Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts

30 June 2018

100 and Counting


by John M. Floyd




A few weeks ago I reached a milestone, of sorts: I sold my 100th story to Woman's World magazine. Allow me to mention, here, how grateful I am to both their editors and their readers, for allowing me to keep spinning these tales. I hope they'll want to buy a hundred more.

I'd also like to thank Dan Persinger, Jacqueline Seewald, Teresa Garver, Kevin Tipple, and others whose recent mentions of my WW stories on Facebook and elsewhere prompted me to write this piece. Woman's World is a market that is often overlooked by mystery writers, but if you enjoy--and have a knack for--creating very short stories, it's probably a market you should try.

Background info

As some of you know, Woman's World publishes one mystery story and one romance story in every issue. The magazine has a circulation of around two million readers/subscribers, they operate under the Bauer Media Group, they're based in New Jersey, and they've been around since 1981. I'm told they receive about 4,000 short-story submissions a month.

When I started submitting stories to WW almost twenty years ago, their mysteries were 1000 words in length and paid $500 each and their romance stories were 1500 words and paid $1000 each. Now, mysteries are 700 words max and pay $500 and romances are 800 words max and pay $800.

In January 2016 Patricia Riddle Gaddis replaced Johnene Granger as Fiction Editor of the magazine. I can't say enough about these two ladies: both of them are smart, professional, and talented, and both have been very good to me.

Although WW's mystery stories are often referred to as mini-mysteries, the correct term is now "solve-it-yourself" mysteries. More about that later.

Observations

Almost all the stories I've sold to WW have been mysteries--but two were romances, published years ago. I think those 1500-worders were much easier to write than the current 800-worders, and I have a lot of respect for those who can consistently write those short romance stories. It didn't take me long to figure out which genre was easier for me.

My first WW stories appeared in 1999, in their April 20, July 20, and July 27 issues. Afterward, I sold them one story in 2000, one in 2001, three in 2002, one in 2003, three in 2004, six in 2005, four in 2006, three in 2007, four in 2008, two in 2009, four in 2010, six in 2011, seven in 2012, ten in 2013, six in 2014, eight in 2015, ten in 2016, thirteen in 2017, and (so far) five in 2018. More than you wanted or needed to know, right?

In 2001 I began featuring two recurring characters in my WW stories, which has worked out well. For one thing, since readers are now relatively familiar with the two protagonists and their quirks (my characters have a lot of quirks), I don't have to waste much time "introducing" them in each story. That allows me more words to devote to the plot.

Not that it matters, but 62 of my 100 stories sold to WW involved either a robbery or a burglary. Only 21 involved murders. The rest were a mix of kidnappings, arson, fraud, jailbreaks, assault, blackmail, embezzlement, forgery, etc. I think there's a reason for that, although I doubt I was aware of it at the time: WW has always liked lighthearted tales, and non-lethal crimes like theft and trickery and property damage are a bit less traumatic than homicides.

Still on the subject of statistics, 92 of my 100 sales have been series stories, the rest of them standalones. And only 19 were whodunits. Most were howdunits. I've often heard that to write mysteries for WW you should have three suspects, and the guilty person must be one of those three. That's bad advice. You can do that if you want, but you don't have to. The main goal should merely be to put together a crime puzzle of some kind, not necessarily a whodunit, and make it entertaining.

In 2004 the top brass at WW decided to move to "interactive" mysteries rather than mysteries with traditional storylines. Hence the new name "solve-it-yourself" mysteries, where a question is introduced in the story and the answer is provided in a solution box at the end of the piece. I confess that I lobbied against this idea--I liked the freedom and variety of the traditional storytelling format--but they'd already made up their minds. And, as I think I've said in the past, when the train you want to ride comes blasting through the station, you can either (1) climb onto it, (2) get squashed, or (3) get left behind. I hopped aboard.

As part of WW's transition from regular mysteries to interactive mysteries, I was invited by the fiction editor to write several experimental stories that would help to ease readers into the new format. The first of these ("Customer Service," Dec. 14, 2004, issue) included--get this--six clues that were not only highlighted in the text but were designated as "CLUES." (Did I mention that this was a "trial-and-error" transition?) Anyhow, i happily wrote the story, but I told them I didn't like the "announcement of clues" approach, and WW agreed. Afterward, the solve-it-yourself mystery became just a story and a solution box, and it remains so today.

Here's something crazy: On two different occasions, my stories were published under another writer's byline. (How did this happen? Who knows.) Both times editor Johnene Granger phoned me afterward to apologize, and I think she was relieved to find that the mistake didn't bother me at all. The checks came on time, the bank cashed them with no problem, and my ego survived the ordeal.

At one point, after WW had published eight of my standalone stories and 23 installments of my "series," I decided to try sending them a story with two different main characters. The editor bought and published that story ("The Quilt Caper," May 17, 2010, issue), but then sent me a note saying she preferred I go back to my tried-and-true cast. Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I saluted and obeyed. My other two crimesolving characters, Fran and Lucy Valentine, did survive, though: they've now appeared in 56 stories, most of them in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, Mysterical-E, Kings River Life, and several anthologies--but they've never appeared again in WW.

One of the best things about Woman's World is its professionalism. They've always gotten the contracts to me on time and paid me on time. Always. And they've been easy to work with, on proposed changes. They've also twice paid me "kill fees" (twenty percent of the full rate) when they found they were unable to publish stories that they'd previously accepted. (This happened in 2004, during the trial-and-error transition from one mystery format to the other.)

Another good thing is that the editor sometimes asks me to write a story--especially if there's a holiday coming up and they don't have a story in hand that they want to run. Several years ago, for example, the editor contacted me and said she needed a Fourth of July mystery. "And I need it by tomorrow," she added. I came up with an idea that night, wrote the story, sent it to her the following morning, they published it, and everyone was happy. That doesn't happen often, but when the editor asks me for something, I try really hard to deliver it. (I feel the same way about invitations to anthologies: if someone thinks highly enough of me to invite me to contribute a story, I'm not going to say no.)

