07 November 2015

A Bunch of Good Mysteries

Almost every year for the past ten or so, I've picked up a copy of Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I of course enjoy short fiction anyhow, and because this series has been around for so long, many of my favorite mystery writers have been included in its pages. I also consider it a good way for me to (1) read new stories by authors whose names I know, (2) discover stories by others I don't know but might like to, and (3) learn about what's being published currently in the leading mystery magazines and anthologies.

On October 6th, when the 2015 edition was released, I had yet another reason to buy the book: I somehow turned out to be one of the writers included. My short story "Molly's Plan," first published last year in The Strand Magazine, is one of the twenty stories chosen by guest editor James Patterson for this year's lineup. On three previous occasions (in the 2000, 2010, and 2012 editions) I was fortunate enough to make the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in the back of the book, but this is the first time I've made it to the inner sanctum. Whether I belong in such talented company is another matter--but I'm certainly grateful to be there.

My mission today is to say a few things about the BAMS series and about some of the other stories in this year's edition. I sadly admit that I've not yet read all twenty of them, but I have finished a dozen or so, including three written by friends of mine. And every one I've read so far has been outstanding. Kirkus Reviews and Publisher's Weekly seemed (thank goodness) to agree.

Backstory and M.O.

For those of you who aren't aware of this, the Best American Mystery Stories series began in 1997, and has always been edited by Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and probably knows more about mystery fiction than all the rest of us combined. The names of all nineteen of his "guest editors" so far--among them Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman, Nelson Demille, and Carl Hiaasen--are immediately recognizable to any mystery reader, and probably to any reader, period.

How does the selection process work? Each year, according to Otto's foreword to the 2015 edition, he and his colleague (partner in crime?) Michele Slung examine between 3000 and 5000 stories, from many sources: popular magazines, short-story collections, literary journals, etc. He also says that "every word of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and The Strand are read."

From these, Otto chooses fifty stories. Those fifty are then turned over to a guest editor (Patterson, this time), who picks twenty to be published in the book. The titles of the remaining thirty stories are listed in a "Distinguished" honor roll. I'm pleased to announce that this year's "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list contains (alongside names like Lawrence Block and Charlaine Harris) the names of my fellow SleuthSayers Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor, and David Edgerley Gates.

Otto also mentions in his foreword that the definition of a mystery story for this series is "any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." That seems to be a common measuring stick, and it's the reason some of the stories in this year's BAMS edition wound up coming from non-mystery publications like The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train StoriesThe New Yorker, Ploughshares, etc. In case anyone's interested, three of the stories this year came from AHMM, one from EQMM, and one from The Strand.

BAMS 2015

The first story in this year's book, and one of my favorites, is "The Snow Angel," by my friend Doug Allyn. That story was also nominated for an Edgar Award earlier this year, and won the 2015 Derringer Award for best novelette. Yes, novelette--it's a long tale, covering about 33 pages, and well worth the time it takes to read it.

Another favorite of mine is "Red Eye," a collaboration by Michael Connelly
and Dennis Lehane. It features characters made famous by both authors: L.A. cop Harry Bosch travels to Boston on a case, and winds up assisted (in many ways) by P.I. Patrick Kenzie. Having read many of the adventures of both these characters, I think I was able to relate even more closely to them here. "Red Eye," by the way, was another of the stories nominated for an Edgar this year, and deservedly so.

Other excellent entries in this edition are "The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman," by Jeffery Deaver; "Crush Depth," by Brendan DuBois; "Wet With Rain," by Lee Child; "Harm and Hammer," by Joseph D'Agnese; and "The Home at Craigmillnar," by Joyce Carol Oates. (Ms. Oates's story brought tears to my eyes, which doesn't happen often.) The truth is, I haven't come across a bad story yet, in this anthology, and I don't expect to. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them.


One more thing. I had the great pleasure of meeting Otto Penzler in New York earlier this year, and when I saw him again at Bouchercon in Raleigh and we were talking about the size of the conference, I said to him, "You know almost everyone here, don't you." He replied, "No--but I think almost everyone here knows me." I'm sure he was right.

If you happen to pick up a copy of The Best American Mystery Stories 2015--and I hope you will--I hope you'll like my story.

I know you'll like the book.

06 November 2015

Psycho at the Theater

By Dixon Hill

I wonder if you are like I used to be:  I had seen Psycho, as well as many other films by Alfred Hitchcock, while sitting in my living room.

And I liked these films a lot.

The fact that the film was showing on a screen less than three feet across didn't seem to cause any problems.

And, when I watched Psycho on DVD, I didn't even have to worry that anything had been cut out by television executives who might be worried over advertisement space or public decency concerns.

