08 November 2011

If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium -- or, "The Dutch Website Mystery"

    Several times in the course of past articles on SleuthSayers I have referenced my Belgian friend and occasional collaborator Kurt Sercu and his remarkable website Ellery Queen  --  A Website on Deduction.  In fact, in my first post I promised more about Kurt in the future.  No time like the present!

    I stumbled on to Kurt’s site sometime in 2000, when it had been on-line for about a year.   As an Ellery Queen stalwart over the years I had frequently used internet search engines to look for on-line articles about Queen.  Invariably those searches yielded rudimentary lists of books, or abbreviated discussions on the lives of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who were Queen.  My expectations  were therefore already low when I ran the search again in mid-2000.  I was surprised when  Kurt’s then-new site appeared at the top of the search list and was awed when I then visited the site.  Even if you are not an Ellery Queen fan you have to be amazed by Kurt’s website.  It goes on forever.   But before embarking on a short tour of the site, let’s delve a bit deeper into the background of its author and proprietor

Brugge, Belgium
    It is a sort of poetic symmetry that Kurt is superficially a wholly unlikely candidate to preside over the world’s foremost collection of facts pertaining to the Queen canon – after all, in Ellery Queen mysteries it is often the least likely character who is in fact the murderer!  How unlikely?  Well, Kurt is a head nurse at a large hospital in Belgium.  He and his wife Martine and their two children Dries and Astrid reside in the picture-perfect town of Brugge, Belgium.  His native language is Dutch, and his website offers up both an English language and Dutch version.  One might perhaps have expected Hercule Poirot from Kurt, but Ellery Queen?

Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu,

In the amazing world of the internet – where everyone can be everyone else’s virtual neighbor – Kurt and I first became friends during the course of an exchange of messages on the Golden Age Detective Forum, where Kurt presides over the Ellery Queen section.  Since then Kurt and I have corresponded by email, often several times per week, and we have visited in person twice – once in 2005 when literally on the spur of the moment he flew to D.C. and together we attended the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium hosted by EQMM in New York City.  Thereafter, two years ago Kurt and his family vacationed in the United States and stayed with us in Washington, D.C. for one week.

But back to that website.  Kurt explains there that he first became interested in Ellery Queen when he read Queen mysteries, in Dutch translation, in the 1970s.
[Then, Kurt explains,] in 1997 the net came to my house.  After some time I wanted to start a website of my own. Not one with personal [reflections] but with content, content useful to the visitor.   If all webmasters would do the same the net [it seemed to me could become an] interesting place to spend some time.  My first idea was to start a website on Tolkien.  But several sites on the subject already existed and had done a great job! So what other subject I could talk about? Well, there was [my then] small collection Queen-stories.
Those stories, together with some articles Kurt had collected concerning Ellery Queen, formed the early foundation for Ellery Queen – A Website on Deduction.  
[At first I] tried to "cut and paste" my way through what grew into a large volume of information. Too few sites, in my opinion, do justice to [Queen], who started off in the late twenties and [continued to write] into the seventies.  He made maximum use of the media at that time and is now, I feel, grossly neglected. I hoped the site [would] fire up more interest in the Ellery Queen stories.
The result of Kurt’s efforts has now grown into a near-Byzantine website.  In fact, I know of no other site that is as complex, or that offers up deeper insight into its subject matter.

     A word of caution – as noted above, Kurt has published two versions of the site, one in his native Dutch language and one in his second (or perhaps third or fourth) language – English.  My second language is Spanish, and I do well if I can order from the menu in a Mexican restaurant.  So expect a few translation difficulties, and just marvel that someone can produce such a source of information in a language that is not their native tongue.

     Just as it is the best practice not to reveal “spoilers” when discussing detective fiction, so too I want to be careful not to reveal too much about Kurt’s website since, like Ellery Queen’s stories, there is much just below the surface that is best discovered by the reader working through the site at his or her own pace.

In many respects the site is half Wikipedia, half computer game.  For those of you somewhat removed from the “gaming community,” there is a device used quite often in games that is referred to as the “Easter Egg."  Easter Eggs are hidden messages or "in" jokes or references hidden in the course of a game.  Kurt’s site is full of Easter Eggs -- click-able words that the reader will miss unless care is taken, and that, once found, will lead the reader to hidden pages from which you can tunnel deeper and deeper into the subject matter.  As an example, if you dig really deep you can find my very first Ellery Queen pastiche, never published elsewhere.  But it will take a lot of looking.  I barely remember how to get there myself!  You can also find hidden goodies such as an essay on the Queen Centenary Symposium, one click away but otherwise not referenced on the site’s menu.

      It would be easy to spend a rainy day entirely entertained by Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction.  The homepage for the site gives you most of what you need to know in order to begin your journey.  While some guidance is offered below, explore the page with your cursor.  Like a good fair play mystery the site holds lots of twists and turns, just awaiting discovery.

That promise aside, here is a sort of beginner’s guide to the site.

    “List of Suspects” takes you to detailed essays on recurring characters in the Queen library – Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie and, among others that infrequent Secretary and almost love interest, Nikki Porter. You will also find essays on Djuna, a character in early Queen mysteries (who also figures prominently in The Book Case pastiche), and lesser luminaries -- like coroner Dr. Samuel Prouty.

   “QBI” unlocks an amazing sixteen pages in which every Ellery Queen book ever written – and not just those in which Ellery appears – is discussed in detail.  Kurt even provides the history of each of the works that Dannay and Lee “farmed out” to other writers in a perhaps ill conceived attempt to keep the Queen name before the reading public.  (Some, including Frederic Dannay’s son Richard, have argued that this in fact hastened the demise of Queen since these later volumes are generally inferior to the works actually authored by Dannay and Lee.)  While perusing these essays be sure to click on the covers of the various volumes – this will take you to even more in-depth discussions of each work.

     “Kill as Directed” offers up essays on every Ellery Queen movie, comic book and television series.  Clicking through the list of episodes of the first EQ television series, which aired on the ancient and largely forgotten Dumont television network, will lead you to a select few episodes that Kurt has uncovered that can be watched, in their entirety, through the website.   The section also contains a full and affectionate guide to the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series, a personal favorite, now (finally) available in a re-mastered DVD collection, and surely one of the finest fair play detective series to ever grace the small screen. 

     “Whodunit” contains essays chronicling the lives of Dannay and Lee.  But you will also find biographical notes on every other author who  ever authored a Queen work as a ghost writer.  These comprise those farmed-out volumes, the Ellery Queen Jr. juvenile mystery series, and some later Ellery works that, while outlined by Dannay, were written by others during the period in which Manfred B. Lee famously suffered from writer’s block.  In "Whodunit" you will also find descriptions of every Ellery Queen pastiche ever written.

     This all just scratches the surface.  And the site continues to grow.  In addition to the interview with Iiki Yusan, which prompted my SleuthSayer’s article on October 25, Kurt has also recently devoted a growing number of pages to the “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars,” comprised of individuals who have been active in keeping alive the Queen name.  There you will find essays by Joe Christopher, Janet Hutchings, Jon Breen and (blushing) me!

     Enough guidance!  Go forth.  And be warned – there is a lot more clicking to be done before you even get beyond the site’s introduction page.  If you are a Queen fan, or potential Queen fan, well, read and enjoy.  But even if you are not, take a look around the website and marvel at how much sheer information is imparted through this grandly designed portal.

David Dean, right, with his Readers' Choice award.  (Runner-up on left)
A note to Tuesday readers -- as you may have noticed, there has been a little bit of disarray getting our Tuesday rotation of authors up and running.  For that reason you have had me lurking around here for several weeks in a row.  Next week, however, we welcome aboard a new SleuthSayer -- David Dean.  