A final observation, more about me than about WW: I don't write only short-short stories. Most of my stories these days seem to run between 3000 and 8000 words--several of those are upcoming in AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, etc.--but there's something about the little mini-mysteries that's always been fun for me. Part of it's probably because I actually enjoy the re-writing and self-editing phase, the whittling away of all the extra and unneeded stuff that most of us plug into our stories. As you flash-fiction writers know, stories of less than 1000 words require a lot of this.

A word about editing

I must tell you, WW does like to edit my manuscripts. Usually just a word or two, but sometimes more. Example: In my story "Fun and Games," which was published a few weeks ago in the June 11 issue, my Sheriff Jones character and his amateur-sleuth partner Angela Potts have arrived at the local college library, where Professor Harriet Pinskey informs them that a golden statuette of a regal woman in Roman attire--presented to Pinskey's organization by a European billionaire--has been stolen from a display case. The following is some dialogue between the sheriff, Angela, and the professor:

    "What organization?" the sheriff asked.

    "An all-female academic society," Pinskey said. "MOLTH. It means: Move Over--Ladies Thinking Here."

    The sheriff grinned. "Why not 'Women'? That'd be appropriate: MOWTH."

    "You better shut yours," Angela said. "You're outnumbered."

Yes, I know it's silly, and certainly not necessary to the plot, but I love this kind of idiotic humor. Alas, the editors did not: that exchange didn't appear in the final, printed version.

On one occasion (in my story "The Train to Graceland," June 30, 2014, issue) my robbery victim was a young Chinese lady. For some reason, the Powers That Be at WW didn't like that, and I was asked to change the woman's nationality. I made her British instead, and all was well. I'm still trying to figure that one out.


Sometimes titles get changed, as well. Out of the 100 stories I've done for WW, 49 of my title choices were overruled. A few of their new titles, I must admit, wound up sounding better than my originals--but some didn't. I truly loved one of my titles, to a story involving the robbery and kidnapping of a guy named Ron. My suggested title was "Take the Money and Ron," which in all modesty I thought was pretty clever; their title, the one that made it in to the magazine, was "Candid Camera." Big sigh.

Tips

Here are a few things I would suggest a writer do, if he/she wants to write mystery stories for Woman's World:

- Include a lot of dialogue.

- Don't use strong language or excessive violence.

- Avoid politics, religion, social issues, or anything else that might be controversial.

- Don't put pets in jeopardy. Go ahead and whack Professor Plum on the head with the candlestick in the parlor if you like, but do NOT dognap his poodle. Around that corner lies immediate rejection.

- Inject some humor. Sometimes it gets edited out, sometimes it doesn't--and it usually helps.

- Be fair with the clues.

- Keep the solutions short.

- Lean toward cozy. About six months ago WW decided to focus more on lighter subject matter and less on murder mysteries. As a result, all the stories I've sold them so far this year involved domestic, non-violent crimes. Just saying.

Questions

Have you ever tried sending a story to Woman's World? Have you been published there? (Several of my fellow SleuthSayers have been.) If so, what were some of your experiences? Do you find these very short mysteries easier to write than the typical mystery tales--or harder?

If you've never tried it, give it a go. As I mentioned, most of my stories are longer rather than shorter--I honestly enjoy writing those, and we all know a longer story offers the writer a lot of working-room for the plot. But there's something I also like about trying to tell an entire story in a matter of only two or three pages.

You might find you like it too.








08 May 2018

A White Hot "White Heat" Tour of L.A.

by Paul D. Marks

This week I want to talk about one of my favorite subjects. No, not me. Los Angeles. A lot of people have said L.A. is another character in my books. Author S.W. Lauden said of my one of my works, “I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.” I take this as a huge compliment. And, though I’ve written about L.A. one way or another before, sometimes you just feel called home.

Since my novel White Heat is being re-released this month by Down & Out Books (release date May 21, 2018 and Available now for pre-order on Amazon), I thought I’d talk about some of the locations in the book. I was born in L.A., my family goes back a ways, at least on my mom’s side, and L.A. infuses me and my work.

White Heat is about Duke Rogers, a P.I. who inadvertently causes the death of Teddie Matson, a young actress, by helping her stalker find her. He then tries to make things right by going after her killer. His search takes him to South Central L.A. right as the 1992 Rodney King verdict is announced and the riots are sparked.



Before the main action, Duke returns to his house and his dog Baron after being away. Baron is named after a dog my family had as a kid. He’s the larger dog in the pic. But he and Molly, the other dog, were a great team. He protected her. He protected all of us. And he had some great adventures.

I’d gone out of town for about a week on a case. My buddy Jack had collected the mail and taken care of my dog, Baron. I came home, greeted by Baron in his usual overzealous manner. There was a message from Lou on the answering machine. She didn’t say what she wanted and I couldn’t reach her. Everything else was in order. I went to the office, was sitting in my chair, listening to k.d. lang, catching up on a week’s worth of newspapers and taking my lunch break of gin-laced lemonade. I’d cut down on the alcohol. Cut down, not out. I could handle it in small doses. The article I was reading said that a verdict in the Rodney King beating case was expected any day now. But it was another headline that slammed me in the gut. 

Another photo. 

Made me want to vomit. 

Through force of will, I was able to control it. 

I crumpled the paper. 

Tossed it in the can. 

Kicked the can with such force that the metal sides caved in. 

Fucked up a case. 

Fucked it up real bad.


Duke’s house is a Spanish-Colonial built in the 1920s. Similar to the house I grew up in, though based more on a friend’s house.

