made its living entirely on infomercials, but the FCC said they also had to make some cultural contribution.  So in 1974 they put out an ad for someone with experience in children's television.

What they got was Floyd Vivino.  

He had no experience in children's television.  He did have a sense of humor, some wacky friends, and the ability to play the piano.  What he created was The Uncle Floyd Show, which was a cross between a children's program and a satire on children's programs.  To say the structure was loose is like saying Antarctica is chilly.  Someone once told Floyd "I'd love to see your outtakes" and he said "You do.  Every day."  One episode consisted mostly of Floyd arguing with repo men who wanted to collect the station's piano.

The show had comedy sketches and puppets and music.  Not just Floyd's piano either.  Hipsters adored him and he therefore attracted some of the hottest bands of the time: the Ramones, Bon Jovi, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few.  David Bowie wrote a song about him, and explained that he had been introduced to the show by another fan, John Lennon.

Uncle Floyd even put out his own recordings.  I remember his puppet Oogie being interviewed on the hippest music station in New York and bragging that Floyd's new single was expected to sell "in the high dozens." Here  he is performing it live.

Like many kid's shows Floyd's received art from his admirers. He would show the camera a drawing submitted by little Jimmy in Brooklyn, age 23, or Bobby, 19, of Greenwich Village.  All reported with a straight face, of course. 

The show ran until 1988.  Not surprisingly Floyd has performed in various media and revivals to this day.

All of this has very little to do with my story in Hitchcock, but I guess it's part of my story in real life.

01 May 2024

Said in Seattle

Two weeks ago I reported on How I Spent My Mystery Writer Vacation at Left Coast Crime in Seattle.  Below you will find some of the words of wisdom I picked up there.  Unfortunately all the context fell off the Space Needle, so you're on your own in that regard.

"I want to welcome everyone to the beautiful Northwest and what is also known as the serial killer capital of the world." - Jamie Lee Sogn

 "Just for fun, let's actually address the topic of the panel." - Meredith Taylor

 "A man wakes up in the afterlife.  It's a Jewish afterlife.  There's nothing there." - Jo Perry

"She has a personality chart that's based on dim sum." - Jennifer J. Chow

"The finacular railway is the slowest chase in the world." - Wendall Thomas

"Edgar Allan Poe was a great theorist but if you actually apply it to his writings he's about a C student." - Stephen D. Rogers 

"Whenever I see something in media or social media that makes me afraid I ask: who's making money off this?" - John Copenhaver

"I don't have a brother and I never wanted to murder him." - Peter Malone Elliott

"Soap operas are kind of the porn of the industry." - Jon Lindstrom

"Any of my villains who bought it in the end were on that train from the beginning." - SJ Rozan

"I once got a review and it was just the word CRAP with one hundred exclamation points.  It's my favorite review." - Lee Matthew Goldberg 

"There is more than one way to write a story, but not for me." - Michael Allan Mallory

"A movie set is like a small town." - Marjorie McCown

"Felons are easy victims because no one believes them when somebody targets them." - Pamela Benson

"What's political about Texas?" - David Corbett

"I always think of writing as being a con artist." - Stephen D. Rogers 

"The thing about procrastination is it pays off right now." - Bobby Mathews 

"It's good to see so many faces of people who aren't mad at me." - Brian Thornton

"This is just what I wanted to write about, just sweetness and light, and a little bit of murder." - G.P. Gottlieb

"Wars are great initiators of new slang." - Jeanne Matthews 

"The villain is the personification of what gets in the way." - SJ Rozan

"I've been a parole officer for 112 years." - Cindy Goyette

"He is equally comfortable taking romantic walks on the beach, or dumping the body elsewhere." - Brian Thornton

"That book was criticized for letting the social issues distract from the story but I thought the social issue was the story." - Priscilla Paton

"When I'm writing a book I turn into a Roomba." - Karen Odden

"People who aren't awful bore the hell out of me." - Rob Pierce

"I don't want any pretty murders." - Thomas Perry

"Spy stuff is intentionally murky so I never know if I'm supposed to be lost here." - David Downing

"One of the unknown secrets about ghostwriters is that many of us are the children of addicts and narcissists." - Sarah Tomlinson

"The editor is there to make your art into a commercial product." - Juliet Grames

"The movies Silver Streak and Julia have train scenes that are almost the same but one is terrifying and one is hilarious."  - Wendall Thomas

"I'm getting my law degree from Twitter." - David Corbett 

"When I was writing about the sixteenth century the phone rang and I said 'What the hell is this thing?'" - Kenneth Wishnia

"That's our job. We make things up." - Meredith Taylor

16 April 2024

Seen in Seattle


I just spent a long  weekend in Bellevue, WA for Left Coast Crime: Seattle Shakedown, and I had a great time. More than 500 mystery writers and readers. Saw a lot of old friends (including SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Brian Thornton) and made some new ones.  Excellent organization and a very nice hotel.

