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

16 October 2019

Ten Things I Learned Writing Short Stories


Photo by Michael Fowles
by Robert Lopresti

As I mentioned in an earlier column, October 2019 was a special month for me. Not only is it my fortieth anniversary as a published writer but - by coincidence - the Northwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America asked me to be the speaker at their meeting. They suggested I review highlights of my career but that sounded boring even to me. I countered with the title above, which gave me a chance to do such a review but make it of possible interest to my fellow readers. So now I am going to summarize the words of alleged wisdom I shared with those who attended.


1. Editors don't reject you.  They reject words you have written. So don't take it personally, and try again.  I was rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 76 times before they bought a story.

2. When in doubt, don't throw it out. If a story doesn't sell does it mean that it stinks? No, it means that on a given day it didn't meet that market's needs. Really. So tuck it away and see what happens.

I wrote a story about a TV actor who kills a rival. All my favorite magazines rejected it. Years later the Mystery Writers of America announced an anthology to be titled Show Business is Murder. "On The Bubble" found a happy home.

3. Flattery and bribery are good for you. I don't mean that you should apply them to your editors, reviewers, or even readers. I am talking about the Miner, which is what I call the part of the brain that comes up with story ideas. (The other creative part of your brain is the Jeweler, which turns the raw material into something pretty and publishable. When an author says "I don't even remember writing it!" that means the Miner did ninety percent of the work.

Most people have trained the Miner to be lazy. How do you that? By ignoring the ideas he offers you. You can flatter him by taking those ideas seriously. Even if you don't have time to start that novel today, write down the concept. Spend five minutes brainstorming the idea. Don't in short, look a gift horse in the mouth.

And how do you bribe the miner? Spend money on him! Buy a writing text, get that new desk chair, go to a writing conference. Convince him that you are taking your writing career (yes, let's use that word) seriously. Who knows? Maybe you'll convince the rest of your brain as well.

(Interesting example: I gave this talk on Saturday.  Monday morning I woke up with two new ideas for short stories.  The Miner obviously liked the attention.)

4. It's okay to plagiarize. Sometimes. I'm talking about what Lawrence Block called "Creative plagiarism." That's when you take someone else's idea and use it differently.

Many years ago Fletcher Flora wrote a short story called "The Seasons Come, The Seasons Go."   It appeared in Ellery Queen in 1966.  The plot involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill someone in the family.

The first story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock was originally called "My Life as a Ghost," but they changed it to "The Dear Departed." (The only time one of my stories was retitled, so far.) My story involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill a family member.  It also featured a similar twist ending.

Stop thief, I hear you cry.  But the truth is, my version is completely legitimate.  The murder and  motive are quite different, and my victim is a person with no parallel in the original.  If you read the two in quick succession you would probably have a suspicion about how the second story would end, but that happens all the time.  There are only so many possible endings.

5. Self-publishing doesn't work.  Unless it does.  Since no one seemed to be clamoring to publish a collection of my short stories I did it myself.  Shanks on Crime includes 13 stories about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks, most of which had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I hired a professional book designer and produced it both as a paperback and an ebook.

How did I do?  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on the deal.  Nothing that would keep me from buying dinner or make me lose sleep, so I was fine with it.

Then I received an email from a literary agent asking if I would like to sell the Japanese rights to Tokyo Sogen, the oldest mystery publisher in that country.  I said, why sure.  The amount they paid me would be less than a rounding error for, say, James Patterson, but it is the most money I have ever made on a piece of writing.  And they were so happy with sales that they just published a collection of some of my otherwise uncollected stories later this year.

Would any of that have happened if I hadn't bit the bullet and self-published my book?  Nope.


6.  Mash-ups are delicious. In computing a mash-up is an app that combines data or functions from two sources.  Classic example: you create a Google map using the addresses in a database of customers.

When I refer to a mash-up I mean taking several different sources to create something new.  For example, I have published six stories about Uncle Victor. These stories are a mash-up of The Godfather, I, Claudius, and Jack Ritchie's Henry Turnbuckle stories.   Uncle Victor is the eccentric relative of a mob boss.  Like Claudius, he survives in a deadly family because no one takes him seriously enough to kill him.  And his major asset as a private eye is the one he shares with police detective Henry Turnbuckle: self-confidence that is completely unjustified by reality.