I pulled up to the house, a Spanish-Colonial built in the twenties. The driveway ran alongside the house back to the garage, which like a lot of people in L.A. I never used as a garage, even though I had a classic Firebird. The stucco was beige, though it might have been lighter at one time. A small courtyard in front was fenced off from the street with a wooden gate. At the back of the courtyard was the front door. I pulled about halfway down the driveway to where the back door was, parked. Baron, my tan and black German Shepherd was waiting for me with a green tennis ball in his mouth. We played catch. He loved running after tennis balls. Seeing him, playing with him, gave me a feeling of normalcy again. Made me forget about things for just a moment. After half an hour it was time to cool off.


I have to include El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant near Duke’s house. A real place that I’ve been going to since I was about three years old. And that my mom was going to well before that. People either love or hate this place. My wife Amy had to pass three superficial tests before we could get married: Not smoke, like the Beatles and like El Coyote. She’d never been there, so I took her and she passed the test. And, as they say, the rest is history. In White Heat Duke meets a friend of his there, Lou. She works at the DMV and got him the info that sets the story in motion…and inadvertently gets Teddie Matson killed.

The lobby was crowded. Lou’s strawberry hair glinted in the lights, accenting a still-perfect complexion. Her Anne Taylor dress highlighted her figure, flaring at the waist. Stunning, as usual. 

She knew. Her eyes said it. The corners of her mouth said it. And her weak handshake instead of a hug said it. She knew. 

El Coyote was an old restaurant from the old neighborhood, a few blocks west of La Brea on Beverly Boulevard. It attracted an eclectic clientele. Tonight was no different. Teens in hip-hop drag mixed with elderly couples and homosexual couples and young hetero couples on dates. All inside a restaurant that had been here since before the war—the Big War. Lou particularly liked the decor, paintings made out of seashells. “Interesting,” she always said, as if that was enough. And she loved the food. So did I. But I knew a lot of people who didn’t. You either loved it or hated it, there was no in between. That’s the kind of place it was. I liked their margaritas. They weren’t those slushy crushed ice new-fangled things you find in most restaurants. They were just tequila, triple sec, lime juice and salt around the rim. Damn good. 

“Interesting,” Lou said looking at a shell painting, after we were seated. I nodded. There was an awkward feeling between us, a gulf of turbulent air that we were trying to negotiate. There was nothing for me to say in response. This wasn’t a social call. She leaned forward, talking quietly. “You know why I wanted to have dinner, don’t you?” 

I nodded. 

“I didn’t want to leave any specifics on the answering machine or call a bunch of times.” 

“In case the cops were on us already.” 

She nodded. “I shouldn’t have run it for you. I didn’t know who Teddie Matson was. I don’t watch television, especially sitcoms. How was I to know you were asking me to look up a TV star?”


Teddie’s Fairfax area duplex. Teddie lived in a four-plex in the Fairfax area. Her character is inspired by Rebecca Schaefer and what happened to her. And Ms. Schaeffer lived in this neighborhood.

The light was mellow, soft. It grazed across the row of Spanish-style stucco duplexes and apartments, reflected off leaded picture windows and prismed onto the street. Each had a driveway to one side or the other. Gardeners worked the neatly manicured greenery of every other building. It was a nice old neighborhood in the Fairfax district, one of the better parts of town. My old stomping grounds. 

The same time of day Teddie Matson had been murdered. I planned it that way, hoping the same people would be around that might have been around that day. 

I walked up the street, my eyes darting back and forth, up and down, aware of everything around me—radar eyes—looking at the addresses on the buildings. The number was emblazoned in my brain. I could see it before my eyes, but it was only a phantom. I passed a gardener at 627, coming to a halt at 625. I stared at the building. 

A typical stucco fourplex from the ’20s. Even though I hadn’t been inside yet I knew the layout—I’d seen enough of them. Two units upstairs, two down. A main front door that would lead to a small, probably tiled hall, with an apartment on either side and a stairway heading to the two upstairs apartments. I walked up the tiled walk, stuck my hands through the remnants of yellow crime scene tape, tried to open the front door. Locked. I rang the bell. No response. I felt as if I was being watched. Still no one answered the buzzer. 


Florence and Normandie in South Central. Or what previously was called South Central but today is just called South L.A. You might recall Florence and Normandie as the riot’s flashpoint and the corner where Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten. In White Heat, Duke, finds himself in South Central the day the riots explode. He hooks up with a local named Tiny and they try to get to safety together.

Tiny and I bolted from the doorway and ran down the street, ducking for cover by low walls, doorways, shrubs all along the way. We weren’t out to party. We were on a mission. He was taking me to Warren, to Teddie’s family.

We came to Florence and Normandie. Half a block away the cops were regrouping. Or retreating. Or hiding out. It was hard to tell. There was a swarm of them, but they weren’t doing much of anything.


The family of murder victim Teddie Matson lives in a craftsman house in South Central. Craftsman houses dot various parts of L.A. Duke and Tiny make their way through the wreckage to Teddie’s family’s house.

An explosion in the distance. A plume of smoke hit the sky. 

“They don’t realize that they’re only wrecking their own backyard. One of the first things my daddy taught me was never to piss in the wind and don’t shit in your own backyard. Problem is, too many of ’em just don’t have daddies,” Tiny said wistfully. He stopped, turned up a walk. “Here we are, Teddie’s family’s house.” 
Craftsman (Victoria Park) By Los Angeles [CC BY-SA 3.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
 or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],
from Wikimedia Commons

The house was a Craftsman bungalow. It had a low-pitched roof, a stone fireplace that was also seen from the outside, exposed struts and a wide porch. It wasn’t big. It wasn’t small either. Comfortable might have been the word. It looked almost rural with its magnolia trees, shrubs and wood and stone exterior. Looked like a nice place to grow up. In fact, the whole street was clean and well-tended except for the graffiti and broken glass. I assumed the broken glass was from that day. I hoped it was.


