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

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks



As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

15 April 2020

My Misadventure on West Thirty-Fifth Street


Yesterday the mysterious Press published The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe,  which Publishers Weekly described as, ahem, "superb."  And who am I to argue?

I have a story in the book and I am racking my brains to say anything about Rex Stout and his wonderful creation that I didn't say here or here or even here. 

So let's take a different approach.  Last year Josh Pachter told me he was going to be editing a book of  different authors' takes on the world's fattest master detective and asked if I had anything to contribute.

I had to regretfully decline.  I don't really write parodies and I am not such a fan of pastiches (which I define as writing another story in the style of an already existing body of work.)

But then I realized that there was a third possibility: a homage.  To me this means you muck around in another writer's universe but don't create another work of the type that writer has already produced.

It can be a subtle difference, I admit.   If I write another Sherlock Holmes story, attempting to keep as closely to Conan Doyle's style as possible, that's a pastiche.  But when Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven Percent Solution, rewriting the history of Holmes and adding Sigmund Freud to the story, that was a homage.  Got it?

And it occurred to me that I could look at Wolfe and friends from a different viewpoint than Stout had done.  So I told Josh to give me a little time before he started the presses, so to speak.

An important fact about great literary characters: seen objectively a lot of them are annoying as hell.  Seriously, how long could you have tolerated the smug genius of Holmes before you strangled him?  How about Rumpole, Columbo, or House, M.D.?  Even Huckleberry Finn might have been pretty exasperating.  All of them are great to visit, but you sure  wouldn't want to live there.  As Ogden Nash wrote: "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance."

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a number of books about the Howard Families. To oversimplify, these are people who are much longer-lifed than most folks.  The one member of the group who never seems to age at all uses the name Lazarus Long and he is virtually worshipped by his fellows.

But, boy, he seems truly irritating to me.

In Heinlein's book The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, we finally see Long through the eyes of a non-Howard character and guess what? He loathes the guy.  I felt vindicated.   

So I wrote a story that looked at the residents of that famous brownstone on West 35th Street from the viewpoint of their neighbors who had to put up with late night meetings, the occasional shooting or bombing... And Josh made "The Damned Doorbell Rang" the last story in the book.

I call that superb.

01 April 2020

The Night Big Ben Fell


I expected this piece to be the highlight of my January 15th column on Today in Mystery History.  Unfortunately it turned out that my original source was wrong: the event in question happened a day later.  Rather than hold back until 2030, the next time January 16 falls on a Wednesday, I decided to make this a free-standing entry, so to speak.

Our subject is a radio hoax, one that terrified large parts of a nation and led to furious condemnation of the brilliant man who conceived it.  It happened--

Excuse me?

I believe I heard some of you saying: "Slow your roll, Lopresti.  You are off by a lot more than one day.  Orson Welles famous broadcast of 'War of the Worlds' didn't happen in January at all.  It was the night before Halloween, 1938."

Right you are, dear friend, and completely wrong as well.  Because I was referring to a different hoax. One with a mystery writer front and center.

Monsignor Ronald Knox was an English Catholic priest, and a mystery writer.  He is best remembered today for his  Ten Commandments of detective fiction, which were at least partly tongue in cheek.  Example: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable".

In 1926 the  British Broadcasting Company (It didn't become the Corporation for another year) was being criticized for being boring, so they hired the famously witty Knox to give them some spark. And spark he did.

On January 16th, in a studio in the back of an Edinburgh music store he performed a one-man show.  The BBC warned that the show was going to be humor, but it began like any news show.  Then it reported that protesters had gathered in Trafalgar Square, led by Mr. Poppleberry, the leader of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.

In between less-interesting news reports came announcements of mob violence, explosions, and the roasting alive of one official who "will therefore be unable to deliver his lecture to you." And then a mortar attack on the Houses of Parliament:  “The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben.” Finally the BBC itself was attacked.

It may seem crazy that anyone could take this nonsense seriously, but radio was still a new medium (having started in the UK in 1920) and sound effects - used liberally here - were unheard of, so to speak.  Keep in mind that the Bolshevik Revolution was a fresh memory, and a national strike in Britain was being planned for the spring.

So people called the BBC demanding to know what was really going on.  Some people wanted the Navy to attack the entirely fictional rioters.  "People Alarmed All Week-End" ran one newspaper headline.

Martin Edwards, in his excellent book, The Golden Age of Murder, suggests that this disaster encouraged the BBC to look for a less risky form of entertainment and led to some of the greatest British crime writers, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and yes, even Father Knox,  to create a round-robin mystery for the radio.

So, that's the true story of a radio hoax.  And none of this has been an April Fool's joke.

18 March 2020

From the Smithsonian With Love


Some of us bloggerinos and bloggerettes are always looking for public domain pictures to illustrate our words of wisdom.  And boy, we just scored big time.

In February the Smithsonian Institution announced they are releasing almost three million images to the public domain.  Contents from 19 museums plus libraries, research centers, and the National Zoo.  All free for the download.

And, unlike the British Library illustrations that are free on Flickr, searches seem to work pretty well.  (Except that whatever I search for I always get some plant diagrams.  What's that about?)

Here are a few examples related to our favorite subject.  Enjoy.










04 March 2020

Today in Mystery History: March 4


This is the fifth installment in my series on the history of mystery fiction. Don't worry; I have 361 more to go before I run out.

