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

01 December 2021

Greece is the Word


 In October my wife and I took a trip of Greece.  To be exact we toured the Peloponnese with 10 other adventurers and two guides.  Had a great time.  I want to tell you a few things about the trip from a writer's point of view.

One point that kept recurring was the influence classical Greece had on our culture, and especially our language.

Take for instance, the stoa, which is a roofed colonnade.  For those of us who are architecturally illiterate, that means a wall-less roof supported by columns.  Nice public building for hot climates.


There was one in classical Athens called the Royal Stoa and a group of philosophers hung around there so often that the name of the place was hung on them: the Stoics.  And that's where we get the word.

Leaving Athens for the Peloponnese peninsula you have to cross a narrow strip of land where Corinth was located, and on it you will find a place called Isthmia.  Which is why a narrow strip of land connecting two larger parts is called an isthmus.

Sparta Museum

In the peninsula you come to Sparta, whose residents were well-known for their no-frills lifestyle.  In other words, the Spartans led a spartan existence.  

They were also famously stingy with words. (They even sent the first TL:DR message.  Another city sent a long letter asking for their help in a war and the Spartans replied that the missive was too long to read; send something shorter.)  Sparta is in the Laconia region, which is why we describe people who don't talk much as laconic.

See the pattern?  I could add marathon but we didn't visit that site.

On a different but related note:  When we visited the Acropolis we passed the Theatre of Dionysus and our tour guide casually pointed out that this was the theatre.  It took me a moment to grasp what she meant.

Oedipus Rex
premiered here.  The Oresteia had its opening night (well, afternoon) on this spot.  Athenians sat on these stone seats to watch Lysistrata, Aristophanes' satire on sex and war.

In other words, everything the Western world thinks of as drama started in this very space.  Made me shiver.

It is interesting to remember that those drama festivals were competitions.  Each year the man who paid for the production of the winning play would put up a monument boasting of the fact.  Unfortunately for scholars all that was included was the man's name and the year.  Petty details like the author and title of the play were not deemed important enough to mention.  It seems like theatrical producers haven't changed much in 2,500 years.

Let's move on to another topic we love: Crime!  Fortunately, we did not experience any on our trip, except...  In Athens I saw something I never expected to witness in real life.  On a busy pedestrian walk there was a young man with a small table on a high stand.  On the table were three cups.

It was the shell game, live and in person!  The thimblerig has been recorded all the way back to  ancient Greece, and here it was in allegedly modern times.

If we hadn't been with a group I would have walked closer for  a better view, with my hand firmly on my wallet - not because I would have been tempted to bet, but because pickpockets love to orbit these scams.  

And speaking of crime, the photo on the right shows the street (?) in Nafplio where our 17th century hotel was located.  Before you reach it you pass a church with a plaque commemorating Ioannis Kapodistria, the first head of independent Greece, who was assassinated there in 1831.

Which reminds me... Jeffrey Siger is an American crime writer who spends part of the year in Greece and writes about an Athenian police detective.  (He has also written for SleuthSayers.) I told him about our itinerary and asked which of his novels we should read for background.  He recommended Sons of Sparta, which is set in the Mani (and I recommend it too).  

There are three little peninsulas at the south end of the Peloponnese and the Mani is the middle finger, geographically and also figuratively, you might say.  It has a certain reputation. When we arrived in the Maniot town of Areopoli, one of our tour guides solemnly told us: "The Mani is famous for vendettas, so please be very polite.  We don't want to start any blood feuds."  But our other guide replied: "You are being more than usually stupid."  So take that with a grain of salt.

But maybe not too much salt.  The statue you see here was right in front of our hotel in Areopoli. It commemorates Petrobey Mavromichalis, the Maniot who started the Greek War of Independence.  Ten years later, his brother and nephew were the very men who assassinated Kapodistria in Nafplio.

Interesting place, the Mani...

03 November 2021

Welcome to Avram Davidson's Universe

Avram Davidson was an unusual writer.  He won two Edgar Awards (mystery), a Hugo Award (science fiction), and three World Fantasy Awards.  Some of us haven't won any of those.

Born in Yonkers, NY, he was a Marine medic during WWII. He first published as a Talmudic scholar .He ghost-authored two of Ellery Queen's novels. He edited the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

He was a shepherd in Palestine just before the birth of the state of Israel.  He spent part of his life in Mexico and Belize, and lived in Bellingham, WA, a few years before I got here, alas.

