Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts

04 June 2024

The Force of Star Wars

James A. Hearn visits us again to discuss the inspiration behind one of his recently published stories.
—Michael Bracken 
The Force of Star Wars:
The Story behind “An Evening at the Opera House”
in Private Dicks and Disco Balls: Private Eyes in the Dyn-O-Mite Seventies

by James A. Hearn

Using the Force, Jedi Master Yoda lifts Luke Skywalker’s stranded X-wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah and sets it gently on the shore. Luke, having failed to move the ship himself, stares at Yoda in wonder.

I don’t… I don’t believe it.

That is why you fail.
— The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

It’s May 13th again, and my phone is blowing up with texts, pictures, and videos of my older brother, Sidney. There he is dunking my sister Barb underwater in her hot tub, “baptizing” her for probably the thousandth time. He went to live with Barb’s family after our Dad passed away in 2007, as some of you may have read in a previous SleuthSayers post about my Dad. Someone sends a video of Sidney “doinking” whoever’s behind the camera, and I’m laughing along with him. (For Three Stooges fans, the doink is the gag where Moe asks Curly to pick two fingers, then uses those fingers to poke his fellow stooge in the eyes.) Sidney’s doinks—his made-up onomatopoeia for this joke—could travel across the room and even through telephones. “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”

The Village Opera House in old Fort Worth.

The phone messages are flying in from across the country, as they do every May 13th, from our far-flung family members. It’s been five years since Sidney’s passing, and we’re remembering all the goofy, laugh-out-loud, crazy shit he used to say and do. (Apologies to Mom in Heaven, but shit is the best word here. Not dirty things by any means, just outrageous.)

Sidney-isms, we call them. He had his own unique language, and while strangers sometimes had a difficult time understanding him, we were native speakers. Out of all our family, I may have understood him best, for reasons I’ll explain.

Cooking hamburgers in
my backyard with Sidney.

As you can probably tell from the photos, Sidney had Down syndrome. This is a genetic condition caused by trisomy of the twenty-first chromosome, where the body’s cells have three separate copies of chromosome twenty-one instead of the usual two. Trisomy produces the telltale features common to all people with Down—such as small ears, almond-shaped eyes, and a wide range of health challenges of varying profundity–and occurs in about one in 700 live births.

Sidney couldn’t read, write, or count to ten. In his twenties, he needed a cane to walk because of a degenerative hip. In his thirties, the hip was replaced, and he graduated to a walker. And toward the end of his life, reaching the ripe age of fifty-nine, he needed a wheelchair. There was no way Sidney could ever hold a job or be self-sufficient, as some people with Down can. But my big brother had other, more important talents and abilities. His hugs drove away our troubles, and his jokes made us laugh so hard we cried. And he had the most gifted imagination I’ve ever encountered.

After graduating from Jo Kelly School (a facility in Fort Worth specially designed to educate students with disabilities), his “work” was looking at his comic books, playing his records (read-along storybooks and soundtracks composed by John Williams), and watching his favorite TV shows and movies.

Sidney as Yoda.

The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were among his favorites. Others were Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Twilight Zone, Batman, and The Adventures of Superman to name a few. He watched hundreds of shows, and since we shared a bedroom, so did I. And not just shows with ray-guns and rocket ships, but Westerns and detective shows. The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, The Rockford Files, and Magnum, P.I. Throw in comedies like Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, Sanford and Son, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island.

A million cultural references were filed away in his brain, to be used as the situation warranted. For example, whenever something exciting happened, he might clutch his heart like Redd Foxx and yell, “Elizabeth! Honey, I’m comin’ to join ya!” He was the original meme generator before the Internet was a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye.

The pantheon of Sidney’s Imaginarium—a sort of holy trinity—was Superman, Star Trek, and especially Star Wars. He watched and listened to these adventures over and over and over again. For Sidney, there was no such thing as too much of a good thing. He would often act out entire scenes, where he voiced all the characters, provided his own sound effects, and put himself in the starring role. He was Clark Kent, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one.

Growing up in the seventies, I shared a room with Sidney. If he watched Star Trek late nights on channel 39, so did I. (Woe to the person who touched his TV!) If he was “reading” his comic books, I read mine. Together, we consumed thousands of hours of cop shows, comedies, science fiction, and fantasy.


Please don’t think this time was wasted or spent idly, by either of us. These stories enabled Sidney to live out his dreams, to take his mind places where his body could never go. And by experiencing these things with him, I was able to understand what he was saying when others couldn’t. To borrow a concept from Star Trek, I was his universal translator in years to come.