In a B story/subplot, a woman comes to Duke for help with a stalker, Dr. Craylock. Craylock’s house is in Rancho Park, on Tennessee, a block west of the Twentieth Century-Fox studios (in West. L.A.)—Well, they say ‘write what you know’. And I knew this neighborhood well. I was living here when I met Amy, about a half block west of Fox. And the funny—or ironic thing is—I lived walking distance to the studio and, at that time, it was the studio I went to the least. The one I went to most was Warner Brothers, way across town out in Burbank—the farthest from my house.

Craylock’s house was in Rancho Park, on Tennessee, a block west of the Twentieth Century-Fox studios. It was an expensive one-story Spanish job, not unlike my own house. A new jet black BMW sat in the driveway. Pickup car, I thought. She hadn’t mentioned what he did for a living; it must have been something where he could charge people more than he was worth. A doctor. Plumber maybe. 

The riots hadn’t stretched this far west, yet. It was a good neighborhood, if there was still such a thing in L.A. I used to live only a couple blocks from Craylock’s before I moved back into my folks’ house. The first street north of Pico. The Olympic marathon runners had run down Pico just across the alley behind my apartment. I watched from my breakfast area window. It was a different L.A. then. It wasn’t that long ago.


La Revolución. Duke visits a bar on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., where some pretty rough types hang. He’s looking for one guy in particular, a banger called Ramon, who might be able to put him on the trail of Teddie’s killer.

La Revolución was a dingy place on the outside. Looked like an old industrial building, small machine shop or something. The bottom half of the stucco wall was painted a dark, though chipping, forest green. Top half was white, or used to be. Grime and dirt crept all the way up to the roof. Made you wonder how it got that high. A handful of men stood outside talking, playing dice and drinking. We parked a few doors down. Jack dumped the contents of the kit bag on the floor, swept them under the seat, all except for his credit card, driver’s license holder and the .45, of course, which he put back in the kit and stuck under his arm. We walked back to the entrance. Several pairs of intense brown eyes followed us up the sidewalk.


Duke also finds himself in MacArthur Park, formerly Westlake Park, but renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. It’s here that he finally hooks up with Ramon. My grandparents used to take me there for picnics. They’d rent a boat and we’d glide along the water. When Amy first moved to L.A. she had a job interview downtown. She’d bought some food and decided to eat at MacArthur Park as it looked nice from the street. But it had changed a lot since my grandparents took me there. It was a needle park, filled with drug pushers and gang bangers. Luckily she made it out safely. And scenes from Too Late for Tears, one of my favorite film noirs, were filmed here.
MacArthur Park (formerly Westlake Park)

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats—if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo? 


The rental car slid easily into a parking place on Alvarado. Click—locked. Of course that wouldn’t keep out anyone who wanted to get in. The Firestar was in my belt, under a loose fitting Hawaiian shirt that was left untucked. Wet grass sucked under my feet. As long as it didn’t suck me under I was okay. 

“Meet me by the statue of el general,” Ramon had said. The statue of General Douglas MacArthur is in the northwestern corner of the park where there was, naturally, no place to park. Cutting through the park was not a good idea. I walked along Wilshire Boulevard, past garbage and litter and clusters of men, teens really. Some young men in their early twenties, in white tank top undershirts and baggy pants, charcoal hair slicked back off their foreheads. One man danced a nervous jig by himself in a corner of the pavilion building. Crack dancing. 

No one approached me to buy or sell drugs. Probably thought I was a narc. Maybe saw the silhouette of the Star. MacArthur had seen better days, both the park and the statue. Graffiti camouflaged the general’s stern visage. No one there cared who he was or why there was a park named after him. 

No Ramon. 

I stood on the corner. Waiting. Trying to look nonchalant. A black-and-white cruised slowly by. Mirrored eyes scrutinizing. What’s the white man doing there? Is he buying drugs? Do they see the gun? Were they calling for backup? Fingering their triggers? Seconds passed like hours. The car drove by. Gone. I felt lucky. Luckier than I had walking the length of the park without getting mugged. 

“Amigo.” 

“Ramon.” 

He stood behind the statue, signaling me to join him. 

“We finally connect, uh, man?” 


Griffith Park Observatory. Duke finds himself on the trail of the killer, the Weasel, heading up the winding roads of Griffith Park.
Griffith Observatory By Dax Castro
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At Sunset he turned right, heading for Hollywood. Where were the damn cops now? Nowhere in sight. We dodged in and out of traffic to Western where he headed north, up into the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. I didn’t know if he knew where he was going, but heading up the winding roads of the park wouldn’t get him anywhere, except maybe to the Observatory. 


He couldn’t know where he was going. I think he was trying to hit the freeway and took a wrong turn. We chased up the backroads of the park, past the boy toys sunning themselves on the hoods of their cars, waiting for another boy toy to pick them up. 

Finally, we turned into the Observatory parking lot. He headed around one side of the circular driveway. I cut the other way, heading toward him, hoping we’d meet at some point. If not, he just might get all the way around and take the other road down. 

I gunned it around the circle. He was coming for me. A school bus was unloading children near the entrance to the building. I stopped, not wanting to hit any kids. The Weasel kept coming from the other side. Shit—I hoped he wouldn’t hit anyone. A teacher saw us coming and hurried the kids out of the way. 
Fight scene from Rebel Without A Cause
 filmed at the Griffith Observatory

He came flying around the circle in one direction. 

Me in the other. 

Engines gunning. 

His old Monte Carlo with the big V8. 

Me in my little Toyota rental. 