Eccentric or protean don't begin to cover the guy.

My favorite of his works is a novella called "The Lord of Central Park."  I once described it like this:

... the simple story of a young lady from New Jersey and her encounters with a pickpocket, the Mafia, the NAFIA, an Albanian Trotskyite who wants to blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hudson River Pirates, and, of course, the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears, who lives in a cave in Central Park.  Okay, maybe I lied about it being a simple story.

Davidson tended toward the baroque in language and he had a ton of historical and geographic knowledge to add detail to his fiction.

I was recently contacted by Seth Davis who has started a podcast called the Avram Davidson Universe and he invited me to  be his guest on an episode to discuss my other favorite Davidson extravaganza, "The Necessity of His Condition."  You can hear a very professional reading of the story in the podcast, by the way.  That episode went live this week and it is available ffree.

Seth was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

What is your connection to Avram?

Avram was married to my mom.  They divorced but remained very close. They continued to collaborate on many books.   Avram became my Godfather and for a variety of reasons his literary estate passed to me.

Favorite memories of Avram?

When I was 13 Avram was very involved in helping me through my Bar Mitzvah.  He made the best soups!  Later when he became wheelchair bound we had a grand time as I pushed him down Clement street in San Francisco.

Did you meet any mystery writers through him?

It wasn’t until Covid hit that I really had time to start reading his stories and understanding what an incredible writer Avram was. I knew him more as a doting Godfather than as a writer. Since my mom was a writer as well we had all sorts of authors who came by our house.  Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford certainly came by. I never met any writers who were solely focused on mystery. Dick Lupoff was very sweet and he helped my mom publish The Investigations of Avram Davidson which is an anthology of Avram’s mystery stories.    Avram did live with us when I was younger and I know Harlan Ellison came by and I have vague memories of meeting Harlan. Michael Kurland was probably the writer I remember the most. He was and still is such a kind man.

Tell us about your podcast.

The Avram Davidson Universe Podcast is dedicated to keeping Avram’s legacy alive. In each episode we perform a reading and discussion of his works with a special guest

Plans for future publications?

Most exciting right now is Beer! Beer! Beer! will be going live on December 14.  It is a historical fiction/crime/mystery novel based on the true story of the crime boss Dutch Schultz who was piping beer under the streets of Yonkers during prohibition.  I am actually looking for a handful of avid readers especially Davidson fans for my ARC team who would get an early copy of the book to review. If folks are interested they can contact me at

One of my beta readers described the story as an amazing glimpse of Americana, beautifully told and that the way the characters converged with all their short stories reminded her of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Unfortunately when my mom passed Avram’s literary estate was disorganized. My goal over the next 10 years it to make sure everything is organized. I want to make sure every story Avram wrote is available.  This includes some incredible unpublished stories like Beer! Beer! Beer!.  We recently published Skinny which was a semi-autobiographical short story about Avram’s time as a medic in China post World War II.  In 2022 we will be publishing Dragons in the Trees which is Avram’s exciting Belize travel journal. In 2023 we will be publishing AD 100 - 100 of Avram’s unpublished or uncollected short stories in honor of his 100th birthday. 

20 October 2021

Popcorn Proverbs #5

Are you heading back in the theatres yet?  Not me.  But as a reminder of the goodle days, here are quotes from 25 crime movies.  As before, they are in alphabetical order by titles.  Purely by coincidence, three actors get two quotes each.  The answers are below. Good luck!
1. Or maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved to the suburbs - I always confuse those two. 
2. Can I trust you?  Can I trust you?  Can I trust you? 
3. I loved Al Lipshitz more than I could possibly say. He was a real artistic guy, sensitive, a painter. But he was always trying to find himself. He'd go out every night looking for himself. And on the way, he found Ruth. Gladys. Rosemary. And Irving. I guess you could say we broke up because of artistic differences. He saw himself as alive. And I saw him dead.
4. One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy. 

5. -What are you going to do?
-I'm going to sit in the car and whistle "Rule Britannia".
6. Isn't it touching how a perfect murder has kept our friendship alive all these years? 
7. I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies. 
8. -The fellow whose job I'm taking, will he show me the ropes?
  -  Maybe - if you're in touch with the spirit world. 
9. I hear you paint houses.
10. It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.  
11. Who do men instinctively pull at loose threads on their parachutes? 