David is a well known author of mystery stories, who will doubtless offer up his own introduction next week.  I have some (grudging) praise that I will proffer first, however.  David's short story Ibrahim's Eyes came in first place in the 2007 EQMM Readers Choice survey, thereby edging out -- by one vote -- The Book Case, which placed second.   Welcome, David!

07 November 2011

Ideas R Us

Jan Grape Almost every time I talk to a group about writing and get to the Q and A portion, I’m asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I have a couple of stock answers which usually get a laugh. One is: “I belong to ‘Ideas of the Month Club’ and they send me ideas once a month.” (I think I stole that from mystery writer, Les Roberts.) The other is: “I just go to “Ideas R Us” and buy one when I need it.” (Am sure I stole that from someone, too.)

My own real answer is: Ideas are in the air, all you have to do is pull one down when you need one.

Deadly Allies III wrote two short stories that were inspired by songs. One story was “Scarlett Fever” in the Deadly Allies II anthology and my inspiration (idea) came from a song by Kenny Rogers, titled “Scarlett Fever.” In the song, this guy kept going to a club to watch a dancer named Scarlett and fell in love with her. One night he goes to the club and she’s not there anymore and he’s devastated. My idea was: what happened to this girl? Did she really leave for brighter lights as the club manager says or did something bad happen to her?

My second story is “Deathbed Confession” based on a song by a local Texas writer, Thomas Michael Riley. I can’t really say much about the song without giving away some of the story but it will be published next spring in ACWL Presents: Murder Here, Murder There. This will be the first Jenny Gordon, C.J. Gunn, story in several years and it was nice to find out how the female private investigators were doing. Nice to know that G & G Investigations still is in business. Murder Here, Murder There is the second anthology written by the members of the American Crime Writers League and is co-edited by R. Barry Flowers and myself and published by Twilight Times.

Another story was inspired by a name. A friend of mine, writes a newsy-about-town column in a local weekly newspaper and she writers under the nom de plume of “Ima Snoop.” I thought the name was funny and asked permission to use it in a story called, “The Crimes of Miss Abigail Armstrong.” That story is in the first anthology, from Twilight Times, written by ACWL members and co-edited by R. Barri Flowers and Jan Grape.

My Austin policewoman series was inspired by taking a ten week class, Austin Citizen’s Police Academy training which was offered by the Austin Police Department. In these classes we learned about different departments such as fraud, firearms, robbery homicide, SWAT, etc. After the training was over, I was involved in the alumni association and went out to the academy on numerous occasions to assist in the new cadet training. Training offers set up scenarios using alumni graduates as bad guys and the cadets would have to participate and discover the crime or non-crime committed. Cadets learn how to use their computers, the patrol car’s siren, their walkie-talkies and to quickly access a situation and act accordingly. That was fun because I got to role-play as a bad guy, which soon led to a voice I kept hearing in my head. Fortunately, I began writing Zoe Barrow’s story in Austin City Blue, published in 2000 by Five Star and wasn’t hauled off in a strait-jacket by the guys from the funny farm.

My latest novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, came from seeing a little girl with ears that stuck out like open taxi doors, who was in a bookstore with her grandfather. She wanted to buy a magazine, but gramps said they couldn’t afford it. Somehow that little girl stayed in my mind and eventually became the sixteen year old, Cory Purvis, in that book.

Just yesterday, a friend asked me to do some research on sleepwalking for her. Who knows– I may come up with a character who kills when sleepwalking or so he/she claims.

Today I read a short article in my Sunday newspaper about people selling lollipops which have been licked by children with chickenpox. The buyers are people who don’t want to vaccinate their children but want them to catch the childhood disease. People could go online and look for: 'Find a Pox Party In Your Area' the article said. Cost was $50 a pox-licked lollipop. The sellers are selling these all over the country, sending the candy by mail. Sending diseases and viruses by mail is a federal crime. So some arrest have been made and prosecutors warning parents. Can you imagine giving your child a lollipop, supposedly with chickenpox virus on it? What if it were AIDS virus, or hepatitis? What if it were a more deadly lollipop like Anthrax or something similar? That news article idea sounds like a great plot for a book and I’ll bet we’ll see that used in one very soon.

Newspapers, TV news reports, TV shows, songs, books or stories by other writers, something read on the internet all can give you ideas. So in my humble opinion, ideas are everywhere and all you have to do is pull one down. As a last resort, just go to the mall to IDEAS R US and buy an awesome idea.

06 November 2011

Crime News

by Leigh Lundin

It's time to return to crime news, starting with Halloween.

Bag of Bones

Knightstown, In.  This little burg is a few minutes over country roads from the village where I went to high school. I recall being amused at the 'aptonym' of a local business, Butcher's Mortuary.

A local family isn't amused after moving into their house and finding an attic with scalpels, surgical scissors, bone saws, and… bones. And skulls. And lots of creepy stuff like embalming fluid. WoooOOOooo…

Smugglers Turn Tail

Ribeirao Preto, Brasil.  Brazilian police waxed heroic as they took down a Cessna full of smugglers with their car. The video below is plane adrenaline.

Coaled Comfort

Chicago, IL. 
I've been seeing ads for 'clean coal'. Color me darkly skeptical. My grandparents and my old school burned coal and trust me… there's nothing at all clean about coal. Be that as it may, Greenpeace protesters rappelled down from the Pulaski Bridge and dangled in the paths of coal barges to prevent passage and climbed smokestacks to paint the message QUIT COAL on outdated and unsafe coal-fired plants.

I'm not unsympathetic to Greenpeace, but I award Chicago Police the prize for humor. Officers charged protesters with misdemeanor 'reckless conduct' and 'performing an aerial exhibition without a net'.

Slippery Slope

Houston, Tx.  Forty-one years after a Texas woman killed her husband by dousing him in hot grease, police and prosecutors succeeded in tracking Mary Ann Rivera down and bringing her to trial. However, Judge Mary Lou Keel dismissed charges, saying too much time had elapsed.

Strange… Texas is usually so hot to fry perpetrators.

Showing a Bit of Ankle

Paulding County, Ga.  The dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks-off award goes to a Georgian man, a 'high-risk' sexual offender. When police received reports of a dude exposing himself, they simply matched the GPS and time-stamp on his ankle monitor with the time and place of the crime scene.

Attached GPS… It's a no-brainer.

Tall Corn

Fort Dodge, Ia.  Hang on, because this is convoluted. The gist is an Iowa woman, who apparently has a history of fraud in Colorado, Illinois, and Nebraska, concocted a scheme to frame her ex-husband (who'd twice accused her of trying to kill him) by murdering a neighbor and staging a botched home invasion. Her lawyer claims she's just an innocent little ol' victim of police prejudice.

On second thought, I'm not going to try to describe it. Click on the heading above and decide for yourself.

Burning Rage

Des Moines, Ia.  I don't know what it is about Iowa, but police charged a Des Moines woman with arson after she was defriended by another woman on Facebook. The other woman and her husband barely escaped with their lives, awakened around 1AM by a boom as their garage collapsed.

We pretty much guarantee there's no hunk-a-hunk of burning love lost.

Hacked Off (update)

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.  I wrote about Gary McKinnon last December. He has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, combining limited mental capacity with OCD. Gary got a bee in his bonnet that the US was hiding files on secret free-power sources and UFOs. Unfortunately, he hacked into something like 100 US Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Department, and NASA computers searching for such information. As the military and NASA readily acknowledge, he didn’t vandalize and he may not have stolen anything. Nonetheless, our government is insistent he be brought to the US and prosecuted, where he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Gary has great sympathy within the UK and even the US, the computer community, and those who understand such disorders as Gary’s. Two British Prime Ministers and the British ambassador asked Ambassador Hillary Clinton to seek US forbearance. A recent legal review has not found a legal reason to abide with the extradition treaty with the US.