A hair’s breadth before we passed, I cut in front of him. He played chicken and ditched onto the sidewalk. He thought he could go around me.

***

So these are some of Duke’s adventures in La La Land. Duke (and I) love exploring all the different neighborhoods of Los Angeles. And I like doing that in my writing. Duke’s journey also hits other areas of L.A. and even takes him up to Reno, Nevada and down to Calexico on the Mexican-American border. Duke and I explore more of L.A. in the sequel to White Heat, Broken Windows, coming in September.

###

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.


22 January 2018

Saying Good-bye

by Janice Law

My view of Anna
There comes a time for good-byes in literary relationships. I’ve experienced this twice, first with Anna Peters, a detective who made my first novel a success and who explored mostly white collar crime in seven subsequent volumes. I liked her, I really did, but I’d made a serious miscalculation, I’d aged her with me.

Anna, professional illustration
That didn’t seem a problem when I began, but as the series extended and she got older and more settled and developed back problems, I understood that, despite an Edgar nomination, we had to make a break.

Fortunately for my artistic development and for her personal safety, the series was not the fiscal prop of some struggling publisher nor the passion of a legion of demanding fans. I didn’t need to kill her off, as some writers have done with heroes who hung around too long, but could settle her into a decent retirement.

Madame S in AHMM
More recently, I bid farewell to two characters who have done yeoman work in the short story markets, namely Madame Selina, Gaslight era NYC’s leading medium, and her assistant, Nip Tompkins, an orphan with a good deal of savoir faire. I’ve enjoyed them, and Nip, in particular, has a turn of phrase that is a pleasure to record.

But I have already explored many of the issues of their time, including spiritualism, the aftermath of the Civil War, exploited heiresses, Irish rebels, corrupt politicians, votes for women, and immigration.

There are, I know, fertile imaginations that can ring endless changes on a couple of appealing characters and the sins of a big city. Not me. Nip has grown up and, not having any gift for the spirit world, has entered the newspaper business.

My view of Madame S & Nip
Lucky boy, journalism is in its greatest days, and having appeared in a novella along with Madame S, he will perhaps have an afterlife. We will see.

I have been thinking about good-byes lately, because another big one is coming up: the last of the Francis Bacon novels. Mornings in London finishes the second trilogy with this character. The first trilogy debuted with Fires of London, set during the Blitz when Francis was scraping together a livelihood along with his beloved Nanny, and ends with Moon Over Tangier, when Francis is an established painter with a toxic lover and a big hole in his life following Nan’s death.

I could have said farewell then and had the perfect ending. But these things are not solely under the writer’s control. Francis, gay, alcoholic, promiscuous, and ambitious, was such fun. He was quite different from Anna, Madame Selina or Nip. Although he disliked the countryside and animals, both of which I adore, he was interested in the Greek plays and Shakespeare, and of course, in painting. So am I.

But I did not necessarily want to forge ahead. As a general rule, people of great achievement are more interesting on the way up. Their struggles to succeed are much interesting that the lists of greatest hits of the established artist. The solution was to head backwards, where I felt Francis was both more charming and more vulnerable, the latter an essential for any mystery, caper, or suspense novel. The Bacon books partake of all three.

Last Francis Bacon novel
His biography was a great help in the decision. He was dispatched with a truly funny uncle to Weimar Berlin in his father’s delusive hope that he would come back a heterosexual soldierly type. Then he went to Paris, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties and acquiring some basic art training, before he set himself up in London with his nanny and opened a design studio.

Three venues, three books. It worked out nicely. But now the Second World War is coming, and Francis is about to become an Air Raid Precautions warden and embark on the adventures of Fires of London. Although he’s been good for me, being a finalist three times for a Lambda award and winning once, it’s time to say good-bye.

As consolation, he recently acquired another life in the form of talking books, as the first four volumes have been produced by Dreamscape and are excellently read by Paul Ansdell. Francis could not have been better voiced. My Francis is pleased, and maybe the real Francis Bacon would have been, too.

22 April 2016

New House (and Backyard Writing Studio)

'Screaming Eagles' patch of
101st Airborne Div. (AASLT)
by Dixon Hill

As many of you probably know, I met my wife when we both worked for Military Intelligence, in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

One off-shoot of this fact, is that we both grew used to an itinerant lifestyle.  She and I lived many of our single-life years in army barracks.  Before landing at the 101st, she spent time at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona, followed by a year in South Korea.  I lived in Monterrey, CA for a year and a half, studying Arabic, then spent several months, each, at Goodfellow AFB, TX and Ft. Devens, Mass.

After my wife, Madeleine, received an honorable discharge, she moved out to where I (by then) was on an A-Team, so we rented an apartment in Fayetteville, NC, outside Fort Bragg, until I received my own honorable discharge.  Arriving in Scottsdale, afterward, we were used to living in places we didn't own, so we continued to rent while raising our family.

A few months ago, though, we decided to use the G.I Bill and buy a house.

Yep!  This is the house.  I know: It's pretty darn green.  And the yard needs work.
But, Mad likes the tree, and I'm not stupid, so the tree is staying.
We like the older houses in South Scottsdale.  'Older,' around here, means they were built in the late '50s or in the '60s.  The house we closed on, yesterday (yep! the day before this post went up online), was built in 1959.

As you can see from the photo, it's ... well ... green.

This has nothing to do with our military background.  We suspect there was a sale on green paint, because several houses in the area are painted the same color.  And, we plan to make some changes to the paint scheme, because -- frankly -- our years in the army provided enough exposure to the color green, as far as we're concerned.  (Though we do like a nice green lawn -- something I'm going to get cracking on, next week, after we're moved in.)