Another example is my story "Brutal," which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock.   It combines Jim Thompson's The Getaway - about a robbery that goes perfectly, followed by a disastrous attempt to escape - with Neil Simon's movie The Out-of-Towners.  My story is about an assassin who completes his job perfectly and then is crushed by a series of average city-dwellers who are just carrying on with their lives, completely unaware of who they are dealing with.

7.  Be nice to your editors and they may be nice to you. Obviously good manners are important.  I am sure most editors have a list (at least in their heads) of writers who are Too Much Trouble To Deal With.  But I want to give a specific example.

A few years ago I wrote a story which looked at the very first mystery, Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" from the viewpoint of the murderer (that's right; the orang-outang).  I sent it to a magazine with which I had an excellent relationship.  And then I saw a notice for an anthology of Poe-related stories.  A perfect market for my tale! I didn't want to withdraw my already submitted story and risk the relationship with an on-going customer.  So  I wrote to the editor I had already submitted to and explained my plight.  I said I would be delighted to have my tale in their publication, but would it be possible t jump the queue and get an early decision so if they don't want it I could try the anthology?

And the editor went above and beyond by pulling my story out of the long stack and giving it a quick read.  Turns out they didn't want it, which was fine.  I submitted it to nEvermore! and not only was it accepted but  it was reprinted in two best-of-the-year collections. But this was only possible because the editor was willing to do me a favor by giving me a special read.

8.  One-market stories are dangerous temptations.  Ideally you want to write a story that could find a happy home in many different locations.  But sometimes an opportunity comes up for a niche market, usually an anthology.  Whether that's a good idea depends on a number of factors including: the speed you can write, the possible reward, and how intriguing you find the concept.  After George W. Bush was elected someone announced an anthology called Jigsaw Nation, in which all the stories would take place in the United States after the blue and red states separated.

I thought it was a great concept and wrote "Down In The Corridor," about the consul from the Pacific States of America dealing with a nasty situation in the San Diego Corridor which connected the greatly diminished USA to the ocean.  It was a crime story (my specialty) as well as a science fiction (or alternative almost-history) story.  It sold to Jigsaw Nation which was great but the book was pretty much ignored by the world.  Ah well.

A few years ago several cartoonists created an anthology called Machine of Death, with an intriguing concept. You put a drop of your blood in this machine and it tells you how you will die.  Not when; just how.  Car crash.  Gunshot.  Mary. Yeah, but which Mary?  Your wife Mary or Hurricane Mary?  Like all good oracles the machine is wickedly ambiguous.  Suicide could mean that somebody jumps out a window and lands on you. 

I loved the concept so much I wrote two stories for it: a historical and a police procedural.  The editors rejected both.  Those are two stories I can never use anywhere.

9. Network, network.  Also: network.  There are fine organizations out there looking for members: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers,  Private Eye Writers of America.  There are conferences: Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic. And here is a shocking secret: a lot of mystery writers are friendlier than you might expect.  They DON'T want to read your unpublished manuscript but they might be happy to hear what you liked about their latest masterpiece.  And if you see a lonely author sitting alone at a signing table, go up and chat.  It doesn't obligate you to buy anything.  And don't forget to read SleuthSayers!

Well, that's nine jewels of wisdom down.  In two weeks I will return to polish the last gem.







02 October 2019

The Long Treason


Approximately 1979
This month is a special anniversary for me.  Forty years ago I became a published author.

After three years of submitting to various markets I sold a story to the late, and not particularly lamented, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I learned this fact when an envelope arrived in the mail with a check for $30 and a slip of paper with the title of my story on it. No contract, no letter of acceptance.

To say I was pleased would be a distinct understatement.

I was not the only person affected by the tale.  My wife brought a copy into the office where she worked and the next time I visited her co-worker Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened afterwards?"  I assured her that I had no idea.  I got so tired of her asking every time she saw me that I finally told her that the day after the story ended the main character won the lottery and lived happily ever after.  Oddly enough, this did not satisfy her.