There's a twist. According to WikiLeaks, the White House is not in a forbearing mood, still angry with Scotland’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Ali Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, subsequently welcomed home by Libya. This may not be the best time to ask, but it appears nothing will be gained by locking McKinnon away in a US prison.

Hacked Off (Amish style)

Jefferson County, Pa.  In black-on-black (clothing) violence, a rebel group of Amish men have been breaking into homes at night and snipping off the hair of other men (and a 13-year-old girl, if news reports are to be literally believed). "Who knows where it's going to end?" mused the task force lead, Sheriff Fred Abdalla.

The suspects are followers of… wait for it… Sam Mullet.

Very Grand Theft Auto

Erie, Pa.  A car thief, possibly an illegal alien, stole a car and then returned it with a note of apology, written in Spanish. If you have information about a polite car thief, call Police Officer Stu Harrison at 717-225-1333 ext. 111.

Norman x 26

Nizhny Novgorod, Russia Police found more than two dozen female corpses dressed much like dolls in the home of historian Anatoly Moskvin. Wait, it's not what you think– Moskvin didn't make them corpses, he dug them up.

His parents reported him. Apparently Moskvin has the odd hobby (what they call 'hobby' we call crazed obsession) of visiting at least 750 graveyards in the, er, dead of night to, em, dig up a date.

Carlos, aka Ilich Ramirez Sanchez
The Jackal (yawn)

Nothing's more banal than a Marxist-Leninist privileged class terrorist, unless it's an aging privileged class terrorist trying to protect his 'suave image'. Bombing and strikes against unarmed citizens is cowardly, no matter how heroically terrorists pretend to portray themselves.

Carlos, aka Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, is back in court to answer charges of four additional bombings stemming from the early 1980s, bombings that wounded 200 and killed eleven. In protest, Sanchez wages hunger strikes which, from his chubby cheeks, appear to last no more than twenty minutes, as if anybody cares.

Feel-Good neo-Nazi Story

Somewhere, USA. 
This story is about a former neo-Nazi and his wife who are so dedicated to reforming, he endured months of pain and shame. Associated Press correspondent Helen O'Neill wrote about it so well, I can't improve upon it, but if you haven't read her article, I strongly recommend it.

new-Nazi transformation
new-Nazi transformation

Until next week, stay out of the news.

05 November 2011

“Because I have something to say”

Last time I was up at bat on SleuthSayers, I confessed that I couldn’t write a cozy, although I know authors who do it very well and whose careers are flourishing as a result. Now I’ll add that I doubt I could write a save-the-world thriller, a locked room mystery, or a a forensics procedural. They’re simply not my bag.
I would add serial killers to the list, except that the protagonist of one of my published short stories is a paranormal serial killer. Another story features a revenge killer. Short stories are a grand medium for trying on voices and subgenres beyond the writer’s comfort zone. In fact, I was perfectly comfortable with these two murderous protagonists, probably because both were female. I have no empathy for men who kill. My characters sprang to life out of that mysterious inner place that we sometimes call inspiration, allowing me to explore my own dark side.

When I was a kid, my favorite book was Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, the author of the classic Anne of Green Gables. Emily was another little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island, and her burning passion was to write. The urge to write is a phenomenon to which many writers attest. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I found the line that was imprinted on me at the age of seven or eight and reinforced through many rereadings: “There is a destiny which shapes the ends of young misses who are born with the itch for writing tingling in their baby fingertips.” When I googled “urge to write,” what popped up first was a quotation from writer Anne Bernays, who says this urge is “mysterious and subterranean...the creative floodgates having been released in a torrent.”

In my current later-in-life (“old” always being ten years more than me) career as a writer of fiction, I have heard many writers, published and aspiring, express the same sentiment. They declare that the impulse to tell stories cannot be denied and that they’d go on writing even if they knew their work would never be published. This claim has always baffled me. Sure, I feel the call of the muse. Yes, my characters talk in my head. In a poem (“Night Poem,” in Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship, New Rivers, 1999), I wrote:

...a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

Can't help marching to a different drummer
But if asked, “Why do you write?” I don’t say, “Because I have to.” I say, “Because I have something to say.” For years, I said, “Some day, I’m going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober.” And when I left my job as director of an alcohol treatment program, I did. Why a mystery? Because I love reading them. Why a character-driven traditional mystery? Because I wanted to make my readers laugh and cry. I was proud as punch when SJ Rozan wrote, “Zelvin’s characters are both over the top and completely believable—just like real people.” But what I wanted to say (with humor and without preachiness) was that recovery itself is transformative and that those who embrace is truly turn their lives around.

My historical series about Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, both confirms and denies that I have to write. Diego came to me in the middle of the night, pounding on the inside of my head and saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” He wouldn’t leave me alone till I went and kissed the page to the extent of making some notes. In the morning, I groaned and said, “I don’t want to write this story. I hate research.” But Diego wouldn’t let me alone until I’d found excerpts from Columbus’s logbook online and learned enough to tell the story (“The Green Cross,” published in EQMM). Diego kept revealing more of his story, so I kept writing about him.

So why this particular event in history? Why this outsider point of view? (The marranos were the secret Jews who converted to avoid the Inquisition and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.) The process that produced Diego inside my head was completely unconscious (if not paranormal—both he and his sister Rachel feel completely real to me). I’m Jewish, but if anyone had suggested I write about Jewish themes, I would have said, “That doesn’t interest me.” But evidently I had something to say about being an outsider and, in particular, about being Jewish in a Christian society. And woven into the fabric of Judaism is a concern for social justice, which brought me to the genocide of the Taino, about whom I knew nothing when Diego first came to me.

04 November 2011

Something you might want to know...

I had originally intended to write about something else, this week. However, my attention was caught by a New York Times article. And, I'd like to take a moment to share some information with you.

Not long before 11 September 2001, I spotted a brief note on a network evening news broadcast about a national security exercise known as Dark Winter. Dark Winter was essentially a Bio-Terror Attack Drill, and the news story covering it lasted barely fifteen to thirty seconds. I don't recall ever having seen any other coverage of it -- until now.

Though the story was small in terms of broadcast time, its implications were enormous -- particularly given the fact that every terrorism expert I'd seen or read lately (back in the summer/early fall of 2001) had commented that it was not a question of if there would be a mass-casualty terrorist attack on US soil in the relatively near future; it was a question of when there would be one.

I find it interesting that many media and political figures seem to indicate there was no prior indication that something like 9/11 could take place. To me, in the months leading up to 9/11, the indications were everywhere and ominous (though not specific). And, I wasn't an intel analyst at the time; I was just a civilian who'd been out of the army for a few years but still enjoyed being a bit of a news junkie. Nor do I think there was some sort of conspiracy or cover-up concerning 9/11.

Now please don't think I'm claiming that I knew what was going to happen on 9/11.

I didn't.

Nor did I have any inkling that September 11th, 2001 would be a day unlike any other. My sense of shock and surprise, when it actually took place, were probably about as strong as yours.

As I remarked to a friend, later that day: "Here I am: the big bad ex-Green Beret, and the first time I see thousands of people killed at once, I'm watching it on television -- with my six-year-old daughter in my lap!" (For a change, I'm wasn't joking around.)

What I did know, was that a mass-casualty terrorist strike was something we should all be expecting. But what amazed me after it happened (and still does to this day) is how many people kept asking how "something like this" could happen.

Frankly, it made me a little angry at the time. Not at the folks who asked that question, but rather at the media, because they didn't do a better job of broadcasting the warnings that were being put out. The truth is: I knew to be concerned because I had a tendency to look for stories concerning military or terrorist operations. But, you really had to look for them -- for the most part -- or you wouldn't see them. I suspect that most media gatekeepers (newspaper editors, for instance) really didn't believe foreign terrorists would strike on US soil, so they either "spiked" that type of story, or ran very abbreviated versions -- such as the short segment I had seen about the Dark Winter exercise on the evening news.

