03 February 2013

Eye in the Sky


by Leigh Lundin

Drones part 1: Eye in the Sky

If you don't know the acronym UAV, you're so out of date! Predator drones and the overhead gadgets police use to spy on your backyard barbecue are called UAVs– unmanned ariel vehicles– UAV, for short.

unmanned Predator drone
Those drones we've read about in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq? They were developed for use in combat territories, not against our own citizens. But once out of the bag, did anyone seriously expect they wouldn't be deployed here at home?

I'm torn, partly from techno-geek attraction, partly because I don't like putting soldiers in harm's way, but partly because I don't like the idea of killing from the heavens. But now we face another factor– unarmed drones are being deployed against American citizens. Not only can they violate your air space, they can violate your personal space.

Since 9/11, civil liberties have been pouring down the rathole of 'homeland security', most notably from the Orwellian-named US PATRIOT Acts I and II. They've been stripping basic rights when you weren't looking and now we have one more way to spy– against ourselves. Wasn't this what we were taught was so evil about other governments?

That's not to say I don't think domestic drones can have a positive purpose, but without well defined rules, expect them to be misused and abused. Cases have already surfaced of drones spying on ordinary citizens going about their own business on their own property.

The Little Plane that Couldn't

Like boys with the latest R/C plane, our local law enforcement is delighted with their new toy. While issuing solemn assurances to the press they won't use drones to observe security precautions of, say, Mrs. Trudy Boomdacious tanning by her pool at Nº 31 Sunkist Lane, they can hardly contain themselves until they can go out and play. Hey, I can't blame them.

But, as we learn from time to time, high technology is beyond some officials. From our Texas reader Vicki comes this article by Jim Hightower about Montgomery County's new flying gadget. When showing it off, it seems the sheriff dragged out all his goodies including a Bearcat troop transport with full swat team. It looked great, but unfortunately, the sheriff's department hasn't learned how to drive… or at least fly.

Yep, they crashed their spanking new drone.  The little plane committed suicide when it smashed into their armored transport.

Hightower reports the Bearcat survived, but not the Constitution.

Boys and Their Toys
child predator

But wait! There's more!

The drone that grew out of R/C toys has itself become a toy. On Amazon, people like me of twisted mind and sense of humor have been piling on the review comments. Warning: I said twisted, for example:
"At last! A Child Predator!"

"With my son's birthday fast approaching, I simply couldn't fathom what to get him. Last year we had purchased for him the Home Waterboarding Kit and buying him the same present two years in a row just seemed wrong...fortunately I found this! I love to watch the maniacal gleam in his eye as he imagines seas of Pakistani women and children before him and screams 'Death from above!'. It reminds me of all the joy I got from the My Lai Massacre playset I had as a child. Shock and awe!"

"(My son) just loves flying his drone around our house, dropping Hellfire missiles on Scruffy, our dog. He kept saying that Scruffy was a terror suspect and needed to be taken out. I asked him if Scruffy should get a trial first, and he quoted Lindsay Graham, Senator: "Scruffy, you don't get a trial!" I was so proud. I think I'll buy him some video games that promote martial law for Christmas."

"I just have to say that the educational value of this toy is GREAT. I just tell my son: This is what the West is using to kill the Rest. We fly these wonderful planes carrying bombs and we drop them on people we sort of think are terrorists and other people…"

"Not very educational, as the software is point-and-click, and the targets' death screams all sound the same. Not durable either, since they tend to crash between smoking, charred corpses."

"This is the best toy ever. Finally, I can pretend that I'm a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!"
Oops, I'm droning on and on…

02 February 2013

In Pursuit of Mystery Trivia




by John M. Floyd


Last week I did some housecleaning, in the form of thinning out my vast collection of hardback books. I do that every now and then only because I'm forced to--by my wife and by the fact that no matter how big our house is, it's still not big enough for a steady inflow of non-e-books--and as a result I always wind up giving some to the library, some to friends, and some to the garbage crew that comes by every Tuesday and Friday.

The point is, in every one of these sad (for me) "inventories" I seem to find something that gives me an idea for a SleuthSayers column.  This time it was a delightful little collection of questions called The Mystery Trivia Quiz Book, by Kitty Reese and Regis Sinclair. I've long since forgotten where I bought it, or even why I bought it, but I couldn't resist sitting down and paging through the questions. (Now my problem is deciding whether to keep the darn thing or toss it overboard.)

Here is a sampling of the brain-teasers I found there, plus a few of my own. Some are easy, some are tough, and some are just plain silly, but I hope all of them bring back for you (as they do for me) fond memories of mystery novels, stories, authors, movies, and TV shows.

1. What was the full name of Sherlock Holmes's landlady?

2. In what magazine did Dashiell Hammett's first Continental Op story appear?

3. What was Evan Hunter's best-known pseudonym?

4. Who killed Richard Kimble's wife in TV's The Fugitive?

5. What's the name of Bill Pronzini's famous detective?

6. Who played the gangster who carved up Jack Nicholson's nose in Chinatown?

7. What fictional series character hitchhikes across America carrying only a toothbrush, an ATM card, and the clothes on his back?