By the way, the story was inspired by the title, which popped into my head one day.  Where that came from is anybody's guess.

I just reread the story and can honestly say that in the forty years that followed I have been paid more for worse.  So, just in case your complete set of MSMM's is in storage, I am reprinting it here.  I have changed nothing, although it was physically painful to leave that horrible adverb: "suddenly."  Ick.

I hope you enjoy the other words.  And thanks to Leigh for catching a few typos.


THE LONG TREASON
by Robert Lopresti

The old man had lived on the hill beyond the village for as long as Pablo could remember.  When Pablo was learning to walk he had seen the foreigner, already old, walking alone through the jungle.  Three years before, the old man had stood outside of his shack, watching when the soldiers came to take off anyone old enough to carry a gun.

Pablo's brother, Felipe, had been sixteen and had cried as they led him off to fight some war for El Presidente.  He hadn't returned.  Pablo's father died two years later, and at the age of twelve Pablo had become the man of the family.

To help his mother feed the younger children, Pablo went to work for the old man.  In that South american country it was widely believed that all foreigners were rich, except the missionaries.  The old man was a foreigner, but he was neither rich nor religious.

The work was easy: odd jobs and chores, repairs to keep the old shack livable.  The old man was too weak to do them himself.  He didn't pay Pablo much, but who else in the village could afford to pay him at all, still too young to do a man's work?  The job would keep Pablo's family alive till he grew up.

Pablo was running an errand for the old man when he first heard about the visitor.  The visitor was a foreigner who drove up into the hills in a rented car, dressing too warmly, bribing too richly.  Most foreigners, especially wealthy ones, would have been robbed and killed on their first night out of the city.  However, there was something about this man that made even the hungriest ladrones put their knives away and keep their distance.

On his third day in the mountains he reached Pablo's village.  That night, while they made stew for the old man's dinner, Pablo told the old man about the stranger who was asking questions.  The old man just shrugged and went on cutting carrots.

When the stew was ready, the old man invited the boy to join him, as he often did.  He always accepted, because it meant one less meal his mother had to stretch out of their meager food supply.

Although they ate in silence, neither of them heard the approaching footsteps.  Suddenly the door burst open, almost torn off the hinges by a powerful kick.  The visitor walked in, holding a pistol.

Pablo had jumped up, ready to run, but the old man touched his shoulder and gestured for him to sit down again.  The old man had shown no other reaction to the stranger's sudden entrance.

The visitor spoke a name which Pablo had never heard before.  The old man nodded. "So you have found me at last.  It's good to see you again.  You have grown older."

The visitor glanced quickly around the one-room shack before closing the door and approaching the small table.  He was about fifteen years younger than the old man, just leaving middle age.  His voice was so gentle that it surprised the boy.

"You have gotten older, too.  I can hardly believe that you are still alive."  They spoke in their own language, but Pablo had been exposed to many languages, and could follow most of what they said in that one.

The old man gestured, like a host to a guest.  "Sit down and talk for a while."

The visitor's lips compressed into a thin line.  "You know why I am here."

The old man shrugged and for the first time in several minutes he noticed Pablo.  "Let the boy go."

The stranger's eyes ran over him and the boy shivered.  "Go where?  To tell who?"

"He'll go home to bed, and tell no one.  Don't worry, old friend; there's no one here who would rush to my rescue."

The visitor's lips turned up in a tiny smile.  "That doesn't sound like my old teacher.  Do you really care what happens to the boy?"

The old man got angry.  "I don't care about him, or anyone else. And no here cares whether I live or die. I've made sure of that.  But why does the boy have to see it?"

The foreigner looked hard at Pablo.  "Will you go straight home, and say nothing to anyone?"

Pablo nodded.  "All right.  Go."

The boy ran out.  Once outside, he stopped and looked in all directions.  Then he crept around the outside of the shack.  At the rear was a spot where the wall was so low that by standing on a barrel he could climb silently onto the roof.  He had tried once to do some thatching up there for the old man, but the roof was in such bad shape that the patchwork was useless.

He crawled up slowly.  Some spots were so rotten that he almost fell through.  The rain must have poured through the cracks, but the old man never complained about it.  He seldom complained about anything.

