Showing posts with label Murder Neat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Murder Neat. Show all posts

08 March 2024

Irish Neat

by David Dean

“The Atonement of Michael Darcy” in MURDER NEAT is the last—I think—in a sporadic series concerning an Irish American crime gang. When I wrote the first story concerning this crew it was meant to be a stand-alone tale. But as sometimes happens to writers, I found that “The Assumption of Seamus Tyrrell” needed a follow-up. This became “The Salvation of Seamus Tyrrell.” Of course, this story demanded a sibling and so it went for four more tales in the less-than-epic recounting of a fictional crime mob operating out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Every time I would think I was out of it; these small-time hoodlums and killers pulled me back in for another heist or hit. Somebody’s got to feed the baby they’d say. So, I’d fire up the old laptop.

Michael Darcy, the protagonist of my entry in  this anthology, got out long ago. Not voluntarily, but through the intervention of the legal system. When we meet up with him, he’s well past his sell-by date and knows it. All he wants after a long stint in prison is a decent whiskey in the old neighborhood bar. He gets more than that, of course, as the title of the story suggests.

A tavern in Elizabeth

When Michael Bracken revealed that the theme of this anthology was to be crime fiction and bars, I was already there. The gang and I practically live in one. It’s where Seamus, Michael, Jimmy Blake, Thaddeus Burke, and all the rest of our crew plot our best work. Our motto has always been, ‘Why work sober, if you have a choice?’ Crime can be thirsty work, and don’t these fellas know it.  

 Stop in for a short one with Michael Darcy and you’ll see what I mean.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot—some of the best crime writers working in short fiction today also have stories in this book. You can’t go wrong, unless, like Michael Darcy, you do. He didn’t read this book.

04 March 2024

So an alcoholism treatment therapist walks into a bar...

I'm a lifelong writer who started talking about it at the age of seven and dreamed of becoming a bestselling novelist in my twenties. That didn't happen. So in my late thirties, when my sole published output consisted of two poems (payment in copies), I started looking around for something else meaningful to do.

I emerged from Columbia University in 1985 with a master's degree in social work and a desire to work with recovering alcoholics and their families and partners as well as the usual clinical social worker's ambition to practice as a psychotherapist, or as I prefer to call myself, a shrink. I've just come across a blog post I wrote in 2007, right before my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, came out. Titled "Recovery and Transformation," it's still spot on about why I wanted to do what many considered an oddball kind of work.

It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two drunks started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness, whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.

While I was running alcohol treatment programs—the one up in East Harlem, the one down on the Bowery, the one for women at Coney Island Hospital—I would occasionally find myself bellying up to the proverbial bar on a social evening out. I would twirl around on the bar stool, grin at the bartender, and say, "Ask me what I do for a living!"

So my reaction may not have been quite the same as that of the rest of the SleuthSayers gang when I heard that we were doing an anthology whose theme was bars. My Bruce Kohler mysteries, both the novels and the short stories, are a lot of fun. But once Bruce gets sober in the first book, they're not about bars and drinking. The challenge was to join in the fun of Murder, Neat without being unfaithful to my expert knowledge that out of control drinking is not ho ho ho hilarious, but a recurring disaster that leaves shattered lives in its wake.

To write "A Friendly Glass," I turned back to a time when I myself was young and ignorant, knew nothing about alcoholism, and did think wild drinking could be hilarious. I set my story in a fictional village in the South of France. It was loosely based on a village where I'd spent a week in 1962 and a month in 1966. I drank numerous cups of café filtre on the picturesque terrasse. I sang and played the guitar in a boîte I can't remember anything about. I made two treasured women friends who, sadly, are no longer with us, and two artist friends, a Frenchman and an Englishman, who are still my friends today, sixty years later.
The village was St Paul de Vence, then completely unspoiled, a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wound up stairs and through stone arches, surrounded by a medieval wall. Alas, it's now a tourist destination with luxury hotels and high-priced shops with plate-glass windows. It's still considered artsy, but it's more of an artfully packaged artsiness. I'm glad I didn't miss the real thing.

Oh, and the fictional murderee is based on someone I thought deserved it back in the 1960s.