8. Where did Nick and Nora Charles stay when they were in New York?

9. What mystery (and former Western) author wrote the novel Hombre and the short story "3:10 to Yuma"?

10. What Poe story is considered to be the first "locked-room mystery"?

11. What was taken in John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?

12.  Who played a judge in the final episode of Perry Mason, telecast in 1966?" (This one isn't as hard as it sounds.)

13. In what city was Spenser based?

14. How do you pronounce Ngaio Marsh's first name?

15. In North by Northwest, what is Cary Grant's reply when Eva Marie Saint says, "Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for?"

16. Who shot J.R., on TV's Dallas?

17. What was the basis of many of the titles of Martha Grimes's detective novels?

18. What was Mike Hammer's secretary's name?

19. What did BullittVertigoThe Maltese Falcon, and Dirty Harry have in common?

20. Who lived on a houseboat called The Busted Flush?

21. Edgar Box is the pseudonym of what writer?

22. Who always includes a number in the titles of her mystery novels?

23. Who played the murderer in Rear Window?

24. In Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd--how did he die?

25. How did Nero Wolfe finish the following line: The only safe secrets are . . .

26. What TV character's name was taken from the British film industry expression "man-appeal" or "M-appeal" (which is what the series producers were looking for)?

27. What was Robert B. Parker's middle name?

28. What was Dick Francis's only collection of short stories?

29. Who was the voice of Charlie in TV's Charlie's Angels?

30. How did Hitchcock manage to do his trademark cameo in the cramped setting of the movie Lifeboat?

31. What's the name of the bog that borders the Baskerville estate?

32. In Richard Diamond, Private Detective, who played Sam (RD's answering service)?

33. What mystery writer is actually Dr. Robert William Arthur?

34. In which of the Thin Man movies did James Stewart play a suspect?

35. Who had to turn down the role of Indiana Jones because he was tied up filming a P.I. series?

36. What's unique about the settings of Nevada Barr's mystery novels?

37. In The Maltese Falcon, what was Sam Spade's partner's name?

38. Who were the two cousins who used the pen name Ellery Queen?

39. What Ben Gazzara/Chuck Connors TV series had the following format: the first half was spent catching the crook and the last half was spent convicting him?

40. What do P.D. James's first two initials stand for?

41. Who writes mystery novels starring sports agent Myron Bolitar?

42. Who was the producer's first choice to play Lt. Columbo?

43. The movie Heavenly Creatures was based on a crime actually committed by what popular mystery writer, when she was in her teens?

44. What musical instrument did Sherlock Holmes play?

45. What TV private detective frequented a bar called Mother's?

46. What was used to simulate blood in the Psycho shower scene?

47. What do Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series and Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series have in common?

48. What did the dying man tell James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much?

49. What is romance author Nora Roberts's mystery-writer pseudonym?

50. Which Agatha Christie novel featured Alice Ascher, Betty Barnard, and Carmichael Clarke?


That's it--put down your pencil and turn in your paper. By the way, if you felt comfortable answering half of these or more, I don't know whether to congratulate you or feel sorry for you. I will say that you probably spend more time reading and watching mysteries than you should. (I certainly do.) And shame on you, shame I say, if you Googled any of them.

In case anyone's interested, I will supply all fifty answers in my SleuthSayers column two weeks from now. Meanwhile, it's time to get back to my sorting and trashcan detail. Anybody want a copy of Tommy Chong's autobiography?

Didn't think so.


01 February 2013

TRADECRAFT: Surveillance 201


Doing one-car surveillance is similar to operating as a one-man team following a subject on foot, except that it is a little more difficult to hide a vehicle than it is for a single person to blend in with his surroundings. Once again, just like a person needs to fit in, your vehicle needs to match the area being surveilled. You don't park a flashy new Mercedes in the projects, nor do you park a Low-Rider in an upscale neighborhood, without attracting attention of some kind. You want no attention. However, in some areas you won't be able to park for very long anyway because that neighborhood is watching for those who don't belong there. In those cases, you need to brainstorm another way to do it, or else pick up on your subject in a different area he frequents.

In Kansas City whenever we set up on a mafia owned neighborhood, we could bet that in about fifteen minutes we could look in our rear view mirror and see a squad car sliding in behind us. Naturally, the cops would approach and ask for ID. At that point, we had two choices: we could leave the area or we could stay. But, if we stayed, then the mafia knew we were the law because we didn't get rousted. They simply used the law enforcement system against us by making a phone call to the local police about a suspicious car sitting in their neighborhood. So much for clandestine surveillance.