The entire film was there for me to see, just the way Alfred Hitchcock had intended me to see it, and I could enjoy it in its entirety.  True, Psycho seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but a quick trip to the kitchen for more beer and popcorn fixed that problem too.

Boy, Was I WRONG!

In September of 2015, Turner Classic Movie channel teamed with Fandango to present Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in several movie theaters across the country.  I thought it might be fun to take my kids to watch it, and my two sons were both available (my daughter, Raven, had to work) so I bought the tickets online.

On the appointed date, my sons and I trooped down to the Cinemark theater, which shares a parking lot with a gigantic Bass Fishing Store, near our home.  And that Bass Fishing Store may not have made any impact on the film, but that theater sure did.

Not the fact that we went to the Cinemark -- though it is a very nice theater (with recliner seating, even!) -- it was instead what I have finally decided to call 'the theatricality of the film'.
Glad to say no late arrivals were permitted at my screening either.

In fact, I now have to admit:  I had never really seen Psycho before.  Oh, sure: I saw it on the small screen in my living room probably dozens of times.  But, seeing Psycho on the big screen?

That's when I actually saw Psycho -- the TRUE Psycho, as it was meant to be -- for the first time.

The difference between watching it on the small screen, and seeing it unfold on the big screen astounded me.  That difference was not just surprising.  It was pretty shocking.  And, in one instance, literally moving! (And I do mean literally not figuratively.)

In fact, the effect was so great it had me puzzling about it, and discussing it with my two sons afterward.

I've read quite a bit about Alfred Hitchcock, of course.  Who can write mysteries, hoping to sell them to AHMM, without reading a bit about the guy?  I knew about many of his remarkable cinematic slights of hand, in which he supposedly made audience members feel as if they were watching the film from within -- sitting inside the action as it transpired.  I had noticed faint hints of this on the small screen, too.  So I thought I understood what the writers of those articles were talking about and describing.

But, I was wrong again.

On a DVD of Dial M for Murder, which I got from my local library, I watched a segment, after the film, in which another director (I think it was Martin Scorsese, but I'm not sure.) discussed the film.

He explained that Dial M for Murder had originally been released in 3D, but primarily showed in 2D because 3D was already on the way out when the film was released.  This director, however, had seen the 3D version and been amazed by the manner in which Hitchcock employed the technique, using it to provide added depth to on-screen setting, in order to draw the audience more directly up onto the stage itself.  He added that, in retrospect, he knew he should not have been surprised, given that Hitchcock's filming technique often lent an almost-3D effect to his 2D films.

Watching the film, in the theater, when different people pulled in at the motor court run by Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) I suddenly understood what that man had mean, with all that talk about a 3D effect in 2D films.

Aerial shot of the motor court and house on the studio lot.
Courtesy Time Life
On the small screen, for instance, I was never terribly excited about outside shots of the motor court.  Frankly, I always got the feeling it was clearly shot on a sound stage, even though I had seen the Psycho house on the studio lot as a teenager.  And there was certainly nothing menacing about this motor court -- at least, not to me.

On the large screen, however, that motor court had a definite 3D feel to it.  I felt as if I could have walked past the car that had just stopped in front of me, and strolled up onto the wooden sidewalk in front of the rooms, and that my feet would have kicked through about twenty or thirty feet of dirt parking lot before I reached that walkway.

After the film, I asked my two sons, and both agreed that they had found the motor court surprisingly 3D in feel.  We also agreed that the details within the shots had been nearly overwhelming at times.  We had often felt -- each, singly -- as if we were sitting in the same room that the characters occupied.  Sometimes even near the center of the room.  Dressers, counters, sinks, even stuffed birds looked ... well, I guess I can only call it TANGIBLE.  It felt as if they were really there, right in front of us, and we could reach out and actually touch them if we wanted.

None of us could think of a single instance when we had experienced such a feeling while watching a contemporary film.  Which tells you how much we lost with Hitchcock's passing.

I had watched all this for quite some time, thinking:
 Hmmm.  I always thought the film dragged a bit after the murder scene, but I don't feel as if it's dragging at all this time.  I wonder why. 
                      -- when something occurred that startled me into realizing part of the answer. 

All my life I had heard stories about Hitchcock shooting scenes in a manner that manipulated audience members -- like making everyone in the theater lean to one side in an attempt to see through a crack between a door and the doorjamb, for instance.  But, I had never experienced this for myself.

Now I have!

On the big screen, when Detective Milton Arbogast (played by Martin Balsom) enters the hardware store where Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles) has gone to find her missing sister's boyfriend, a remarkable thing takes place.  And, humorously, when I'd seen the film on television, I'd assumed this odd thing was simply the result of an error by whoever had edited it for the small screen.  After all, they cut off part of the top and bottom of the character's head!