28 February 2024

Getting More Than You Bargained For

Image by Freepik

Frankly, I love a good deal. Complementary appetizer or dessert with purchase. The trial products our grocery store app sometimes sends our way. One free night each year at a hotel chain we're loyal to—and then the occasional complementary upgrade on rooms between times. I recognize, of course, that many bargains come with costs (no free appetizer unless you buy an entree, of course, and credit card points only accrue if you've been charging on your card), but you obviously have to consider many factors whenever you try to weigh which deals are worth it. The man who paid for a lifetime pass on United—not cheap!—and has been living it up ever since? I really admire that guy.

Many years ago (this phrase will come up again), back in the days before Groupon and Living Social (which I was also a fan of), I lived in Raleigh, NC, and while I can't remember the specifics, there was a coupon book that I bought which was full of promotional offers from restaurants, stores, event venues, and more throughout the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill). As I recall, many of these offers were "two for one" deals—BOGO in more current slang. The woman I was with at the time and I thought it was a real treat, and we tried restaurants and activities that we probably wouldn't have tried otherwise. A real deal! 

...but it also reached a point where the coupon book seemed a burden of sorts. If we were going our to eat or looking for something to do, shouldn't we use another coupon? The expiration window would be closing, after all, and there were so many coupons left, and we wanted to get our money's worth, didn't we? 

And so, many years ago (I told you so), I wrote a story about a couple who'd been enjoying all the many benefits of such a coupon book ("Dine-A-Mate is Dine-A-Mite! Thousands of dollars in savings! A year of opportunities awaits!") but after awhile, one of them wants to break free a bit, try a new restaurant that's not in the coupon book, and—honestly—maybe break out of some bigger rut in the routines of the relationship too? Sandra and Wiley were my characters, and the story—"Two for One"—tried to chart both their relationship struggles and also some larger questions about what people want out of life and how to balance those wants against another person's desires. While it wasn't technically a romance, the story also focused pretty intently on desire and seduction and on storytelling as an aspect of expressing desire and maybe manipulating seduction. It also wasn't—I need to stress this—a suspense story in the traditional sense either: no mystery, no crime, nothing like that. This was, as I said, "many years ago"—before I'd really come back around to writing in the genre at all.

I wrote the first draft while a student in the creative writing program at N.C. State University, and then I reworked it again (and again) in a "Revision" course my first year in the MFA program at George Mason University. Though I felt very pleased with each subsequent version of the story, it never found a home, and I ended up just putting it aside. 

...until SleuthSayers announced the call for Murder, Neat, and I remembered the bar at the restaurant that's at the heart of "Two for One" and began thinking about how one kind of story might become another kind of story. What are the tensions—the dangers even—in a relationship when one partner wants something different from the other? Where might temptation lead to trouble? Or adventure into adversity? What happens when you bite off more than you can chew—or to stick with the anthology's theme, sip more than you can comfortably swallow?

Often when I look back at the drafts of stories from many years ago, I find myself wincing a bit—prose that's not up to par, plotting a little underdone (or overwrought), or characters without much... well, character. Often, I end up just tucking those drafts away once more—out of sight, where they belong. 

But in this case, returning to those early drafts of "Two for One," I found myself pleasantly surprised, particularly by some of the playfulness at the line-level—a bit of fun with language and phrasings, particularly in descriptions of food and drink. The story felt like it had some energy to it, it felt like that writer—the old me—was having some fun, and that fun was infectious. I found myself excited to dig in for a fresh revision. 

Here's a little sample of the story to, um, whet your appetite?

Sandra worked as a receptionist at a law firm in downtown Raleigh, and on Friday mornings she browsed through the newspaper between calls, looking for new ways to lure Wylie away from Dine-A-Mate. In recent weeks she had been drawn repeatedly to an ad for the new Royal International Buffet.

Alaskan King Crab Legs! Peking Duck! London Broil! Chilean Sea Bass!—each entrée was encased in a starburst. Drawings of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Golden Gate Bridge stood in each corner of the ad. Visit the world on our 70-foot-long buffet! Chefs of all nationalities! Kids buffet for tiny travelers! Elegance and sophistication!

 Elegance and sophistication? She knew better. A buffet was a buffet. But that wasn’t the point.