12. What can I tell you?  Don't piss off a motivated stripper. 
13. Has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?
14. - Do you realize that because of you this city is being overrun by baboons?
-Well, isn't that the fault of the voters? 
15. -Can you be any more of a condescending ass?
16. In my book "brave" rhymes with "stupid."
17. Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over.
18. You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize. 

19. The funny thing is - on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook 
20. I studied on killing you. Studied on it quite a bit. But I reckon there ain't no need for it if all you're gonna do is sit there in that chair. You'll be dead soon enough and the world 'll be shut of ya. You ought not killed my little brother, he should've had a chance to grow up. He woulda had fun some time.  
21.Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.

22. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

23. We're going to let 'em keep the goddamn subway train. Hell, we've got plenty of them; we'll never even miss it.

24. What I do for a living may not be very reputable... but I am. In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers. 
25. -Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
-  Yes.
-Good, 'cause you just took one.

1. - Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) Can You Ever Forgive Me?

2.- Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) Casino

3. -Mona ( Mya ) Chicago

4. - Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) The Departed
5. -Edna (Rosemarie Dunham)/ Carter (Michael Caine) Get Carter

6. -Arthur Adamson (William Devane) Family Plot
7. -Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) The Godfather, Part Two

8. -Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) / Major Dalby (Nigel Green) The Ipcress File

9. -Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) The Irishman

10. - Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) Kind Hearts and Coronets

11. - Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer) Knives Out

12.  -Michael Clayton (George Clooney) Michael Clayton

13. -Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

14. -Commissioner Brumford (Jacqueline Brooks) / Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear
15. -Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) / Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) Now You See Me
16. - Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.) Ocean's Eleven

17. - Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) Rebecca

18. -Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) Reservoir Dogs

19.  -Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) The Shawshank Redemption

20. - Karl Childers  (Billy Bob Thornton)  Sling Blade

21. - Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov) Spellbound

22.  - Harry Lime (Orson Welles) The Third Man

23.  -Mayor (Lee Wallace) The Taking of Pelham 123

24. -Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) The Two Jakes

25.  -Malone (Sean Connery) / Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) The Untouchables

06 October 2021

Half a FOAF is Better Than None


The Folklorist and the Librarian

I assume that last month you, like the rest of the world, heard that rapper Nicki Minaj told her millions of followers that her Trinidadian cousin refused to get the covid vaccine because his friend got it and his testicles swelled up.

I know nothing about Nicki Minaj and less about virology, but my instant reaction was: "I recognize a FOAF when I hear about one."  And that brings up a subject I have been meaning to write about for years: urban legends.

I first learned about them when I read Jan Harold Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker.  Dr. Brunvand is a folklorist and he did not invent the study of urban legends but he popularized it in a series of books, starting with TVH.  (By the way, I corresponded with Dr. B. in the early days of email and even coaxed him into speaking at my university.)

"Urban legends" are so named to distinguish them from standard folklore which is assumed to be the product of rural regions and allegedly unsophisticated people.  Like their country cousins, urban legends are told by people who believe them to be true, and often swear that they know people who know the person they happened to (the Friend of a Friend, or FOAF). The stories often reflect whatever issues are running through the zeitgeist, and frequently have a moral, usually in the form of a warning.

An urban legend is a classic example of a story a reporter may consider "too good to check" but Brunvand pointed out at least one example of a reporter eagerly trying to find the origin of a tale -- only to see it constantly receding like the horizon.  After realizing there was no truth to it, he kept following from source to source, just to see how far back it would go.  Of course, he could not identify its beginning.

Let's take an example: the "Choking Doberman."  This version appeared in Woman's World magazine in 1982, as part of an article called "Rumor Madness":

A weird thing happened to a woman at work.  She got home one afternoon and her German shepherd was in convulsions.  So she rushed the dog to the vet, then raced home to get ready for a date.  As she got back in the door her phone rang.  It was the vet, telling her that two human fingers had been lodged in her dog's throat.  The police arrived and they all followed a bloody trail to her bedroom closet, where a young burglar huddled -- moaning over his missing thumb and forefinger.

This legend had appeared in various newspapers a year earlier with reporters contacting local authorities in search of the truth, to no avail of course.  ("Police can't put finger on story.")  An interesting fact is that as the story mutates the burglar's digits often become "black" or "Mexican" fingers.  As I said, you can learn a lot about American obsessions by watching legends grow.   