Unfortunately, ten years later, it looks as if many of them still feel that way. At any rate, in my opinion, their behavior indicates they feel there won't be a repeat of 9/11 -- or something even worse. But, I still have a tendency to watch for stories like these; it's just my nature. So, if you click on the link below (It may be in red, instead of blue but should still work.), you'll be taken to a New York Times story that is very good (IMHO) and has information you might find worth knowing.

The story is quite in-depth, and covers events that transpired over a number of years. In fact, the writer covers Dark Winter, the exercise I mentioned near the opening of this article. But, he also unearths real concerns about US preparedness for Bio-Terrorist actions, and explains that sophisticated biological weaponry is no longer beyond the reach of terrorist organizations.

I'm not trying to frighten anyone, or to railroad anyone into some political agenda. Frankly, getting the federal government to do its best to protect us from Bio-Terror is something I'd rather not see politicized -- though, according to the NYT article, it may have been.

I believe, however, that we might all benefit if the information contained in the story were known by a large percentage of the populous. So far, however, I haven't run across anyone who's seen it. And, that is why I put it here.

If anyone objects, let me know. And -- Just so you don't worry: I don't intend to do this often (if ever again).

And now, to quote the great Rod Serling (He was a terrific writer, in case you don't know!): "Submitted for your approval..."

NY Times BioTerror Story

03 November 2011


by Deborah Elliott-Upton

One of my longtime writer friends is compiling information for an article about one of my former employers –and maybe unbeknownst to my boss– also one of my best writing mentors though the title was never official.

As editor of the "Book Page" where my book reviews ran every Sunday for several years, Mrs. Tripp may not have known how much in awe I was and still am of her accomplishments.

The writer friend, Bernice Simpson, asked my initial reaction to meeting my editor in person. The memory made me smile. Mary Kate Tripp looked like she ought to be harsh. She looked like a tough reporter. She looked exactly like I expected her to be. Picture Katherine Hepburn and you picture Mary Kate Tripp – all the sass, spitfire and spunk rolled up in a no-nonsense attidtude about her work.

Mrs. Tripp conquered the Old Boy's Club of the newsroom decades ago when women weren't allowed to wear slacks in public much less be a spitfire of a reporter. Women were like children and meant to be seen and not heard. If you went by the photo accompanying her column, you would suspect she was a stern woman who probably never laughed. Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes.

My initial meeting with Mary Kate Tripp happened when I wanted to write a book review of Jan Grape's mystery novel, AUSTIN CITY BLUE. I had never attempted to write a book review to be published, but when I met Jan at a writer's workshop, I knew I wanted to give it a try. When I spoke on the phone to Mrs. Tripp, she gave me the go-ahead to write the review on spec. For the non-writer, that simply means if they don't like it, it won't see print and you won't get paid no matter how much time you spent doing the research and writing the piece. It's just the way of the publishing world. After giving me the guidelines, Mrs. Tripp instructed she wanted me to bring a hard copy of the review to her home so she could meet me.

When she opened the door, I felt like Mary Richards (the main character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") meeting crusty Lou Grant for the first time. I swallowed hard and introduced myself while Mrs. Tripp gave me the "once over." I couldn't tell what sort of impression I made on her, but I desperately wanted to do this paricular book review and be published in the newspaper. To be honest, I wanted more than that: I wanted to be Mary Kate Tripp or at least inherit her job when she retired.

I have no idea how old she was then or now, but her hair is still white and worn in an unswept hairdo, both professional and intimidating simultaneously. The woman had won about every award a reporter could win and had interviewed everyone from celebrities to those in politics to ordinary people making a difference in the world through their books. She'd helped many local authors on their way to great careers.

The woman was sharp and once I got to know her, hid a delicious sense of humor beneath that steel glint expression in her eyes. At that first meeting, she told me she wanted to know about me. I was surprised. I assumed my writing would be all that mattered. I had given her my postal box address to send my check. Instead of asking where I resided, she inquired, "Where do you vote?" Inwardly, I smiled at her cleverness, but outside I tried to to keep my expression stoic. I was trying to appear more experienced and professional I suppose, but she probably saw right through me. (I've been told I must be lucky in love because I don't have a decent poker face to win at cards at all.)

My writing style ended up being my saving grace as she bought the review, then led me to her office in the back of the house and told me to pick out whatever books I'd like to review for the next Sunday's edition. In that moment, I realized I was hired for more than one gig. I stayed with the newspaper until it was sold to out-of-state owners who decided to discontinue the Book Page. I did write a few book reviews for the paper when one of my friends had a new book released, but it wasn't as much fun as when I worked for Mary Kate Tripp.

The best memory of working for her came one day after I'd selected a stack of books for the next week and Mrs. Tripp invited me "to sit and visit for a bit." I listened as she told me stories about when she'd first graduated from college and found no jobs available to her. She took a position for a rancher and his wife tutoring their children and becoming their nanny on the side. This woman who'd seemed so hard to crack admitted she often rode a horse to a spot where she could be alone and sneak a cigarette. The rancher didn't approve of women smoking, she told me. I didn't get the impression she enjoyed teaching children, but times were hard and she needed work. Then she grinned and said, "But his wife sure was a good cook." Mrs. Tripp eventually went to work for the newspaper and rose up through the ranks, keeping a marriage going along with a job back when women didn't do such things after marrying. Mary Kate Tripp is one heck of a woman, one great writer and a terrific mentor and role model for me. She inspired me to become a mentor to an aspiring writer a couple of years ago. (Yes, I had a full school year– that's nine months of Summer – with mystery writer, Summer G. Baker. Keep a lookout for that name!)

Do you have a mentor in your life and are you one to someone? It's really a wonderful experience and I highly recommend mentorship from both sides of the equation.

02 November 2011

A Page A Day

 by Robert Lopresti

A while back we had some new friends over for dinner and when they found out that I write fiction  one of them said "But how do you find time?"

I gave my usual answer, with a shrug: "If you write a page a day at the end of the year you have a novel."

Which satisfied my guests, but I knew it was facile and disingenuous (which are two wonderful words, but not such wonderful things to be).  Because the fact of the matter is that if you write a page a day at the end of the year  what you have is 365 pages.  There exist, I have been assured, people who start on page 1 of a book and when they finish the first draft have something ready to send to the publisher.  So I have heard and I assume it is true, but boy, it's not the way things work in my world.

Leaving aside the question of rewriting (a big question as far as I am concerned), writing in small doses I find it hard to keep the plot and especially the mood together. I generally try to write a first draft in a rush, dumping my brain on the page as fast as possible, knowing I will have to rewrite every sentence, but trying to getting it on the page as close to my insipration as possible.  Of course, that's easier to do with a short story than a novel.

I am currently working on a novelette and am taking advantage of the only consistent free slot in my schedule: my lunch hour.  So that means I have been writing about a page a day after my bowl of mixed veggies.  (Today is an exception since I am writing this instead.)

I have written the beginning and end of the story and am now working on the part that interests me least: the second act.  I  know that when I tie the two ends together I won't have anything that is ready for a publisher.  Whether it can be beaten into shape, I cannot yet tell.  Ask me again in a year or so.

And don't get me started on yesterday's joyful event when, after twenty minutes of pushing nouns and verbs uphill, Windows decided it was time for an update and restarted my computer.   No, I hadn't saved anything.

Okay.  There's always another lunch hour.  Fortunately no editor is eagerly awaiting this particular publication.  And I guess that's a good thing, huh?

