Showing posts with label Nero Wolfe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nero Wolfe. Show all posts

02 December 2019

Patio Writer


As I recall, I first encountered Joseph D'Agnese when I read his first story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and rated it the best story I read that week.   We had a chat and later shared a lunch with our editor Linda Landrigan.  Yes, that was name-dropping. Suffer.

Joe has a new book and I asked him to tell us about it. But first, let's talk about the man himself.  

Joseph D'Agnese is a journalist, author, and ghostwriter who has written for both adults and children alike. He has won a Derringer Award for his short mystery fiction, and one of his stories appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology. D'Agnese lives with his wife in North Carolina. Joe has been called “The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction,” but prefers to think of himself as The Susan Lucci. Visit him at josephdagnese.com  -Robert Lopresti



PATIO WRITER

by Joseph D'Agnese

Once upon a time I wrote a novel, and it was awesome. At least my parents and I thought so. And why wouldn’t we all think that? I was all of 15 years old.

My parents did not actually read the book, and never would. Neither of them had finished high school. They were, as people are fond of saying, not big readers.

But for some reason, they thought it was wonderful and perhaps a little strange that their son preferred sitting on the patio banging away on a manual typewriter, instead of doing things his brothers or other kids did. All summer long, when it came time for dinner, my mother would scoot me off our picnic table in the Jersey suburbs so we could fire up the grill and eat dinner al fresco. She would say things like, “You’re gonna ruin your eyes!” “What is this, your office?” and “How long is this thing going to be?"

The story in question had something to do with a bookseller who solved mysteries in his spare time. He had a bookshop in New York City, and a nephew who was a professional gumshoe who helped investigate. The nephew narrated; the uncle solved the mystery. A complete Nero Wolfe rip-off—er, dynamic. Aside from the fact that I’d never set foot in a Manhattan bookstore in my life, I figure the story was about as clever as a kid my age could make it. A kid who obsessively read mysteries, that is.

In my defense, I also had a summer job of sorts. When I wasn’t reading or writing, I worked for my dad, who was a pattern maker in New York’s Garment District. (Astute readers will recall that my very first story to appear in AHMM was set in that world.) Dad brought home extra work to make a little money on the side, and I helped him out nights and weekends in his shop in the garage.

I used my meager earnings to make two photocopies of the manuscript, which I presented to my parents. I have no idea what my mother did with her copy. My father tucked his into the plastic gray briefcase he took with him to work every morning, and showed it off to friends when they lunched in greasy spoon diners that catered to the men of New York’s Fashion Avenue.

School started up and I had tucked away my Olivetti until my next big writing season. My father returned home from work one night and announced with utter seriousness, “Next week, you’re coming to the city with me. An editor wants to talk to you about that book of yours!”

What the hell was this now?

If you’re looking for tips on how to break into the competitive literary market, pay attention. Apparently growing tired of lugging around the MS, my father had slipped it to the ladies coat buyer for Montgomery Ward, a woman whose sister happened to work as an assistant to an editor at some publishing house in New York City. A firm my father kept calling The Bantam.

Was I familiar with The Bantam? I was, Dad, highly freaking familiar. I had a ton of paperbacks published by them.

This news took me aback. This was not supposed to happen. The book was for private consumption only. My youngest brother, for example, had recently announced he might just read this book of mine, if he could squeeze it in between homework and clarinet practice.

I was simultaneously terrified and elated at the prospect of real-life editors reading my book. When that day arrived, I donned an ill-fitting jacket and tie and ascended an elevator with my dad at The Bantam offices at 666 Fifth Avenue.

The editor was lovely, and told me just what a kid who thought he sorta, kinda, maybe wanted to write needed to hear. My work was wonderful for a writer my age. My characters fun and funny to be around. Oh sure—there were a few implausibilities that made the book unsalable, but I had to keep plugging away. I should read widely and keep writing. I should learn what I liked. And learn how to edit myself. Learn the difference, if I could, between commercial and literary work. The editor’s name was Linda S. Price, but the hour she gave me that afternoon was absolutely priceless.

As I rode back to Jersey with my dad on the bus, a shopping bag of Bantam books at my feet, I felt the world had opened up just a bit. Although those of you who are writers will understand that I ignored all the positive things she said to me, and dwelled only on the negative. What the hell was an implausibility?