March 4, 1881.   According to William S. Baring-Gould's  The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was on this date that one of the most famous fictional relationships began, when Dr John H.Watson's new roomie invites him to participate in a case.

March 4, 1881. On the same day, but thousands of miles to the southwest, T.S. Stribling was born in Tennessee. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Store, but we are more interested in his mystery stories about psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli.  

March 4, 1931. This date saw the publication of John Dickson Carr's The Lost Gallows. It is one of his novels about Henri Bencolin, a French police detective referred to as "Mephistopheles with a cigar."  Where there's smoke...  (By the way, you may notice a French theme in today's entries.)

March 4, 1959.  On this day somebody started leaving severed hands around the streets of Isola.  So begins the plot of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novel  appropriately entitled Give The Boys A Great Big Hand.

March 4, 1982.  The premiere of Police Squad.  It only lasted six weeks because you actually had to watch it to get the jokes.  Fortunately movie-goers pay more attention so the spin-off Naked Gun movies were more successful.

March 4, 2003. Jean-Baptiste Rossi died on this day. His first novel, about a schoolboy who fell in love with a nun, was published in the U.S. as Awakening in 1952 and sold 800,000 copies.  A decade later, running into money problems, he started writing crime novels  under an anagram of his name: Sebastien Japrisot.  He won several awards for these books and most were made into movies.


March 4, 2014.  The publication date for Murder in Pigalle, Cara Black's fourteenth novel about Aimee Leduc.  In it she is five months pregnant and her neighbor's thirteen year old daughter goes missing.


19 February 2020

Premises, Premises


I recently had an amazing insight into my own writing.  You might say: Well, after forty years it's about time.  To which I reply: Don't be obnoxious.

And the insight which, as I said, amazed me, may strike you as blindingly obvious.  Even tautological. That's a problem with great discoveries: like magician's tricks they can be boring when they're explained.  But let's give it a shot.

I have always said that I am strong at characters and premises, but weak at plot.  So, what's the difference between a premise and a plot?  Think of the premise as the elevator pitch for the story:

The Premise: An orphan boy discovers that he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

The Plot (greatly condensed): At the school he makes friends and enemies, learns about magic and his family history, and struggles with a sorcerer who is plotting to kill him.

Or, to move into our own field...

The Premise: A private detective seeks to find who murdered his partner.

The Plot (greatly condensed): He learns that their client is mixed up with an international gang searching for a priceless medieval artwork.

This reminds me of Donald E. Westlake's Drowned Hopes.  In the middle of a complicated caper (which almost kills him)  John Dortmunder bails out and refuses to participate.  His partner hopes one of the other members of the gang and take over:

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”
“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

I feel for you, Andy. As I said, I am pretty good at coming up with premises for stories, but working out the details of a plot is a struggle.  That may be why I have a whole notebook full of ideas that don't seem about to bloom into publishable woks any time soon.

Now, another fact: I tend to write shorter-than-average stories.  I currently have eight tales that have been purchased by magazine or anthologies but not yet published.  They average out to about 3,900 words.  The Derringer Awards separate their Short and Long Story categories at 4,000 words, so you can see where I fall.  (And my median is even lower: 3,600 words.)

So now we get to the blazing discovery I just made.  Ready?  The reason I write short is that in very short pieces the premise is the plot.  For example, consider my story "Why" which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The Premise:  A cop resigns because of a discovery he made while investigating the motive of a mass murderer.


The Plot (Not at all condensed): Same as the above.


See what I mean?  Now, I don't blame you if you're reaction to this shocking insight is: Well, duh.  But it was news to me.

I have to sit with this discovery for a while, and try to see if it helps me with my plotting problem.  Meanwhile, I hope some of those eight stories find their way into print in the coming year.  At least most of them won't take up too many pages.





07 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner, Part Two


I published the first half of this story on Wednesday.   Better start there or you won't have any idea what's going on.

Here is the big finale...


The widow agreed to talk to them, against Wyngood’s adamant objections, but she insisted that Forillo had to be present too.

“There must be some mistake.”

“You figure this was somebody else’s death card that your husband just happened to tuck into his safe? Have you and Mr. Forillo killed other people?”

“No! But Arthur told me—“

“Did you ever see his death card?’

“No, but—“

“Did you, Mr. Forillo?”

The assistant shook his head. He hadn’t said a word since the safe had opened.

“But you knew he was supposed to died in a fall,” said Staney.

“That’s what he told us.”

“And where were you when your employer died?”

“We already told you. Ms. Duplessis and I were in one of the anterooms on the other side of the hall, finishing the paperwork.”

“That’s what you said,” agreed Merritt. “Funny thing is the techs didn’t find any sheets of paper in that room. They did find a bed sheet in the closet. Apparently it had been on the couch and there were bodily fluids on it. We’ve got a court order to see if the fluids belonged to you and Ms. Duplessis.”

‘They did,” said Forillo.

“Ed,” said the widow, alarmed.

“We’re in love,” he said. “Her husband was a viscious old bastard, but we didn’t kill him.”

Wyngood said “If they were together there they obviously didn’t push someone down the staircase.”

“I don’t know how long they were spreading fluids,” said Merritt, “but we have a twenty minute hole for Mr. Duplessis to die. That’s plenty of time. Plus, Mr. Forillo found the body.”