Watching in the theater, as "Arbogast" entered the room, his "cut off" head completely FILLED the screen.  It invaded my space!  And I suddenly moved my head, to give the man room to get into the place.  I was afraid he was going to bump into me and we'd both be embarrassed by the collision!

Arbogast.  He doesn't look so forceful in this shot.
This only took a second.  Maybe not even that long.  But, Arbogast's character, his stubborn bull-
headedness, his willingness to push through any obstacle, not caring about the cost, was instantly communicated to me.  Just through this one, one-second or less, scene.

I was shocked!

After all, I'm a writer.  I work hard to make words count, to make them carry as much load as they can in my stories.

And, here was a director using cinematography to make every second, or half-second, of his film carry as much load as it could.

Sure, there have been scenes in movies that I've seen, in which something is rapidly communicated on-screen with little or no dialogue.  But this communication usually comes as a sort of punch-line, the answer to a question or mystery that's been plaguing the viewer throughout the film.  This scene can carry so much load, because the burden of much of the information it conveys was shouldered earlier, by those scenes that created the question in our minds; the question this scene answered.

But that is NOT what happened here.

In response to the realization: Did I just duck out of that guy's way?  I DID!  And he's a two-dimensional fictional character on a screen at least seventy feet away from me.  How did he manage to invade my space like that? I began thinking about the film, about what I was seeing.

I came to view  the film not only for its inherent entertainment value, but also to look at what was happening in the technique, and what that technique did to me.  I finally realized that the reason I didn't think the film was dragging, was because Hitchcock was forcing every second to carry its own weight -- something that didn't happen when I saw it on the small screen at home.  At home, for instance, Arbogast's entrance had looked like an editing error.  In the theater, this same shot forced me to move my head, to get out of a two-dimensional character's way.

I have to tell you: If you get the chance to watch a Hitchcock film in a theater -- JUMP AT IT!  If your experience with that film is anything like mine at Psycho, you'll be glad you did.

See you in two weeks!

05 November 2015

Halloween Ain't Over By A Long Shot

I know, Halloween is over, but there are some things that just have to be mopped up.
First up, "verdâtre". In the King James Version, Revelations 6:8 reads: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." But, believe it or not, it gets creepier in the French SG21 translation, where that pale horse is "verdâtre", or "greenish." Just like pus. Or decay. Or the Frankenstein's monster, which only adds to the oomph, don't you think?

Except that the Frankenstein's monster was actually yellow in the original. But then, 60% of all newborns get jaundice.

Secondly, thanks to John Sutherland, who in his collection of literary questions, "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?" raises the best question of all, "Why isn't everyone a vampire?" I'm going to quote Mr. Sutherland here (pp. 239-240):
"Let us assume that each vampire infects one victim a year, and that this victim dies during the course of the year to become, in turn, a vampire. Since they are immortal, each vampire will form the centre of an annually expanding circle, each of which will become the centre of his or her own circle. The circle will widen at the rate of 2(n-1). In year one (say, 1500) there is one new vampire, in 1501, two, in 1502, 4; in 1503, 8; and so, by the simple process of exponential increase, there will be 1,204 new vampires in 1510. And, since they never die, the numbers are swollen cumulatively. Within thirty-one years the vampire population will have reached 2 billion. By 1897, the presumable date of Stoker's novel, the numbers are incalculably vast. In fact, so vast that they will probably have collapsed to nil. Long since everyone will have been vampirized; there will be no more food-supply... Dracula and his kind will die out. And with them, the human race."
Going out, we presume, with a whimper of hunger…

BTW, this idea works perfectly with werewolves, too. After all, if you get scratched/bitten by a werewolf, you become a werewolf, so we should all be werewolves by now, right? And, on top of that, the children of werewolves become werewolves, making (as a friend of mine pointed out) werewolves the original anchor babies!

Meanwhile, back in SD, the dog and pony show continues.

Attorney General Marty Jackley (remember him?) held a press conference on Tuesday, November 3, 2015, at 1:00 p.m., at the Community Center adjacent to the Platte City Hall building, Platte, S.D, to discuss the investigation in the deaths of the Westerhuis family.
For the saga to date about the Westerhuises, the federal GEAR UP monies, and a variety of missing funds, see my last SleuthSayers post, "A Little Light Corruption".
I had already told everyone who expected a great deal of detail, substance, even some actual news, that they should meet outside, later, for a special preview of "Bambi Goes Hunting With an Uzi." Jackley did not disappoint. He announced that it was obvious that Mr. Westerhuis - after hearing that the GEAR UP! grant was being cancelled - shot and killed his wife and his four children, poured [unidentified] accelerant all over the house and then shot himself. Period. This all happened some time around 3 A.M. Apparently the Westerhuises had surveillance cameras, but they recorded nothing, and neither of the two (!) security systems were tripped.