“I saw this new restaurant,” she told Wylie on their regular Wednesday. “Want to try it one night?” She handed him the paper.

They’d finished the steaks she’d pan-fried with a little Marsala sauce. Capers and green peppercorns and a hint of Dijon—though she’d called it pan gravy for Wylie’s sake. Last Wednesday, she’d added a single finely minced porcini mushroom into a quick pasta sauce, even though Wylie claimed an aversion to “funguses.” Another Wednesday, she’d glazed some pork chops with guava paste, telling him it was a new barbecue sauce from Hunt’s.

Had any of it encouraged his appetites?

Had it? Well... you'll have to read and see.

I hope readers will enjoy the final story too, and I'm grateful to Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman for editing Murder, Neat and to all my fellow contributors—so pleased to have my work alongside yours. 



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.

22 February 2024

Bad Influence

The Norseman's Bar is the oldest in Laskin, South Dakota. That doesn't mean the building is old or impressive. The original Norseman's was a sod house, and when that finally collapsed, its replacement was a board shanty, which burned in the dirty 30s, and up went the cinderblock building. But it's always been in the same place, same name. As well as a lot of the same names sitting in the same place, being served by the same people year after year. Norwegian Lutherans don't like change. As Detective Jonasson once said, "The main similarity between the Norseman's and the Lutheran church is that everybody knows their pew and keeps to it."
— Eve Fisher, "Bad Influence."

In case you haven't heard, Murder, Neat: A Sleuthsayers Anthology dropped on Tuesday, February 13th, and the above is from my story: "Bad Influence."

Now I have a long history with bars, beginning with parents who loved to go to Tahoe and Las Vegas to gamble (back in the days when big goombahs watched 24/7 to make sure no one stole any money or messed with the kids whose parents were busy losing at slots or cards). And later, I too have pulled all- nighters with friends, ending up with a last beer in a dive bar at 7AM. (Too old for that now. Shudder just thinking about it.) And I've been living in South Dakota for over 30 years now, and I have been a number of different bars all across the state, because... where else are you gonna go?

Here's the deal: South Dakota has 436 towns, 350 have a population of under a thousand, and over 100 of those have a population of less than 100 – and they all have a bar. And in those small towns, the bar is often the only place to get something to eat. Beer, whiskey, burgers, fries and chislic are the staples.

Beef chislic at a restaurant in South Dakota. Wikipedia

If you're lucky, they might have a grilled chicken sandwich, but I wouldn't count on it. Some places do have a special on Saturday nights: one place has prime rib, another (don't ask me how) really good Indonesian food, another hot roast beef sandwiches to die for. But by and large, no. Just the standards.

But really, what else are you going to do in a small town where the reception is poor, there is no cable, during the long Dakota winter nights, or the even longer summer late afternoons? Granted, you're going to pretty much talk about the same stuff you did last night, last week, last year… But there's something about the rehearsal of dreams, grudges, stories, and suspicions over a cold beer and hot fries that warms the soul. And can trigger the occasional fight, where everyone invites themselves to watch, until their cojones freeze, their beer runs out, and/or the cop(s) show up, and they have to go back inside. It's even better when a Poker Run comes to town, or there's a street dance. More opportunities for mayhem, mischief, and multiple arrests.

One thing that is certain is that the people serving and the people drinking remain pretty much the same. Sometimes a waitress or a bartender gets fed up and moves on to the next small town bar. Sometimes a waitress or a bartender is let go, and rumors of sexual assault, embezzlement or other misconduct fly. But here's the thing: they'll always get hired again. You'll see them down the road, at the next bar, the next town. South Dakota, especially rural South Dakota, just doesn't have enough of an employment pool to find new blood.

So what happens when old blood, bad reputations, an ex-con, and a Poker Run all combine on a long hot summer night in Laskin, South Dakota? Well, you'll just have to read "Bad Influence."


Murder, Neat on Kindle and in paperback, is now available at Amazon HERE.

A great, great read, all the way through!

21 February 2024

Stealing From The Best

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

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

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

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

.  Here are three of his opening sallies:

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

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

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

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

"In uplifting, get underneath."

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

"Give the People what they Think they want."


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

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

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

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!