Finally he reached the center of the roof.  Peering through a crack he saw both men, directly beneath him, seated at the table.

Straining, he could her the old man speaking. "...so many years I thought that I had been forgotten.  I'm almost glad to see you."

"Many others have looked for you.  Am I really the first to succeed?"

"Oh, there were others, years ago.  I suppose the trail has become colder with time, and it takes someone with your persistance to follow it now."

"Where are those early searchers now?  Buried in the jungle beyond the village?"

Pablo saw the old man's face twist into a smile, or perhaps it was just a baring of teeth.

"This is a dangerous part of the world, old friend.  Death comes suddenly here."

The visitor gestured with his gun.  "I do not intend to die in this hellhole of a country."

"Suit yourself.  It's good enough for me.  I'm not as particular about things as I once was."

"I have some questions I'd like to ask you."

"Feel free.  If you become tedious, I'll stop answering and you'll shoot me.  So ask away."

"We know that your new friends lost track of you, and that they are angry with you.  Why?"

"After I changed sides I lived in my new country for three months.  I saw nothing but the inside of two bare rooms and did nothing except tell their top spies about our top spies. After three months I decided it was time to leave."

"Because of the accommodations."

"Not that.  I wanted to leave before they discovered that they had paid me for false information."

The visitor stiffened.  "False?  You mean you didn't betray us?"

"I changed sides for money.  Isn't that betrayal enough?  I simply chose not to give them the information they wanted, so I had to get away before they found out."

The visitor scratched his head with the hand that didn't hold the gun.  "If we could be sure that that was true, that the secrets you held are still secret--"

"It would change a lot of plans, perhaps a national policy or two.  Agents you thought were known would be usable.  Codes, programs, and operations that were cancelled when I left could be dusted off."

"But--"

"But you can't be sure, can you?  I might be lying to you.  Once a traitor, always a traitor.  I taught you that."

The visitor nodded.  "But it would be just lie you to sell out and then double-cross the buyers.  After you left we tracked down all the little betrayals you made along the way to the big one.  Have you always had a price?"

The old man smiled and said nothing.

"It was very interesting, you know, this hunt for my old teacher.  All the time I wondered whether natural causes had already finished you off.  Or someone from the other side.  You know there are several countries that put a bounty on you, alive or dead?"

"Who are you working for, by the way?"

Pablo watched the visitor's face go white.  "You know who I work for.  Just because you're for sale doesn't mean that everyone is."

"A patriot, are you?  You don't sound like a student of mine."

"But I am -- they never let me forget that.  Do you know what your selling out cost those of us you trained?  A black mark on our records forever.  Every time our name comes up for assignment or promotion, they remember our teacher and feel a touch of suspicion.  When you betrayed your country you betrayed each of us."

"When I had influence you were willing to ride on my coattails.  You should know by now that there are free rides are always expensive in the end."

The visitor was trembling with fury.  "It wasn't like that.  You know it wasn't."

The old man sat in silence for a moment.  "Is this interrogation over?"

"One more question.  You mist have been noticed around here, as a foreign on the run.  How come the beloved Presidente of this country didn't turn you in?  It would be just like him."

"The fool thinks that I'm a Nazi.  There's a lot of them down here and they've poured gold into his Swiss bank.  So, accidentally, I fall under their protection."

"In that case, why aren't the Israelis hunting you?"

"They were.  When they found me I convinced them of the obvious fact that I wasn't a Nazi, and won their silence about who I really was."

"How?"

"I sold them the location of a few real Nazis/"

The visitor shook his head "You sell them out while their bribes are protecting you.  You really are amazing.  I think that betrayal is compulsive with you.  It comes as naturally to you was breathing."

Pablo had never seen the old man look so ancent.  "Breathing isn't as natural as you might think.  Sometimes I have to force myself to take the next breath."

"Look at me, teacher.  Look at me!  I s there one thing which you have not betrayed?"

The old man struggled to his feet. "I have always been loyal to my own interest."

The visitor's laugh was cracked and angry.  Pablo hadn't realized how tense the visitor really was.

"Your own interest? Look at you!  Dressed in  rags, waiting in the jungle to be hunted down and killed, living in this hole with no one who cares enough about you to bury you when you die.  You've done very well for yourself."