Two interesting and very understated points:
  1. Someone called Nicole Westerhuis' cell phone from the Westerhuis landline, leaving a voice message, but the message can't be retrieved because the account was cancelled. (Obvious questions:  When were the accounts cancelled?  Who cancelled them?)
  2. The Westerhuis safe is missing. Mr. Jackley asked that if anyone knew anything about the whereabouts of the safe to please call him.  
Please feel free to comment wildly. I certainly have.

Meanwhile, a new bit of crazy has arrived in time for Halloween. Now, this is a two-parter:

An original, handmade South Dakota flag dating back to Deadwood’s Old West days that went missing from former Secretary of State Jason Gant’s office in January has been returned to its home in the state Capitol. Garrett Devries, former employee of former South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant, former intern of our own Senator John Thune, and "Republican operative," picked it up and took it with him to Washington because "it was cool." (I suppose he never heard that theft was wrong...) He's being charged with a misdemeanor, and is working on a plea deal. (Funny how we can spend money and manpower tracking down a flag, but not the $147 million lost to the EB-5 program...)
Jason Gant
Former Secretary of State Jason Gant,
looking a little spooked for Halloween.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gant is accused of being "$43,000 short of what the in-house books said, losing three iPad Minis out of thirty purchased for his over-hyped military voting program, misappropriating tens of thousands of federal Help America Vote Act dollars, failing his statutory duty to print a legislative manual, and letting an employee walk off with a historic state flag." (See above)
(http://dakotafreepress.com/2015/10/30/gant-admits-but-minimizes-mistakes-krebs-needs-democratic-backup-in-pierre/ - once again, thank you to Cory Heidelberger!)
Mr. Gant has admitted that he made "mistakes", but also claims that "his people were just too busy with other projects to get to reconciling the bank accounts... or turn in invoices relating to the federal HAVA money." As for the iPads, well, crap happens.

NOTE:  I love South Dakota: one guy (co-director for Leadership South Dakota) can't remember nine $1000 payments for his consulting services, and another guy (a former Secretary of State) misplaces iPads all over the place and loses an historical, hand-made state flag, not to mention a bunch of bucks...

And did you know it costs $18,518.51 per overseas soldier to get them to vote? To quote from our own Argus Leader:
The Secretary of State's office under former secretary Jason Gant used more than $500,000 in federal grant money to help 27 active military members vote last year... "I know that 27 doesn't sound like a wonderful number, but it was a program that 27 people took advantage of," Gant said.... [And he] spent $79,000 on a public relations and marketing firm to publicize the program on a trip to Germany. "The beauty of the system is that if in a few years there were thousands of South Dakotans overseas, they could be using it," said Gant.
Honey, there's only 853,000 people in the entire state - how many thousands are heading overseas? Is this something we should be worried about? Aware of? Prepared for? Pack our bags?

Here’re a few hints, Mr. Gant:
(1) Start smartening up your explanations/excuses/reasons/justifications.
(2) Watch the Maltese Falcon and think about the character of Wilmer, the fall guy.
(3) Don't go hunting alone.
(4) Keep your doors locked at night.  Maybe get a dog.

04 November 2015

Bouchercon 2: I whine, others talk

by Robert Lopresti   Updated 11/4/ 7PM PST.

photo (at Bcon) by Peter Rozovsky

When I wrote recently about the World Science Fiction Convention I talked about the controversy over the Hugo Award.  What follows could be considered my attempt to gin up a kerfuffle at Bouchercon.  But I think it is worth mentioning.

Ready for the controversy?  They gave away too many free books.

Yeah, I know.  Too many free books sounds like a contradiction.  But hear me out.

Those of us who write books are supposedly trying to sell the damned things.  If everyone is handing them out for free like campaign brochures, who's going to buy them?

Every registrant found six or so books in their bag.  The several hundred people who attended the librarian's tea each collected seven more.  And Sisters In Crime Smashwords - (see the Comments below) gave everyone a flash drive with - seriously - over 400 free books on it.  I suspect a lot of those were stories or novellas, but when the total is over 400 that hardly matters, does it?  No one is likely to buy books if they have hundreds of freebies on a stick, even though when they get home they may find that most of them are ones they have already read, or don't care to try.