By osmosis, I absorbed his world and became a part of it. I played Jimmy Olsen to his Superman, Spock to his Kirk, Darth Vader to his Luke. We acted out our favorite scenes and played at being heroes. We routinely leaped tall buildings in a single bound, performed the Vulcan mind-meld on each other, and blew up the Death Star. In Sidney’s productions, the Good Guys and Gals always won.

Sidney was my best friend, and I owe him a debt of gratitude not just for being a great brother, but for giving me a desire to create my own stories. I never would’ve been a writer without him, and life would’ve been a dreary, shadowy reflection of itself without Sidney to brighten things up.

When I heard about Michael Bracken’s seventies-themed private eye anthology, I knew I had to write a story about someone like Sidney, for Sidney. “An Evening at the Opera House” was born. The Opera House was a real-life theater in our hometown of Fort Worth where we saw Star Wars together for the first time. A New Hope was born in each of us that day, long before George Lucas gave his most famous movie that title.

Like my characters with Down, Sidney was fine just as he was. Perfectly imperfect, and thus as fully human as anyone. And like my private detective Harvey Lisch—a pretentious, arrogant, and slightly neurotic version of myself—whenever I feel the malaise of life tugging at my heels, I stop and think about a very special brother whose unparalleled imagination shaped my life.

This story’s for you, Sidney. In Heaven, are you flying through the clouds like Superman? Visiting strange new worlds as Captain Kirk? Wielding a lightsaber in a duel with a dark lord? I think you are, and you’re doing it with gusto.

Sidney’s headstone is right between our parents,
as they wished. The “S” stands for a
Super Brother.

After Sidney passed, I sometimes wondered what he would’ve been like if he’d been born without Down. What if he could’ve unleashed that powerful creativity and shared it not just with the family, but with the world? Would he have become a novelist? An actor? A composer like his beloved John Williams, whose records were the soundtrack to his life?

I don’t ask that question anymore. To do so implies there was something wrong with Sidney. That he was somehow, well, lesser than someone born without Down. But there was nothing wrong with him. He was loving, kind, funny, and fun-loving. He was unabashedly, unapologetically himself, and that’s a lesson we all should take to heart.

Thank you, Sidney. Like Yoda to Luke, you gave me the power to imagine a better world. You gave me the power of belief. May the Force be with you, Brother.

James A. Hearn

An Edgar Award nominee for Best Short Story, James A. Hearn ( writes in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He and his wife reside in Georgetown, Texas, with a boisterous Labrador retriever who keeps life interesting.

02 April 2024

Creation of the Perfect Office

In Search of the Perfect Office,” my May 2, 2023, SleuthSayers post, described my return to full-time freelancing and my desire to create the perfect office. This was a natural next step in the updating of our home—a project spread out over several years—which had seen us replace a water heater, kitchen appliances, counters, floors, and more. Some updates were by choice and sometimes were because things had worn out during the years Temple—our home’s original owner—has lived here.

Like many writers, my primary office was filled with a mismatched mishmash of furniture and other stuff acquired during a lifetime of writing. Furniture was mostly black and stainless steel, and floor space was at a premium, creating a dark cavern rather than an inviting creative space and forcing me to occasionally spread my work into the dining room.

After much discussion, we realized the only option was to go up—that is, to utilize wall space rather than floor space—and we sketched variations of how a redesign might work with new cabinetry. We also discussed what my office might look like if we spared no expense.

Then we swallowed hard and scaled back.

Before and after photos of my primary office.

We had several goals with the office redo:

Utilize the available space more efficiently. Going up was the only solution.

Create a more inviting space. This meant changing the general color scheme from black and stainless steel to white and gray. It also meant making the space less claustrophobic.

Keep work entirely within a single room. I had been migrating to the dining room table anytime I had to spread things out, so a large desktop/countertop was necessary. I also utilized a second bedroom, where I had a workstation set up with a computer specifically to do work for my largest client, and I wanted to move it into the main office.

Improve lighting. Because the room had only a central overhead light and a couple of clamp-on desk lamps, I often worked in my own shadow. Under-shelf lighting seemed appropriate.

Add more filing drawers. A career’s worth of writing filled six four-drawer filing cabinets and, because there wasn’t anywhere to put another, files were being stacked atop the filing cabinets. So, all six four-drawer cabinets were replaced with five-drawer cabinets, another example of going up.