01 November 2011

Old Purple Head

     What follows would have been more appropriate yesterday, on Halloween,  But hey, can I help it that Tuesday is my day, that I get “All Saints’ Day” while Fran drew the darker card?  In any event, this column is spawned from last week, from a year ago, and from the legends that surround all of us, wherever we may find ourselves.  Some of these legends are written anew by the likes of us, you and me, while others evolve, almost on their own, over years.  Folk tales without authors.  Some of these we stumble upon, unexpectedly, as we round a corner.

     The past week my wife and I traveled from Washington, D.C. to southern Illinois to visit friends who live on the banks of Lake Egypt.  This is the second time we have made this trip  Like last year we first stop there, in the woods by the lake, and then after a few days we  move on 130 miles north east to Vincennes, Indiana where my wife’s family lives, and where, every year, just before Halloween, they gather for several nights of bonfires in the woods. 

     Last year when we first added our Lake Egypt stop to the  trip I consulted a map and realized that while most people would travel between southern Illinois and Vincennes by going north on Interstate 57 and then west on Interstate 64, that route is, in fact,comprised of  a geographically inefficient  two sides of a triangle.  There is another way to do this, I concluded – a combination of Illinois 45 and Illinois 1 in fact runs a razor straight hypotenuse to the triangle, connecting Lake Egypt and Vincennes in a straight line.

     We are retired.  We have plenty of time. We don’t need interstates when there are state and country roads.   So last year when I typed our destination into the car’s  GPS  I pushed the button for shortest route, not fastest, and our car proceeded to guide us northeast along route 45.

     Route 45 and route 1 are, for the most part, easy going idyllic two lane blacktop.  They meander through small towns, past lots of barbecue restaurants, antique shops and churches, all with little traffic.  But, as I said, easy going is the description for “the most part.”

     Last year we had almost reached Vincennes, indeed, our GPS indicated less than 10 miles to go before we reached my sister-in-law’s house, when the GPS instructed us to turn off of Illinois 1 and into the small (and a bit deserted) town of St. Francisville, Illinois.  I turned to Pat and asked, “Why are we going to St. Francisville?”  (After all, this is her neck of the woods not mine.)  Pat shrugged and shook her head.   The GPS  next  instructed us to make a sharp left turn off of Main Street and on to a seemingly little used side street.  We dutifully obeyed, following the map in our dashboard as we wandered out of town, into the woods.  After another sharp left we pulled up in front of a ramshackle one room building beside the road and next to two signs.  One said “Stop.”  The other said “Pay Toll.”

      I turned again to Pat.  “Are there any toll roads going into Vincennes?”  “I didn’t think so,” she answered just a bit uneasily.

     There was no place to easily turn around so I pulled up to the open window of the shack.  A bored teenage girl sat inside in a rickety office chair, Ipod, buds in her ears, an illustrated novel propped on a wooden table in front of her.  She lazily turned her head, appraising us,  one eye wide, the other slit.  “One dollar,” she mumbled through chewing gum.  I fished in my pocket and handed over a buck.  The path of least resistance.  We all end up on it more often than not.   She deposited my dollar in a dirty cash register sitting on the table and then turned  back to the comic.  Pat and I eyed each other as I pulled slowly away from the shack.

    The blacktop road rapidly gave out to gravel.  Ahead was a sharp corner.  We rounded it and then, before we knew it, we were facing “Old Purple Head.”   The website Haunted USA describes the Purple Head bridge, spanning the Wabash between St. Francisville and Vincennes as follows:
Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana is a decrepit train bridge with most of the ties now missing, leaving holes through its span like gaps of rotten teeth. The rusted metal frame however still spans the Wabash, an echo of the might of the former rail traffic that connected a nation.
Another description appears in the on-line article The Ghosts of the Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana by Jennifer Eblin:
The Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana, is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the southern half of the state, if not the entire state. There have been dozens of people over the years, maybe even hundreds of people, all of whom claimed to experience some strange and unsettling things.
The Purple Head Bridge is an old railroad bridge located in Vincennes. Some people claim that this is a toll bridge, but based on the images I have seen, it is clearly a railroad bridge. It is hard to imagine anyone driving a vehicle across it, but a large number of people believe it once did that.
     It is certainly true that Old Purple Head was a railroad bridge, but we all know that you can’t believe everything you find on the internet.  I can tell you, based on personal experience, that however ill advised the enterprise may be, Old Purple Head presently does indeed operate as a one-lane toll bridge (albeit with two way traffic).  And you do not have to take my word for it.  Want to drive it?  Well, take my word for it, the real thing is even worse, but hold on tight because  here we go, courtesy of U Tube.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  (This great video, which tells it all, is courtesy of Ed Brumley, www.edbrumley.com.  Ed truly captured the experience.)

While the drive is scary enough by itself, as noted by Ms. Elbrin the bridge has also spawned a remarkable number of ghost stories, legends that have evolved in the folklore of Southern Illinois and Indiana.
 I have also [Ms. Elbin writes]  heard varying stories on how exactly you are supposed to see the spirits [that inhabit the bridge]. Some people claim that you must drive your car on to the bridge, and wait for strange things to happen. Others state you need only be close to the bridge. Given its decrepit state, and the pieces missing from the bridge, I would highly advise against trying to find a way to get your car on to it.
According to local legends one of the spirits of the Purple Head Bridge is visible only during storms. Supposedly a man once decided to kill himself by hanging himself from one of the trestles during a storm. Something went terribly wrong and he was decapitated in the fall. Today [it is said that] you can see his head floating along the bridge. . . .
     Other local legends maintain that the bridge is haunted by a native American medicine man, murdered there during the French and Indian wars.  Still other locals will tell you that the bridge was used by the Ku Klux Klan for lynchings.  Students at nearby Vincennes University have posted website accounts of ghostly encounters that invariably occur late at night on the bridge.  Others claim that if you stand on the bridge at night you will see a luminescent purple head floating below in the Wabash.  Want more?  Google “Purple Head Bridge” – there are pages of references and stories.

     What’s the suggested take-away here?  Well, one might be that sometimes we write the stories and sometimes the stories evolve around us.  Some places are so strange, so unexpected and maybe even bone-chilling when you first encounter them that they beg for backstories.  You can find those places, sometimes they will find you.  And you can write those stories.  But you better hurry up because if you don’t write them, well. . . eventually they are going to write themselves.

     Last week, one year later, on the 27th of October, Pat and I once again were headed across Southern Illinois bound for Vincennes.  We have a new car this year, and I was hoping for a different GPS outcome.  But when our dashboard display directed us to turn left off of Main Street in St. Francisville at an old wooden sign that said “toll bridge,” we instead pulled a U-turn and drove back to Route 1.  There are limitless stories out there, and there are also plenty of other ways to cross the Wabash.

(A note to readers -- the interview with Iiki Yusan that was a basis for last Tuesday's article is now available on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen -- a Website on Deduction.  Click here and follow Kurt's prompts.)

30 October 2011

My Uncle the Bootlegger

by Louis Willis

My uncle, the younger of my mother’s two brothers, nicknamed “Belly,” was a bootlegger. He sold moonshine in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. He bought the moonshine in half gallon jars from the men who made it back in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee and brought it to the city where he sold it by the pint and half pint. To my uncle and the other Black bootleggers, bootlegging was a business, and they considered themselves businessmen, not criminals. 

The police, who admired my uncle for his ability to evade capture when other bootleggers were often caught, gave my uncle the nickname of “Whiskers” because he wore a large beard. He was tall, lean, handsome, medium brown skin and spoke in a low voice, even when angry. I think the fact that, at six feet, two inches, he was the tallest member in our family makes him stand out in my memory. 

