Showing posts with label Rex Stout. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rex Stout. Show all posts

19 July 2019

Dubious Attractions

by Janice Law

I am sure I am not the only writer to be attracted to subjects or genres that I’d be better to leave alone. I write books and stories heavier on character and atmosphere than clever plotting, and my favorite protagonists share a humorous skepticism and a propensity to chat.

Rex Stout
The rational puzzle mystery in not my natural terrain. Sure, I know enough to avoid the locked room. I know my limitations. But just the same I have twice been seduced by the siren song of the Black Orchid Society’s contest. And this, despite the fact that I’m not even terribly fond of Nero Wolfe, however much I may admire Rex Stout’s ingenuity.

Both times, however, I was convinced I had worked out the format. My first attempt, A Taste of Murder, set immediately after WW I in Providence, RI, did have a great logical mind and various errands and investigations that had to be carried out. Just like Wolfe and Archie, right?

AHMM illustration for Taste of Murder
Or not quite. My detectives, and I realize now I had never intended to give one priority, were Professor Hodgkins, a good-natured and erudite history professor with an interest in historical mysteries, and his Aberdonian housekeeper, Jean Galloway. Widowed during the war, Jean has much less education than her employer but a much tougher and more logical mind.

She is a bow to the domestic servants I grew up among, many, like her, women whose men – or potential men – had been lost in the Great War. Hardworking and clever, they were underpaid “help” who, in fact, had all the skills necessary to run the equivalent of a boutique hotel with a demanding set of residents. Put together, Jean and her professor have the Nero Wolfe mind and, depending on the errand, either separately or together fulfill Archie’s evidence- gathering function.

Probably you can already see why A Taste of Murder did for fit the contest requirements, although it turned up in Alfred Hitchcock later. A Fine Nest of Rascals, my next attempt at one of the classic forms, met a similar fate, although I am happy to say it is the cover story of the current July/August issue of  AHMM.

July/August 2019 issue
This time, I believed that I was a closer to the mark, employing my series characters Madame Selina and her apprentice Nip Tompkins in what I’d decided would be their final outing. Readers like to know what happens to characters, and this was a way of showing the resourceful Nip thriving as a cub reporter on the New York Herald and Madame contemplating retirement in the face of the vulgarities of the Gilded Age.

Madame would be the Nero Wolfe character, the brains of the operation, and Nip, who narrates, would run errands for her just as he used to do back when he was operating the bellows and creating the “ectoplasm” that enhanced her seances. I had the lines of authority and command down this time with no subversive ideas about class or gender.

Alas, I had ignored two little difficulties: Nip’s initiative – especially evident with a young woman as charming as Lucy Devereux in jeopardy – and Madame’s signature resource, the seance with Augustus, her pipeline to the afterlife. However intelligent Madame Selina, however careful her ( and Nip’s) researches, a Madame Selina story has to dim the lights and summon the Roman emperor. I can hear Nero Wolfe snort!

Oddly enough I did not see any problems at the time, showing that writers can be blind when an idea is upon them. In both cases, I congratulated myself on constructing a big reveal scene before the assembled suspects and in a variety of small ways developing plots without the chases and action that I usually find so helpful in fleshing out a story.

In retrospect I have to admit that my Professor and Madame Selina, Jean Galloway and Nip Tompkins are maybe best described as Stout-ish characters. They’re doing their best but they are not really suitable for a traditional form relying strictly on logical deduction and, I suspect, most comfortable with clear social hierarchies.

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore

by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially voice.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



by Robert Lopresti

When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  

In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

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."

16 August 2018

The Best Anthologies Wake You Up

by Eve Fisher

The death of Harlan Ellison stirred up some old memories.  My first encounter with his work was from Outer Limits:  Demon With a Glass Hand.  I didn't know who the author was, and I didn't care - I was 10 years old, gobbling sci-fi by the yard, and a bit worried that I was some kind of demon seed myself, so the episode really hit home for me.

DangerousVisions(1stEd).jpgSkip forward 3 years and I read Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking sci-fi anthology.  Now, I'll tell you straight up, Harlan Ellison's story in that anthology was perhaps my least favorite - but I loved his introductions and epilogues for each story.

My favorite story was Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers", in which the hero discovers that there really are drugs in the water - but everyone in the world is having the same hallucination.  It's the anti-hallucinogens that create different realities for everyone.  That alone made me sit up and look around.  But what really stuck with me was this quote from Mr. Dick in the epilogue:
"The last word, however, on the subject of God may have already been said: in A.D. 840 by John Scotus Erigena at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." Such a penetrating—and Zen—mystical view, arrived at so long ago, will be hard to top; in my own experiences with psychedelic drugs I have had precious tiny illumination compared with Erigena."
THAT still rings through my mind regularly, like a deep hum, like the cry of a peacock, like a distant bell.