Before and after photos of my secondary office.

After determining what we wanted done and finding someone who could do it, I began a multi-week migration out of my two rooms, turning the rest of the house into a hoarder’s paradise, with my stuff crowding available space in multiple other rooms.

As I moved things, I did a bit of winnowing. I finally threw away things I should have thrown out long ago, filled several Little Free Libraries with books I no longer needed, and donated or gave away old furniture, knick-knacks, and whatnots.

We had new carpeting installed (which would have happened whether I redesigned my office or not), had new cabinetry installed, and new filing cabinets arrived. Then I began the multiple-day task of moving everything back. Again, I discarded or gave away things I no longer needed, and I attempted to better organize what I kept.


Is my new office everything I dreamed it would be?

No, but it’s darned close.

I now have a workspace that’s warm, open, and inviting. During the past few weeks, I have felt much more at ease in my office. I no longer feel like I’m crawling into a claustrophobia-inducing dark hole when I enter, and I feel like I have room to spread out projects if I need to.

I believe this will help make me more productive, but only time will tell if that’s true or if I will, over time, turn it back into a claustrophobia-inducing dark hole.

Has anyone else attempted a complete overhaul of their writing space? What did you do, and how did it turn out?

Murder, Neat—the first SleuthSayers anthology—is available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon and your favorite bookstores.

12 March 2024

Writerhood of the Traveling Pants

Which pants shall I pack?

This is shaping up to be a busy year, with multiple projects due before year-end. It’ll be even busier than usual because I’m attending several conferences and conventions.

A busy travel schedule is unusual for me. Until the past few years, circumstances prevented me from attending most conferences, conventions, and related writing events, only putting Bouchercon and Malice Domestic on my regular schedule after Temple and I married.

Last year, I increased my travel schedule. In addition to Bouchercon and Malice, I attended Between The Pages Writers Conference, Crime Bake, and the Edgar Awards banquet. This year, I’m already scheduled to attend Bouchercon, the Edgar Awards banquet, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic, ShortCon, SleuthFest, ThrillerFest, and the Texas Institute of Letters Conference. I will also Zoom in for Mystery in the Midlands, and next week will do an online presentation for Sisters in Crime Northeast. (Unfortunately, Temple still works a day job and is only able to join me for a few of these events.)

While the online presentations and conferences don’t require travel, they do require putting on pants. In addition to remembering to pack my pants for the live events, the other conferences and conventions require additional planning—from determining which airlines, which flights, and which airports to fly from to determining if I can fit everything I need into a carry-on bag or if I’ll need to pack so much that a checked bag (or two) will be required.

And all the traveling cuts into writing and editing time. So, do I take my laptop computer—which is one more thing to tote around—and attempt to work? That hasn’t generally worked out well for me.

For those of you who travel extensively in support of your writing career, what tips do you have? Do you take a laptop computer with you, and do you actually manage to get work done?


If you’re also attending any of these live events, please stop me and say howdy.

Left Coast Crime

Malice Domestic

Edgar Awards Banquet

Texas Institute of Letters Conference




Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology (Level Short, 2024) contains 24 stories by some of your favorite short-story writers. So, belly up to the bar, order your favorite libation, crack the spine, and wet your literary whistle.

23 February 2024

Bad Whiskey

A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.

20 February 2024

Murder, Messy

My fellow SleuthSayers had been discussing a group anthology long before I graduated from occasional guest poster to a regular spot in the rotation. They had a theme (crime and drinking establishments) and a title (Murder, Neat), and Paul Marks had agreed to serve as editor. Unfortunately, while the anthology was still in an embryonic stage with only a few stories written, Paul became ill, and the anthology went into a holding pattern.

Given that many of my fellow members have edited at least one anthology, I’m uncertain how the editorship landed in my lap, but once it did, I asked Barb Goffman to join me. I think I’m a good editor, and I know Barb is a great editor. We worked together to solicit stories from the other SleuthSayers, to edit them for publication, and to organize them in a way that takes readers (those who actually read anthologies from front to back) on a literary journey through crimes that happen in and around drinking establishments.

This is the first time I’ve edited an anthology where no publisher was attached prior to soliciting stories, so the work—from contributors writing their stories to Barb and I editing and organizing them—was an act of faith on all our parts.

Once we had a finished manuscript, I created a proposal and pitched the anthology to various publishers. While other publishers dawdled with their responses—or didn’t respond at all—Level Best Books accepted the anthology the day after I pitched it.