I have no direct memory of the family story of how the police used my uncle to test the rookies. Two officers in a patrol car would bring the rookie into the neighborhood, wait until they spotted my uncle, then let the rookie out of the patrol car, and the foot race was on. My uncle never had moonshine or a gun on him, which made me think, in later years, the situation was prearranged. None of the rookies ever caught him because my uncle had the advantage of knowing the neighborhood. For me, the story shows how the White policemen used my uncle like the mechanical rabbit employed to get racing dogs to run. The police, however, respected my uncle and tried to get him to join the force. He refused because he didn’t want to arrest his friends, and especially his brother.

I remember a funny incident involving one of the Black policemen’s  attempt to catch my uncle, not by chasing him, but by outsmarting him, because I saw it happen. Only 3 or 4 Black men were on the city police force. One of them, I’ll call him GV, was a mean SOB and would arrest anyone he thought was breaking the law.

The part of the GV story I know from other family members suggests he didn’t like my uncle and considered him an embarrassment to the Black community. He decided he was the man to catch him. He didn’t know that the Black beat patrolman had warned my grandmother, and she had warned my uncle, who was watching for GV, as was others in the neighborhood. 

Looking across our backyard from our kitchen window, I could see the back of Doll Flats and the outdoor toilets attached to each flat. The doors of the toilets could be locked with latches on the inside and the outside. The toilets could be approached from the north through the space between our house and the house on the east side of ours, and from south through the space between Doll Flats and the back of the flats that were perpendicular to Doll Flats.
On the day the incident, I watched from the kitchen window as GV, who was not in uniform, approached from the south, entered the first toilet, and locked the door. From inside the toilet, you could see the back of our house through the cracks between the door and the door frame. Just before GV entered the toilet, I saw my uncle tiptoeing between Doll Flats and the back of the house next door to ours. He stopped, peeked around the corner of the flats, and saw GV enter the toilet. 

He left, and I next saw him ease around the south corner of the flats and throw the outside latch of the toilet GV was in. He strolled pass the toilet, looked back when he heard GV trying to open the door, smiled, and kept walking.

I never learned how GV got out of the toilet. He was fired from the police force for doing the unthinkable: he started arresting White folks.

My uncle went legit when the county became wet in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He already had a business selling kindling wood. He opened a store from which he sold sodas, candy, cookies, and beer. Strangely, he did not sell whiskey. He died of a heart attack in 1988 after discovering someone had broken into the store. I always thought he died of a broken heart because he believed no one would ever rob him since if anyone wanted something he would give it to them on credit. He was not aware that the new, drug dealing, drug using generation didn’t ask; they took.

29 October 2011

Truth (?) in Fiction

Mystery author Lawrence Block has written, in addition to many novels and short stories, several extremely useful books on the craft of writing. In one of those he mentioned the fact that "fiction is just a pack of lies." But, as Block of course knows, there's more to it than that. Successful fiction--lies though it may be--must ring true to the reader. We have to believe this is happening.

And Sometimes We Don't

For today's column I've put together a couple dozen things that I've noticed on the page and on the screen that always stretch my believability. Or, I should say, these are things that limit my ability to suspend my disbelief. I don't mind being lied to, you see--it's just that I expect the writer to make me enjoy it, and not make me think more about the lie and the liar than about the story he or she is telling me.

NOTE 1: Both Leigh Lundin and I have written about this kind of thing over the past few years, but I'm going to dive again into that same pool and see if I can come up with something new. (If I do surface with a find I've already shown you before, please forgive me and mark it down to overenthusiasm. Or maybe senility.)

Note 2: Some of these observations were stolen and paraphrased from one of the chapters in Loren Estleman's outstanding book Writing the Popular Novel. It appears that Estleman is irritated by the same kinds of mistakes I am, which makes me like him even more.

Anyhow, here are some things that I believe to be true, as opposed to what I've seen as a reader and viewer.

I'll Take Bloopers for Five Hundred, Alex . . .

1. Cartridges are loaded into a gun; bullets come out the other end. You shouldn't dig a cartridge out of a victim or load a bullet into a clip.

2. People on foot being chased by cars probably don't always run down the exact center of the road.

3. There's no such thing as a town sheriff. Sheriffs are officials of the county.

4. Not all space aliens and ancient civilizations speak perfect English.

5. Witches aren't burned. They're hanged.

6. Cars don't always burst into flame as soon as they hit something or plunge over a cliff.

7. Some hotel rooms in the Old West were not located on the second floor, overlooking the street out front.

8. Most people don't usually say things like "periodically," "frankly," "perhaps," "how dare you," or even "whom" in casual conversation. Unless maybe they're English professors, or mildly constipated.

9. When someone is shot riding a horse, he falls down. The horse shouldn't fall down too.

10. A parking space directly in front of the hero's destination is not always available.

11. Some people actually say "goodbye" when they finish phone conversations.

12. Western streets were probably not spotlessly clean. It's hard to picture Ben Cartwright with a pooperscooper.

13. Gifts aren't usually wrapped such that the tops can easily be lifted off without first unwrapping the whole thing.

14. Your P.I. hero shouldn't get knocked unconscious from a blow to the back of the head in every single chapter or episode, the way Richard Diamond did in the late 50s. That causes a concussion each time, and . . . well, you get the picture.

15. There are very few mafia hit-women. Tony Soprano & Associates held political correctness in low regard.

16. Most drivers watch the road ahead (at least occasionally) while talking with passengers.

17. Not every character in a given town attends the same church.

18. Revolvers don't use silencers, and they don't automatically eject shells. They darn sure don't eject bullets.

19. People do confess to crimes--but it doesn't often happen in the courtroom.

20. It is theoretically possible to climb all the way to the top of a chain-link fence without being shot or dragged back down.

21. Chairs in saloons shouldn't always break apart when used to hit someone over the head.

22. Some travelers actually get on their plane/bus/train before the final boarding call.

23. Starships and space stations, when they're destroyed, don't explode in a thunderous fireball. If you boldly go where no man has gone, there's no oxygen there, so there's also no sound and no fire.

24. Most gunshot wounds don't instantly kill the shootee.

The Audacity of Untruth

To quote Mr. Estleman, "Suspension of disbelief is a high-wire act, requiring plausibility on one end of the balance pole to counter the pull of audacious invention on the other." It ain't as easy as it looks.

This also applies to incorrect locations or dates, in your story or novel or screenplay. Near the end of the film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest states that his wife Jenny died on a Saturday. But I read someplace on the Internet that the date on her tombstone was March 22, 1982, which apparently was a Monday. (The guy who posted that fact mentioned that he probably needs a hobby.) And when I think of funny mistakes, I'm always reminded of a movie I saw in college called Krakatoa: East of Java. Why? Because Krakatoa was west of Java.

A Burr Under My Blazing Saddle

Rob Lopresti is always kidding me about my fondness for making lists, and he probably has a point. (Maybe I'm the one who needs a hobby.) But whether they're in a list or not, these kinds of story misfires and inaccuracies are one of my pet peeves. Be honest: Have you ever seen a movie where a bartender actually made change, or a rope was hard to cut with a knife, or the good guy's dog didn't growl at the bad guy? Surely that should happen, now and then.

Can you think of anything you find particularly annoying, when you encounter it in your reading or movie-watching?

Except lists, I mean.

P.S. Since Rob's column about emailed rejections/acceptances the other day, I've received two: a rejection from Woman's World and an acceptance from AHMM. In terms of the music one hears in one's head, I went from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally" to John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare" in a very short time. Is this a crazy business, or what?

28 October 2011

Playing the Game: Part 2

When you're playing a game of any type, your opponent will sometimes make mistakes that you can take advantage of in order to better your odds of winning. Of course when you're playing the undercover game, the outcome, or score, can often be more than points or bragging rights, so you need to be quick and very adaptable.