That manuscript went into my bedroom closet and was joined by others I cranked out on the patio over the remaining summers I was in school. Then, one day, when I was out of college and working in publishing in New York, I dug out the bookshop mystery and read it.

Guess what? The characters and scenarios were delightful, but the thing was positively riddled with implausibilities. The savvy 26-year-old me—who now worked in cosmopolitan Manhattan—snickered at the stupidity of 15-year-old me.

Still—I liked the characters. And the plot could work. I became convinced that I knew just how to fix it. So I rewrote the whole thing and shopped it around to the very same editors I’d met during my first big job hunt. No takers.

Versions 1 and 2 disappeared into a file cabinet, where they stayed thirty years, until I dug them out earlier this year.

Did I really want to do this again?

I did. So much so that I scanned those brown pages to make a modern digital file to work from.

This time, 54-year-old me stood up for the 15-year-old in ways that the 26-year-old could not deign to. In the course of the third rewrite, it became completely obvious to me that my amateur sleuth was never intended to be a man but a woman. In fact, the sleuth spoke just like an old elementary school principal of mine. She was the first Italian-American woman I’d known who’d completed college. She used words like unmitigated gall and enunciate. The 15- and 26-year-old writers had been blind to this connection, but I like to think the 54-year-old appreciated this truth for what it was—another gift from the grown-ups in his past.

My mother is no longer with us, but my father who is knocking on 90 had little trouble recalling our visit to The Bantam when he called to say he’d gotten the proof I’d dropped in the mail to him.

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” said the man who spends most of his day watching NCIS reruns and not-so-terribly historic programs on the History Channel.

“You could try reading it,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “You got a clear head, kid.”

So after three rewrites and 40 years, Murder on Book Row is finally out in the world. I reserve the right to clear up any lingering implausibilities when I rewrite it at age 80.

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


by Steve Liskow

Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play


by Steve Liskow

15 years ago, conventional wisdom stated that the way to pique an agent's interest was to publish short stories. I love short stories, but writing them makes calculus look easy. I never took calculus.

Nobody even mentioned novellas, novelettes or any of the other hybrid mutants. Nobody even agrees on word counts for any of them. Rex Stout used to publish three novellas and a short story together as a hardcover book, most of them starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but that's about the only consistent example I can name. Granted, the average mystery was much shorter than it is today, and Stout died in 1975. His novellas were probably between 15 and 20 thousand words, and you'll see where I came up with that estimate in a minute. Now, authors occasionally publish an eBook novella between longer works to keep readers aware of them.

 I wrote several unpublished short stories featuring my Detroit PI, rock & roll wannabe Woody Guthrie, although that wasn't even his name yet. One I liked a lot, called "Stranglehold," came in at nearly 7000 words, which was a problem. During 2005, I sent it out to the only five markets I could find that would accept a story of that length, and none of them did.

A writer friend told me he had trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight because they all showed up early in the story. I tried cutting some of them--and the story's overall length--and created an incoherent mess. I didn't see enough potential subplots to make the story into a novel, so it languished for four years.

Then someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack (The Rex Stout Appreciation Society, named after his detective, Nero Wolfe) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The contest wanted stories between 15K and 20K words (see above) and following the general form of Stout's mysteries. Well, I'd read most of Stout's work because he was one of my mystery-reading mother's favorites. Archie's tone was a big influence on my own writing, maybe because we're both from the Midwest.

Could I add words to "Stranglehold" and turn it into a novella? If I expanded the opening, that large cast would appear more gradually and be easier to absorb. Imagine my surprise when I added 9000 words--and only two minor transition scenes--to the story in four days. I had a novella on my hands without even knowing it. I sent it off to the contest, and it won. It appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in summer 2010.

OK, I thought. When you have more detail than you can pack into a short story, think novella. I've never done that again.

Five years later, I struggled with another Woody Guthrie novel. By now I knew his name because he'd appeared in two novels, and so had several of his supporting cast. This time, I had the opposite problem from "Stranglehold." I had a solid main plot and an anemic subplot I couldn't expand without excessive and obvious padding.

My wife suggested that maybe it would work as another novella, and she was right. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Mom" won the award in 2015 and appeared in Alfred the following summer.