Between the time they accepted Murder, Neat and its release, Level Best Books established a new imprint—Level Short— specifically for anthologies and collections, and Murder, Neat is the inaugural title for the new imprint.

I wish Paul had been able to see the project through to completion—unfortunately, he passed away shortly after Barb and I stepped in—and I think the twenty-four exceptional stories in Murder, Neat honor the work he did to get the project started.


“Bar None,” my contribution to Murder, Neat, finds the protagonist caught between a disastrous disagreement between a bar’s manager and his alcoholic brother.

The Kindle edition of Murder, Neat was released February 13; the trade paperback edition will be available soon everywhere books are sold online.

14 February 2024

Betwixt Cup and Lip

Years ago, I lived in the Berkshires out in western Massachusetts, which was pretty much a stone’s throw from the New York state line. And we had occasion to go over there, once in a while. It wasn’t totally an unknown country. There was a Japanese restaurant in Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s birthplace. There was Steepletop, the Edna St. Vincent Millay writers colony, in Austerlitz And one time, when I went to drop someone off at the train station in Hudson – you could catch the New York Central, and go down to the city – somebody else told me, Oh, that’s where Legs Diamond was shot. I thought to myself, Hmmm.

Things you store away, for later. As it turns out, Legs wasn’t shot in Hudson; he was gunned down in a drunken stupor at a rowhouse in Albany, on Dove Street. Supposedly, it was a uniform patrol sergeant named Fitzpatrick, who was afterwards named chief of police, in return for the favor. Still, it stuck in my mind. New York gangsters, on the lam from the city, would cool their heels upstate, until the heat died down. They wouldn’t go far, just a short train ride out of town. If you kept your head down and your nose clean, nobody was any the wiser. Obviously, the mistake Legs made was to try and muscle in on the local syndicate’s action, and they rubbed him out.

This little nugget, stored away, was the basis for “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” my Mickey Counihan story in Murder, Neat.

The theme of the collection is that the stories take place in a bar. It sounds like the opening line of a joke, which reminds me of something Mark Billingham once said. He got his start in stand-up and sketch comedy, and he later remarked that open mic and thriller writing have a lot in common. You only have a brief window to establish yourself with the audience, for one. And secondly, it’s about having an effective set-up, that winds you up for a punchline. The punchline of a joke most usually depends on the reversal of expectations, and so does developing a cliff-hanger scene. You set a snare, to invite the reader in, and then spring the trap on them.

One difference is that you could easily start the scene with a hook, without knowing how to finish. The pope, a rabbi, and the Dalai Lama walk into a strip club. What’s the kicker? Beats me, I don’t have a clue.

The way it works in practice, though, is that you have a little nugget, and it bumps around in the corners, and picks up other little bits and pieces, and pretty soon it’s turned into a bigger package altogether. You’ve got some ungainly mental figure, a shape, like a dressmaker’s dummy, and you can hang a suit of clothes on it.

Some of us outline, some of us are pantsers. Meaning there are writers who block out the whole story arc in advance, and then fill in the cracks, and there are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. This isn’t to say we don’t take advantage of lucky accident, or that there aren’t always unexpected moments. Those, in fact, are what you live for. But either way, you start with a name, or a turn of phrase, an image, or simply how the weather was.

The curious part, which borders on the magical – even if in practical terms it amounts to stamina – is that when we’re done, both the story itself and the process of getting it over the finish line seem inevitable, by which I mean inevitable to the reader as well as to the writer. We ask that the story be fully formed, woven by the Fates, cast by the dice: of all possible worlds, this one alone is true.

Each story makes a promise, and we'd like it to be kept.

13 February 2024

Raise a Glass for Our First Anthology: Murder, Neat!

An author, an author, and an author walk into a bar, along with twenty-one more of their colleagues. The bartender serves 'em all. In the process, he learns they all blog together.

"What do you write about," the barkeep asks.

"Murder," they reply in unison.

The bartender gives 'em a big smile and says, "Neat."

In case you haven't heard, today's the publication date for Murder, Neat, an anthology with twenty-four short stories all written by members of this blog. Every story lets the reader belly up to a bar and settle in for a good tale. Most of them take the reader to actual bars--regular, dive, college, even a gastropub--but we have restaurants and a winery in the mix too. We have stories set in the US as well as in other countries and on other continents. We have stories occurring in the current day and stories set long before you could kick back with a beer and root for your favorite team on a tavern's big screen. But what all the stories have in common is crime--and alcohol, of course.