One Bad Informant

Here's an example from my early years. A city agency from the other end of the state called up the office one morning to say they had a couple of informants lined up and they needed an undercover agent. So, I packed my bags and went. I was to be the U/C guy and the other agency would provide the surveillance teams.

In a motel out on the Interstate, the city vice detectives introduced me to CI #1. Let's call him Benny. I debriefed Benny, wrote him up as a Cooperating Individual and ran with him for two days and nights. He duked me into several alleged criminals, but somehow, a deal never went down. I became suspicious as to what his game really was, soon terminated our relationship and strongly suggested he leave town so that we would not run into each other again.

Then, I went on to CI #2. This guy was a piece of work in progress.

The Street Family

CI #2 lived in a house where he controlled his own "street family." Being the paranoid guy he was about wire taps, he allowed no phones in the house. That meant whenever I wanted him to go do a deal, I had to park in a shopping mall, walk across six lanes of traffic and knock on his front door. So, early one evening just about dusk, I'm standing there banging on his front entrance.

Knock, Knock

"Who's there?" inquires a voice from inside the house.

"Eli," says I, because that was the name I was using at the time.

The door opens up, and who's the guy doing the opening, but Benny himself. Strange, he never told me during the debriefing that he knew CI #2, but I can tell by the sudden expression on his face that he definitely remembers who I am from our two days spent together. So what am I to do? I don't want my cover blown to the "street family," and I sure don't want to jeopardize CI #2's situation.

There was nothing else for it. Violence does indeed solve some problems. I instictively reached through the doorway, grabbed Benny by the throat, hauled him out of the house and dragged him over to the parking lot where we, shall I say, came to a mutual understanding of great portends. It must have been an effective lecture on my part, because I learned much later that Benny, on that very same night, proceeded to rip off a young entrepreneur for fifty pounds of pot in order to have travelling money out of the area.

One More Time

Of course my problem now is I still have to go back to the house because CI #2 is too damn paranoid to have a telephone in the place.

I knock on the door.

"Who's there?' inquires a voice from inside.

Seems like I've been here before.

"Eli," says I, cuz I'm still using that name.

The door opens up and there's CI #2. "Come on in," he says.

I walk into the living room and everybody in the "street family" is laughing.

"What's so funny?" I ask.

"About forty minutes ago," explains one of the street family, "there was a knock at the door and Benny went to answer it. Then this long arm reaches in, grabs Benny by the throat and we ain't seen him since."

At this point, I had to laugh too. It really was funny.

And, that's my "Long Arm of the Law" story. That night, CI #2 duked me into some righteous criminals, and those deals went down the right way. Sometimes, if you make your own luck, things work out. Sometimes they don't, in which case you'd best know a different tap dance. But then when you think about it, life's a gamble anyway.

Catch ya later.

27 October 2011

The Death of the Detective

by Janice Law

One of the sad facts of life is that relationships sometimes go bad. Out in the real world the old staples of greed, lust, and anger usually do the trick, with pride and sloth in the wings as needed. In the literary world, boredom seems to be the key, as writers cast out characters who have brought them pleasure and, occasionally, both fame and fortune.

The most recent victim of authorial malice is Kurt Wallander, the gloomy but persistent Swedish detective, who has fought off both depression and diabetes to solve complex crimes in Ystad. Henning Mankell has brought the series to a believable but cruel end with The Troubled Man, saddling Wallander with a modern fate worse than death, when he could have retired the poor man to a little time with his charming granddaughter.

Well, Mankell, who was obviously very ready to end the series, must know his mystery history. Detectives of the fictional sort, who live a precarious existence between their creators' little grey cells and the printed page, have proved to be surprisingly durable.

Consider the most famous of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Despite his immense popularity, his creator grew tired of him, believing that his adventures took time from what Arthur Conan Doyle considered the more important historical novels. Holmes had to die, and, given his intellect and his stature in the profession, he could have no ordinary death. Doyle settled on sending him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, caught in a death grip by his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

As Doyle's mother had predicted, the legion of Holmes' fans were not amused, and in 1901, Doyle relented, returning with one of the best of the novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Moriarty had drowned, not Holmes. The detective had faked his death to elude other enemies, a twist so convenient that it doesn't take a Freudian to wonder if Doyle had not picked a fate for Holmes that left just a little wiggle room.

The list of resurrected detective (and thriller) heroes does not end with Holmes. Baroness Orzy's Old Man in the Corner was favored with a disappearance, not a death. And just as well. He returned for several dozen more adventures after his reporter friend assured us that she had never seen him again.

As befits a super secret agent, James Bond made an even more triumphant return from what looked like certain death. Whether or not Ian Fleming had grown weary of James Bond, he nearly dispatched him with a kick from Soviet spy, Rosa Klebb's poisoned shoe. For a time, 007 lingered near death, but, to the immense profit of what became the James Bond movie franchise, he recovered. Thanks to a core of thriller writers and movie impresarios, Bond has easily survived his creator's own demise.

Agatha Christie, she of the perfect plots, left no room for error when she dispatched Hercule Poirot. Indeed, thinking ahead, she killed Poirot off fairly early in her career but saved the novel in which he dies for her extreme age. Curtain was a big hit late in her career, and fans, who had enjoyed decades of his adventures, did not storm the literary barricades to bring him back.

Of course, there are writers of greater mercy - or greater ambivalence - who do not cry 'off with his head' quite so quickly. Dorothy Sayers was so fond of Lord Peter Wimsey that she spared his life and took what might be called the Romance Writer's Option. After many delays and tribulations, she married him to Harriet Vane, the love of his life and, following Busman's Honeymoon, sentenced him to domestic felicity.
A few short stories reflect his happiness with his wife and family but though pleasant, they do not rival the novels. Happiness, it seems, is not a requirement for a detective, and a happy marriage seems a positive detriment to the private eye.

Maybe that's why I finally retired Anna Peters, who had seen action in eight novels, and who, somewhat incautiously, I had aged along with myself. Being tenderhearted, I disliked the thought of killing her, but I felt written out and, easily bored, I disliked doing the back story that each new novel seemed to require. Besides, as we got into our fifties I could see trouble coming for a woman of action. She could get killed or she could turn into Miss Marple.

Marple having already been done to perfection, I took the modern tack of having her sell her now successful Executive Security firm to an eager young businessman, Skipper Norris, formerly an NFL quarterback. Norris had a small part in Crosscheck, the last of Anna's adventures and rather to my surprise, he was negotiating to buy the firm by the end of the novel.

I think I can say he saved her life. In any case, she has not reappeared in the neurons. I imagine she is occupying herself pleasantly around the art world with her artist husband, perhaps repairing her neglected education, and solving minor crimes that she does not need to confide to me.

26 October 2011

Hesitation Blues

by Robert Lopresti

Imagine, if you will, that I have been having a very bad day. Assume that the IRS has shown an unhealthy interest in my career, that the Klingons have fired disrupters at the starboard nacelle, and that Hittites are demanding apologies for my allegedly anti-Hittite rant at a nightclub. That sort of day.

Evening has fallen and I am checking my email. There is good news and bad news. Unfortunately the good news is all from strangers who want to improve my love life or want me to help them smuggle millions of dollars out of Nigeria. The bad news tend sto be from my nearer and dearer, and it is not improving my mood.

After reading and weeding the majority of correspondence I find a message from a familiar name. Specifically an editor. The subject line is YOUR STORY. My fingers reach for the Enter button, and then I hesitate. This is what you might call a binary dilemma. Either I am about to get an acceptance or a rejection. Good news or bad news.

And the way my day has been going there is no reason to expect good news, is there? I am really not in the mood for more gloom.