Now, I think I know how to write a novella. Step one is don't plan to do it. If you find yourself trapped with no other way out, focus on one main plot and one subplot. You might have a second subplot if it resolves easily. We're talking 60 to 80 pages, so we don't have a lot of introspection, static lyrical description, or technical wherewithall. If two sets of somewhat similar characters work through parallel or related plots, they're easy to bring together at the end. In both novellas I've written so far, each plot involved members of a band and their music.

Both stories have about ten characters, too. The band was a quintet in the first one, and four of the members were suspects in the killing of the fifth (Music fans would call this the "diminished fifth"). In the second story, the remaining members all have something at stake and two of them are suspects again. If you're a musician, you might think long and hard before joining this band.

I'm kicking around ideas for another novella. It doesn't involve Woody or the band or music, but I have about ten characters again. And one subplot.

If it works out, maybe I'll show it to you.

If it doesn't, maybe I really have a bloated short story on my hands...or another anorexic novel.

TIME FOR THE BSP: My sixth Zach Barnes novel, Back Door Man, a light-hearted romp into a cold case involving mass murder, is now available, just in time for your Christmas shopping.


If I'd known it would be ready for the holidays, maybe I would have called it "Violent Night."

24 March 2018

Murder is SO Italian! The Best shows on MHZ


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

It's true.  Murder is so Italian.  POWER! REVENGE! BETRAYAL!  It goes right back to those steps of the Senate, when Brutus asks his good friend Caesar for a light, and then fills him full of bronze.

So it's not surprising that the Italian tradition of writing about murder is first rate.  I'll bet you've already heard of Donna Leon.  She writes very good stuff set in Venice for the English market.  But do you know who is a superstar in his own country?

My favourite writer:  Andrea Camilleri

Set in Sicily, the Montalbano series is about the best thing out there, on paper or on television.  Inspector Montalbano is a fictional hero in Italy, and a wonderful character on the screen.  His supporting cast is delightful.  This is not grim and gritty fare like Scandi-noir.  (Okay, I crossed out the word 'dismal'.  You caught me.)  Nope - Montalbano is truly fun, clever, witty and brilliant.  And oh, the Sicilian scenery.  And the food!  The television adaptation is now playing on MHz, the European Mystery channel, now available in the US and Canada for the same price as Netflix.  If you are a mystery fan, you're crazy not to subscribe to this.

Other Italian series on MHZ (in Italian with English subtitles)

Nero Wolfe:  Yes, you heard that right.  The story is: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin leave New York to go live in Italy for their own safety in the 1950s.  So...an Italian production where Wolfe and Archie are known as Americans, and believe it or not, it rocks.  You'll be believing Goodwin is the real thing from the books - he's perfect.  Yes, it's different from the North American version.  But gorgeous.  The production values and attention to detail are amazing.

Inspector Manara:  Regarded as a 'poor man's Montalbano' (not my words) Inspector Manara is very attractive, but not quite as charming.  They made him a player, which lessens his appeal in my books.  Still, it fills the gap when you've gone through all seasons of Montalbano.

Don Matteo:  This delightful series is very different from most crime shows.  Imagine Father Brown with a wonderful smile, heart full of gold, and ride-um cowboy physique.  Yes, the star of this show is a handsome former Spaghetti Western cowboy you may recognize from earlier films.  He makes a terrific priest and the cast of quirky characters around him are, to a word, lovable.  The Carabinieri Capitano and Marshall are my personal favourites.  Heaps of fun, and the series is in it's 10th season, so lots to watch.  The perfect show before bed, when you want to go to sleep with a smile.

Inspector Nardone:  Hold your hat for a unique series that takes one back to the late 1940s.  WW11 is still haunting the inhabitants of this northern Italian city.  Nardone is a man with integrity and grit, in a world where the bad guys often win and run things.  This is a more serious show, done with an interesting voice-over by a journalist following the actions of Nardone.  Great period piece.

Murder at BarLume:  Truly an original show with Massimo as the attractive bar owner trying to keep control of four geriatric pensioners who would try anyone's sanity (honestly, you have to see it to believe it.)  Murder, of course, is on the bar menu, and Massimo solves each crime ahead of the Germanic female detective.  Great fun.

Obviously, if you watch this list, you will get a good peek into my personality.  But take it from me: NO one does humour like the Italians.