Not Mine
The house may have been built in 1959, but it's solid, built of block, and suits our needs well, with a living room and large kitchen (big enough for the farm table my wife wants), a nice back patio, a fireplace and swimming pool, as well as three bedrooms and a room (where the carport used to be) that my youngest son can set up as a game room.  And, it has one more thing.
Nope, not this one!


Not Mine, either.
There is a large concrete slab in the backyard, which was clearly used for parking an R.V. sometime in the past.  I used to be an SF Engineer, and we did more than just blowing things up.  We also built things.  Out of lumber, rough timbers, even concrete and steel (when we got the chance).  So, I checked out the pad, and realized it was strong enough for what we needed.

The plan is, we're going to put my Backyard Writing Studio on this pad.

If you haven't thought of backyard offices, or studios, let me tell you: There are a lot of folks who have them these days, judging from what I found online.  I've done quite a bit of research -- both in-person and online -- and posted some of the pics (above) that I found, to give you an idea of what's out there.

But, I don't think mine will look much like those.  Not at first, anyway.  We contemplated the idea of my building the thing, but I think there's an easier solution.  We're still not quite sure yet, but I suspect my studio will initially look like this:

"Duratemp Side Utility" building from Weather King.  Interior unfinished.  Priced about $4,000, including delivery.
Those double doors on the front, when removed, leave an opening that measures just the right size to permit the installation of a sliding glass door without extensive adjustment.  The interior is unfinished, but the 2x4 studs, at 16-inches on center, permit easy insulation addition, while the roof 2x8's will handle R-30 insulation.

I don't do electrical work, so I'll hire an electrician to wire the place for plugs and lighting, as well as a window 110V A/C unit I plan to install on the side away from the house (and, an exhaust fan, of course, to get rid of my cigar smoke at times).  I can handle the dry wall and flooring without any problem.  In the future, we can decide if I want to upgrade the exterior, and maybe add a wooden deck around it or a pergola-type shade structure out front.

True, my Backyard Writing Studio probably won't end up looking as nice as those others, but the price is right, and it sure beats sitting out on my apartment balcony as the Arizona summer comes marching in!

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.



04 February 2016

Max Bialystock is Dead

by Eve Fisher

The six finalists for the Edgar Awards have been announced, and each and every one of them is fantastic.  Go read them.



The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Penguin Random House – A Marian Wood Book)
Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House - Dutton)
Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Night Life by David C. Taylor (Forge Books)

But, while these six are basking in hope and glory, I'd also like to bring to your attention some other damn good books that came out in 2015.  

First of all, Phantom Angel by David Handler (Minotaur Books).  I love a good mystery, and I love it even better when it's funny.  Really funny.  This one is.  PI Benji Golden is hired by Morrie Frankel, who's putting on a $65 million musical adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" (yes, Emily's cheerful little romance).  If you're thinking Max Bialystock and "Springtime for Hitler", so was I.  And I was not disappointed!  Max, I mean, Morrie is killed, money vanishes, and Golden's real problem is sifting through Broadway gossip as high as a NY skyscraper to find the killer.  This was a truly FUN read.  It's also the second in this new series by David Handler - the first was Runaway Man.

For those of you who love the long slow burn...

A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan ((Picador) is classic British creep show.  You know.  The kind of story where everything is normal, perfectly normal.  Until one day, you notice that the ivy is twining the wrong way, and the next, the garbage can shifted, and later, who turned on that light, and why are you in the attic...  Well, in this one, we have Mr. Heming, real estate agent.  Wonderful man.  Friendly, helpful.  First to call.  And has keys to every house he has ever sold. Who likes to drop in, when nobody's there. Who likes to see how people live.  Who is very, very particular.  Who has motives that no one has ever dreamed of.  Who may have fallen in love.  Or not.  Who finds himself in a situation.  And knows that there is always, always, always a way out...  He's done it before...  Seriously, check it out.  You'll stay up for a while.

And now for something completely different:

The Lost Treasures of R&B by Nelson George (Akashic Books).  Nelson George's professional bodyguard D Hunter is on the job protecting rapper Asya Roc at an underground fight club in Brooklyn.  But the rapper has arranged to buy some illegal guns; an old acquaintance named Ice is the courier; a robbery is attempted, a shoot-out follows.  Who were the gunmen?  Why did they want those guns?  And who was being set up - the rapper or the Ice?  D tries to figure all of this out and, at the same time, to track down the rarest soul music single ever recorded.  The voice of this book is very real, and the whole mood of the book is an R&B rapper High Fidelity noir thriller, and I loved it. Nelson George, knows his music:  a former editor for Billboard Magazine, columnist for the Village Voice, R&B, currently co-executive producer of VH1's Hip Hop Honors and executive producer of BET's American Gangster.  He also knows Brooklyn.  The Lost Treasures of R&B is the third in the D Hunter series:  the other two are The Accidental Hunter and The Plot Against Hip-Hop: A Novel.


A brand new series to keep an eye on:

The Magician's Daughter by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press).  Magician Valentine Hill always introduces her act by announcing “Reality is an illusion. Illusion is reality, and nothing is what it seems.”  She learned that, and many other things, from her grifter mother, who is still on the loose, and her magician father. From both she learned a whole lot of tricks that will come in handy as she struggles to deal with wealthy socialites, car mechanics, cab drivers, and FBI agents.  Most of whom are also ruthless criminals, psycho killers, and seductive gangsters.  And, of course, her amoral, abusive, never-retired mother who is still on the con, and still very, very, very dangerous...