In other tight neighborhoods, little kids on bikes would ride up and knock on your window. "Whatcha doing, Mister?" Now it's time to go, you're burned, unless you have a believable story to tell. Sometimes if I was by myself, I would park the car in a favorable spot and slide over into the passenger seat as if my invisible buddy, the driver, had gotten out of the car and gone inside one of the nearby houses or buildings. This usually bought a little time to stay in place and worked especially well in winter when you left the engine running to stay warm. Otherwise, the windows soon fogged up, in which case any passerby knew someone was sitting in the vehicle anyway. Always problems and consequences to be dealt with.

It helps if you can turn off your headlights and parking lights when the engine is running, a problem with some newer models. You will also want to disable your interior lights so they don't come on every time you open the car door at night. Sure, you could crawl through the window like race car drivers, but that's an awkward enter and exit. Tends to draw attention if someone's looking your way.

So now, let's say you got past all them problems, the subject came out of the building, got into his car and drove away. If it's just you out there then you have to get on your subject before you lose him, but don't just roar up and hang onto his rear bumper. If you can, let one car get between you and the guy you're following. And yep, this becomes a problem situation every time you come to a red light. If he makes the light and the car in front of you stops, then you're stuck. Given enough room, you can steer to the right, wait until there's a break in cross traffic and run the light. You're taking a chance that he's not watching his back trail in the rear view mirror. So, you may have to decide which is more important, losing the subject or risking a burn.

Another danger of running a red light is your local friendly traffic cop who just happens to be in the area. If you have a badge to show him, he may send you on your way without a ticket, but your stop time has probably allowed the subject to travel out of sight.  To minimize this risk, I've been known to make a quick right turn at the red light, shoot a U on the cross street, then make another quick right at the intersection and get back in the game behind the subject.

Traffic lights also present a problem if there are no cars between you and the subject. You really don't want to be directly behind him all the time, so maybe take a right hand turn into a parking lot until the light changes. Be sure to use your blinker to signal that turn. If the subject is watching his rear view mirror, his perception is that you are not following him because you just made a turn. Of course, as soon as the light changes and he moves forward, you get out of the lot and back on the road. You're good for a while longer.

Corners are another problem. Do you follow him around the corner? If you can, delay your turn at that same corner he took. Let him get down the block a ways in case he is parking to enter a building, or even sitting just around the corner to see if the same car keeps following him on turns. If you have another person in your vehicle, have him get out, walk to the corner and advise you as to what the subject did after the turn.

More than likely, you will lose your target if the surveillance covers much distance. That's why it's better to use multiple cars on a moving surveillance. This way, when a subject makes a turn, The Eyeball keeps going straight and the #2 car follows around the corner and becomes the new Eyeball. The 3rd car in line also makes the corner. All other cars either go down parallel streets on either side or pull over and park, depending upon what the new Eyeball says the subject is doing.

With moving surveillance and multiple cars, communications are a definite requirement, which usually means a radio system. Law enforcement radios operate with several different channels. At least one channel hits the base radio and all other cars which happen to be on that channel at that time. The other channels are usually used for car-to-car only, to include concealed radios being used by that team's foot surveillance personnel. This way, several different teams can work different subjects at the same time without interferring with each other's transmissions. However, if two different subjects meet up with each other, then those two teams can switch to the same channel.

In later years, many law agencies went to radios with both clear channels and encrypted channels. Seems the bad guys could purchase equipment to listen in and find out if they were being targeted. All they needed was to find the correct radio frequency. The problem with an encrypted channel is that it cuts down on the range of communications. Get far enough out and you can't hit base, or even another car that got left behind in a fast moving surveillance. Therefore, what you're saying on the radio might be secure, but there may not be any friendlies out there who can hear you.

But, when you're a cop, that's the job and you get paid to do it. If you're a private eye or a civilian, you probably don't have much backup anyway. To paraphrase the roll call Sergeant on Hill Street Blues, "Be careful out there, people."

31 January 2013

Role Models


by Eve Fisher



           "...the magnificent Spade, with whom, after reading 'The Maltese Falcon', I went
           mooning about in a daze of love such as I had not known for any character in
           literature since I encountered Sir Launcelot at the age of nine.  (Launcelot and
           Spade - they're pretty far apart, yet I played Elaine to both of them, and in that
           lies a life-story.)"  Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker, April 25, 1931, p. 92

Me and Dorothy have a lot in common.  I, too have mooned after Sam Spade, Simon Templar, Nick Charles, James Bond (I'm a Sean Connery gal), Lord Peter Wimsey, Sir Gawain, Prince Valiant, Rhett Butler, and Thomas Hewlitt Edward Cat.  See Robert Loggia below - I loved that show.  I watched every episode for its two year run.  Besides the fact that I thought Mr. Loggia was pretty darned hot, it was set mostly at night, with lots of cool jazz music - he owned his own jazz bar - and references to gypsies and jewel thieves, and I thought that was pretty much the kind of life I wanted to lead.  Note to Netflix:  get this show on DVD!

