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

11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

15 April 2020

My Misadventure on West Thirty-Fifth Street


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, boy, he seems truly irritating to me.

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

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

I call that superb.

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.

31 July 2019

Today in Mystery History: July 31


by Robert Lopresti

This is the third installment in my occasional stroll through the calendar.  Enjoy.

July 31, 1904.  David Dresser was born on this date.  You probably remember him as Brett Halliday, the creator of Miami private eye Mike Shayne.  His first novel was rejected more than 20 times, but he went on to write 30 books, which were adapted for radio, TV, and a series of movies.  He stopped writing in 1958 but authors labelled "Brett Halliday" went on to write many more books about Shayne.  Until I was researching this I had no idea that the excellent movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was inspired by one of his books.

July 31, 1930.  The Detective Story Magazine Hour began broadcasting on radio today. This is mainly significant because of the show's announcer, a sinister presence played by an actor whose identity was kept firmly hidden.  He was known only as The Shadow and proved so popular that he spawned his own show, a magazine, and tons of novels written by Walter B. Gibson.  Bwaa ha ha!

July 31, 1940.  The British magazine The Sketch published "The Case of the Drunken Socrates" on this date.  It was part of a series of stories about a Czech refugee detective which Eric Ambler wrote while waiting to be drafted into the army. (Notice the title of the book that collected the tales.)  Of course, Ambler was much better known for his espionage thrillers.

July 31, 1948.  The issue of Saturday Evening Post with this date featured the first installment of The D.A. Takes A Chance, the next to last novel Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about district attorney Doug Selby.  Alas, the prosecutor was never as popular as that other lawyer Gardner created, the defense attorney whose clients always turned out to be innocent.

July 31, 1951.  On this date Mr. and Mrs. Rackell came to Nero Wolfe to seek the murderer of their nephew.  "Home to Roost" is probably the high point of Rex Stout's literary attacks on American Communists.  You can find it in his collection Triple Jeopardy.


July 31, 1975.  On this date the movie Bank Shot was released.  It starred George C. Scott in the unlikely role of Donald E. Westlake's hapless burglar John Dortmunder.  (Okay, his name was changed to protect the guilty.)    

 July 31, 1986.  Stanley Ellin died on this date.  He was one of the greatest author's of mystery short stories ever.  If you don't believe me, try "The Specialty of the House," "The Payoff," or "You Can't be a Little Girl All Your Life."

July 31, 2001. This date saw the publication of Nightmare in Shining Armor, part of Tamar Myers' series about a shop called the Den of Antiquity.  I haven't read it, but I'm guessing it's a cozy.

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?