Says she, flying back to Palermo as soon as possible.

Like humorous Italian stories?  The Derringer and Arthur Ellis award-winning Goddaughter series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn't want to be one.  Too bad she keeps getting dragged back to bail the family out.  Here's the latest loopy caper, which is a finalist for the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak award...
On AMAZON

09 April 2015

The True History of Nero Wolfe


by Eve Fisher

Because I read everything, to the great detriment of doing almost anything else, occasionally I come across such obvious patterns, such amazing coincidences, that I have to share them with someone. Thus, I am happy to relate that I have found the true origins of Nero Wolfe. The only question is, whether it's genetics or reincarnation. I'll let you decide.

For those of you who have never met the one and only Nero Wolfe, he is the misogynistic, gourmet one-seventh of a ton detective who lives in a brownstone in New York City and only leaves it under extreme emergency conditions. He solves mysteries usually without leaving his chair, leaving the footwork to Archie Goodwin, his amanuensis, investigator, and general thorn in Wolfe's side. His brownstone is his haven, his castle, his fortress, in which he follows a rigid routine, cares for his orchids and his stomach, and is cared for by Archie and Fritz, his cook. (Theodore helps with the orchids, but let's face facts: nobody – not even Nero Wolfe – likes him.)



Some theories (and I get these straight from Wikipedia) are that Wolfe (born, according to Rex Stout and Archie Goodwin, in Montenegro) was the offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, who had an affair in Montenegro (why they chose that country to frolic in is undetermined). Others have said that if Wolfe was of Holmesian descent, it was via Mycroft, who was vast and logical, like him. Others have posited the thief Arsene Lupin as Wolfe's father. However, this is all gilding the lily, not to mention assuming that one detective (or thief) leads to another.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.jpgI believe that the origins of Nero Wolfe go all the way back to the early 18th century. Specifically to 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born, who grew up to be a man of exceptional mind and memory, a man to whom no place was so suitable to live as a major metropolis, in his case, London, and whose girth and eccentricities were as legendary as were his literary abilities. I speak, of course, of Dr. Johnson, lexicographer, poet, playwright, journalist, and wit.

What led me to correlate Nero Wolfe with Samuel Johnson was re-reading Boswell's "Life of Johnson". Their size, their reluctance to travel from their adopted great city (London for Dr. Johnson, New York for Nero Wolfe), their constant reading, and their love of food is identical. Both have remarkably similar amanuenses (Archie Goodwin, James Boswell) whom they find alternately useful, irritating, ubiquitous, and indispensable. Both Goodwin and Boswell are - to the urban dweller - from the sticks (Ohio and Scotland respectively). Both Goodwin and Boswell have had numerous amatory encounters, though Boswell was more graphic in his (secret) reminiscences than Goodwin. Essentially both write biographies, although neither are as educated, logical, or eccentric as their subjects.

James Boswell of Auchinleck.jpg
Archie to the left, Boswell above.


Yes, Dr. Johnson did marry (to a woman twice his age), while Nero Wolfe is, at first glance, the ultimate misogynist. (But even Nero Wolfe liked to look at women's legs: see The Silent Speaker, Chapter 20) But "Tetty" was Johnson's only known dalliance, and he was known to be as severe as Nero Wolfe in his judgments upon the fairer sex. (“Never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman’s a whore, and there’s an end on ’t.”) But they both were respectful of virtuous wives and mothers, as well as of professional women who were good at what they did: Dol Bonner and Jackie Jaquette, in Wolfe's world; the writers Charlotte Lennox and Fanny Burney in Johnson's world.