But none of these were role models.  For that I needed women, and strong, interesting women were hard to find back in the 1960's, when Donna Reed et al were still vacuuming wearing high heels and pearls.  Here are some of the women whom I admired and modeled myself after when I was a child:

Elizabeth I.  The original great leader, sharp and witty, supremely well educated, steely, manipulative, able to get and keep her throne in an age of beheadings, able to keep her country out of almost all wars, dignified, bawdy, athletic, musical, and poetic.  Do not even get me started on her antithesis, Mary, Queen of Scots.  Anyone stupid enough to marry the chief suspect in her husband's murder deserves whatever she gets.  Elizabeth had the good sense to stay single, both because it was to her taste and because she knew that no husband would ever please her countrymen.  "I would rather be a beggar woman and single than to be a Queen and married." (But I personally don't believe she was a virgin...)

Anyway, she managed to keep her country free, her ministers subordinate, and live pretty much as she wanted to live for almost 50 years.  On top of that, she was one of the first to realize that religion was a lousy excuse for burning a man, and pursued the first "don't ask, don't tell" policy (re religion) in history.  "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls."  (Eventually she did have to send some people to the fire, but they did keep trying to kill her.)  Yes, she was overdressed.  Yes, she was vain.  Yes, she was an autocrat.  But she also said, and I believe she meant it, "There will never Queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety than myself. For it is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving."  She made GREAT speeches. 

Okay, on to pop culture.

Emma Peel.  In an age when most women were running screaming from villains and tripping at the first available opportunity, or huddling in fear, waiting to be rescued, Mrs. Peel was the first woman I ever saw who rescued the guy.  She was beautiful, well-educated, athletic, musical, stylish, witty, and could kick some serious butt.  And she had class.  Whatever happened between her and Steed or her and anyone else was private.  The double-entendres were subtle (and oh, how I miss those days!). I admit that the plots of "The Avengers" ranged from clever to just plain stupid, but I never missed an episode.


Harriet Vane.  I hear that some people feel about her the way I feel about Susan Silverman although I don't understand why.  To me, Harriet was an intelligent, well-educated, witty, musical, athletic woman who could solve a murder just as well as her would-be lover and future husband, Lord Peter Wimsey.  I also liked that she wasn't physically beautiful - not all of us are - and it didn't matter, to Peter or to herself.  She had a wonderful voice, could look striking, was passionate and intellectual and liked a good wine.  And she had a successful writing career, supporting herself so that she was dependent on no one but herself.  I liked all of it.

Nora Charles.  (Note to Dorothy, I changed my mind:  I'll take Nick over Sam any day.)  Fun.  Smart.  Witty.  Great marriage.  Good times.  Can't ask for much more than that...



NOTE:  During the next 3-4 weeks, my husband and I will be moving to the bottom floor of an old school in Madison - lots of room, so we're not downsizing too much.  Anyway, this means chaos, heartburn, aching backs, and not too much writing.  I've logged ahead my blog posts for the month, but I may not be checking in as much as usual.  Forgive me, and I will say hi when I can!

30 January 2013

A story about a story in a story


by Robert Lopresti

'Tis a time for great joy and merry-making, at least around my house, because the April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has arrived, bringing with it "Shanks' Ride."  This is my twentieth story in AHMM, and  the eighth published tale about Leopold Longshanks, a curmudgeonly mystery writer who occasionally finds himself reluctantly thrust into the position of crime-solver.

What makes this particular story special to me (although I love all the little darlings equally, of course) is that it belongs to a specific subgenre:  one character relates a story containing a puzzle and another character solves it.  It is the first Shanks story of that type I have gotten published, though not for lack of trying.

Here is the opening scene:


            “I don’t think my alcohol level is over the legal limit,” said Leopold Longshanks.  “I could probably drive home all right.  But I figure there’s no point in taking chances.”

            “I know,” said the taxi driver.    “You’ve told me that three times.”

            “Oh.”  Shanks considered.  “Then maybe I do need a ride.”

            “Hop in.”


You can probably guess that the taxi driver is the one with the story to tell.

The earliest example of this story type of which I am aware is "The Tuesday Night Club," (1927) by Agatha Christie.  It is also the first appearance of one of literature's great detectives, Miss Jane Marple.  In this story a group of friends gather and discuss a genuine crime.  To everyone's surprise the elderly spinster solves the crime.  Christie published a series of stories about this club, published as The Thirteen Problems and The Tuesday Club Murders.

Another great example is (are?) the Black Widower stories of Isaac Asimov.  He acknowledged Christie as his inspiration for them, by  the way.  These short tales featured a group of men whose meetings were enlivened each month by a guest who, inevitably, had a puzzle in need of solving.  After all the clever and sophisticated members had picked the problem to pieces Henry, the waiter, would provide the solution.

You'll notice that both of these series are not only stories-within-stories, but examples of the least-likely-detective syndrome, since Miss Marple and Henry would appear to be the least qualified members of their groups to solve a mystery.