The old man leaned against a wall, trying to stand straight.  The foreigner got to his feet.

The old man spoke, and his voice was cold and hollow.  "Do what you came to do."

"You betrayed us all."  The foreigner raised his gun.  Remember that."

As fast as a jungle snake, Pablo turned over and hit the weakest spot on the roof.  The wood gave, then cracked, and he fell through with a crash.  The wood didn't hit the visitor, but as he darted aside in confusion he lost his balance.  As he fell to the ground he fired one shot.  When Pablo was able to get up he found the visitor lying unconscious, and the old man bleeding from a bullet hole in his leg.

****

The old man groaned as Pablo tightened the rags around his leg.  The wound had started bleeding again while they were burying the visitor.  The body was deep in the jungle with its neck broke, all identification and money taken.  When someone came looking for him they would assume that he had been killed by robbers.

Pablo had been surprised at how easily the old man had recovered once there was a specific job that needed doing.  He had tied up his leg, and then killed the unconscious man, showing none of the exhaustion that had weighed him down a few minutes before.

But now that the work was done he lay on his cot in the shack and moaned.  "I'm going to die."  He tried to sit up and the effort sent tears down his cheeks.

Pablo pushed him back with an gentle hand on the shoulder.  "You will not die, old man."

The old man looked at him, and finally  asked the question that had hung between them for hours.  "Why did you do all this?  You mist have heard what he said about me.  What makes you think that I'm worth saving?"

Pablo smiled.  "I will take care of you.  You will get well."

The old man closed his eyes.  For hours he lay there he lay there trembling, and Pablo never left his side.  At one point, late in the night he began muttering: "Loyalty... a second chance... loyalty."

Three years, thought Pablo.  He must live for three more years.  Then I will be sixteen, old enough to be taken by the army, like my brother Felipe.  Old enough to be treated like a man.  I will go to the city then and sell the old man to the highest bidder, and Mama and the children will never be hungry again.

"You will not die, old man," he said softly.

18 September 2019

All the World's a Con, Dublin Style



by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I wrote about my recent trip to Ireland.  We finished up at the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin.  Imagine 5,000 plus dedicated fans spending five days discussing books, movies, writing, science, and related issues.  Bouchercon on steroids.  So here are some highlights, and a few, uh, sidelights.

As it happened the first panel I attended was "A Portable Sort of Magic: Why We Love Books About Books."  Oddly enough, it turned out to NOT be about books.  It was mostly psalms in favor of libraries; not that I complained about that.  Genevieve Cogman writes a series of books called the Invisible Library, which (as I understood it) features people collecting books from around the universe.  A.J. Hackwith has written The Library of the Unwritten, about the place that books go if their authors never get around to writing them.  Tasha Suri, who is also a librarian, made useful distinctions between a library and an archive (briefly: an archive stores the only or original copy of something).

She also pointed out that those beloved "little libraries" that pop up on so many street corners are not libraries either.  They are book swaps.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  And I learned that almost every bus in Hamburg, Germany, has a book swap shelf.  What a great idea!

For some reason I wound up seeing a lot of panels featuring editors, and they were full of startling moments.  For example, one important book editor was not familiar with the phrase "Kill your darlings," which astonished me.

At one panel someone mentioned elevator pitches and editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden quoted what seemed to be a standard joke pitch for (I assume) a TV series:  "He's a chimp.  She's the Pope.  They're cops."  I'd watch that!

There was a panel of anthology editors and I asked: when they solicit stories from authors, what do they tell them about payment?  The editors seemed astonished.  "Nothing!" they declared.  Apparently science fiction authors are much less tied to petty materialistic things than mystery writers...

But the highlight for me was when I attended a panel featuring Wataru Ishigame, who edits science fiction for Tokyo Sogen.  Afterwards I went up to introduce myself and explain our connection but I never got the chance.  As soon as he saw my name tag he said "We publish your books!"  So we had a lovely chat.

I attended interesting science panels on "The Future of Food" and on DNA testing.  I won't attempt to summarize that stuff.