It also caused me to start reading history.  Who were those Frankish kings?  What else did Erigena say or write?  Who influenced him?  Why was a Celt at the Frankish court?  All damn good questions that launched me - after a wildly improbable twenty years or so - into becoming an historian.

A good anthology will rattle your cage for years, which is why I don't let go of them when I find them.  (My copy of Dangerous Visions is tattered and brown-paged by now, but still readable.  It will see me out.)

There's 1962's "The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, 11th Series" edited by Robert P. Mills.  Among the great stories:
    Kurt Vonnegut 1972.jpg
  • The fabulously written Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, which introduced me to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the idea of the Underpeople, derived from animals, who are given human form, speech, and intellect but have absolutely no civil rights.  If they make any mistake, they can/will be destroyed.  Something else that make me look at what was going on around me.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, about a world of enforced equality - to the lowest common denominator of everything.  
  • And the mystical, fabulously beautiful, The One Who Returns by John Berry, which gave me a new view of what a Yeti might really be.   
A more recent mystery anthology in my library is 1993s "More Murder Most Cozy", edited by Cynthia Manson, which has P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish uncovering a truly cold case - a Victorian May-December mesalliance that led to murder - in The Boxdale Inheritance.  Wonderful.  I also reread Melba Marlett's The Second Mrs. Porter every once in a while to try to figure out how she pulled off the most unique gaslighting I've ever heard of.

And then there are the weird collections you find in the antique stores.  A Treasury of the Familiar, chock full of poetry from the 19th century, Bible quotations, Washington's and Lincoln's political speeches, Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian songs, Spartan defiances, a little bit of everything.

The Holiday Reader, 1947, edited by Bernard Smith and Philip Van Doren (which instantly makes me think of Dorothy Parker saying, "I put myself to sleep counting Van Dorens"...)  This tome is divided into sections:  Stories (Hemingway to Hecht), Humor (Beerbohm, Lardner, Benchley, Parker, etc.), Travel (including Thomas Wolfe, Rachel Carson, and both D. H. and T. E. Lawrence),  Poetry (everything from sonnets to E. E. Cummings), and Eating and Sleeping (worth it for M. F. K. Fisher's Madame is Pleased) and Mystery Fantasy & Murder.

Whistle and I'll come to you illustration.jpgEspecial shout-outs to E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (which only gets more timely every year), M. R. James Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, (scared the bejeezus out of me) and Raymond Chandler's I'll be Waiting.   Imho, one of the best in this collection is Irwin Shaw's Search Through the Streets of the City, which is about as noir as you can get without a murder.

BTW, long ago I made a grave mistake and gave away a paperback collection of 50 Great Short Stories which included a story about a man whose male friends successively date this woman who is beautiful, intelligent, just amazing...  And she cares so tenderly, lovingly, for each of them as they contract this or that fatal illness.  And then he gets sick and she comes to take care of him...  Does this ring a bell with anyone?

Another great find was the 1957 "A Treasury of Great Mysteries".  I don't know how they got the rights to all of these, which include Christie's Murder in the Calais Coach, Du Maurier's Rebecca, Ambler's Journey Into Fear, and Chandler's The Big Sleep.  That right there made it worth the $2.00 charge.

Also a number of truly great short stories by most of the icons of 1950s mystery writing, including Inspector Maigret, in Maigret's Christmas, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason in The Case of the Crimson Kiss (a pretty severe lesson in choosing roommates), and the original short story Rear Window (William Irish).

But my personal favorite is Rex Stout's Instead of Evidence.
"Archie Goodwin," she said.  "You think I'm terrible, don't you?  You think I'm an awful woman, bad clear through.  Don't you?"
"I'm not thinking, lady.  I'm just an errand boy."
The funny thing was that if at any moment up to then I had made a list of the ten most beautiful women she would not have been on.  
You can't get much more noir than that.

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.

05 January 2017

Gifted

by Eve Fisher

Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!







19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You




by Robert Lopresti

First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.

Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"
    

12 February 2015

Write What You Know

by Eve Fisher

"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


15 May 2013

Addressing the Red Envelope

by Robert Lopresti

Back in December I promised that when my Black Orchid Novella Award winning story was published, I would tell you a little bit about how it came to be written.  I am delighted to report that the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has arrived, featuring "The Red Envelope," so here goes.

Two years ago our old friend James Lincoln Warren told me he was writing an entry for the BONA competition, and asked if I would be one of his early readers.  I was happy to comply and voila, he won.

Now the cheap joke is that I concluded "if James can do it, it must be easy," or words to that effect.  I had no such illusion.  But as a great fan of Rex Stout and AHMM I thought I had a chance.  I spent most of a sunny day on my PlotCycle, pedaling around town and trying to think of a setting that would carry a 15- to 20,000 word piece of fiction.  In short, what did I know enough about to discuss, even in fictional terms, for that long?