My friend Shanks doesn't qualify for that, of course.  He is a reluctant, but highly logical choice for detective. He is so logical, in fact, that he complains the concept is ridiculous: no one could possibly get enough information from a tale-teller to figure out whodunit.  Alas, I am cooking the books so he has no choice but to succeed.

 And I think I will leave it there.  If you want to know more, you know where to find the rest of the tale.

29 January 2013

The Art of Detection


by Dale C. Andrews

    When I was in high school, back in the 1960s, I stumbled onto a paperback book entitled Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.  The book, which was published in 1962, was not written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  The author of this “biography" of Holmes was W.S. Baring-Gould.  As a mystery fan I immediately purchased and then devoured the volume.

   Baring-Gould, as I later found out, was a Baker’s Street Irregular who had devoted much of his life to the study of Sherlock Holmes.  Among the things that interested me about the book were “facts” set down by Baring-Gould concerning the life of Holmes that were not elsewhere reflected in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon.  To wit, Holmes, according to Baring-Gould, was born on January 6, he lived to the ripe age of 108, and in his 108th year he completed an omnibus retrospective on his own life and work, The Art of Deduction

    As I have discussed at some length previously, I am a big fan of hidden alignments that seem to pop up in the world around us, facts that square up in ways that break the boundaries of coincidence and thereby hint at an underlying order.  And we now have yet another example of exactly such an alignment. 

    According to Ellery Queen’s 1957 novel The Finishing Stroke, Queen was born in 1905, the same year that his creators Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were born.  So this year, 2013, would be Ellery’s 108th year.  And commemorating that event Professor Francis M. Nevins, the world’s preeminent Queen scholar (and a man whose own birthday, January 6, is the same as Holmes’) has published a true magnum opus on Ellery, entitled Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection.  

     I shared a cup of coffee with Mike Nevins in St. Louis over Christmas (well, actually he drank soda) and he laughed off all of the Holmes/Queen alignments set forth in the previous paragraphs as mere coincidence.  The most he will get from me on this is a wink and a smile.  Unwitting or not, to my mind it is kismet that is playing with us here.

    Of course, the comparisons between Holmes at 108 and Queen at the same age, and between the works of Baring-Gould and Nevins, are not perfect.  For one thing, while Holmes’ The Art of Deduction never in fact existed, Nevins’ The Art of Detection, by contrast, is wonderfully real, all 351 pages of it.  But before getting to this encyclopedic tribute to all things Queen, let’s tarry just a moment and talk about Mike. 

Mike in St. Louis, December 23, 2012
    Mike Nevins  is Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School, and is a magna cum laude graduate of St. Peters College and a cum laude graduate of New York University School of Law.  For many years he taught law, specializing in copyright law, in St. Louis.  But as all Queen aficionados know, Mike’s interests run well wide of legal matters.  He has written definitive literary analyses on subjects as disparate as Cornell Woolrich and Hopalong Cassidy.  Mike has also published six novels, two collections of short stories, several books of non-fiction and has also edited more than 15 mystery anthologies and collections.  More importantly, and, luckily for us, he is, without question, one of the world’s leading authorities on Ellery Queen and the collaborative team that was Queen:  Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Mike has twice won  Edgar Allan Poe Awards for critical works, once for an earlier study of Ellery Queen and once for his volume on Cornell Woolrich.  Mike is also the author of one of the finest Ellery Queen pastiches ever written, Open Letter to Survivors. Who better to offer the reading public the definitive analysis of the works of Ellery Queen?

    As noted above, Mike’s 1974 Royal Bloodlines has already garnered an Edgar for its treatment of the Dannay and Lee writing team.  In the introduction to The Art of Detection the basis for his new second take on the same subject is explained by Mike as follows:
I think I just heard a question.  “Hey, didn’t you do that book already, back in the Watergate era?  Well, sort of.  But as I got older I became convinced that I hadn’t done all that good a job.  Fred Dannay was the public face of Ellery Queen, and in the years after we met he became the closest to a grandfather I’ve ever known, but I never really got to know the much more private Manny Lee.  He and I had exchanged a few letters, and we met briefly at the Edgars dinner in 1970, but he died before we could meet again.  Because of his untimely death, Royal Bloodlines . . .  inadvertently gave the impression that “Ellery Queen” meant 90% Fred Dannay.  One of the most important items on my personal bucket list was to do justice to Manny.
    That concern (notwithstanding that prior Edgar award) is completely addressed and fully remedied in The Art of Detection, which painstakingly traces the lives, times and collaboration of the two cousins who invented Ellery the detective and Ellery the writer and editor.  No matter how familiar you are with Queen, you will take away new knowledge when you finish reading The Art of Detection.  