I had the pleasure of editing this anthology--the first SleuthSayers anthology--with Michael Bracken. We had the honor of taking on this task when the man originally tapped to edit the book, our dear friend Paul D. Marks, handed over the reins after falling ill. Paul died in 2021. On this day, we raise a glass in remembrance of him, as well as two other fellow SleuthSlayers whom we lost too soon: Fran Rizer, who died in 2019, and Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens, who died in 2017.

You may be wondering who this "we" is. Who are the authors with stories in the book? Let me direct your attention to this nifty graphic created by friend Gabriel Valjan, which lists not only the authors but their story titles in the order they appear in the book. I've read all of these stories multiple times, and I'm pleased to say they're all perfect for settling down by a fire, with a drink in your hand and the book in your lap.

Before I go, I'll share a little about my story, "Never Have I Ever." It's March 1989. Tamara and five college friends are at their go-to Thursday night bar, deep in their cups, playing their favorite drinking game, Never Have I Ever. Even as the secrets fly, Tamara has some she'll never share. Because she's obsessed. Because she's haunted. Because she has a plan.   

Murder, Neat is coming out today, February 13th, in trade paperback and ebook from the fine folks at Level Best Books. Here's a link to buy the Kindle book (the only option available as I type this, but the book should be out in trade paperback too when you read this). To everyone who picks up a copy, we raise a glass in your honor too. Cheers!

30 January 2024

Guest Post: The Short and the Long of It

Joseph S Walker
Joseph S Walker

I read my first Joseph S. Walker story when I found “Riptish Reds” in the slush pile for Mickey Finn, 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020), and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on several projects since.

Joe has received the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction, twice received the Al Blanchard Award, and been nominated for an Edgar Award and twice for a Derringer Award. He’s also had stories in three consecutive editions of The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and is the only writer to have the same story selected for inclusion in both The Best American Mystery and Suspense and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Joe, my wife, and I caused a minor kerfuffle at Bouchercon Minneapolis in 2022 when Temple—who uses her birth name (Temple Walker)—sat between us at the awards ceremony. This lead a few people who didn’t know any of us to think she was Joe’s wife and wonder why she was paying so much attention to me.

Anyhow, here’s Joe describing how he approaches writing stories of various lengths.

— Michael Bracken

The Short and the Long of It

by Joseph S. Walker

How long is a short story, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One particularly precise answer is offered by the Short Mystery Fiction Society: a Short Story is between one thousand and four thousand words in length. This defines one of the four categories in which the Society presents annual Derringer Awards, the others being Flash (under 1,000 words), Long Story (4,000-8,000), and Novelette (8,000-20,000).

I’ve written roughly one hundred and fifty pieces of fiction. The vast majority, by SMFS standards, are either Short Stories or Long Stories. As I said in introducing myself to a group of writers recently, I’m a short story specialist. I even said I have a short story mind, which, in retrospect, sounds like an insult shouted during a tense English Department faculty meeting.

Even a short story mind, though, can stretch on occasion. February 1 sees the release of “Run and Gun,” the third piece I’ve published that meets the SMFS definition of a novelette. It’s the second entry in Chop Shop, a series of crime novelettes, created and curated by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, all involving car theft and a Dallas chop shop run by the enigmatic Huey. Chop Shop is a spiritual heir to Michael and Trey Barker’s Guns + Tacos, twenty-four novelettes linked by a Chicago taco truck selling illicit firearms; my contribution to that project was “Two Black Bean and Shrimp Quesadillas and a Pink Ruger LCP.”

I was deeply honored to be invited to contribute to both series, and there was no way I was going to turn such opportunities down. Accepting, however, led to immediate blind panic: exactly how do I go about writing something three times as long as my average story?

Is the process of writing longer inherently different?

I imagine different writers have different answers to that question. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that, yes, I’ve come to think of writing novelettes as a fundamentally distinct undertaking from writing short stories. It’s the difference between making a pearl and building a poker hand.

Most of my short stories start with something akin to the grain of sand that, by irritating an oyster, eventually becomes the core of a pearl. This might be an image, a character, a line of dialogue—almost anything. I think of, say, a bartender in a rural community who playfully but forcefully refuses to answer a cop’s questions about where he came from. I build this out into a story by asking questions about the bartender and the cop, coming up with logical reasons for them to be in this relationship and (hopefully) interesting things to happen to them. The core of the story, though, is still that bartender refusing to talk to that cop, and everything else grows from that and relates back to it (this specific grain of sand ultimately became my story “The Last Man in Lafarge”). This works, I think, because the short story is an inherently concentrated form. It has focus. It is, in fact, defined by focus.