“Speaking of fluids,” said Staney, “have you two used the death machine?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the lawyer.

“We’ve already got a court order for blood, counselor. The courts say we can run it through the death-box.”

“Diabetes,” said Forillo, still blank-faced.

“Breast cancer,” said Ms. Duplessis. “Are you happy now?’

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” said Staney. “But the question remains: If you didn’t kill him, how did your names get on that card?”

“Oh god,” said the widow. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t you see what happened?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Arthur must have found out that we were having an affair. He killed himself out of jealousy. That’s what the death card meant.”

“That makes sense,” said Wyngood. “The machine meant he killed himself because of Talia and Sam.”

“Nice try,” said Merritt. “The problem is juries don’t like complicated stories. If the machine says shot by your uncle the jury is going to assume your Uncle Mike came with a gun, not that Uncle Sam came with a tank.”

“That makes no sense,” said Wyngood.

“Then try this. You’re both under arrest.”



“Machine-gunned by rebels.” Merritt was driving.

“No.”


“Sex with beautiful twins on your ninetieth birthday.”

“That’s it.”

“Hah. You wish. Drowned in a butt of malmsey.”


“A what of what?”

“Barrel of cheap wine. Some English king killed an enemy that way. Katy’s studying Shakespeare.”

“Smart kid. She must take after her mama.”

“Thank God for that.” Merritt pulled into a parking space.

Staney tapped his fingers on the plastic envelope that held the death card. “Give me a couple of minutes. I want to drop this at the lab.”


They decided to let Talia and Ed, as they called them now, stew in separate rooms at the station. After two hours they decided it was time.

“Divide and conquer,” said Merritt. “I’ll take the stud.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Staney and entered the widow’s room.

She looked like hell. Her eyes were red, her face was grim. “I’m not saying a word until Charlotte gets back. She’s arranging bail.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Duplessis. I don’t have a single question for you. I just want to tell you what’s going on. Detective Merritt is in the next room talking to your lover, who has not reached a lawyer yet. Merritt will tell him that there are two ways this can go. Either the jury is going to hear about the poor abused wife who was seduced by her husband’s evil assistant--”

“That’s not true!”

“Let me finish. The other choice is that the jury will hear that the black widow talked the innocent young man into killing her hubby.”

He shrugged. “Whoever confesses first frames the story and gets the best deal. My partner is telling your partner that Ms. Wyngood will convince you to sell him out before his lawyer finds the precinct house.”

Talia banged her hands flat on the table. “But we didn’t do anything!

“The death machine says you did and no one has proved one wrong yet.”

“Ed is not going to betray me. I have faith in him.”

“The real question,” said Staney, “is whether he has faith in you.”



Wyngood came back, swearing about the evil incompetence of judges, none of whom apparently saw the wisdom of holding emergency bail hearings for wealthy murder suspects. The lovers were still holding out an hour later when the detectives stopped for a coffee break. Staney had just had a first sip when his phone buzzed. He read the ID and looked at his partner. “Back in a few.”

He hurried to the crime lab where Roma, the questioned document man, was waiting for him.

“Why this one?” Roma held up the envelope with the death card. “You see hundreds of these things a year. Why did you send this one to me?”

“First tell me what you found.”

Roma shrugged. “Card stock is one hundred percent legit. Ditto the ink and font.”

Staney scowled. “So it’s real.”

“Not so fast. It’s time to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

“Who’s he? A coroner?”

“Nope. He was an English dude who wrote dictionaries hundreds of years ago. But he also reviewed a book – not a dictionary – and he said ‘this is a good and original book, but the good parts are not original, and the original parts—”

“Are not good. I get it. But what does that have to do with the death card?”

Roma brandished the item again. “The card stock is used by all the Cassandroid machines. The ink and font are standard for the Mortellis Corporation.”

“So they shouldn’t be on the same card.”

“Bingo. This is the first serious forgery of a death card I ever saw. It took someone with access to good equipment.”

“How about a publisher who also owns art galleries?”

“Jackpot.”



“About time you got back,” said Merritt. “Forillo’s lawyer says he’s ready to cop a deal. You’ll never guess, but it turns out it was the widow’s idea and he was practically an innocent bystander.”

“No deal on the deal,” said Staney. “Get him into Conference Room C. I’ll fetch the ladies.”

The widow was crying and her lawyer looked ready to commit grievous bodily harm on somebody.

“Your partner was just in here, gloating,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of lie you talked Mr. Torillo into—“

“Ms. Duplessis can walk out of here with a clean slate in half an hour,” said Staney. “Or you can lecture me. What’s your pleasure?”



Room C had a long table, but it wasn’t long enough for the former lovers, who wanted nothing to do with each other. They sat at opposite ends, refusing to look in each other’s directions.

Wyngood and Forillo’s lawyer – fresh from the bar exam, by the look of him – were at their clients’ sides. Merritt sat between like a referee.

Staney stood. “You were right about one thing, Ms. Duplessis. Your husband somehow discovered you two were having an affair. He decided to kill himself.”

“Out of jealousy?” asked Merritt.

“I imagine that was the last straw. Did you know he had MS?”

Talia’s eyes went wide. “The doctor’s office called once about a test for MS. He said it was a mistake.”