If I have a complaint it is that the out-of-staters will get a completely false idea about our weather.  It was dry and fiftyish the whole time.  I don't suppose the committee is responsible for that, though.

A few things you should never miss at LCC: The first is Author Speed-Dating. Forty writers have two minutes at each table to explain why you should buy their books.  Having been on both sides, I can tell you that listening is a lot more fun than being the one giving the same speech 20 times.  On the bright side you really hone your speech, because you get to see exactly what holds people's attention.

Next is the New Author's Breakfast. Each novelist gets one minute to dazzle you.  To me the standout at both events was Jason Powell, a young New York City firefighter whose novel about that occupation  sold out before I could get to the dealer's room. My wife ordered it from our local bookstore that day.  

And then there's the banquet.  I co-hosted a table with Steve Steinbock, who reviews books for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  Notice the cool display of mag covers he provided.  One of our fellow diners told me "Your novel Greenfellas is on my bedside table. I read two pages every night and fall asleep."  I said: "Thanks?"

But most of the wisdom is imparted at panels.  The ones I attended included: two on short stories (yay!), politics, social issues,  humor, slang, historical (2). villains, and editors.

A favorite moment from that last panel.  The moderator began by asking if there was anyone who had no idea what an editor did.  Zoe Quinton, a panelist, raised her hand.  Turned out she was lying.

Hennrikus, Witten, Other Guy, Corbett, Byron
And speaking of panels I got to moderate one.  We struggled for a title that was clear and came up with 20 Panels in One: YOU Choose the Topics.  But when I told people about it someone made a suggestion that was brilliant and I will use it if we ever do it again: Panel Improv!  

The idea is, audience members write  topics in a hat and we discuss whatever happens to be drawn out.  My intrepid associates were Ellen Byron, David Corbett, J.H. Hennrikus and Matt Witten and they were all brilliant.

Our brilliant audience

The first topic we received was "The Trials and Tribulations of Squirrels." With some anxiety I asked if any panelist wanted to discuss that.  David explained that his dog had killed  a squirrel and they had to hire a lawyer to sue the dog. And we  were off and running.  Got a lot of compliments about it.  

That's enough.  Next time I will, as usual, provide you with brilliant quotations from the authors I encountered. 

11 April 2024

Crime Scene Comix Case 2024-04-024, Statue

Once again we highlight our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Yikes! In this Crime Time episode, only one outcome is possible.



That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

26 March 2024

Davy the Punk

Bob Bossin has been an important figure in the folk music community of British Columbia for half a century.  I recently had the pleasure of reading his biography of his father. DAVY THE PUNK (2014) tells an amazing story of immigrant resilience, Canadian history, and crime.

The press and the law called Davy Bossin a gambler, but he never placed a bet.  They called him a bookie but he never took a bet either.   He managed to be a major part of the illegal horse-betting industry, while the government struggled desperately to prove that anything he did was illegal.

Among the supporting characters in this true story are Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frank Costello ("the prime minister of the underworld,"), and the Crew Cuts (remember their hit song "Sh-Boom?").

With Bob's gracious permission I am reprinting here the opening pages of Davy the Punk.  I suspect that after reading it you may want to buy the book.

DAVY THE PUNK, excerpt
by Bob Bossin

It is the summer of 1956 and I am sitting with my father, Davy Bossin, in the bleachers above first base in Maple Leaf Stadium, the old ballpark on the shore of Lake Ontario. Summer nights in Toronto are as humid as a Georgia swamp, and the stadium on the waterfront has been dubbed ‘the poor man’s air conditioning’. Davy is sitting in the comforting breeze off the lake, reading the newspaper. I am giving him a fervent play-by-play of the game between the Maple Leafs and the Havana Sugar Kings. I am ten.

Through the early innings, we are joined by one, then another of my father’s cronies, who gather in the evening air to swap stories, argue politics, and only incidentally watch baseball. By my father’s decree, my colour commentary stops when the friends show up. This is fine with me; I love hearing the men talk the way they do when they are away from their work and their wives. I make myself as small as I can, hoping that my presence will be forgotten and I will overhear some secret that would otherwise be withheld until I have been dispatched for peanuts or hot dogs. Toronto was known, in those days, as Toronto the Good, but the Toronto these men know is tantalizingly bad.