By the way, years later I read a short story in a mystery magazine which ended with the dog owner getting a call from the vet urging him to "Leave the apartment now!" but the bloody burglar is already coming toward him, seeking revenge.

Brunvand also tells about the "Attempted Abduction," in which a child disappears while shopping with her mother in a department store.  Two women are caught in the bathroom, having cut and dyed the child's hair and changed her clothes.  The moral is clear: Keep a close eye on your kids!

Of course, the story is highly unlikely.  One attorney: "How could you dye a kid's hair in a public restroom?  I'd rather give a cat a bath."  And reporters were (surprise!) unable to trace the source of a story in which the location, store name, and gender of the child kept shifting with each telling.  

Brunvand noted that the story seemed to appear every five years, but it actually popped up again three years after he reported it.  And the next year it showed up in Ann Landers' column.

As far as I can tell the good professor stopped writing his books before social media came along, much less "alternative facts."  I'm sure folklorists are keeping busy following the latest versions.


15 September 2021

Today in Mystery History: September 15


This is the ninth in my series on the past of our wonderful field. 

 September 15, 1885.  Marcel Allain was born,  Together with Pierre Souvestre he created Fantomas, a villain who became one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction.  The authors wrote alternating chapters (I had never heard of anyone writing books that way other than Sjowall and Wahloo), producing more than 40 novels.  Fantomas appeared in movies, TV, and comic books.

September 15, 1890.  Agatha Christie was born in Torquay.  She became a moderately successful chiropractor.  Oh, all right, she became the bestselling mystery author of all time.  Happy?

September 15, 1934.  John Lawrence's "Fade Out" appeared in Dime Detective.  It was his fifth story about New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said that Lawrence was "one of many prolific pulpsters who managed to keep cranking 'em out, logic and finesse be damned."

September 15, 1939.
  On this date Raymond Chandler finished the first draft of Farewell, My Lovely, his second Marlowe novel, and my personal favorite.

September 15, 1977.  CHiPs premiered this evening. The show about California Highway motorcycle cops lasted six years.

September 15, 1988. On this date a Calypso musician is found shot to death in Isola, starting the plot of Ed McBain's 33rd novel about the 87th Precinct.  As was often the case in his books, the title has at least two meanings...

September 15, 1981. This date saw the premiere of Seeing Things, a quirky and funny mystery series from Canada.  Louis Del Grande is the antithesis of the glamorous
detective - a balding middle-aged reporter who can't get a break.  When his beloved wife leaves him he moves into the storage room of his parent's store, refusing to consider that the split may be final.  Then he starts having visions about crimes.  Unfortunately the visions never tell him whodunit, so he has to figure that out on his own.  When it aired, it was Canada's most successful "home-grown" series.

September 15, 1989.  The movie Sea of Love was released.  Screenwriter Richard Price was nominated for an Edgar for best movie. And Al Pacino was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor.

 September 15, 199?.  On this day sports agent Myron Bolitar had a meeting in a cemetery with a murderer.  This is the beginning of One False Move, the fifth novel in Harlan Coben's  terrific series.

September 15, 1993. 
On this date Julian Semyonovich died.  He had an interesting life, traveling the world with surprising freedom for a Soviet journalist, leading some people to speculate about his connections to the government.  "Look,'' he told a reporter, "if I tell you the truth, you won't print it. So let me tell you what you want to hear: I'm the general in charge of interrogation and intelligence for the KGB."  Probably not.  But he was the founder of the International Association of Writers of Detective and Political Novels, and one of the first Russians to have mysteries published in the west.

September 15, 2000.  Jamie Foxx starred in Bait, a cop comedy-adventure released on this date.


Post: Edit

10 September 2021

Ten Rules For Writing Mystery Fiction

1. Write fiction.

2.  Include a crime or the threat of crime as a major element.

3. Keep the reader interested to the end.

4. Leave the reader wanting to encounter more of your work.

5. Optional.

6. Optional.

7. Optional.

8. Optional.

9. Optional.

10. Optional.

01 September 2021

Pop Quiz


I've been (mentally) collecting books of a certain type and I am going to share the results with you here.  These are all well-known novels in our field, and they have one important characteristic in common.  Can you spot it? 