“We can check his medical records, but I think we’ll find that he did. He knew it wouldn’t kill him – I’m guessing his death card really did say he would die in a fall – but out of a desire for vengeance, he decided to frame you two for murder.”

“Actually,” said Ed, “I’m surprised the old bastard didn’t try to kill us.”

Staney shook his head. “Breast cancer. Diabetes. Remember? He already knew how you were going to die.

“So he printed a false death card and killed himself where there would be plenty of people to notice that you two were conspicuously absent. I’m guessing he waited until he saw you sneak off to your hideaway. Then he headed for the staircase.”

“What about the blow to the head?” asked Merritt.

“Did it himself with his cane. One blow, hard enough to draw blood. Takes determination but he had enough hate in his heart for it, don't you think? Then the tumble down the stairs, which he had every reason to believe would be fatal.”

“So that’s it?” said Wyngood. “They’re free to go?”

“With thanks for their cooperation.”

Ed stood up, moving toward the widow, arms outstretched.

Talia stepped back like had had rabies. “Don’t come near me, you – you – backstabber! You were ready to perjure me into prison!”

Ed stammered something. It didn’t do any good.

“Listen,” said Staney. “Listen!”

Everyone turned to him,

“Mr. Duplessis’s last wish was that you two would be miserable for the rest of your lives. Are you going to going to give him the satisfaction?”

Talia turned to Ed, who was ready and waiting.

“Guess not,” said Merritt.



“What made you think it was a frame?” Merritt asked. They were at their computers, closing up files.

“A matter of character, I guess. We were supposed to think Duplessis knew his wife and assistant were going to kill him, but that he didn’t tell them, or try to do anything about it.” Staney frowned. “From what we knew about the guy, I didn’t think he would go that route. Frankly, I don’t think most people could. I mean, knowing someone close to them was going to be the cause of their death and going on like nothing was wrong? That’s got to be hard as hell.”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t sound so difficult.”

“When was the last time you went to a domestic disturbance?”

“Okay, you’ve got a point. I admit that was a good piece of detective work. Just don’t get a swelled head over it. Hey! There’s your cause. Swelled head.”

“No.”

“Nibbled to death by ducks.”

“Seems like it sometimes.”

05 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner


Rob Lopresti and cat
Let's talk about Machine of Death, a concept I mentioned back in October (and will review below).  I wrote two short stories for the sequel book and both were rejected. I lamented here that the concept was so specific I would never be able to get the stories published.

And Leigh asked: “Why not put them up at SleuthSayers?”

Why not indeed?

The idea began in a cartoon by Ryan North. Imagine a machine: you put a drop of your blood in it and out pop a card telling you how you will die. It is always right.

But like oracles in thousands of years of stories, it can be misleading and ambiguous. Old age could mean a nonagenarian collapses at the wheel of his car tomorrow and runs you over. Mary could refer to your beloved wife, or a hurricane.

North edited a book with David Malki! (yes,the exclamation point is part of his name) and Matthew Bennardo. It was so successful that they announced there would be a sequel and invited submissions.

I sent in two and, as you guessed, they were both rejected. Below you will find the one that is crime-related. Specifically I wondered: How would homicide investigations operate in the world of the Machine?

I hope you enjoy it.


Shot by Your Partner

“It’s the oldest question,” said Staney. “Did Adam fall, or was he pushed?”

"The dude’s name was Arthur, not Adam,” said Merritt. “Arthur Duplessis.”

“That was a metaphor. I was waxing philosophical.”

“You better watch that waxing. Hey! There’s your cause of death. Overwaxing.”

“Uh, listen,” said the coroner’s tech. He was standing at the bottom of the staircase, examining the corpse that was the reason for the gathering. “It’s not official yet, but the cause of death is a broken neck.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, sonny,” said Merritt. “My partner, Detective First Class Staney here, refuses to tell me what the death-box predicted for him.”

"None of your business.”

“You see what he’s like. But he promised that if I ever guessed correctly he would admit it.”

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“But I do. Choking on peanut butter.”

“No.” Staney looked around what was obviously the secondary staircase for this wing of the mansion. While it was a poor stepcousin of the curving grand staircase at the other end of the floor - a football team could have run up that one without feeling pinched - it was still better decorated than his own living room. “I take it Mr. Duplessis owned this place. Who are all those folks upstairs?”

The first uniform to arrive on the scene stepped forward. Her name tag said WALLINSKY. “The victim and his wife were hosting a fashion show. There were over a hundred people in the ballroom.”

“And nobody saw anything,” Merritt guessed.

“Not the ones we’ve talked to so far. They were all watching the show. And the room was dark except for the lights on the runway.”

“So Duplessis slipped out of the ballroom,” said Staney. “An older guy, stepping out of the darkness onto a brightly lit landing. He didn’t see where he was going and he took a tumble down the stairs. Could have happened.”

“In which case we can go home early.” Merritt frowned. “Who puts their ballroom on the second floor? When I win the lottery I’m building mine near the front door.”

“Billionaires do as they please. Ours not to reason why. Ours is to figure out if Mr. D. got a boost up on the way down.”

“Uh…” said the tech.

“Spit it out, sonny.”

“I’ve found something that might help you with that.”

“We’re all ears.”

“There’s a gash on the side of his head, above the temple.”