I quickly found this process didn’t work for a novelette—at least, not for me. The kind of tight unity that defines a well-written short story gets stretched thin as a piece of fiction lengthens. Other elements impose themselves on the attention of both the reader and the writer. The novelette isn’t about a single thing; it’s about the relationships between multiple things. The short story is singular focus. The novelette is complex structure.

Instead of building out from a single point, I write novelettes by forging connections between multiple ideas/characters/images/seeds and building out from those. I’m drawing cards from a mental deck, discarding some, occasionally drawing more. For my Guns + Tacos story, my first card was a character who feels emasculated when the illegal gun he buys turns out to be pink. Another was a magazine story about wealthy art collectors displaying replicas of their prize pieces to foil potential thieves; a third the image of a cheerleader with an ice pick. Draw a few more cards. Shuffle them around and see what emerges. Keep it up, and eventually you’ll have a hand you can bet on.

For “Run and Gun,” the cards I drew include an abandoned truck stop, a news item about progressive activists in Texas, the bumper stickers on a friend’s Honda Civic, marginal notes in a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises, and my impression of the tourists in Dealey Plaza, all caught up in a story of car chases, blackmail, and murder. I think I turned it into a winning hand, and I’m looking forward to readers letting me know if they agree.

19 December 2023

The Best Private Eye Stories of the Year

As we celebrate the holidays and wrap up 2023, we’ll soon be reviewing this year’s accomplishments and making our plans (let’s not call them resolutions!) for the coming year. I’ll certainly do that in my first post of the new year—as I’ve been doing each year even before joining SleuthSayers. For my last post of this year, though, I’m announcing a new anthology series that will have me spending more time walking the mean streets: The Best Private Eye Stories of the Year.

Though my original goal was to become a science fiction/fantasy writer and my first professional fiction sale was a fantasy (“The Magic Stone,” Young World, November 1978), my second pro sale was a private eye story (“City Desk,” Gentleman’s Companion, January 1983). Technically, the protagonist was a newspaper reporter, but the Private Eye Writers of America includes reporters within their broad definition of private eye.

Since then, I’ve written dozens of private eye stories and one private eye novel, was nominated for a Shamus Award, edited several private eye anthologies for Betancourt & Co. and Down & Out Books, served on a handful of Shamus Award committees, served one term as vice president of the PWA, and gave the keynote address at the 2019 Shamus Awards Banquet in Dallas. So, I’ve been a regular visitor to the mean streets.

And now, as series editor of The Best Private Eye Stories of the Year, thanks to Level Best Books, I can celebrate the best short stories in a sub-genre that has played a significant role in my crime fiction writing career.

Joining me as guest editor of the inaugural edition is Matt Coyle, a writer I’ve faced across the poker table at several Bouchercons and who has a special place in Temple’s heart because she won a copy of his Night Tremors at her first Bouchercon (New Orleans 2016).

Joining us to write a year in review essay is Kevin Burton Smith, the driving force behind and the author of numerous articles and essays about private eye fiction. Though I didn’t meet Kevin until this year’s Bouchercon in San Diego, we’ve crossed paths several times in the virtual world, and he published one of my PI stories (“My Client’s Wife,” Spring 2007), back when Thrilling Detective published fiction.

There’s more information about Matt and Kevin in the official media release (below), as well as a link to information about how writers, editors, and fans can bring PI stories to my attention for possible inclusion in the inaugural edition of The Best Private Eye Stories of the Year.


The Best Private Eye Stories of the Year, an annual anthology celebrating the best private eye short stories published each year, will be released by Level Short, an imprint of Level Best Books, beginning in 2025. The inaugural edition will honor the best PI stories published in 2024.

Series editor Michael Bracken welcomes Matt Coyle as guest editor for the first volume and notes that Kevin Burton Smith will contribute “The Year in Review,” an essay looking at the year’s significant events in private eye fiction.

Matt Coyle is the Anthony Award, Lefty Award, and two-time Shamus Award winning author of the long-running Rick Cahill series. He was named the 2021 Mystery Writer of the Year by the San Diego Writer’s Festival, and he has received the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery as well as a silver Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction. He has also been nominated for Barry, Derringer, and Macavity awards.