But to me, it was the use of language that cinched it. It is almost identical. See if you can tell who said what:
  1. "Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else"
  2. "What finally ruled [Voltaire] out was something that hadn't been mentioned at lunch at all: he had no palate and not much appetite. He was indifferent to food; he might even eat only once a day; and he drank next to nothing. All his life he was extremely skinny, and in his later years he was merely a skeleton. To call him a great man was absurd; strictly speaking, he wasn't a man at all since he had no palate and a dried-up stomach."
  3. "I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another"
  4. “We are all vainer of our luck than of our merits.”
  5. "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
  6. “I will ride my luck on occasion, but I like to pick the occasion.”
  7. "Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment."
  8. “A man may debar nonsense from his library of reason, but not from the arena of his impulses.”
  9. "[A] pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.”
  10. "He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty."
  11. "Where there is no education, as in savage countries, men will have the upper hand of women. Bodily strength, no doubt, contributes to this; but it would be so, exclusive of that; for it is mind that always governs. When it comes to dry understanding, man has the better."
    "The true, strong, and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great things and small."
  12. “The more you put in your brain, the more it will hold -- if you have one.”
  13. "A fellow that makes no figure in company, and has a mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar-cruet."
  14. "I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read."
  15. “A person who does not read cannot think. He may have good mental processes, but he has nothing to think about. You can feel for people or natural phenomena and react to them, but they are not ideas. You cannot think about them."
  16. "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives."
  17. “A guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality”
  18. "The right to lie in the service of your own interests is highly valued and frequently exercised.”
  19. “More people saying what they believe would be a great improvement. Because I often do I am unfit for common intercourse."
  20. "I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding."
  21. "A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him."
  22. “To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.”
  23. "A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say."
  24. “To assert dignity is to lose it.”
  25. "The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public."
  26. “Women don't require motives that are comprehensible to my intellectual processes."
(Answers at the bottom of the page)

For my final piece of evidence, I give you the novel Gambit, in which Nero Wolfe burns a dictionary - bought with a flammable cover on purpose - because it allows the use of "imply" in place of "infer". A passion for precise language was certainly passed down from the man who wrote "A Dictionary of the English Language".




Sadly, Dr. Johnson had no children. But he did have a brother, Timothy, who had children. The genes were put into the pool. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you twin sons, separated by time. So, was Nero Wolfe a descendant of Samuel Johnson's brother Timothy? Or is he a reincarnation?

Put a wig on the one, take the Tourette's away from the other, and we might just have the answer!














Nero Wolfe - 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 26
Samuel Johnson - 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 21, 22, 24, 25


18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...


by Eve Fisher

Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

File:Ary Scheffer - Franz Liszt.jpg
Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
File:Franz Liszt 1858.jpg
Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

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Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

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Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...

06 March 2013

Portrait of a man who never lived


by Robert Lopresti

A few months ago I wrote a piece here about Rex Stout's most famous characters and I included wonderful illustrations of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  I have since discovered that they are both the work of professional portraitist Kevin Gordon.

I have been in touch with Kevin and thought you might enjoy some of what he had to say.  Before he gets to talk I wanted to mention that he is a second generation portraitist (ain't that cool?) and the author/illustrator of many books. 

All right.  With no further ado:



Since painting people is my profession, as you've apparently seen from my website, I always thought it would be fun to paint Mr. Wolfe. But, all I had was my own mind's-eye version and I'm used to flesh-and-blood models.

So I corralled a fellow who had the requisite bulk, posed him with the required props and painted away. The face is strictly my own invention, since he didn't actually LOOK like Wolfe to me. But he was game, and I probably saved his life, since being told you resemble Nero Wolfe comes with a certain stigma and he lost about 90 pounds since he posed for me.

The original hangs on my dining room wall, glowering at my wife and I as we enjoy her Fritz-quality meals, until it finds a more appropriate and profitable (at least for me) home.

Both Tim Hutton and Bill Smitrovich (who played Archie and Cramer respectively on the A&E series) have the prints on their walls, as does Rex Stout's daughter Rebecca...

With Kevin's permission  I am including another of his works whose subject you may find familiar.

It's a very small oil painted as a trade for two Arthur Conan Doyle letters, one of my prized possessions. I did a little pencil drawing of Conan Doyle which is framed with the letters. Never being able to meet him, having that drawing of Conan Doyle framed with the pages that he held in his own hands is the next best thing.

I read my first Sherlock Holmes story when I was ten. I remember it clearly. It was an assignment for English class; “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. I was hooked and then delighted to find out there were fifty-six more stories and four whole novels.  I read every one in order and then I read them again. Imagine my excitement when I found out they actually made movies about Holmes. Wow! Of course they were the Basil Rathbone features, so except for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the others were a little disappointing having been set in “modern” times, especially with Rathbone’s inexplicable upswept hairdo.  A thorough examination of Conan Doyle’s life followed and I’ve been a devoted Sherlockian ever since, having made the pilgrimage to Baker Street several times.