‘Did you see Benny Kaufman died?’

‘Benny the Shoykhet? With the book in the little butcher shop in the alley off Kensington?”

‘Yeah, exactly. Benny's gone, alev ha-sholem.’

‘Did he ever get pinched? I don't think he ever got pinched. He had a hell of an operation. You could make a bet, have a drink and buy a chicken.’

‘Did he actually sell chickens?”

‘Sure he did. They were good kosher chickens. Of course he always kept a few in the back in case of a raid. He had one of the kids out at the street, who'd whistle if the cop turned into the alley. Then the bubba would come downstairs and they'd stick the bottles in her apron and throw a couple chickens on top, and she'd shuffle down the alley, smiling and nodding at the cop. Benny stuffed his betting slips up the ass of one of the chickens. They never caught him.’

'Yeah, they did. Herbie Thurston pinched him. Remember, Harry Thurston’s boy who became a cop.’

‘Nah, you're all mixed up. Herbie never pinched Benny; the guy he pinched was Murray the Rug.’

‘In the old dry cleaner’s on Dovercourt!’

‘Exactly. When he was a kid, Herbie used to go in with his father, when the old man placed his bets. Then when he became a cop, he went to Murray, and he told him, “Murray, I'm a policeman now and I'll arrest you if I have to. You've done well, it’s time you retired.” Of course Murray didn't listen. He looked at Herbie, and saw the little pisher tagging after his old man. And nobody had ever been able to charge him, because they could never find his slips. But Herbie knew from his father that Murray kept them under his toupee. So he nailed him.’

The stories go back and forth, of this bookie who got busted, of that one who never did. My father sits there reading the paper. The conversation flows by him, like water around a rock.

“What was the name of the guy … the one they arrested over and over?”

Silence. Nobody remembers. Then a new voice says, ‘Shnooky Schneider. It was Shnooky Schneider.’

The voice is my father’s. When Davy speaks, it is as if he were a king. Heads turn. This is because he speaks so rarely. And because, when he does, he is a natural-born story-teller. He folds his paper, none too quickly, and begins to recount how Arnie the Shnook Schneider was busted for bookmaking sixty-seven times, every one a first offence.

‘In those days Amie was working for Manny Feder,’ my father begins quietly, `back when Manny and his brothers had the big horse room on Queen Street, before they opened the Brown Derby. It was a pretty smooth operation, as it oughta be, since Manny had half the cops in town on the pad.

`But every now and then, the heat would be on. Old Reverend Domm would get up in Bathurst Street Church and preach a fire-and-brimstone sermon on vice, and then Holy Joe Atkinson would publish the whole damn thing in the Star. “Sunday morning, in Bathurst Street United Church, the Reverend Gordon Domm warned of the wave of corruption loosed on the city by gambling racketeers."’

My father gives the Star the voice of Walter Winchell. As the plot heats up, so does his delivery.

`Then the next day they'd send some cub reporter down Queen Street to lay some bets at some of the bookie joints, as if that was news to anybody, and they'd run that on the front page. And that would get the Decent Citizens riled up, and they'd start demanding that the police do something. So the cops would call Manny and say, "Sorry, Mr Feder, but we're gonna have to raid.” And they'd tell him when. Then Manny would call Shnooky and tell him to get ready.'

Here my father pauses, pretending to some interest in what is happening on the field. The men around me wait for him to go on. It seems to me all Maple Leaf Stadium does.

`Manny's joint was on the second floor and it would be going full blast with punters betting, smoking their cigars, the phone ringing, odds coming in and getting chalked up, the loudspeaker blaring-- "They're at the post. And they're off…"

`But upstairs, on the third floor, there was another room with just a table, an unconnected phone and a folding chair. And that's where Shnooky would wait for the cops. They'd come charging in, up the stairs, past the horse room, straight to the third floor. They'd arrest Shnooky and grab the telephone, so they could report that `gambling equipment was seized." Then they'd go back downstairs, past the horse room again, and take Shnooky to the station, where Manny would be waiting with Shnooky’s  bail. Then, when Shnooky was convicted, Manny would pay the fine, which was, by standing agreement, a hundred bucks. It was like a tax.