I will put the answer in the comments later...

J.J. Connolly. Layer Cake.


Len Deighton. The Ipcress File.






Daphne DuMaurier. Rebecca.






Dashiell Hammett. The Dain Curse.






Geoffrey Household. Rogue Male.

Bill Pronzini. Hoodwink.

18 August 2021

A Trend, An Anecdote, and an Exhibit

Sometimes I get a story idea in one nice neat package, a blast from the muse.

More often it comes in pieces.  I call some of those tales mash-ups.

It isn't that one type is necessarily better than the other.  Two brands of cars, but they both get you to the same place, if you're lucky.

Take "Taxonomy Lesson," my story in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was published yesterday.  It is a definite mash-up of three elements:

A TREND.  I worked as a librarian in academia for more than three decades.  Like any other field, higher education has its trade publications that talk about what's new in the biz.  

And one trend I've been reading about for a decade has been sexual harassment.  The reports started long before the #Me Too movement. 

The classic scenario is a male tenured professor pressuring a female grad student with promises of support if she gives in and threats of punishment if she doesn't.  The power differential between, say, a Ph.D. student and a professor on her dissertation committee is extreme, the ability to make or break a career.  

There has long been a whisper network in academia (as in many other fields) in which women warn each other not to do field research with Professor X or, if you must go to a conference with Professor Y, don't go to his room for a chat, or even get in an elevator with him.

Dr. Karen Kelsey created a website called Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.   She eventually closed it to new entries due to trolls and hackers, but you can read enough to spoil your lunch.

I was ignored in meetings when I was the most knowledgeable about the content (in favor of a male new hire with less experience/education); inappropriate comments made about my body while pregnant; a female colleague was called a slut by our chair when she reported a job candidate had stalked her while they were in school.  When issues were reported to HR/Title IX/ Dean's Office, grossly inept responses were provided (Female Dean invited me to meeting to talk about these issues and then said "do you want to hear my stories? It could get worse" and proceeded to suggest that I do not fit in at my institution.  Ultimately, I was denied a promotion on the grounds of my pregnancy.

I knew I wanted to write about  this sort of thing in fiction someday.  But a premise is not a plot, and I needed more.  It turned out I needed...

AN ANECDOTE.  Back in 2015 Bouchercon was held in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A tiny but riveting  event happened there which I witnessed and the moment it happened I grabbed my notebook and started writing.  "That's going to go into a story!" I announced.  Amazingly enough, I was right.

I can't tell you what happened that day, but when you read my story you will probably have a pretty good idea.  

But I still didn't have my story yet.  That required...

  My family enjoys visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  One of the parts we always explore is the Butterfly House which has live insects from around the world.  The last time we visited I noted an exhibit just outside on scientific names.  Homo Sapien. Helianthus Annuus.  Gorilla Gorilla.

And bingo.  That was the one missing piece.

My story is about a taxonomy professor - that is, an expert on how species are biologically related to each other, and on  scientific nomenclature.  He is at a conference where he will receive a major award for his work.  But alas, his relationships with  students haven't been as excellent as his research.  And that is about to become a big problem...

I hope you enjoy it.


04 August 2021

Down the Memory Hole

  Today I am feeling great sympathy for Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout.  You may feel that that is like a Little Leaguer saying he empathizes with the World Series winners, but hear me out.

Neither of those authors made a habit of rereading their old works before starting a new one.

As a result Doyle once had Dr. John Watson's wife refer to him as "James."  The good doctor also suffered from a "wandering wound" since his war injury was in his shoulder according to one tale, and in his leg in the other.

Rex Stout's great detective Nero Wolfe told the FBI he was born in the United States but in many other books claimed to be born in Montenegro.  And don't get me started on Wolfe's brilliant operative Saul Panzer, who managed to misplace his wife and kids between books...

That is why I am feeling sympathetic to them.  

I am currently editing the third story in a series, and preparing to write what I hope will be the fourth.  I wasn't sure of a few details so I reread the first story, and holy moly.  I had the last name of an important character wrong.  Another character was apparently so shocked by his adventures that he went bald between tales.  And a detail that my hero suddenly discovered in Story Three, oops, he had already learned in Story One. 

I suppose I should feel blessed if I can get enough stories published in a series and have enough readers to be caught out in inconsistencies.  Meanwhile, back to my notes...

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 7½ 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


 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."