Hmm.  Libraries?  Didn't want to go there.  Archaeology?  A passion, but I'm no expert.  Folk music?  Already wrote a novel about that.

But, say...  That aforementioned novel was set in Greenwich Village, 1963.  What if I jumped back a few years to the peak of the Beat movement?  My detective could be a beat poet.  And the inevitable gather-all-the-suspects-and reveal-the-killer scene could be done as improvised beat poetry!

As the old saying goes, it's so crazy it just might work.  And since the rules for the contest say "There needs to be some wit," crazy might be a real advantage.

To find out how I named the novella's characters you will have to look at the article I wrote for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine website, Trace Evidence.  

But I want to tell you about two things that I pulled from my memory to add to the plot.  One was an anecdote  I read in one of those "Humor in Real Life" columns from Reader's Digest back in the 1960s, about a young woman introducing her date to her father.  The other was something I learned while working on a non-fiction book about the Pacific Northwest.   How do they fit into a story about 1958 New York?  I can't tell you without spoiling the plot.

Which I sincerely hope you read. Otherwise, what was all this for?

19 December 2012

Picking More Black Orchids

by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I published in this space the speech I gave when I won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the experience. After that I promise to shut up about it until the winning story is published in May, when I will start babbling about it again. (Hey, I don't win prizes that often; give me a break.)

Anyway, I was informed by Jane Cleland back in September that I was the winner. The reason for the early tip-off, of course, is to encourage the winner to attend, which is exactly what it did in my case.  But it meant I had to keep my trap shut for three months and that was not the easiest thing I ever did. Ironically, I applied for a promotion at the same time and in my c.v. I had to write "This year I will receive another award for my writing, but I can't tell you what it is. Ask me in December." I'm sure the peers reviewing my file wondered what the hell that was about.

We visit the Saturday farmer's market almost every week and there is a very nice woman there who makes excellent hats out of recycled sweaters. Back in September I joked that the reason I couldn't fit into one of her hats was that my head was swelled (swollen?) because I just found out I had won an award. She asked which one and of course I couldn't tell her. I did tell her last week and naturally she had never heard of the BONA. Another person wondering what the hell that was about.

Anyway, I did go to the Black Orchid events, wearing one of those recycled hats, oddly enough. It started with the Assembly, in which Rex Stout fans gather to hear experts discuss topics related to the Corpus. (Doyle's writings about Sherlock Holmes are known as the Canon; Stout's reports on Nero Wolfe are known as the Corpus, because it suggests the corpulent nature of our hero).

My favorite speaker was Bob Gatten, who spoke about Rex Stout's work as president of the War Writers Board. I hadn't known that Stout organized a program to discourage writers from using ethnic stereotypes in their writing. "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it over here."

Another highlight was David Naczycz of Urban Oyster on the history of beer in New York City, a subject very dear to Wolfe's heart, or taste buds.

But the major event was the Banquet. Terri and I were seated next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and James Lincoln Warren, good friend of this blog, and last year's winner. James had an official duty this year, presenting the first of five annual toasts. His was to Rex Stout which he delivered in rhyme. Here is a sample:
In our hearts, we all gather together to meet 
At the brownstone address on West Thirty-Fifth Street,
To drink milk or drink beer, or tonight imbibe wine,
To toast a great soul and inimitable mind.
And I can testify that a considerable amount of wine was indeed imbibed.

Another feature of the annual banquet is that each table is expected to compose and perform a song (set to a familiar tune) about the Corpus. These are always enthusiastic if not necessarily masterpieces. Ira Matetsky the Werowance (i.e. president) of the Pack said of one number "of all the song parodies I have heard, that was the most recent."

Having been warned about this feature in advance I provided my tablemates with seven songs to choose from. They selected this number, to the tune of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (That's a photo of Fats Waller, of "Ain't Misbehavin'" fame, not Ira Matetsky, in case you wondered.)
SOME BURIED CAESAR

I traveled upstate,
I don’t care to go,
I had a big date,
To show up a flower show
Some Buried Caesar,
I blame it all on you
Du-du, du-du-du, dudu-du
The car was loaded,
With orchids and me,
A tire exploded,
My Heron hit a tree.
Some Buried Caesar,
I didn’t hear you moo, Du…

Like Jack Horner

we were cornered
in the pasture,
I climbed faster,
That rescue’s what I waited for
Be-lieve me

While Archie first eyes,
the girl he’ll adore,
I won the first prize,
That’s what I went there for
Some Buried Caesar,
I solved a murder too, Du…
Some Buried Caesar,
That’s what detectives do

Matestsky gushingly described our contribution as "surprisingly competent."

One more thing. To fund unexpected expenses, the Wolfe Pack raffled off a seat for next year's banquet. I do not expect to be able to attend in 2013 but in the interest of contributing I bought one ticket.

Guess who won?

Must have been my lucky night.