Full disclosure: I had books on consignment with one of the dealers in the book room, and none sold, so you can call this sour grapes.  But really I am most concerned about the dealers themselves, some of whom traveled thousands of miles for the privilege of competing with people handing out free copies of the same books they were trying to sell.

At some point, enough is too much, and the Tragedy of the Commons takes over.  I understand that the people working on next year's Bouchercon in New Orleans are already thinking about this issue.  I wish them luck.

Finally, and if you read this blog at all you knew it was coming, here it is:  my quotation file from Bouchercon.  All of these were jotted down on the fly so apologies for any misattributions or misquotations.  And as for context, sorry.  I left it in my other suit.

"If I could write one book in first person it would be The Big Sleep." -Bill Crider

"The amateur sleuth restores the social order."  -Leslie Butewitz

"You are everybody in your book."  -Don Bruns

"I'm the most Jewish atheist you'll ever meet."  -Reed Farrel Coleman

"I dream about Philip Marlowe.  That's really embarrassing, which is why I'm telling this large group of people."   -Megan Abbott

"The best experience for someone who wants to write is not reading the masters but reading works by amateur, inferior writers."  -Lawrence Block

"I don't like Harry Potter.  I wouldn't have minded if  Voldemort got him on page three."  - Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"If I have one skill as a writer it is that I am really good at thinking of bad stuff."  Diane Chamberlain.

"Second person narrator isn't modern.  It's radio."  - Bill Crider

"Getting a thesis on Agatha Christie past the people at Harvard is not simple."  -Julianne Holmes

"Always invite dead authors to dinner parties.  They have no allergies or other dietary problems."  -Lawrence Block

"The best characters could go good or bad depending on the circumstances."  -Rhys Bowen

"I still haven't finished reading Orlando, and a teacher in college is waiting for the assignment."  -Karin Slaughter

"In hardboiled fiction you have the psycho ex machina."  -Reed Farrel Coleman

"When I started writing all the southern books were southern gothics, and the pigs ate mama."  - Margaret Maron

"Don't steal the reader's crayons."- Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"It took me about five minutes to sell out."  - Bill Crider

"I'm reaching the age where I can read a book again for the first time." -Lawrence Block

"Diehard is an example you can use for almost anything in life."- Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"You might say I'm on a mission to show that not all Canadians are as polite as we're cracked up to be." -Rob Brunet

"Some short stories make the mistake of thinking a short story is just a novel, but shorter." -Sean Doolittle

"While writing my novel in the library I felt a strange kinship to the man at the next desk who was talking to fictional characters."  -John Hart

"What causes despair and desolation in an academic setting?  Accreditation."  -B.K. Stevens

"I got a letter a long time ago complaining that I put a period after the Dr in Dr Pepper."  - Bill Crider

"Mysteries are worried about the past.  Thrillers are worried about the future." -Alexandra Sokoloff

"Quebec is not in the south?  Maybe you can  draw me a little map."  -Hank Philippi Ryan

"The woman I interviewed called herself a sociopath, rather than a psychopath, because it sounded less stabby."  -Mark Pryor

"Three out of four readers of my first book did not know who done it after they finished." - Catriona MacPhrson

"I write fantasy because I like doing the research."- Karen McCullough

"The author who started creating antagonists as rich and colorful characters was Ian Fleming." - Don Bruns

"This is the third panel at this conference on pace.  Are we not writing fast enough for you?"  -Alexandra Sokoloff

"I usually have a dead body in my books, but they've usually been dead for a few thousand of years." - Elly Griffiths

"I'm trying to find a properly smart-ass way to answer that."  -Lawrence Block

03 November 2015

Do you like to read, but you're leery of buying bad books? I can help.

Q. What the heck is a StoryBundle?

A. Jason Chen, founder:
I started StoryBundle because back in 2012, video game bundles and app bundles were extremely popular, and no one had yet applied the same idea to ebooks. When I looked around (because I’m a reader myself) to try and find a way to discover lots of new-to-me authors in genres I already like, it was pretty difficult without spending hours reading reviews and trudging through sales lists. Plus, since these are authors I haven’t tried before, I may be left with hit-or-miss quality. Having curated bundles where quality is guaranteed AND readers can set the price solves both these issues.

Q. Okay. Why should I buy this StoryBundle?

A. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, editor:
The Dark Justice bundle comes as close to crime fiction perfection as possible.
It boasts one Grand Master, several award-winners, bestsellers who've hit lists like the New York Times and USA Today with multiple books, household names, and writers who've just entered the mystery field—sometimes with a bang.

