Showing posts with label Shawn Reilly Simmons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shawn Reilly Simmons. Show all posts

28 April 2020

For the Love of Malice


In the spring of 2001, I was taking my first mystery-writing workshop. My instructor, author Noreen Wald, told us—all eight of us, I believe—that we had to go to Malice Domestic. I didn't even really understand what Malice Domestic was, but I knew I wanted to write mysteries, so if Noreen said I had to go, I had to go.

That was the beginning of my love affair with mystery conventions. Over the years I've been to Sleuthfest once and to Bouchercon nine times, but Malice is the convention I never miss. It's a place where I feel at home, among friends who love traditional mysteries, many of whom I now consider family. This year was to be my twentieth Malice, and not getting ready to drive to Bethesda on Thursday for the start of the convention just feels wrong. I'll miss the dinners and the panels—as the former program chair, I always have to plug the panels—and I'll especially miss the hugs. Remember when we all weren't afraid to get within six feet of one another, nonetheless to hug?

But just because Malice is canceled this year doesn't mean that we can't still celebrate the traditional mystery this week and the people who write and read them. The Agatha Award voting will be held later this week (links to read the nominated short stories are below), and the winners will be announced in a live stream Saturday night. The Malice board also will be announcing next year's honorees (who will be sharing the stage with the wonderful people who were supposed to be honored this year, in what I understand might be a supersized Malice), as well as the theme for the anthology to be published in the spring of 2021. I believe the Agatha board of directors will be sending out more information about all of that very soon.

And that brings me back to getting into the Malice spirit. I was talking last week with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor about it and how we could use my blog post today to do it. Art wisely suggested that since one of the great things about Malice is it allows readers to learn about new writers, it would be wonderful to have this year's Agatha short story finalists tell you, our SleuthSayers readers, about some great up-and-coming short story authors. I shared the idea with the rest of our fellow finalists, and they all were in faster than you can read flash fiction.

So, without any further ado, here are five short story writers whom we five nominees admire. I hope you'll check out their work.

Art Taylor, talking about Kristin Kisska (who recently joined our SleuthSayers family)

I admired Kristin Kisska's fiction before I knew that she was the one who wrote it—literally, since her name didn't accompany that first story. "The Sevens" was a blind submission for the 2015 Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks, which I edited. Set at the University of Virginia in 1905, "The Sevens" stood out for its intriguing plot and its rich sense of both place and historical detail. It became Kris's first published story, and as editor, I was thrilled to introduce this tremendous talent to the mystery world. Since then, Kris has published short stories in several collections, including two Malice Domestic anthologies—Mystery Most Geographical and Mystery Most Edible—and Deadly Southern Charm from the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters of Sisters in Crime. Checking her website as I write this, I found a more recent story I'd missed: "Prelude" in Legends Reborn. Score! And even better news: Kris just signed with a literary agent for her first novel. Save me a place in line for this next debut—book-length this time!

Shawn Reilly Simmons, talking about S.A. Cosby

I first met Shawn (S.A.) Cosby when I was invited to read at a Noir at the Bar event three years ago in Richmond, Virginia. All of the stories that night were good, but Shawn's was uniquely memorable—he writes gritty southern noir woven through with glittering threads of humor. Since that night in Richmond, Shawn and I have appeared together at N@TB events many times, and have downed more than a few cocktails together at Bouchercon in St. Pete and Dallas, where he won the 2019 Anthony Award in the short story category. He's one of the most upbeat and nicest guys in the mystery world, and each new story he writes brings that unique flair that is his alone. Shawn's newest story is "The King's Gambit," which will appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in June, and his novel Blacktop Wasteland will be published in July by Flatiron Books. It's described as Ocean's Eleven meets Drive with a southern noir twist, and it's recently been optioned for film.

Cynthia Kuhn, talking about Amy Drayer

I had the good fortune to meet Amy Drayer at the Colorado Gold conference, and she immediately impressed me with her smart, engaging perspectives on writing in general and mystery in particular. After she joined our Sisters in Crime chapter, I read her fantastic work and was even more impressed. Amy's writing is compelling, witty, eloquent, and thought-provoking. Her published short stories include "The Clearing" in False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear and "Honorable Men" in Shades of Pride: LGBTQAI2+ Anthology. "Schrodinger's Mouse" is forthcoming in Wild (Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers). She has written short fiction in genres ranging from horror to fabulism, literary flash to pop fiction. The first book in her wonderful Makah Island Mystery series, Revelation, also came out in March.

Kaye George, talking about Joseph S. Walker

Joseph S. Walker came to my attention when he submitted a story, "Awaiting the Hour," for my own 2017 eclipse-themed anthology, Day of the Dark. The story was stunningly good, and I was amazed I'd never heard of Mr. Walker before. I've certainly heard of him since. I gave a couple of stories from that publication to Otto Penzler, and he mentioned Joseph's in his annual publication honoring the best of mystery short stories. Joseph went on to win the Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, then the Al Blanchard Award at New England Crime Bake. His latest published fiction is "Etta at the End of the World" in the just published May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Barb Goffman, talking about Stacy Woodson

It seems appropriate for me to end this column talking about Stacy Woodson because I met her at Malice Domestic in 2017, when I served as a mentor/guide to Stacy and fellow Malice first-timer Alison McMahan. Since then Stacy has become one of my closest friends, not only because of our shared love of Mexican food (Uncle Julio's forever!) but because she is as passionate about short stories as I am. Everything she writes showcases not only her raw talent but also her heart. I was honored to edit her first published story, "Duty, Honor, Hammett," before she submitted it to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It not only ran in the magazine's Department of First Stories in 2018, but it went on to win the magazine's annual Readers Award, only the second time in history an author's first published story took the top honor. Stacy has since gone on to be named a top-ten finalist for last year's Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon, and she's placed a number of stories in Mystery Weekly, Woman's World, and EQMM, where her story "Mary Poppins Didn't Have Tattoos" will appear in the July/August issue. Stacy's most recently published story is "River" in the anthology The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell. "River," like so many of Stacy's stories, gives a window into her experience as a US Army veteran. Given Stacy's insatiable desire to learn and grow as a writer, I have no doubt you'll be reading much more from—and about—her in the future.

I hope you've enjoyed learning about these newcomers to the crime short-story field, who are already wowing readers. Please consider checking out their work. There are so many independent bookstores that could benefit from your business, especially during this pandemic. The stores might be closed, but many are still mailing books out.

And before we go, to those of you who were registered to attend Malice Domestic this year and who either transferred your registration to next year or donated your registration payment to the convention, it's nearly time to vote for the Agatha Awards. The electronic voting is going to begin soon (tomorrow or Thursday, I expect). It's not too late to read the short stories that are nominated for the Agatha. They are:

  • "The Blue Ribbon" by Cynthia Kuhn, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "The Last Word" by Shawn Reilly Simmons, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "Better Days" by Art Taylor, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Just click on the titles. Happy reading, and I hope to see all of you next year at Malice!

13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!


by B.K. Stevens

On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here, Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which looks at Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)