And everyone needs a good spy thriller:

Nobody Walks by Mick Herron (Soho Crime).  Tom Bettany is working at a meat processing plant in France when he gets a voicemail from an Englishwoman he doesn’t know telling him that his estranged 26-year-old son is dead.  Liam Bettany fell from his London balcony, where he was smoking pot.  Bettany goes back to London to find out the truth about his son’s death.  Because Liam might have been a druggie, but Bettany isn't just the quiet butcher he's been for the last few years.  He's been around, he knows a lot, perhaps too much, and a lot of people are afraid of his return, from incarcerated mob bosses to high powered bosses of MI5.  None of them appreciate his return.  Or did someone arrange to get him back, literally in the worst way possible?   Stylish, noirish, a don't trust anyone read that will definitely surprise you.

Under the why didn't anyone tell me? classification of series:

Down Among the Dead Men by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime).  Miss Gibbon, the most disliked teacher (of art) in a posh private girls' school vanishes in a Sussex town on the south coast of England. She is not missed, especially since her replacement is a gorgeous male teacher with a fancy car and some boundary issues. Meanwhile, detective Peter Diamond finds himself in Sussex, with the person he hates the most:  his supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore.  She's been called to lead a Home Office internal investigation into a Sussex detective who failed to link DNA evidence of a relative to a seven-year-old murder case.  And she takes Diamond with her.  What she doesn't know is that Diamond knows the suspended officer.  And over time, he notices unsettling connections between the cold case and the missing art teacher. And there's also the mystery of why C.C. Dallymore was really called on the case in the first place.  I loved the plot, I loved the characters, but most of all, I loved the wit.  Why didn't someone tell me about Peter Diamond before?

Well, that's all for this week.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some catching up to do....




30 April 2015

Useful and Necessary Knowledge

by Janice Law

I just finished a novel, always a satisfying moment, even if the product never quite lives up to the initial inspiration. Novels begin in careless rapture with hints of genius, run into complications toward the middle, and end, if one is lucky, somewhere in the realistic realm of ‘good enough.’

But this one, being set in the 1920‘s, got me to thinking about how one gets information for historical novels and the differences in what is needed for history, on the one hand, and a story, on the other. In my opinion, it comes down to minutia, and while I don’t like to criticize historians, whose ranks I’ve joined on occasion, they usually skimp of the day-to-day details that are the blood and bones of any novel.

Money, in particular, is always tricky. Not only did earlier eras have different coinage – the UK went decimal within living memory – but it is extremely hard to determine equivalents in today’s money. You don’t need to be a Jane Austen or a Karl Marx to feel that lacking a grasp of how much and what value leaves a gap in a manuscript.

Of course, historians venture into the realm of economics, but they tend to like the big scale and the overall trend. Only occasionally do they include the price of a modest lunch or the cost of a subway ticket or a ride on a mail coach. What would a woman pay for a dress and how much would her seamstress clear? These are often hard to determine.

Consider Weimar, the ill fated Republic and its rowdy capital, Berlin, where I’ve recently been spending time in the service of the very young Francis Bacon. It’s easy to find statistics on everything from housing to political preferences, but I really had to struggle to find out what was served in the local bars, where I’m afraid Francis spent a lot of time. Fortunately a memoir came to the rescue with the menu: pea soup, sausages and beer. Memoirists are notoriously unreliable about their personal history, but I think they’re probably trustworthy on fast food.

Memoirs, particularly Christopher Isherwood’s, were useful in another way, because Berlin suffered extensive bombing damage during the war. It was then divided by the wall, and ,when the wall came down, reintegrated with the east. All this has meant buildings lost, areas redeveloped, old haunts vanished except in the mind of the memoirist who helpfully resurrects forgotten districts and seedy cafes. Sometimes, though, one must finesse a problem. I read whole books on the so called combat leagues, the groups of political activists that slid from providing bodyguards to fueling street warfare. Their motives, their sociological backgrounds, their financial support, their aims, their resentments were all laid out in neat columns. But what about the colors of their shirts? Except for the Brownshirts, no dice.

Of course, occasionally one comes across a volume that seems written with other writers in mind. I can recommend two. Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, the Erotic Worlds of Weimar Berlin is beyond lurid but the vocabulary and the venues, not to mention the goings-on of the notorious sex trade, are all usefully laid out. With pictures. Want to know who patronized the Cozy Corner, the “boy bar” beloved of Auden and Isherwood? Care to take a gander at the Eldorado, the great transvestite club and cabaret? Gordon has the info and the illustrations. A picture really is worth a thousand words in this case.

Not related to Weimar but useful for anyone who cares to dip into the Victorian world is Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Divided up by topic ranging from transportation to marriage to money to etiquette, it can help you distinguish a barouche from a victoria, and a ladies maid from a housemaid. A useful volume indeed.

But sometimes there are no useful memoirs or frivolous historians. Then the writer must improvise.

Soon after we moved to eastern Connecticut, I was asked to write a local history, and wanting to do something a little different, I came up with the idea of ending each chapter with short blurbs like what’s for dinner? what did they do for fun? travel time to some local town or attraction? how were they educated? and how did they die?

You can probably guess which ones were easy to discover, New England being proud of its education and mortality being popular with medical historians. Travel was another matter. I wound up checking with a local cross country coach to estimate how long it would take a tribal runner to cover rough ground and with the university equestrian center for the time it would take a decent horse to make a ten mile journey on dirt roads.

Historians need the big picture, bless them, but novelists have – or should have – their own big, or little, picture in mind. What we need are the details, the minutia and the ephemera that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past.

02 February 2015

Wanted Mystery Readers

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

What do mystery readers want?

Mystery readers are a varied and particular group. The majority of them want what they like to read best and all you have to do is point them to their favorites are.

And exactly what are their favorites? Cozy, Private Eye, Legal, Medical, Historical, Soft boiled, Hard boiled, Noir, Police Procedural, Who Dunnit, Woman in Jeopardy Thriller, Paranormal Cat Mysteries, Dog Mysteries, Comic Capers? And what about True Crime?