But honestly I didn't attend as many panels as I hoped because the Convention Centre Dublin was overwhelmed.  If you wanted to attend a session at noon you had to forgo any 11 AM session and get in line by 11:30.  It was that kind of crowding.  And the security staff was pretty unbearable, especially on the first day.  (The week before had been Comicon and I wonder if they were, in effect, fighting the last war?)

My favorite example of the problem.  My wife had been waiting in line for half an hour when a security guard came up and told her she was facing the wrong way.  Not that she was in the wrong place.  Not that she was in the wrong line.  But that she had to turn around and face the same direction as everyone else.  Daring rebel that she is, my wife said "No," and the guard backed down.  But, sheesh.

One more story.  I volunteered to work at the Registration Desk on Wednesday and Thursday morning.  During my four hour shift on Thursday my daypack vanished.  I didn't think any member of the public would have been able to steal it so I figured one of the other registration mavens had relocated it.  But no one could find it.

The good news is, it turned up on Saturday, literally minutes before I was going to leave to try to purchase a replacement.  I am very grateful to everyone who hunted for it and made an effort to get it back to me.

But, as they say in management school, it is possible to distinguish between process and product.  While the product was great (got my daypack!) the process had a few bumpy patches.  To illustrate, let me imagine a discussion that must have occurred.  I will try to refrain from sarcasm.

"Hey! Here is the daypack that charming and devilishly handsome volunteer was looking for.  I will take it across the foyer to the Lost and Found desk."  
"No, don't do that."
"Ah, I understand.  Because it is the end of the day you think I should take it directly three flights up to the Ops Office where lost objects are locked safely away for the night."
"No, don't do that either.  I happen to know that that volunteer's wife was working in the Finance Office, so take it up there."
"Are you sure she will volunteer there again?"
"No, but it stands to reason if she did one shift she will do another, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so.  Very well.  I will carry the daypack up the five flights and leave a note for her so she  knows it's there."
"Don't be silly!  No need to waste trees with paper notes. Just tell whoever is in the Finance Office about it and if/when she returns I'm sure one of the people you mention it to will happen to be there at the same time, will recognize her, remember what you mentioned, and be able to find the pack in the office, which, of course, is not set up to store missing items."
"Yes, that makes perfect sense.  But first I will stroll over to the Lost and Found Desk and tell them so they can stop looking for the pack and delete it from their database of missing objects."
"Again, why this obsession with direct communication?  I'm sure if we simply float happy thoughts in their direction they will grasp that the object has been found and make the corrections to their files."
"Thanks.  Now I understand.  I will  carry the daypack up five flights on the overcrowded escalators the nice security guards asked us not to overuse, rather than simply walking across the foyer to the Lost and Found Desk where any sensible person would expect a missing object to be returned."

Possibly a smidge of sarcasm slipped in there.  I hope you didn't notice.

To be fair, a Worldcon attendee whose opinion I greatly respect told me she would have also decided to bring the bag up to the Finance Office.  I replied: would you have told the Lost and Found folks that it had been recovered?  No, she said, but it would have been a good idea.

I think so too.

Those of you have seen my reports on other events can guess that I am about to include some quotes from panels.  There aren't so many this time because of the issues described above, but here you go...

"We can't put stuff back in Pandora's box but we can slip a warning label on the side." - Aimee Ogden

"A library is essentially a place of possibility." - A.J. Hackwith

"He's the sort of person you have to go into business with or you have to have him killed." - Patrick Nielsen Hayden

"When I originally wrote that novel I had a main character who I fired.  We had a labor dispute." - Benjamin Rosenbaum

"If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question." - Ginjer Buchanan

"I love that book.  It should not work.  It annoys me that he's that brilliant." - Laura Anne Gilman

"I am a science fiction writer and that is why I'm not having my DNA tested." -Aimee Ogden

"You have to blame something and it can't be me." - John R. Douglas

04 September 2019

Think Green




Meeting an old friend in Galway Cathedral.
by Robert Lopresti

In August my family spent three weeks in Ireland, the ancestral home of one-eighth of my genes.  I wish I could tie it to mysteries or writing, but I really can't (except for the ending of this piece, as you will see).  I suppose I should just be grateful I have no crimes to report.  But, in any case, here are my random  observations from the Rocky Road to Dublin.