Kevin Burton Smith is the creator and driving force behind The Thrilling Detective Web Site, founded in 1998, and he has written extensively about private eye fiction for Mystery Scene, January Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Deadly Pleasures, and many others. He has also spoken on the subject at numerous mystery conventions, and on radio and television.

Michael Bracken, the Anthony Award-nominated editor or co-editor of more than two dozen published and forthcoming anthologies, is a consulting editor at Level Short, editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and associate editor of Black Cat Weekly. Also a writer, Bracken is the Edgar- and Shamus-nominated, Derringer-winning author of more than 1,200 short stories, including crime fiction published in The Best American Mystery Stories and The Year’s Best Mystery Stories.

Only private eye stories published in English during 2024 will be considered. For a complete description of submission requirements, visit

Learn more about series editor Michael Bracken at; learn more guest editor Matt Coyle at; learn more about Level Best Books at

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 4 (Down & Out Books) was released December 11, 2023.

Homecoming” appeared in Yellow Mama, December 15, 2023.

Jolly Fat Man” appeared in Kings River Life, December 18, 2023.

17 December 2023


Think of a number, any single digit number between 1 and 400. Need a hint? Let’s refine it to the largest decimal digit, the square of 3, the square root of 81. Another clue? Count the number of Greek Muses. It’s the Hebrew Sabbath day of the month (23:32 וַיִּקְרָא), a number signifying truth and completeness. It’s the number of Brahma the Creator and At-Tawbah (ٱلتوبة‎), the nth Surah of the Holy Qur’an. It’s the atomic number of fluorine, the number of circles in Dante’s Inferno, and the number of innings in baseball. You guessed!

It’s also how high FeedSpot, a RSS feed reader, ranked SleuthSayers out of nearly 400 crime and mystery blogs it follows.

№ 9.

Wow. Rumors that SleuthSayers is respected and well regarded in the criminal community have reached this troglodyte’s outpost. That’s thanks to you, loyal reader (you know whom I’m talking about), and the dedication of two dozen of the smartest writers this side of Dorothy and Dashiell.

We have good company. I’ve read and interacted with other blogs I consider top-notch: Criminal Element (#1), Crimespree (#8), Crime Readers’ Association (#19), Murder is Everywhere (#28), Crime Time (#22), Criminal Minds (#32), Crime Space (#49), and Femmes Fatales (#69).

Look who else is featured: Rob Lopresti (#47) and Michael Bracken (#37).

The list contains a number of intriguing new-to-me crime sites. Although no trophies or fat prizes are awarded, it’s nice to be recognized and be ranked so high.

FeedSpot’s original list offers considerable detail as well as 300 additional entries, but check the list below to get a quick Who’s Who of the mystery blogging world. Again, thank you.

What do you think? Criminal minds want to know. And now, a selection from the list:

1. Criminal Element - Original crime stories, exclusive excerpts, blog posts, giveaways Criminal Element
New York, US
45 The Crime Segments Crime Segments
Florida, US
2. Crime Fiction Lover - The site for die hard crime & thriller fans Crime Fiction Lover
46 Indie Crime Scene Indie Crime Scene
3. Crime Reads Crime Reads
47 Little Big Crimes Little Big Crimes
Bellingham, Wash, US
4. Crime Writer Sue Coletta - Inside the mind of a crime writer Sue Coletta
48 International Noir Fiction International Noir
5. Crime by the Book Crime By The Book
New York, NY, US
49 Crime Space Crime Space
6. True Crime Diva True Crime Diva
50 Vintage Crime - Crime and spy fiction from Poe up to 1950 Vintage Crime
7. The Venetian Vase Venetian Vase
51 The Crime Fiction Writer's Forensics Blog Writer's Forensics
California, US
8. Crimespree Magazine Crime Spree Mag
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US
52 Crime Always Pays by Declan Burke Crime Always Pays
9. Sleuth Sayers SleuthSayers
Ca, Fr, NZ, UK, US, ZA
53 Detectives Beyond Borders Detectives > Borders
10 Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Under Your Name?
54 Jane Isaac - UK Crime Fiction Writer, Amazon Bestseller Jane Isaac
Northampton, England, UK
11 Crime Book Junkie Crime Book Junkie
55 True Crime Reader True Crime Reader
12 Kittling Books Kittling Books
Phoenix, Arizona, US
56 Scandinavian Crime Fiction Scandinavian Crime
13 SHOTS Shots Mag
57 Crime Scene NI Crime Scene N.I.
Northern Ireland, UK
14 The Rap Sheet The Rap Sheet
58 Unlawful Acts Unlawful Acts
Wilmington, Delaware, US
15 In Reference to Murder Blog In Reference To Murder
59 Where The Reader Grows Where Readers Grow
New York, US
16 BOLO BOOKS Bolo Books
Maryland, US
60 COL'S CRIMINAL LIBRARY Col's Criminal Library
England, UK
17 AustCrimeFiction | Australia & New Zealand Crime Fiction Reviews since 2006 Aust Crime Fiction
Victoria, Australia
61 Rowmark | The Pauline Rowson website crime novels, events, news and blog Rowmark
England, UK
18 Raven Crime Reads Raven Crime Reads
62 International Crime Fiction Research Group - Information and news about the activities of the Inter International Crime
Belfast, N.I, UK
19 Crime Writers/Readers Association Crime Writers' Assoc
63 TheCrimeHouse - Everything crime fiction The Crime House
20 Chapter In My Life Chapter In My Life
Glasgow, Scotland, UK
64 Steph Broadribb Steph Broadribb
London, England, UK
21 Hooked From Page One Hooked From Page 1
Essex, Ontario, Canada
65 Historical True Crime Detective Historical True Detective
22 Crime Time - There's always time for Crime..... Crime Time
66 Past Offences - Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews Past Offences
23 Euro Crime Euro Crime
67 The Crime Warp - Writers' and Readers' Perspectives | A blog reviewing crime fiction and int The Crime Warp
Bradford, England, UK
24 George Kelley George Kelley
N Tonawanda, NY, US
68 Keeper of Pages Keeper Of Pages
England, UK
25 Do Some Damage Do Some Damage
69 Femmes Fatales Femmes Fatales
26 Cross Examining Crime Cross-Examining Crime
England, UK
70 Jim Fisher True Crime Jim Fisher True Crime
Pennsylvania, US
27 A Crime Readers Blog Crime Reader's Blog
71 Chris Longmuir, Crime Writer Chris Longmuir
Montrose, Scotland, UK
28 Murder is Everywhere Murder Is Everywhere
72 Crime Time by Mathew Paust MD Paust
Hampton, Virginia, US
29 Type M for Murder Type M 4 Murder
73 Chillers Killers and Thrillers Chillers Killers Thrillers
London, England, UK
30 Promoting Crime Fiction Promoting Crime
74 Crime Fiction Ireland Crime Ire
Dublin, Ireland
31 Murder in Common Murder In Common
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
75 Unlawful Acts - Small Press Crime Fiction Unlawful Acts
32 Criminal Minds 7 Criminal Minds
76 Mystery Pod – Stephen Usery Mystery Pod
33 The Invisible Event The Invisible Event
London, England, UK
77 Crime Scraps Review - All about crime fiction Crime Scraps Review
England, UK
34 JOFFE BOOKS | Leading UK publisher of crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers Joffe Books
London, England, UK
78 Permission to Kill Permission to Kill
35 Cath Staincliffe Blog Cath Staincliffe
Manchester, England, UK
79 The Crime Review Crime Review
England, UK
36 Crime Worm Crime Worm
Scotland, UK
80 Fiction Formula Fiction Formula
37 Crime Fiction Writer Crime Fiction Writer
Hewitt, Texas, US
81 Northern Crime reviews Northern Crime reviews
Leeds, England, UK
38 Nobody Move! Armed Robbery
Albany, New York, US
82 Fair Dinkum Crime Fair Dinkum Crime
39 A Crime is Afoot JIE Scribano
Madrid, Spain
83 Mark McGinn Mark McGinn crime blog
Christchurch Canterbury NZ
40 Hawley Reviews Hawley Reviews
84 True Crime True Crime
41 Crime Watch - Investigating crime fiction from a Kiwi perspective Kiwi Crime
New Zealand
85 Crimezine - #1 for Crime Crimezine
Los Angeles, California, US
42 Chrissie Poulson Blog Christine Poulson
86 Only Detect Only Detect
43 Ron Franscell | An American Storyteller Ron Franscell
San Antonio, Texas, US
87 Crime Thriller Fella Crime Thrilla Fella
44 Beneath the Stains of Time Moonlight Detective
88 Crime Thriller Fella The Reader is Warned