    Like Joe Goodrich’s excellent volume from earlier this year, Blood Relations, which focused on the drafting of three of the best Queen novels in the late 1940s, much of the background material in The Art of Detection, notably including the legendary feuding between Dannay and Lee, is premised on the words of Dannay and Lee themselves, as forth in their letters, which are extensively quoted throughout the new Nevins work.  Also included are correspondence between Nevins himself and Dannay, and between Lee and legendary critic and writer Anthony Boucher, who famously opined that "Ellery Queen is the American detective story," and who contributed plotting to the Ellery Queen radio shows during times that family illnesses kept Dannay from performing that task.  The resulting narrative of the lives of these two writers, much of it in their own words, and of Queen, is a wonderfully detailed portrait.

    As already noted, The Art of Detection is encyclopedic in its coverage.  Beyond biography, the reader finds detailed discussions of all of the Queen books, as well as the various ventures into other media, including  the various radio shows featuring Ellery, the (often unsatisfying) Ellery Queen movies of the 1940s, the early television series, and the 1975 NBC series featuring Jim Hutton.  Mike has even offered detailed analyses of the infamous “ghosted”  Queen paperbacks, farmed out to other authors and then edited by Lee, which were commonplace on the paperback shelves of the 1960s.  In short, there is basically nothing about Ellery that is not addressed and answered by this fine work. 

    As any Ellery Queen fan is well aware, the Queen library, at least in the U.S., has teetered on the edge of extinction over the last few years.  Near the end of his book Mike comments on this as follows:
When the author dies, the work dies.  That is almost always the reality, and certainly it’s the rule in genre fiction.  There are always a few exceptions, like Agatha Christie and Louis L’Amour, but those authors are rarae aves.  I took it for granted that Ellery Queen was one (or two) of them.  I never thought I’d live to see the falling off into near oblivion of what had been a household name for more than a decade before I was born and for at least the first thirty years of my life.
    It is certainly true that it takes an historical perspective such as that provided by The Art of Detection to fully appreciate how much a part of mystery fiction Ellery was in the past, and how diminished his role is today.  But hopefully there is still time and space for resurgence.  Certainly excellent works such as The Art of Detection and Blood Relations, each of which has been offered to the reading public in the course of the past year, and Jeffrey Marks’ projected biography of Dannay and Lee, which should be out in 2015, contribute toward resurrecting the works of Queen.

    And speaking of kismet, another real indication of renewed interest in the works of Ellery Queen is evident on the very day this article is being posted.  Today, January 29, Calamity Town, a new play written by Joe Goodrich and based on the 1942 Queen novel that first introduced the upper New York State town of Wrightsville, has a "first reading" performance at the New Dramatists playhouse on West 44th Street in New York City.  Let's hope this is just the beginning for this latest Queen opus by Joe.

   There is also a new Ellery Queen pastiche (modesty compels me to not include the author in the foregoing list) coming out in EQMM sometime in the coming year.  And particularly eagerly awaited is the imminent re-issuance of 23 original titles in the Ellery Queen library, as reported by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, in her editorial note following publication of Mike Nevin’s article End Time for Ellery? In the January 2013 issue of EQMM.  As Janet observed there, thanks to efforts such as Mike’s “Ellery Queen may soon enjoy a renaissance.”

    The once and future Queen?

28 January 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

My good friend, Taffy Cannon posted this the other day and it just tickled me so I requested and got permission to post it here.  Intriguing idea, don't you think?


The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

by Taffy Cannon

This is kind of a blog chain letter, wherein one writer answers a specific set of questions about a work-in-progress, and then tags five other writers to answer the same ten WIP questions on their blogs—and so on and so on until there aren’t any more writers left on the earth.

Of course I am a rebel by nature and so I have switched around the order of the questions to make them more to my liking. Also because this book is unlike anything I’ve written previously.

What is the working title of your book?
The Baby Boomer’s Guide to SibCare

Who or what inspired you to write this book? Where did the idea come from for the WIP?
Five years ago, my younger brother’s health, which had been problematic since a malignant brain tumor in 1994, took a serious nosedive. My sister and I were suddenly immersed in major issues and decisions related to his deteriorating health. She was in Seattle and I was in San Diego. Our brother, a former cop who lived alone with a minimal support system, was in Chicago and wanted to stay there.

We faced a lot of medical crises, bureaucracies, and financial messes. We made mistakes and followed false paths and spent a lot of time with our fingers in our ears, singing lalalalala very loudly. We learned to live by a maxim our mother, gone now for 41 years, used often: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

We had some great help from friends and relatives and even bureaucrats. We also were blessed with a true deus ex machina that changed everything in the family equation fairly early on. But most of the time we were banging around in the dark, trying to figure out what to do next. My mantra became:
“Now what?”

I met other folks my age having similar sibling-related medical experiences and got some useful tips and advice from them. And I tried to find some kind of handbook about the particular joys and challenges of helping a sibling with a serious medical problem.

I came up empty.