* Speaking of crime, we were warned in advance that "People there are so friendly you will think they are trying to get something from you."  We found that to be an exaggeration, but in Galway, where we spent the first week, some people did go above and beyond. The same woman helped us in two different neighborhoods, making me wonder if she was following us.

* In Galway (but not Dublin) every supermarket sold packages of pancakes, just like you might buy tortillas or naans here.  They often said "American style!" although I have never seen them sold that way in America.

* And speaking of food oddities, This photo shows a combination I never expected to see:

*One more food thing!  Pizzerias in Dublin don't seem to believe that basil goes on a Margherita pizza.  It was invented to honor the queen of Italy and has the colors of the national flag.  Red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil).  You guys are apparently honoring Switzerland. 

* Every shop in Dublin bragged of "Ireland's Best Coffee!" or "Dublin's Favorite Burger!" or "Best Ice Cream!"  If someone had promised "Temple Bar's Third-Best Tea!" I would have purchased some just out of gratitude for the change.

* By coincidence we arrived the week of the Galway Races, which is a Big Thing in the horsey world.  Every day one of the main streets was stuffed with buses taking people off to the track.  Thursday was Ladies Day and it looked like prom night, with the city full of young women in fancy dresses, wobbling along on five inch heels.

* One of the highlights of our trip was taking the ferry to Inis Mor, largest of the Aran Islands off the west coast.  They say there are three thousand miles of stone walls on the three islands, and I believe them.  We rented bikes and peddled our way to Dun Aonghasa, a fort that is at least 2,500 years old.  When I put this photo up on Facebook one my friends asked: "Is that blood on the gateposts?"  Could be, could be.

* My favorite living Irish non-mystery author is Roddy Doyle.  (You may have seen The Commtments, based on his first novel.)  A few years ago he created a Twitter account as research for a novel.  Doyle filled it with conversations between two imaginary friends in a pub and this proved so popular that he turned it into a play, which has been performed in pubs in the British Isles for a few years.  Two Pints just premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  We got to see it, and it is hilarious.  I hear it is coming to America  next year, so be on the look-out.

* Being archaeology nuts we made a special trip to Newgrange, a 5,000-old-passage tomb in County Meath.  What you see in this photo is a man-made hill. On the winter solstice the sunrise shines straight through the passage into the tomb.  You can enter a raffle to be one of the lucky people inside to watch it happen, but be warned that, this being Ireland in December, you may see nothing but fog and rain.

*We also visited Tara, the famed home of Celtic history.  Unfortunately, it is much more interesting from the air.  On the ground you see mostly rolling hills and can't detect much of the ancient patterns.  Not surprisingly, there are signs warning that drones are not permitted.

* If you know your Irish history you know that the General Post Office in Dublin was the center of the Easter uprising in 1916.  (So legendary did it become it that the joke goes that "thirty brave men marched into the post office and ten thousand heroes marched out.")  You can visit the GPO now and see a terrific exhibit that tries to explain the whole event with its bloody background and bloody aftermath.

* The National Library of Ireland currently has an excellent exhibit on W.B. Yeats.  It is definitely worth an hour of your time featuring recordings of his poetry, rare copies of his books, and art connected to his life.   (His brother and the unrequited love who was his muse were both fine painters.)  What struck me as weird was I did not see a single mention of what I think of as his most famous poem.  

Also on display was a survey Yeats received from some university on the subject of creativity.  One question asked: what did he do in the fallow periods when he was waiting for inspiration to strike?  His answer: read detective stories.  Good man!

The reason we scheduled our trip for August was to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Dublin.  Some of you may remember that I reported here about an earlier Worldcon.  This one was also plenty interesting and I'll tell you about it in two weeks.  In the mean time have a cup of third-best tea, or something..





















21 August 2019

Made in the Decade



by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 August 2019

Smoke Gets In Your Line-Up


by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

While they conversed the line extended behind me and--

"Excuse me!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 July 2019

Because It Isn't There


by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

And other stuff happened, but that's enough.

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

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

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially voice.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

19 June 2019

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


The author (R) with lampshade.
by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS AHEAD.

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

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

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

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