We also have a lot of diversity here. Our investigators include an African American detective, a Canadian doctor of Asian extraction, a disabled stockbroker and a group of retired cold case detectives. Throw in a few amateur detectives, a disgraced ex-cop, a female bounty hunter, and the famous Matthew Scudder, who has appeared in film (most recently A Walk Among The Tombstones), and you'll encounter the full range of characters the mystery genre has to offer.
I've read and loved the work of each and every one of these writers. Some of them I've read since I started reading mystery and some I've read since before they ever had a book published. In one of my other incarnations, I'm an award-winning editor, so believe me when I tell you that if there were some kind of Kristine Kathryn Rusch Gold Seal of Approval, the books in this bundle would receive it.
Q. Hmm. Well, I'm cheap. I don't know if I should buy it.
A. Kris: For those of you who have never purchased a bundle from StoryBundle before, welcome! StoryBundle makes ordering and downloading these books spectacularly easy.
The initial titles in the Dark Justice Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:
If you pay more than the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus these outstanding books:
Q. I'm REALLY cheap. What if I don't want to spend $5?

A. Win the Dark Justice StoryBundle just by commenting on this blog. One winner will be selected tomorrow. To multiply your chances, subscribe to Melissa Yi's newsletter and comment on her related blog and Facebook post. Quadruple your chances by doing all four!

Q. I want to hear from the authors themselves. Why do you write mysteries?

Julie Hyzy: I know this isn’t an original answer, but I have to credit Nancy Drew. She was my gateway to mystery reading and also – in many respects – to writing. My first novel (at about age 10) was The Case of the Whispering Hills. I illustrated the book myself, too (natch).

Melissa Yi: As an emergency doctor, I occasionally confront evil. Mystery allows me to fictionalize it and deliver some form of justice in the end.

Patrice Greenwood: I like reading them, so I thought I'd give writing them a try. Turns out that's fun, so I've kept at it.

David DeLee: First of all, mysteries are what I grew up on. From the Hardy Boys to Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer to today’s masters like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. It’s a genre I’ve always adored. The other reason is that mysteries try to make sense of what in real life is often senseless. Violence. Murder. Serial killers. Mysteries are about a larger than life character who will risk it all to seek answer, to explain the unexplainable, to get justice for these horrible acts. What’s not to love?

Kris Nelscott: I love mysteries. I think they're my favorite genre. I put mystery—crime, really—in almost every genre I write.

Rebecca Cantrell: Because I am fascinated by worlds where characters wrestle with the question of what’s right and what’s wrong. My characters like to see justice done, but justice is never as simple and straightforward as I would like, so my books spend a lot of time looking at shades of gray.
As a kid my family referred to this as my “overblown sense of justice” and “belief that, all evidence to the contrary, the world should be fair.” Guilty.

Q. Hmm. Well, what's so great about your bundle book?

Rebecca Cantrell: The World Beneath introduces Joe Tesla. He’s a complicated guy—a brilliant software engineer who started a multimillion dollar company but is struck by agoraphobia on the day he’s supposed to ring the bell on Wall Street to take his company public. The agoraphobia is so extreme that he can’t go outside at all, and he spends the series trying to determine what caused it while exploring the tunnels under New York City. Since he can’t go outside, he makes the inside bigger. Since he can’t find justice for himself, he starts to search for justice for others. The book also won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Ebook Original. Oh, and he has a service dog named Edison who steals every scene he’s in (note: the dog does not die in the books).

Julie Hyzy: My bundle book, Playing With Matches, is very special to me because it’s not the least bit cozy. For the past seven years or so, I’ve had some success [Editor: NYT-bestselling success] writing cozy mysteries. I love them, I truly do, but I started out with edgier themes, and Playing With Matches brings me back to my writing roots. Riley Drake (my protagonist) is a female PI in Chicago. She swears, she drinks, and she beats up a troublemaker by page 2.

Melissa Yi: CODE BLUES introduces the world to Dr. Hope Sze, my alter ego who discovers murderers within the decaying medical system of Montreal, Canada. When I was a resident doctor, I barely had time to tie my shoes, let alone solve crimes and romance two different guys, but that’s the beauty of fiction.

Patrice Greenwood: It's set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of my favorite places in the world. The main character is just opening a tearoom in a Victorian house there, so there's lots of history, tea and its rituals, and of course a dash of murder.

David DeLee: FATAL DESTINY features a strong half-Latina, half-Irish female bounty hunter who takes on the world in her own way, and with a pretty cynical attitude toward people and the criminal justice system—with good reason. In FATAL DESTINY Grace faces a defining question: Are people, including herself, defined by their past or can they escape who they were and what they’ve done and become something better?