Did you realize there are so many different divisions in Mystery? Only when I owned a bookstore did I really realize that there is a huge variety under the mystery umbrella. What's funny to me is many people say, "Oh, I never read mysteries." But when you ask who do they read, they say, "Oh, I read James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Charlaine Harris, Stephen King, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Janet Evonovich, Kathy Reichs, Tony Hillerman, Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan or Faye Kellerman."

Okay, I guess these authors write what is considered suspense, not mystery. I personally would say all of those authors write mysteries. I don't understand why people don't consider these best selling books are mysteries. Are they ashamed and don't want too admit they read mysteries. Do they think mystery is low-brow. Or maybe they think if a book is on the New York Times Best Seller List it's not a mystery? Often when a writer says they are published and they write mysteries, someone invariably will ask (usually one of your off-side relatives) when are you going to write a REAL book. That's when I want to run away screaming.

What about Harlan Coben's books? They are usually high suspense but they also are mysteries. A crime is committed, usually someone is murdered and a man (or a woman) is caught up in a situation they have no knowledge of or how to solve the mystery. Sometimes they or their loved one is in jeopardy and the main character has to use everything they've ever learned or known to save the loved one or themselves.

Back to my original question, what do mystery readers want? I can only say what I want in a book. I want a character that I like and like to root for, although I don't have to have a perfect character. In fact, it's much better if the main character has vices or flaws. However, it's nice if you see the main character in one place and, by the end of the book, the main character is in another place, perhaps changed a bit. Becoming a better person, maybe or at least has a different outlook on life.

I like reading about a location that's new to me like Alaska or Iceland, Hawaii or Florida. Places where I can learn about a state or country, their customs, foods, peoples.

I feel that way about someone who has an occupation I'm not familiar with, like Fran Rizer's character who works in a funeral home. Her character is also from South Carolina and I've never been there so I enjoy reading about the coastal area of the Atlantic side of our continent.

I also enjoy reading about a place when I have been there and see a few things in the story that I've seen. Like reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, set in Sweden. I had two short trips in Sweden, but I had been to Stockholm and several of the other locations mentioned. That made the book more fun and interesting to me.

I enjoy reading good stories wherever they're set or the people who populate the mystery story. I like a story that begins with some action. I'll go along with perhaps fifty pages but something better be happening by then or forget it. It doesn't have to be a bloody murder; the murder can have taken place off scene, but I want to see the main character doing something to move the story forward. If you're a writer, write the best most intriguing book you can. Don't forget that if you are bored with the story then your readers most likely will be bored, too.

If you're a reader, proudly admit that you like mysteries. Some of the best writing is being done under the mystery/suspense umbrella. Trust me. Mystery writers cover the major issues of the day. And in about 98% of mystery books, the bad guy is caught and justice prevails, which doesn't happen in the real world often enough.

That's my opinion, what do you think, class?

14 January 2015

Genre & Its Discontents

by David Edgerley Gates


There was a recent newspaper article on the wire services - courtesy of the Houston CHRONICLE - about video games now being treated seriously as an academic subject. Not simply gaming design, which is a career path, but themes and narrative, studying the art of the medium. The first thing that struck me was there's sure to be pushback, from more conservative circles, a sense that this is frivolous, or another sign of the impending doom of Western Civilization.

What's the world coming to, that we seriously look into the origin story of Batman, for example, and the dark graphics of Bob Kane, or the influence of MAD Magazine on American culture? There was a time, not that long ago, when comics were seen as a malign presence, poisoning youth. (See SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, published in 1954, which led to mutterings in Congress.) The comic book industry got ahead of the curve with the so-called Comics Code, akin to the Hays Office in the movie biz, which self-censored content. These days, Archie Andrews takes a bullet and dies in a pool of blood. What's next, Nancy Drew comes out to her dad as a lesbian dominatrix, or the Hardy Boys cook meth in their garage? The mind boggles.

This goes back to an older division of the spoils, low-brow vs. high-brow. Or the related question, does commercial success compromise literary integrity? ULYSSES got
tied up in court for a dozen years, remember, over whether it was obscene. Its publication in the U.S. led, for better or worse, not just to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER seeing the light, but MY GUN IS QUICK. Spillane's books were wildly successful, and struck a deep chord, but the critics took him over the coals, the brutal sadomasochism, the perceived contempt for women, the casual Red-baiting. Not that Mickey gave a rat's ass. He wrote a book in three months, and spent the other nine months fishing off the beach.
The issue is their staying power. Who would you rather read, Spillane or Melville? No disrespect to MOBY-DICK, but most of us are gonna go with the more lurid and accessible.


G.K. Chesterton once remarked that any informed person knows the difference between literature and printed matter. (Chesterton, of course, wrote the Father Brown mysteries, so you couldn't call him a snob.) Genre writing - gothics, Westerns, thrillers, SF and fantasy - has for a long time been condescended to. So have novels themselves, for that matter. Early on, they were thought of as unserious, books for women, who were frivolous by nature. Maybe it's the comfort zone. There's a shapeliness to fiction, unlike life, say. Fiction of itself is a construct, a pattern, a design. Life is messy, and unresolved. Stories are rounded and complete, and usually have a satisfying punchline, mystery stories in particular. I don't think of this as a weakness. There's something to be said for the familiar. That doesn't mean it's paint-by-numbers, or unoriginal. You don't let it get stale. You write faster and smarter. You don't settle for less, although sometimes less is more. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


We'll leave the last word with Spillane. (Spoiler ahead.) I, THE JURY ends with Mike Hammer and the killer alone. They have a sexual history together. She tries working her wiles on him yet again. Hammer isn't having any. He shoots her in the belly. She sinks to her knees. "How could you?" she asks him tearfully, holding in her stomach, blood leaking through her fingers.

Mike looks down at her. "It was easy," he says.

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