“And he didn’t get it falling down the stairs?”

“I don’t think so, sir. More like a blunt instrument.”

“Like maybe the cane?” asked Staney.

“Cane?”

“The wooden number with the silver handle. It’s lying near the wall behind you.”

“Get the Scenies to check it for prints and tissue,” said Merritt. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Me?” The tech looked startled. “Uh. Davis.”

“Okay, Davis. Good work. Could that blow have killed him?”

“I don’t think so, sir. But it could have made him dizzy, disoriented.”

“And then he falls,” said Staney. “Felony murder.”

“Or gets pushed,” said Merritt. “Plain old vanilla murder. Hey, that’s your cause. Vanilla murder.”

“No. But that brings up the obvious question. Did our boy have a death tag?”

“If not, it’s too late now.”

Not long after the machine was invented a clever cop took a blood sample from a corpse and ran it through a box to see if something helpful popped out, like maybe the killer’s name and address.

Instead what she got was Division by zero error. Later trials with blood samples which had been taken before the victim croaked got the same result.

Implying that, somehow, the damned machines knew when somebody died. That wasn’t widely advertised since it was, as one distinguished biologist put it, “creepy as hell.”



On the other hand, the only creepy thing about Talia Duplessis was that neither cop could tell whether she was a thirty-year-old woman dipped in too much make-up or a fifty-year-old woman who had spent a lot of quality time with expensive surgeons. She looked terrific but a little artificial.

“I can’t believe he’s dead,” she said, again. They were in the main wing of the mansion, where the lucky one-percenters lived, as opposed to the side where they entertained. The cops were interviewing her in a room she called the salon, which looked to Staney like a museum exhibit on conspicuous consumption. “He was only sixty-seven.”

“We noticed he had a cane,” said Staney.

“Yes. Arthur suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and it was getting worse. He should have used a walker, or a scooter. But he was too proud.” She frowned. “But why did he use the side stairs? There’s an elevator in the main hall.”

“Do you know why he was going downstairs in the first place?”

“No.”

“Where were you when he fell?”

“Me?” She paused to think. “One of the anterooms on the other side of the ballroom. Ed and I were checking the last minute details.”

“Ed?”

“Ed Forillo. Arthur’s assistant.”

“What was your husband’s business, by the way?” asked Merritt. “Was he a fashion designer?”

“Arthur? He didn’t have a creative bone in his body. He called himself a facilitator of the arts. He owned fashion magazines, and art galleries. A movie studio.”

“Did he have any enemies?”

“Enemies? Her eyes widened. “What a strange word. So medieval. I guess he had business rivals.”

“Were any of them here tonight?”

“Most of them.” She blinked, still playing catch-up. “What does this have to do with his accident?”

“There’s some evidence the fall might not have been an accident.”

“Oh my god.”

“Ms. Duplessis, do you know whether your husband ever used a death machine?”

“What? Yes. Broke neck in fall.” She shuddered. “That’s what it said. I told him we should block off the stairs, or move to a one-story house. He just laughed and said he might fall out of bed but he wasn’t going to sleep on the floor.”



“Mr. Forillo,” said Staney, “what exactly did you do here?”

The assistant was a good-looking man, thin and just over six-foot. Maybe thirty years old. If he was broken-hearted over his boss’s death he was managing to conceal it.

“I am—I was – Mr. Duplessis’ assistant.”

“I understand he owned a lot of businesses. Which one did you work for?”

Forillo smiled briefly. “My paychecks came from his publishing house, but I didn’t really work for them. My job was to coordinate his schedule, and keep any of his enterprises from taking up too much of his time.”

“You were his flak-catcher.”

“Something like that.”

“We understand you found his body,” said Merritt.

A nod. “The show was almost over and Ms. Duplessis wanted to make sure he was ready to make his speech. I didn’t see him in the hall and I thought he might have stepped out for a cigar.”

“His wife objected to him smoking? Even with the new med tobacco?”

“It’s terrible for people with arthritis.”

“I guess so,” said Staney. “How did you get along with Mr. Duplessis?”

A shrug. “I’ve had better employers, and worse. The money is good.”



A squad of detectives kept at the interviews until one A.M. when a wealthy guest persuaded the deputy chief to send everyone home.

“I don’t get it,” said Merritt, as they drove back to the station.

“What’s your problem now?”

“A man with all the money in the world, knew he was going to die in a fall. Why didn’t he move to a single story house? Hell, he could have hired a guard to stand at the top of the stairs, 24/7. Both staircases.”

“I guess he didn’t worry about it.”

“It’s crazy. You don’t see me going near a domestic disturbance.”

“If you keep slipping around on Vivian, I can tell you exactly which domestic disturbance you’ll die at. Hell, I can give you the address.”

“Wise ass. Hey, have I ever asked you if you die in a Domestic disturbance too?”

“You have.”



“Duplessis left the hall around ten and left this world before ten-twenty,” said Merritt the next morning. “Lao, our tame computer geek, pulled an all-nighter creating a matrix based on the statements of the guests. We have a list of everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two people.”

“We owe Lao a beer.”

“She doesn’t drink, but I’ll send her cheeseburgers with curly fries.”

“I don’t know how anyone can eat that crap,” said Staney.

“I guess she isn’t scheduled to die of a heart attack. Have I asked—”

“Yes. How many people are on that no-alibi list?”