As for Rex Stout, the first story I read was in 1990. It was “Christmas Party”, in an anthology called Murder for Christmas and I got the same feeling I had as a ten year old with Holmes. I decided I’d better find out how it all started and began reading the Nero Wolfe stories in order. With Fer de Lance, I was off and running and read all the stories in order, which wasn’t as easy as with Holmes because there was no single volume which contained all the tales. Surely, I thought characters and stories as wonderful as these must have sparked some sort of fan club, like the Baker Street Irregulars, and that’s when I found the Wolfe Pack, and through the Pack, the Stout family. I spent a delightful afternoon at High Meadow with Barbara Stout and Liz Maroc and later with Rebecca Stout Bradbury. (Stout's daughters and (Liz) a granddaughter.)  Eating lunch at the same dining room table at which Rex Stout regaled his family with the witticisms that Archie had uttered that day, and then sitting at the desk upstairs where Stout actually created them was certainly a thrill for a ten-year-old middle-aged man.

I asked Kevin how he paints a person who doesn't actually exist.

Of course, painting a person I see only in my head poses a different problem than painting the chairman or president that’s sitting in front of me.  With Wolfe, it was more of a feeling that I tried to convey rather than his precise features. I suppose I could have used a photo of Orson Welles or someone like that, but I wanted Wolfe to be unrecognizable as anyone but Wolfe. That’s where an artist’s imagination and knowledge of the human face come in handy. The representation is how I feel about Wolfe. In all honesty, it’s still not exactly how I picture him, but it’s close enough.

As for the little head I did of Holmes that’s on my website, I used the photo of Sidney Paget’s brother Walter as my reference, because I felt that if Walter was a good enough model for Paget, he was good enough for me. I also find it interesting that Conan Doyle thought that Paget’s illustrations made Holmes too handsome and that in his own mind’s eye, Conan Doyle saw Holmes as rather ugly and that he resembled what he quaintly called a “red Indian”.

The question has also come up how I know when I’m done painting a picture, I agree with Leonardo Da Vinci who said “A painting is never finished, only abandoned.” An artist friend of mine put it this way: “It takes two people to paint a picture; one to do the painting and a second one to hit the first one over the head and make him stop.”


I guess Kevin paints real people for a living and fictional ones for fun.  He certainly does them both well.

05 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Orchid


by Robert Lopresti

Last week I mentioned that the Wolfe Pack was having their annual Black Orchid Banquet on Saturday in New York City.  One of the highlights of that event is always the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award.  Last year the winner was James Lincoln Warren and we published his acceptance speech here.

This year the winner happened to be, well, me.  "The Red Envelope" will be published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  My acceptance speech is below.

I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, back when the city had a lovely old Carnegie Library.  But there was a problem: by the fifth grade I had used up the children's room, wrung it dry of everything I wanted to read.  And that was a problem because children were not allowed in the adult section.

So I would make guerilla raids down the narrow book-lined hallways that led to the cathedral-ceilinged main reading room, keenly aware that if I were caught the librarians would banish me back into exile with Dr. Seuss and Mary Poppins.


I quickly figured out that the best place to hide was the area directly behind the reference desk, because the librarians there seldom turned around.  That happened to be the mystery section.

And so it happened that among the first adult books I read were The Mother Hunt and Gambit. Of course over the years I read all of the Rex Stout corpus.  And reread it.

The results was that I became a lifelong mystery reader and a mystery writer as well.  Which brings us to tonight.  So I would like to start by thanking Rex Stout, without whom, as they say.

And I  want to thank the library staff in Plainfield, New Jersey.  I don't hold a grudge, you see.  I even became a librarian myself.

I want to thank the Wolfe Pack, and especially the awards committee, which has shown such excellent taste.

And my favorite editor, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Linda, I believe three of my stories are waiting in your slushpile.

Also, the librarians and staff of Western Washington University, where I did my research.  "The Red Envelope" is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, so there was a lot to check up on.

I need to thank my first readers, last year's winner James Lincoln Warren, and R.T. Lawton.  Who knows?   Maybe he will be next year's winner.  Couldn't have done it without you guys.

Finally there's my wife, Terri Weiner, who puts up with my work even though she really prefers science fiction.  Thanks, honey.

And to all the rest of you, please keep reading mysteries.