Kris Nelscott: The book I've contributed to the bundle is the very first Smokey Dalton novel. Honestly, I wrote the novel as a classic mystery—a rich blond walks into a detective's office with a strange problem that needs investigating. The detective, Smokey Dalton, is an African American who grew up with Martin Luther King. I thought the setting was the unusual bit—Memphis in 1968, just before King's assassination. Imagine my surprise when everyone decided the entire story was unusual. I bow to readers. Apparently I hit something with this series, which explores American history from a perspective not seen often enough in fiction—that of the African American community. The series has hit bestseller lists, won awards, hit recommended lists from libraries all over the country (including the New York Public Library) and has a rabid following.

Q. I might take a look. How do I get it?
A. https://storybundle.com/crime until November 19th.
Plus, one lucky winner will be chosen from each of the following lists on Wednesday, Nov. 4th:
1. One Sleuthsayer. Comment now, on this post, to win.
2. One subscriber to Melissa Yi's newsletter. Just sign up on her website landing page--link at the top & form at the bottom.
3. One commenter on Melissa Yi's Dark Justice blog post.
4. One participant on Melissa Yi's Dark Justice Facebook post.
5. Audience member at Vanier College. Claimed!

Happy reading!

02 November 2015

Good Books, Better Friends

Last weekend was my 50th high school reunion. No need to do the math – I was only eight when I graduated. Child prodigy, you know. I went to R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton, Texas. Back in those days, Carrollton was a small town and we could catch a Greyhound Bus for a Saturday outing to Big D. Now it's one of Dallas's biggest bedroom communities – and for some reason seems a lot closer. And having been gone from there since 1971, I no longer knew my way around. I stayed with a friend I've had since the eight grade, Elaine Rigs, now Edgington. Elaine was recently released from a long stint in physical rehab and is temporarily assigned to a wheelchair. And as she had to give me directions where ever we went, we delighted in telling people that I was pushing her around and she was telling me where to go. I hope some of them got it. Our hysterical laughter may have given them a clue.

It was great seeing people I hadn't seen in so many years. Like Eddie Russell (alphabetically behind me in line for graduation) who thought I was moving too slowly so picked me up by the elbows and carried me through the ceremony. Or Duffy Oyster who copied every word I wrote in Mr. Hebert's World History class. I was always surpirsed Duffy managed to pass the class. Or Bertha Moses (now Bert), voted most intellegent of our graduating class, who's now a professional poker player. But it was my friend Elaine who was my main event. We may only talk on the phone once or twice a year, but we can always start the conversation where we'd left off the call before.

What really took my breath away last weekend, though, was when Elaine handed me a book. It was an old copy of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith, and inside, on the flyleaf page was written: “Susan Rogers, Room 203, Binnion Hall, East Texas State University.” Elaine had borrowed that book our freshman year in college and decided to give it back fifty years later. I will cherish that book for another fifty years, if I'm able. Or maybe just twenty.

01 November 2015

The 5¢ Misunderstanding

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Bridge of Spies with friends Sharon and Steve. Using desaturated color and retro photography, the film offered a 1950s-60s Len Deighton / John le Carré glance backwards at the Cold War. A sprinkling of fiction and shortcuts found their way into the movie, but over all, it followed the history reasonably well.

Except, one key episode was compressed, condensed, conflated… the part about the hollow nickel. The truth is far more fascinating– and funny– than the script let on.

Fisher/Abel (Soviet stamp)
Abel (from Soviet 5к stamp)
Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (aka Willie Fisher) never saw the hollow nickel. Instead, it was handled… or rather mishandled… by the clumsy Russian spy who turned Able in.

His name was Reino Häyhänen, a Finnish Soviet Lieutenant Colonel. Recruited by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, he served in Finland before he was called to Moscow for training and reassignment to the United States where he assumed an American identity of Eugene Mäki.

In Manhattan, his first handler turned out to be Mikhail Nikolaevich Svirin who served as the first secretary to the Soviet United Nations Delegation in New York City. Upon Mikhail’s departure, Häyhänen was turned over to Able/Fisher, code name ‘Mark’.

If you believe the James Bond stories, spies are obsessed with babes and booze, and Lt. Col. partook more than his share. ‘Mark’ complained bitterly about Häyhänen’s lackadaisical attitude, poor work ethic, consumption of alcohol, consorting with prostitutes, and refusal to take spying seriously.

During this period, the Soviets utilized a number of clever spy toys that Q might have envied. One such gadget was a 2-inch screw that itself could be unscrewed, revealing a hollow core in which messages might be passed. These secret containers were left in ‘dead drops’, places unlikely to be thought of as spy caches.

In 1955, the bumbling Häyhänen established a cache in Prospect Park, Brooklyn in a crack in steps of a tenement. Häyhänen dropped in a hollow screw with a coded message awaiting pick-up. However, the landlord proved more fastidious than Häyhänen imagined and filled in the crack with cement. There the message remained encased in concrete until the FBI recovered it two years later.