“Nine. Including the grieving widow and the cold fish assistant.”

“Let’s see the others first.”



“I want to be diplomatic,” said Curtis Houston. “Speak no ill of the dead and all that. Arthur Duplessis was a turd in a five-grand suit.”

Staney’s eyes widened. “What would you say if you weren’t being diplomatic?”

“Just add examples, I suppose.”

Houston’s fashion business took up most of the ten-story building where they were seated. His office had a great view in two directions.

“What would his friends say?” asked Merritt.

“Hmm. That’s a puzzle.” He frowned at the ceiling. “I imagine they’d say that whatever he paid them to be his friends wasn’t nearly enough. Duplessis was vain, arrogant, and ruthless, never forgot a slight – I once saw him get a waiter fired merely because he looked like a different waiter Arthur hadn’t liked. I’m serious. He bragged about that.”

“So, he wasn’t an easy man to get along with.”

“No one got along with Arthur. You did what he wanted or you stayed the hell out of his way. You might think the MS would have made him take a broader view of things, but it just made him meaner.”

“MS?”

“Multiple sclerosis. Talia didn’t mention that?”

“She said he had rheumatoid arthritis.”

“It was more serious than that.” Houston shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know. Of course he wanted to keep it secret from his competitors, but I’m surprised he would lie to his wife about it. Or maybe she lied to
you.”

“How was Mr. Duplessis as a businessman?”

“The instincts of a Rockefeller. The ethics of a pickpocket.” Houston smiled. “If gravity had an email account, I’d send it a thank you.”

“What if it isn’t gravity that gets the credit?” asked Merritt.

Houston’s eyes widened. “You mean – was he pushed?”

“If he was, who had a motive? Besides you, of course.”

“Me?” He looked astonished. “Don’t be silly. I loved the man!”



The next few interviews didn’t do much except confirm that Duplessis had not been a popular guy.

Suspect number six was Charlotte Wyngood, the victim’s lawyer.

“I understand due diligence, detectives, but I hope this isn’t going to turn into harassment of my client.”

”I thought your client was dead,” said Staney.

“I worked for both husband and wife.”

“Any conflict of interest there?”

She frowned. “What’s your point, exactly? Several people have told me you are asking some pretty rude questions.”

“Police investigations can get rude,” Merritt agreed. “That’s the worst thing about murder, I’ve always said.”

“Who said murder? Mr. Duplessis fell down the staircase.”

“After someone hit him on the head with his own cane.”

“Perhaps falling down the stairs…”

“He bumped the cane hard enough to leave blood on it? No.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with Ms. Duplessis.”

“We’re checking on everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two witnesses. For example, no one saw you after ten P.M.”

Wyngood’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, that’s why you’re here. The truth is, fashion shows bore me to tears. I was in one of the little rooms on the west side making business calls. I’m sure you can check my phone log.”

“Can and will. What did you think of Mr. Duplessis?”

A thin smile. “He paid his bills on time. And gave me some interesting challenges.”

“Ethical challenges?” asked Staney.

“I don't know what you’re implying-- Excuse me.” She looked at her phone. “Oh. It’s lucky you came by, detectives. A technician has arrived to open Mr. Duplessis’ safe.”

“And under Patriot Act III law enforcement representatives need to be present,” said Staney.

“To make sure there are no terrorist funds,” said Merritt, with a straight face.

“Very commendable,” said Wyngood, dryly. “Shall we go?”



“I say we’ll find a ton of Gazas in the safe,” said Staney, in the car. They were following the lawyer, who had refused to travel in a police car, even an unmarked one.

“Mind they don’t fall on you,” said Merritt. “Is that it? Crushed by a pile of gold coins?”

“My god, don’t you ever let up?”



The safe was a state-of-the-art cube six feet on a side, residing in the back of a closet in the victim’s dressing room.

The tech from the safe company was a state-of-the-art nerd with assorted gadgets hard-wired to his body. Once he had seen the court order, confirmed that cops were present, and received a thumb ID from the widow, the actual opening of the safe happened so fast as to seem an afterthought.

And a disappointment, too. Talia Duplessis immediately pulled out a leather folder. “Arthur’s will,” she explained, and handed it to Wyngood.

The rest of the loot was paperwork, stocks, and bonds.

Merritt was the first to spot a familiar rectangle of stiff white paper. “I’ll take that,” he said, picking up the death card in a gloved hand.

He read it and his eyebrows shot up. Then he handed it to Staney.

“Ms. Duplessis, what did you say was the machine’s prediction for your husband’s death?”

“Broke neck in fall.”

“That’s what I thought. So how do you explain this?”

Staney held the card out delicately, keeping it out of everyone’s reach. In the center of the card were the words: Talia and Ed.



Ah, but that's not the end of the story!  For the rest of the investigation click here..

29 January 2020

You've Tried The Rest; Now Read The Best




This is my eleventh annual list of the best mystery stories of the year as chosen by me. They are selected from my weekly best-story-review at Little Big Crimes.

2019 was the second year in a row that my number of favorites dropped by three.  So I have to ask my sibling authors: Is it you or me?  Probably me.   

The big winner this year is Akashic Press, since fully half of the stories come from their anthologies.  I should point out that they sent me free advance reader copies of all those books.  You cynics can draw your own conclusions.

Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines both scored two winners.

Seven authors are men; five are women.  Two are Australian; one is Dutch.  The rest, as far as I know, are Yankees.

Three of the stories are historicals.  Three are funny.  Two have fantasy elements.

And congrats to the winners.  Your impressive trophies are in the mail.  If they never show up it's the fault of porch pirates.  Probably.




Boswell, Robert, "The Use of Landscape," in Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda, Akashic Press, 2019.

Boswell offers a charming story about sociopaths.  Cole is the planner.  All he cares about is money.  Not to buy things;  just a way of keeping score.  He met his girlfriend when she tried to rob him. Tariq is a bartender and expert at cleaning crime scenes. Tariq has pointed Cole to a young woman, rich in money, poor in personality and brain power.

"Did I tell you what happened at Affirm today?" Madelyn asked.  Affirm was her gym.  She described the days activities in excruciating detail, a saga that lasted nearly twenty minutes.  Summary: she exercised.

You will be mightily entertained as the trio the narrator calls the Criminal Element plot their nastiness while discussing women's underwear and the books of Virginia Woolf.



Case, Sabrina, "Our Man in Basingstoke,"  in Fiction River: Spies, 2019.

Pity Sir Almsley.  He gave his estate to the War Office to help fight the Nazis, not expecting that he would be put in charge of a project to create new espionage techniques.  He has no skills in that field, his mission is underfunded, and his staff consists of what the sergeant calls "a human scrap metal drive."

But that's not all.  Peter Tilling, an enthusiastic and imaginative child, has been sent to a nearby farm to protect him from the blitz in London.  He is eager to slip into Almsley's estate to see the top-secret devices being built there.  Good luck with that, young Peter....



Clancy, Christi, "'Mocking Season," in Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Akashic Press, 2019.

Whitefish Bay is a pleasant bit of suburbia until it is disturbed by the arrival of Erin, who we might perhaps call a middle-aged hippy.  She lived in the one home that was not visible from the street, which disturbs the keepers of community norms, "the mothers," who feel that "It didn't seem right to live where you couldn't be seen."  And then there is her charismatic son Lief, who gets the boys into strange habits, like sleeping out doors.  That may be problematic because the mothers seem to care more about their yards than anything else...


Coward, Mat, "Shall I be Murder?", in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

In Coward's second appearance on my list, our narrator gleefully explains that he is "a self-confessed unreliable narrator."  Is he, as it appears, a blackmailer?  A murderer, perhaps?  Or something else entirely?  And clearly his obvious lying is part of his plan, but why?


Dapin, Mark.  "In the Court of the Lion King," in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

Chevy is an architect and he is in prison awaiting trial.  The police have security camera evidence that he killed his best friend, Jamie.

Fortunately, Chevy has a lawyer: an ex-girlfriend with no knack for the legal profession.  Oh, and the Vietnamese  in the prison want him dead.  Maybe the Lion King, a disgusting gang boss, can protect him for a price.

Don't worry.  Everything is going according to Chevy's plan...


Dean, David, "The Duelist," Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer, David Dean, is making his fourth appearance here.  This ties him for first place with Janice Law.

The time is pre-Civil War and the place is Natchez, Mississippi.  Captain Noddy has a habit of taking offense at innocent remarks by country bumpkins, and then taking their lives in duels.

Now a down-on-his-luck gambler named Darius LeClair has arrived in town and seems quite careless in talking to the dangerous captain.  Is he foolish or is he doing it on purpose?  Is he in fact a gambler or something quite different?



Fusilli, Jim, "Niall Nelson is on my Flight," in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September/October 2019.

Betty's point: You don't send money back.  You don't negotiate out of insecurity.  You push hard.  You demand.
My question: Do they really want me?

Paul has written a treatment for a movie based on the life of musician Nick Drake and now he is flying to France to talk to a studio interested in  making the flick.  He is afraid he is not good enough.  His much-younger wife Betty clearly thinks he is not ambitious enough.   And it turns out a famous A-list actor is on their flight, someone Betty thinks he should find a way to talk to...

I love Fusilli's clever  had-I-but-known use of foreshadowing.  It was one of those men, I later learned, who set out to harm us.  




McCormick, William Burton. "The Three Camillas,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  July/August 2019.

This is the second appearance here by McCormick.

The story is set during the rule of Caligula the mad in the Roman empire.  The narrator is Camilla Tertia, which is to say, the third Camilla. Tertia is twelve and, she reports proudly, "already considered far and wide the scoundrel and gossip of the family."

Her sister Secunda is about to make an unhappy marriage.  Tertia decides it can be prevented if her expensive engagement ring is lost - a bad omen!  And who better to make it disappear than Quintus the Clever, the luckless thief?  "Be an honest man, Quintus, and rob my sister!" 



McFadden, Bernice L. "OBF, Inc," in Cutting Edge, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2019.

Andrew is being laid off because the head of his company has been accused of multiple sexual harassment issues, leading the corporate stock to walk off a cliff.

But good news!  OBF, Inc. wants to talk to him about a possible job.  What is OBF exactly and what do they do?  The answer is extremely interesting and thought-provoking.



Taylor, Art, "Hard Return,"  in Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman, Wildside Press, 2019.