`Of course the law said that, on a third conviction, bookmakers go to jail.  But the cops would misplace Shnooky’s priors, or the magistrate would be one of Manny’s customers, or both.  So every time, it went down as Shnooky’s first offence.  And the government got its hundred bucks, which was good money in those days.’

Sometimes the laughter from our section was so raucous the pitcher would turn and look up.

19 March 2024

Waving at Plotholes

I have been helping an author, call them A., with a short story.  A. wrote a pretty good tale but it had one problem: near the end a character I'll call Vic Villain did something that seemed very odd but was needed to make the story turn out the way A. wanted.

A. provided a complicated explanation for Vic's actions, but that didn't help. I could think of two better and safer ways Vic could have gotten the same result, but they wouldn't have made the story turn out the way A. had planned.

My first thought was to suggest that the author hang a lampshade.  I have discussed this before.  It means disarming a plot problem by calling the  reader's attention to it.  It seems paradoxical but it can work.  

Think of the movie Rear Window.  For the plot to function Hitchcock needs Thorvald to leave his blinds up while killing his wife.  This seems like a ridiculous thing to do.  The Master's solution is to have several people comment on how unlikely it is that Thorvald would do that.  They consider it evidence that our hero must be  wrong about the killing.

So A. could have dealt with the issue by having the protagonist say something like "I guess we'll never know why Vic that" or "He must have been crazy to..."

But that didn't strike me as satisfactory either.  So I suggested that A. take the other route, which I call the Burning Storeroom Trick. 

Let's move to a different Alfred Hitchcock picture, Saboteur.  At one point the movie's hero is locked in the storage room of a mansion,  no way out.  But wait! He has a book of matches and the room has an automatic sprinkler. He lights a match under the sensor and alarms go off.  The next scene is an exterior, showing the mansion being evacuated.  A group of onlookers are watching  and one of them is the hero.

Clever! Obviously he used the fire to escape.


Excuse me?

How did setting a fire allow him to get out of the storage room?


Exactly.  In an interview Hitchcock admitted he didn't know either. 

In science and academia this known as handwaving. The Jargon File does a nice job of explaining it. 

To gloss over a complex point; to distract a listener; to support a (possibly actually valid) point with blatantly faulty logic... If someone starts a sentence with "Clearly..." or "Obviously..." or "It is self-evident that..." it is a good bet he is about to handwave. 

Notice that I used the word obviously a few paragraphs ago? 

It is self-evident that all penguins can yodel, so I don't need to provide any recordings of them doing so...

By the way, handwaving is similar to the original meaning of the phrase begging the question.  There is a wonderful Wondermark cartoon on this subject here.

Anyway, I suggested to A. that he try that approach. 

Hero: Why did you do that?

Vic Villain: It was part of my cunning plan.

Hero: Why are you waving your hand like that?

Vic: Look! Yodeling penguins!

As it happened  A. found a different solution, changing Vic's plan to get the bad guy in the right place.I like it much better than being locked in a burning storeroom.

03 March 2024

Music, Neat

Many SleuthSayers enjoy a music background. I’ve long known Rob’s interest in folk music dating back to the classic electric zitherphone. Our Fran Rizer, no longer with us, was an avid bluegrass fan and picker. Liz Zelvin released an album. And I gathered Brian Thornton and Steve Liskow stay active in the music scene. Turns out Eve Fisher and Chris Knopf keep up as well. And then I learned Stephen Ross pretty much operates a home recording studio.

“Stephen, Lady Ga-Ga on line 2.”

After intense cogitation, I mapped out a trailer for our first anthology based on Deborah Elliott-Upton’s book cover. I loaded up tavern sound effects– laughter, tinkling glasses, breakage, yelps and more laughter. I snagged karaoke tracks featuring Chris Stapleton, George Thorogood, and a little bit drunk Lady Antebellum. But as much as I like ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ (the song at least, thank you, Melayna), the cuts didn’t quite match the mood of the book. But I knew who could.

I put out a call and a half dozen SleuthSayers responded gleefully when I proposed a nearly impossible task– coming up with a bar song amid a time crunch. Using groundwork laid by Lopresti and Liskow, the team figured out how to pull off a global effort. Thank you, everyone. Here is the song, composed and sung by Rob Lopresti, instrumentals by Stephen Ross.

Murder, Neat

sung by Rob Lopresti, keyboards and percussion by Stephen Ross

Following are Rob's clever lyrics. No alcohols were unduly harmed in the making of this song.

Murder, Neat

lyrics and melody by Rob Lopresti

Come in the tavern and kindly ignore
The ax in the bar stool, the blood on the floor
You’re in no danger. Here death has no sting
For this is crime fiction and not the real thing.