My brother passed away last March. And I decided to write the book that I had looked for and couldn’t find.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The baby boomers are getting old, and when your body turns on you and you don’t have a strong local support system, the default is likely to be family.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote about what was happening quite a bit while it was going on, in narrative fashion. When I looked at this narrative, I realized there was a lot of practical material in there that could be very helpful to other people taking on medical bureaucracies, bill collectors, stubborn patients, unexpected crises, and sometimes other relatives as well. I decided to make it more accessible by putting it into handbook form.

Every family’s situation is different, and so is every sibling relationship, even within a single family. There are, however, common problems and challenges. My intention in The Baby Boomer’s Guide to SibCare is to point people in the right direction to find out more about how to meet their particular family needs.

I danced around getting started with the handbook itself for a while, writing bits and pieces here and there. I wrote outlines and arranged multi-colored Post-Its on pieces of foam board. I did some research and labeled a lot of file folders. In fact, I was researching studies of adult sibling relationships (Newsflash: there are precious few) when my brother went into his final decline.

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
Since my agent handles only fiction, I anticipate working with a former agent who represents nonfiction.

What genre does your book come under?
Self-help, I guess. Health. Caregiving. It’s a hybrid.

Let’s see. Maintaining equanimity in the face of uncertainty. Standing up to unforeseen challenges. Laughing at adversity. Have I missed any clichés?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Ain’t none. See above.

There are certain similarities to books about taking care of aging parents, but the sibling relationship is really quite different from that. There is also a limited literature about siblings disabled from birth, a group with many overlapping elements.

Here’s why it’s different: Your siblings are the people you’re likely to know for the longest time in your life.

Your parents are around for the first part and with luck you’ll have a family of some sort with you during the middle-to-last parts. But your siblings march in lockstep beside you throughout your entire family history.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ten thousand baby boomers become eligible for Medicare every single day. That’s a whole lot of people getting old at a very rapid rate, people who genuinely believed they would remain forever young.

Nobody’s been talking too much about the boomers for a while, but there plenty of us and we share an important collective history. We were young in a period when it sometimes seemed as if everything was changing at once. We caused or participated in in a lot of important societal movements, events, and changes—sometimes from more than one side. Vietnam, of course, is the classic generation-splitter.

But despite many differences, the baby boomers share a lot of common ground and have left an important cultural legacy. It all kind of blended together over time:
Rock and roll. Vietnam. Protest. Civil Rights. The Women’s Movement. The Sexual Revolution. Exercise for adults. Environmental Awareness.
And did I mention rock and roll?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
As a general rule self-help books don’t get made into movies, or even get development deals. And a lot of this material is drawn from personal experience, which means it’s about the Cannon family. It’s hard for me to picture us as anybody but us.

However, I would be satisfied to have Meryl Streep play me. She’s also a blonde baby boomer and I think she can get the accent.

27 January 2013

Chekhov Wrote Crime Stories?


by Louis Willis

From the preface of A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories of Crime & Suspense:  “In the villages where he practiced, Chekhov accompanied local police on criminal investigations and performed autopsies.”

I never thought of Chekhov, one of my favorite short story writers, as a writer of crime or mystery stories. Of course, if writers use their experiences as material for stories, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that Chekhov tried his hand at writing crime stories. I decided to buy the book after reading the review by Otto Penzler in the New York paper The Sun back in 2008.

The name of the editor who selected the stories for the book is not shown. The name of the translator, Peter Sekirin, is, so I assume he was also the person who selected the stories. Why he included the essay “What You Usually Find In Novels” in which Chekhov lists the elements that go into a novel– character, setting, conflict– is a mystery. Why he chose some of the stories is also a mystery since they are not, properly speaking, crime stories. 

Anyway, for this article, I analyzed what I think are two crime stories and two mystery stories.

“Evildoer” captures the mind of the Russian peasant and Russian officials. Since the crime has already been committed, the story is more a court room drama told in short form. A fisherman is on trial for the crime of unscrewing the nuts that hold down the railroad tracks. He explains to the judge that he uses the nuts as weights for his fishing lines. His explanation baffles the judge who can't believe it and tries to explain to him that unscrewing the nuts causes train wrecks. The fisherman doesn't believe the judge’s explanation and doesn't understand why he is being sent to prison. I like this story because it shows a good story doesn’t always need a surprise ending, only a satisfactory one.

”Misfortune,” one of the best stories in the book, shows Chekhov’s storytelling genius. In a few words, he captures a disastrous moment in a man’s life due to his lack of understanding that signing reports makes him legally responsible for their accuracy. A merchant is a member of the town bank's auditing committee. After the director, accountant, his assistant, and two members of the board are sent to prison for embezzlement, a later investigation reveals the merchant signed the reports. He admits he didn't understand them. He also doesn't understand that signing the reports made him complicit in the embezzlement. Again, no surprise ending but a great story.