The man and the woman had reached that stage where their relationship would either turn more serious or slowly begin to dissolve.  The seriousness wasn't about sex, a threshold they'd already crossed, but a step into some deeper, more emotional intimacy.

My fellow SleuthSayer has written a fine story about time travel as, I think, a metaphor for certain human interactions.




Tranter, Kirsten, "The Passenger,"  in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

It's a rare thing when I agree with the Edgars Award short story judges, but we can sing harmony on this one.

Robert reluctantly attends a birthday party for an wealthy man, who is the father of his ex-girlfriend.   The father confides that the  daughter's husband has vanished.  Can Robert help find him? And then there's the younger daughter, who is caught up with a pornographer...

If this sounds familiar it is because this is a very clever homage to a famous crime novel.



van Keulen, Mensje,  "Devil's Island," in Amsterdam Noir, edited by Rene Appel and Josh Pachter, Akashic Press, 2018.


The narrator is trying to be helpful to his friend.  Jacob's girlfriend  left him and he can't seem to get over it.  On one bad night he even says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me."

Later that evening they are standing among the cigarette puffers outside a pub when a stranger comes out of the smoke and asks Jacob for a light.  He says that he prefers the old-fashioned wooden matches called lucifers.  "I like the smell of them, though, that momentary blast of sulfur..."



15 January 2020

Today in Mystery History: January 15


by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth installment in my occasional march through the history of our field.  Make sure you have your comfortable shoes on.

January 15, 1924.  Dennis Lynds was born on this date.    He wrote under the name Michael Collins, and won the Edgar award for his first novel, Act of Fear.  It featured one-armed private eye named Dan Fortune, who is often described as a transitional figure between the Hammett/Chandler school of private eyes and the Parker/Muller/Paretsky clan.  Besides almost twenty other books, Fortune starred in "Scream All The Way," a story in the August 1969 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I know that because it is the earliest story I can be certain I read in that magazine.  The tale and its illustration have stayed in my mind.

Under the name William Arden, Lynds also wrote fourteen books in The Three Investigators series, which I always enjoyed much more than the Hardy Boys.

January 15, 1924.  And speaking of Dashiell Hammett, he celebrated the birth of Dennis Lynds by publishing "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams" in Black Mask Magazine.  It's a suspenseful tale of a murderer in Montana who escapes from jail and runs into an innocent woman...

January 15, 1945.  On this date the Alfred Knopf publishing house started the Black Widow Thrillers, series.  It was perhaps the first attempt to canonize mystery fiction, creating a set of standard issue reprints of classic novels.  The first to arrive were Hammett's Maltese Falcon, Chandler's Big Sleep, and Ambler's Coffin for Dimitros.    Hey, Hammett is in three entries in a row.  Is that a trend?

January 15, 1948.  Sorry, no Hammett.  On this date Columbia Pictures released I Love Trouble, a noir movie written by Roy Huggins and starring Franchot Tone and Janet Blair.  If it is memorable today it is probably because Tone played a character named Stuart Bailey. You may remember that name from the classic TV show 77 Sunset Strip.  The movie and TV show were both based on Huggins' books/stories about that private eye.

January 15, 1965.  On this date  a certain famous person rang a certain famous doorbell...

January 15, 1973.  This was the year ABC gave up on trying to find a talk show host who could compete with Johnny Carson.  They chose instead to fill their late night slot with ABC's Wide World of Entertainment.  On this night they introduced one segment of it, a  series of 90-minute movies called Wide World of Mystery. 

I learned about this in a very entertaining article by Michael Mallory in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. (You do subscribe, don't you?  If not, why ever not?)  The first night's movie was called "An Echo of Theresa," but I want to tell you about a movie that appeared in the series later.  With Mike's permission, I repeat part of his description here:

While many of the stories bordered on the bizarre, none were stranger than "The Werewolf of Woodstock," which aired January 24, 1975.  Set in 1969 (obviously) it concerns a bitter, alcoholic farmer who loathes the younger generation, particularly those who attended Woodstock, which was staged near his property and left the place trashed.  During a freak electrical storm he takes a direct hit from a lightning bolt; instead of killing him... it turns him into a werewolf!  In his new bestial form he goes on a rampage against anyone he deems a "hippie," chiefly the members of a garage band who come to the site to record their own album (so they can claim it was "recorded at Woodstock").

If this makes you desperate to see the movie (produced by Dick Clark!) there are excerpts available here and here.  Perhaps that is as much as a human being can stand.  The series ended in 1976, and personally I don't miss it a bit.


January 15, 1981.  I remember exactly where I was that evening: watching the premiere of a great cop show on TV.  Remember Hill Street Blues?  It received 98 Emmy nominations.  Hell, even its theme song was a hit.

January 15, 1993.  This day saw the publication of Generous Death, Nancy Pickard's first novel.  (Well, her first published one.  She wrote one before this but, as she said, it "just sat there like a dead trout.")  Since then she has won multiple awards including the Shamus, Macavity, Anthony, and Agatha

January 15, 2008.  This date witnessed the Broadway premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's Thirty-nine Steps, a hilarious version of the great movie based on John Buchan's novel which essentially invented the genre in which the hero is being chased both by the cops and the bad guys.  The play is performed by one man playing the hero, a woman who takes most of the female parts, and two other actors who take on the rest of the roles, including a swamp and a forest.  I recommend it.