There’s bourbon for burglars, and robbers get rye
Cocktail or blackmail? One vodka per spy.
Here partners may swindle and spouses might cheat
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

The cops drop a beer in their favorite saloon
Where hardboiled detectives start drinking by noon
Amateur sleuths take red herrings and Scotch
While pickpockets covet your wallet and watch.

Femme fatales ask as they sip the champagne
Does gunpowder leave an indelible stain?
A dive bar is waiting down any mean street
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the name of the book
Where convict and constable, conman and crook
Will pour you a ninety proof story of crime
To make you turn pages way past closing time.

In the back room there are gangsters today
Planning a caper to steal cabernet.
If you aren’t driving the getaway car
They’ve got pinot grigio and plenty of noir.

The mastermind villain advances the plot
And chuckles that arsenic sure hits the spot.
Each cozy village has pubs so discreet
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the book you should choose
If you like your clues well-infused with some booze
You can buy it online or in bookstores downtown
But don’t steal a copy or we’ll track you down
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

21 February 2024

Stealing From The Best

 I hope you aren't sick of hearing about Murder, Neat, because here we go again. I am thrilled to teeny little sub-atomic bits to have a story in the SleuthSayers anthology.  

In "Shanks's Sunbeam," Leopold Longshanks has lunch in a tavern with a fellow mystery writer who tells him that a mutual acquaintance has been accused of Doing a Bad Thing.  It is probably not a spoiler to tell you our hero saves the day.

But what I want to talk about is the name of that lunch companion: Procter Ade.  I made up the first name but the last is a homage to my inspiration.

I have written here before about George Ade.  Early in the last century he was a midwestern humorist and journalist.  He is mostly remembered for his Fables in Slang.  These were a series of short stories he wrote which satirized human nature and social mores.  Since he wanted people to know that he knew slang didn't belong in a newspaper he capitalized all the guilty words and unusual uses (Much as I did above with "Bad Thing")

.  Here are three of his opening sallies:

"One Autumn Afternoon a gray-haired Agriculturalist took his youngest Olive Branch by the Hand and led him away to a Varsity."

"Once there was a home-like Beanery where one could tell the Day of the Week by what was on the Table."

"Once there was a Financial Heavy-Weight, the Mile-Stones of whose busy life were strung back across the Valley of Tribulation into the Green Fields of Childhood."

And since the stories were fables they all ended with morals:

"In uplifting, get underneath."

"A good Jolly is worth Whatever you pay for it."

"Give the People what they Think they want."


Not too long ago I was thinking about one of my favorite Fables and I realized I could steal a plot device from it.  The result is "Shanks's Sunbeam."  If you would like to read my inspiration you can find it here. But I urge you to read my story first.  I'd rather spoil Ade's story than mine.

By the way, "Sunbeam" also involves memories of my pre-Covid trip to Ireland.  I'm sure that makes future visits tax deductible, right?

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Murder, Neat.

07 February 2024

The Name of the Beast


I just want to make a weird little observation about that group of characters Earl Emerson once eloquently described as the Sociopathic Sidekicks (SS).  These are the men (I don't know of any female versions) who assist the hero (often a private eye) by being more vicious and less ethical than he is.  

Let's say there is a villain who keeps hiring thugs to kill our hero but whenever he is warned off promises to stop.  Then he does it again.  Hero Dude, with his firm code of ethics, can't kill the bad guy if the bad guy is promising  not to be a threat.  So the sidekick, untroubled by such ethical dilemmas, solves the problem with a well-placed bullet.

That exact scenario played out in a novel by Robert Parker, with the hero being Spenser and the sidekick being HAWK, who had made his first appearance in the novel Promised Land (1977).  Hawk is the earliest example of an SS I am aware of.  

In 1987 Robert Crais introduced private eye Elvis Cole in The Monkey's Raincoat. And faithfully at the P.I.'s side was ex-Marine, ex-cop, Joe PIKE.

Then Walter Mosley introduced MOUSE in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).  He is Easy Rawlins' best friend, but so violent he even scares Easy.

I'm not sure in which of his novels about private eye Thomas Black the aforementioned Earl Emerson introduced SNAKE, but it was no later than The
Portland Laugher
(1994).  This guy varies from the others I mention here because  he seems more like a parody of the stereotype.  Instead of helping Thomas out of trouble Snake's assistance usually makes things worse and he ends up needing to be rescued..