“The Swedish Match” is a true locked room mystery with a surprise ending. A retired police officer is missing from his room and believed to have been murdered, but the body cannot be found. It appears the killer entered the room through a window and that the dead man was taken from the room through the same window. Suspects are his sister, his mistress, his butler, and his manager who reported the murder. The surprise ending is not exactly starling but it works.  

The detective story “The Drama At The Hunt: From Notes of A Police Detective” is an abridged version of what seems to be a novella that has a good surprise ending. It has all the ingredients of a good murder mystery: a promiscuous woman, three men who are involved with her, and jealousy: a 19-year-old woman is hit on the head and stabbed several times. Her husband is tried and convicted for the murder.

In the last chapter, which is somewhat confusing, the narrator changes from the investigating detective to a book editor to whom he has submitted the manuscript of a novel based on what he claims is a true story. The abridgment of the novella makes it choppy and at time confusing. Nevertheless, it is the best story in the book, if only it hadn’t been abridged.

I liked some of the stories, but I was disappointed overall in the selection of tales. I’m no linguist and certainly can’t read Russian, but at times I felt the translation wasn’t quite right. Still, I enjoyed those few good stories.

26 January 2013

Boy Books and Girl Books



by Elizabeth Zelvin

Some time ago, I heard an eminent editor admit that in his publishing house, people refer without irony to “boy books” and “girl books.”


Since I became active in the mystery community, I have heard many discussions of the fact or belief that, by and large, men will not read books, or at least novels, by women. That’s why many female writers even now conceal their gender behind initials (although. like the initials in phone book listings, the use of initials in authorship has become a signal that the person thus identified is probably a woman).

Men may object to this generalization, which oversimplifies as generalizations always do. It might be illuminating to ask what books by women they read. Are they “boy books” written by women?
Are they crossover books? Noir is very fashionable these days, and women as well as men are writing noir. Megan Abbott comes to mind—a woman who had already written a scholarly examination of the tough guy in American fiction before her first novel was published. Or how about women whose prose style is “tough” and would have been called “masculine” before the women’s movement? I think of SJ Rozan, a writer I admire greatly and a former architect, of whom and even to whom I’ve said that her prose is built like a brick s***house. Not a wasted word, not a dangling clause, not an adverb. It doesn’t hang together—it grips.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college English major, there were two kinds of writer, or rather, two prose styles: Hemingway and Henry James. Hemingway’s the guy who put the kibosh on polysyllabic words of Latin derivation and made action verbs king of the sentence. Back then, it was possible to say, “I don’t warm up to that Hemingway style. I don’t know that I want to write that way.” I know, because I said it, and no one lynched me. Today, that choice has become an absolute. The highly respected Stephen King, a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, boils down the how-to of writing to this: “Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And lose the adverbs.”

Actually, adverbs aren’t lost. They have migrated to the other side of the aisle, where the girl books sit. A prolific and talented short story writer (not one of SleuthSayers’s bloggers) once told me that Woman’s World likes adverbial writing. Woman’s World, as we know, is a tough market to crack and pays well. My informant, who’s also published in EQMM and other presigious markets, said that when he writes for WW, he makes sure he puts those adverbs in.

Am I saying women don’t write nice tight sentences with action verbs? No, of course not. I can delete an adverb with the best of them. I think it’s subject matter, focus, and sensibility, to use an old-fashioned word, rather than prose style that separates the boy books from the girl books.

Relational psychology offers a convincing approach to human psychological development that explains how and why men mature through separation and women through connection.
The feminist psychologists who thought up relational theory were probably not thinking about boy books and girl books, but it works pretty well. Separation and autonomy—the tough-guy loner PI—boy books. Connection and relationship—traditional character-driven mysteries—girl books. Another psychological model uses the gender-related concepts of instrumental and expressive traits. Instrumental—technothrillers—boy books. Expressive—character-driven mysteries—girl books.

Am I exaggerating? Oversimplifying? Of course. But like the eminent editor, I’m making the point that there are boy books and girl books. Let’s tackle the distinction from another angle. Let’s look at the Great American Novel. Suppose we lived in a less patriarchal society.
Suppose we had always acknowledged that there are boy books and girl books that have to be judged separately on their merits within their own categories, the same way there’s a male winner and a female winner in the New York Marathon. Here are my picks. Great American Novel, boy book division: Huckleberry Finn. Great American Novel, girl book division: Little Women.

How many men have read this wonderful book? Its author created characters so real that it’s still in print almost 140 years after publication, still read for pleasure—and with pleasure—by millions of readers, and still capable of moving readers to tears on an umpteenth rereading, as well as inspiring some of us to become writers like its protagonist. My husband has. I’m proud to say he’s read almost all of Louisa May Alcott, motivated by an interest in the vivid and accessible picture of life in 19th century New England in the context of Transcendentalism, whose theorists included Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father. He (my husband, not Bronson Alcott) also wanted to know what was in those battered books that I was crying over every time I read them. I’d like to hear from any other man who has. And if so, did you come to it on your own, or did a woman (or girl) make you read it?