Hollow Screw

But this was hardly Häyhänen’s worst flub in what became known as the Hollow Nickel Affair. Häyhänen’s first assignment in the USA instructed him to pick up a hollowed-out coin, open it, and decode the message. Häyhänen managed the first part– he obtained the nickel– but then he promptly spent it before realizing his mistake.

For eight months, the 5¢ piece floated around New York, used for purchases and tips numerous times until an observant newspaper boy received the coin in change on 22 June 1953. That day, fourteen-year-old Jimmy Bozart, a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Eagle, collected subscription fees from ladies at 3403 Foster Avenue, Brooklyn.

As Jimmy jostled the coins, one seemed slightly lighter than the others. He flipped the nickel on the sidewalk where it split in two. Thomas Jefferson departed Monticello once and for all.

Häyhänen’s coin
Häyhänen’s coin

Jimmy told a friend, the daughter of a NYC police officer. The story worked its way up the chain of command until it reached a detective who told FBI Special Agent Louis Hahn, who confiscated the coin.

The device turned out to be made of two coins, the front half a 1948 nickel and the back half from a late WW-II issue. A tiny hole had been drilled in the R of TRUST to facilitate separating the halves. Inside, they found a square of microfiche with a numeric message.

14546 36056 64211 08919 18710 71187 71215 02906 66036 10922
11375 61238 65634 39175 37378 31013 22596 19291 17463 23551
88527 10130 01767 12366 16669 97846 76559 50062 91171 72332
19262 69849 90251 11576 46121 24666 05902 19229 56150 23521
51911 78912 32939 31966 12096 12060 89748 25362 43167 99841
76271 31154 26838 77221 58343 61164 14349 01241 26269 71578
31734 27562 51236 12982 18059 66218 22577 09454 81216 71953
26986 89779 54197 11990 23881 48884 22165 62998 36449 41742
30267 77614 31565 30902 85812 16112 93312 71220 60369 12872
12458 19081 97117 70107 06391 71114 19459 59586 80317 07522
76509 11111 36990 32666 04411 51532 91184 23162 82011 19185
56110 28876 76718 03563 28222 31674 39023 07623 93513 97175
29816 95761 69483 32951 97696 34992 61109 95090 24092 71008
90061 14790 15154 14655 29011 57206 77195 01256 69250 62901
39179 71229 23299 84164 45900 42227 65853 17591 60182 06315
65812 01378 14566 87719 92507 79517 99651 82155 58118 67197
30015 70687 36201 56531 56721 26306 57135 91796 51341 07796
76655 62716 33583 21932 16224 87721 89619 23191 20665 45140
66098 60959 71521 02334 21212 51110 85227 98768 11125 05321
53152 14191 12166 12715 03116 43041 74822 72759 29130 21947
15764 96851 20618 22370 11391 83520 62297                 .
Ж 12740/622
Häyhänen’s code

For four years, the FBI could make nothing of the code until Häyhänen defected and deciphered the message originally meant for him.

  1. We congratulate you on a safe arrival. We confirm the receipt of your letter to the address `V repeat V’ and the reading of letter number 1.
  2. For organization of cover, we gave instructions to transmit to you three thousand in local (currency). Consult with us prior to investing it in any kind of business, advising the character of this business.
  3. According to your request, we will transmit the formula for the preparation of soft film and news separately, together with (your) mother’s letter.
  4. It is too early to send you the gammas. Encipher short letters, but the longer ones make with insertions. All the data about yourself, place of work, address, etc., must not be transmitted in one cipher message. Transmit insertions separately.
  5. The package was delivered to your wife personally. Everything is all right with the family. We wish you success. Greetings from the comrades.
    Number 1, 3rd December.
Häyhänen’s message

The US knew nothing about this until the USSR recalled Häyhänen to Moscow for good… or bad. Fisher/Abel (aka Mark) had complained of Häyhänen’s incompetence, and at best, Häyhänen would not be allowed to return to the US, which he’d grown fond of. At worst, Häyhänen might have ended up on the wrong side of a KGB interrogation, and he was also fond of his own skin.

As Häyhänen reached Paris on his journey, he resolved not to return to Moscow. Instead, he defected to the Americans who returned him to the US, where Häyhänen proved more helpful than he had with the Soviets. He was able to identify his handlers, dead drops, and the technology the Russians were using. It brought about the exposure and capture of Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was eventually exchanged for Colonel Gary Powers of U-2 notoriety.

And it all began with a nickel that proved a lot less– and a lot more– than 5¢.