I know a lot of writers keep all their rejection slips. Do they print out the ones that come electronically, to add to the pile of misery? That seems above and beyond. I used to save mine, but it began to feel ridiculous. And the file was overwhelming my acceptances. (I got seventy-sox of the precious little beasts from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine before I collected one sale there.) So the rejection slips have gone away.

Nowadays when I get a paper rejection note I tend to crumble it, throw it across the room, and stomp on it before I throw it in the recycling bin. Call me Mr. Mature.

My favorite rejection note was from an agent, informing me that she had decided not to represent my diet book. Fair enough, but I had sent her a mystery novel. Perhaps she was making a helpful hint.

Of course, this current email might NOT be a rejection note. Perhaps the editor has seen the light and decided to share my masterpiece with her lucky readers. I DO keep all my acceptance notes, or contracts.

The first acceptance I ever got came with no letter or contract. I opened the envelope and out fluttered a check; there was nothing else. Fortunately the check had the title of my story on it or I might never have figured out what it was for.

Meanwhile the current email is still waiting for me to open it. I seem to be stalling.

Of course, the note doesn't HAVE to be a yes or no. Once an editor wrote to tell me she had lost the manuscript and would I please send another copy? I did, and she rejected it.

And once an editor wrote to say she liked part of the story and suggested that I rewrite the ending. I'm still thinking about that one.

Okay. I've run out of stalling techniques. Time to hit the button and see what there is to see. Cross your fingers.

Here goes...

Screw the Klingons. We're gonna party tonight.

25 October 2011

Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun

 And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen,
 Japanese Edition
     Last spring I received a completely unexpected email asking for permission to publish The Book Case in a new anthology.  The volume is to be titled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and will include a number of Ellery Queen pastiches including, in addition to The Book Case, Mike Nevin’s classic Queen pastiche Open Letter to Survivors.

    There is sort of a surprise ending to all of this, but like most surprise endings if you think about it that revelation should have been anticipated:  The anthology will be published in Japan.  The stories will all be translated into Japanese.

    When last I posted on SleuthSayers it was back in September, and  I began by mentioning my lunch with Mike Nevins, emeritus professor of Law at St. Louis University Law School and noted mystery writer, critic and author of the fore-mentioned Open Letter to Survivors.  As mentioned then, Mike and I spent a good deal of time reminiscing about the writings of John D. MacDonald.  As our conversation turned to the growing lack of availability of MacDonald mysteries, even the Travis McGee series, Mike observed that with the exception of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle publication of a mystery writer’s work usually begins to disappear shortly after the author’s own demise.  I mentioned the complete lack of newly-published Ellery Queen mysteries in the United States and Mike shook his head dolefully and cautioned me not to expect any turn-around.

    Not in the United States, that is.

    But surprisingly the taste among readers for newly-published Golden Age mysteries varies drastically around the world.  My Belgian friend and sometimes collaborator Kurt Sercu, in his website Ellery Queen, a Website on Deduction, has noted that there have been new editions of Ellery Queen mysteries published in Russia, Spain and Italy during the last decade.  But the best exemplar of this is Japan, where the Golden Age fair play whodunit is alive and well, and where Ellery thrives. 

Iiki Yusan
    All of this was brought home to me yet again last week when Kurt asked me to edit an interview he conducted recently by email exchange with Iiki Yusan, who is the leader of the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan.  Kurt’s interview should be on-line in about a week, and can be accessed here when it goes on-line.  But I couldn’t resist offering up a bit of a prequel.

    First, by way of amazing statistics, Iiki estimated during the course of the interview that the percentage of books in print for Golden Age mystery writers in Japan looks something like this:

Agatha Christie: 90-100%
Ellery Queen: 80-90%
John Dickson Carr: 60-70%
Rex Stout: 10-20%

    While I do not know the relevant percentages in the United States, I do know that there are virtually no Ellery Queen works currently in print, and if you gave me $5.00 and required me to bet with it my wager would be that there are substantially more Rex Stout volumes available in the United States than there are Queen mysteries.   So what augurs a different result in Japan?  Why is Agatha Christie still popular in the United States while Ellery Queen has virtually disappeared?  Apparently there is something about fair play detective stories, and particularly those of Queen, that continues to resonate in Japan in a way that these stories no longer call out to the reading public in the United States.

Frederic Dannay and Ed Hoch 
    All of this goes beyond mere re-publication of the Ellery Queen mysteries.  For example, I was astounded to learn during the course of editing Kurt’s interview with Iiki that in Japan in 1980 there was a television series, modeled after Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that was hosted by none other than Frederic Dannay, just two years before his death in 1982. Queen works have continued to be the subject of movies, television shows and theatrical productions in Japan up to the present.  And Japan also has produced book-length treatises analyzing the works of Queen.  Iiki himself has authored Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) and Reviews of Ellery Queen (2010).  In World Wars and Ellery Queen (1992) Kiyosi Kasai, traces the development of Golden Age murder mysteries in the context of the two world wars and concludes that the rise of the genre, in which well-developed characters were murdered, was a reaction to the countless faceless deaths of war.   And in The Logic of the Detective Story (2007) Kentaro Komori spends a full volume analyzing the deductive logic of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) by comparing the analytic approaches utilized in the novels with the philosophical reasoning of the likes of Bertrand Russel and Kurt Godel.  I doubt that such rigorous analyses of the works of Queen were ever undertaken in the United States, even when the works were in their heyday.

    Modern detective stories written by Japanese writers also continue to reflect the works of Queen.  In his on-line article Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan author Ho-Ling Wong reports that the new wave of fair play whodunits in Japan is referred to as the "new orthodox" detective story -- a story that hearkens back to Golden Age mysteries but does so by incorporating the fair play formula into modern settings.  And, as Ho-Ling Wong references, Ellery Queen's presence continues in these works.
 Other popular writers of the New Orthodox School are Norizuki Rintarō and Alice Arisugawa.  Both writers are strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. Both of them have named their protagonists after themselves, like their great example. Both writers often insert a Challenge to the Reader in their stories.  As one can derive from his first name, Arisugawa often delves into imagery of Alice in Wonderland, just like Ellery Queen, while Norizuki Rintarō’s characters mimic Ellery Queen almost exactly.  In fact, his protagonist is a writer, also called Norizuki Rintarō, who helps his father, a police inspector, mirroring the Ellery Queen – Inspector Queen dynamic.
    What is behind all of this continued interest in fair play detective stories in Japan?  Who can say?  But for whatever reason Golden Age mysteries have struck a chord there.  Mysteries founded on the deductive reasoning process continue to be one of the most popular forms of writing in Japan.  The following quote, still a bit stilted in translation, shows up often on the internet as an explanation for the popularity of the genre in Japan.  Predictably, it is offered up in an imagined conversation with Ellery Queen set forth in The Murders at the Ten-cornered Residence (1991) written by the popular Japanese writer Ayatsuji Yukito.

Ellery, the slim handsome young man says: 
To me, detective fiction is a kind of intellectual game. A logical game that gives readers sensations about detectives or authors. These are not to be ranked high or low. So I don't want the once popular “social sect” realism. Female employee murdered in a deluxe suite room; criminal police's tireless investigation eventually brings in the murdering boss-cum-boyfriend--All cliché. Political scandals of corruption and ineptness; tragedies of distortion of modern society; these are also out of date. The most appropriate materials for detective fiction, whether accused untimely or not, are famous detectives, grand mansions, suspicious residents, bloody murders, puzzling situation, earth-shattering schemes . . . .   Made up things are even better. The point is to enjoy the pleasure in the world of reasoning. But intellectual prerequisites must be completely met.    

    All of this makes me wish that I could read Japanese!  Be sure to check Kurt’s website in the next week or so for the full interview with Iiki. 

(Clip art courtesy of Kurt Sercu and Ellery Queen:  a Website on Deduction except as noted.)