I bring all this up because I am reading S.A. Cosby's first novel (and if you haven't discovered Cosby, my word, jump on the train, the guy is brilliant.)  In My Darkest Prayer, Nathan Wayfinder gets help from a gunhappy pal named (wait for it) SKUNK.

So there's my question.  Why are so many sociopathic sidekicks known (and in many cases only known) by monosyllabic animal names? 

31 January 2024

BSF (Best Stories Forever)

This is my fifteenth annual review  of the best short stories of the year, selected from my weekly-best choices at Little Big Crimes.  Feel free to cite this list but please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti's Best of the Year list at SleuthSayers" or similar phrasing, NOT "SleuthSayers Best..." because my fellow bloggers are stubbornly independent souls who occasionally disagree with me, as foolish as that seems.

There are sixteen winners this year, one more than last time. Thirteen of the stories are by men; three by women.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is the big winner, with six tales.  Black Cat Weekly scored two, as did an anthology from Random House. Five were written by my fellow SleuthSayers.  

Six of the stories are funny.  Five have fantasy or science fiction elements. Two are private eye stories.  Two are police stories.  Two are by foreigners.  Seven of the authors are repeat offenders.  

Enough. Please pass me the envelopes.

Marcel   "Martin, the Novelist," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters. His publisher  extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

Cody, Liza, "Never Enough,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Cody's third appearance on my best list.   

Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person.  She never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.

De Noux, O'Neil, 
"Of Average Intelligence," in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer is a retired police officer, and it shows.

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you taken offense yet?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority,... 

Dean, David, "Mrs. Hyde,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2023.

This is my friend and  fellow SleuthSayers' fifth appearance on this list, which makes him champeen of the world.  No one else has been in more than four times. 

Dr. Beckett Marchland  is an alienist, which is to say, a Victorian-era psychologist.  He receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Faherty, Terence, "The Incurious Man,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the fourth appearance here  by yet another .SleuthSayer alum.

Owen Keane is a private detective starting a new job.  On his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  His lack of interest interests Keane...

Finlay, C.C. "The Best Justice Money Can Buy,"  in The Reinvented Detective, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, Caezik SF and Fantasy, 2023. 

What if the whole justice system was for-profit?  Crimes would not be investigated unless the victims, or someone else, pay for the police time.  Criminals could shell out dough to get out of prison.  (Well, today we call that hiring a good lawyer, don't we?)  And so on.

Detective Chung is not a fan of the for-profit system but today it works in her favor, because she eye-witnessed the son of the wealthiest woman in the country committing a hit and run.  And this gives her leverage, if she can figure out how to use it...

Helms, Richard, "Spear Carriers,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

This is the third time   Helms had made my best of the year list.

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite in his police uniform-costume and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform. . That gives Sam an idea...

 Hockensmith, Steve, "The Grown-Ups Table,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,   January/February 2023.

This is the third best-of-the-year appearance by SleuthSayer Hockensmith.  2023

It's Christmas dinner at a dysfunctional family.  Uncle Dan  can't stop spouting the philosophy of his favorite right-wing radio host.  And there is Cryptique who, until we turned goth a few months ago, was named Bobby.  

But the main character is Tia who has just graduated to the Grown-Ups Table.  And she is carefully orchestrating the dinner conversation to reveal who murdered the family matriarch, Gammy Bibi.   

Linn, Ken, "A Flash of Headlights,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely. He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy which affects people he cares about. Every move Brody makes feels like it will make things worse. 

Narvaez, Richie, "Shamu, World's Greatest Detective,"  in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.

Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain."

Petrone, Susan, "The Silent Partner,"  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

It's 1970.  The narrator writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

Roanhorse, Rebecca, "White Hills,"  in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  She constantly rattles off  popular cliches and mantras.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change...

Sheehy, Edward, "Lavender Diamond,"  in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

So says our protagonist.  But it gets confusing he visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

How does he know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?  Hmm...


Thielman, Mark,  "Steer Clear,"  in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

 This is the fourth time  my fellow SleuthSayer has appeared in this list.  

 As punishment for an indiscretion with his boss's ex-wife  Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Van Camp, Richard, "Scariest. Story. Ever," in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the "Scariest. Story. Ever." contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  He needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike, and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale. Is this a crime story? Sort of. Definitely.  Read it and see. 

Walker, Joseph S., "A Right Jolly Old Elf,"  Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the third story by my friend  to make the best of the year list.  

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brother-in-laws, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?