19 May 2016

Grantchester

by Janice Law

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered that in old age, a woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of clergymen – of the mystery fictional variety, that is. Certainly jolly, confident, busybody Father Brown has enlivened many dark winter months, and his younger, Anglican counterpart, Cannon Sidney Chambers brightened up an erratic spring.

Chambers is the vicar of Grantchester, a parish near Cambridge. Like Father Brown, he first saw the light in shorter works, novella length stories by James Runcie, who was inspired by his clergyman father, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There’s a dad for a mystery writer!


 Runcie has planned a series of volumes that develop Chambers’ character and recount his romantic adventures and professional trials as well as his amateur sleuthing. That is the first difference with Father Brown. The good priest of Kembleford is a completed character, if I can put it that way. His personality is set and so is his neat little circle of friends, helpers, and opponents. In every way, socially, professionally, and theologically, Father Brown is confident he knows the score, and he never hesitates to plunge into the case of the moment.

Sidney Chambers, in contrast, is very much a 21st century detective, even though the stories are set the early 1950’s. He is even more uncertain, diffident, and troubled in print than he is in the television series, where James Norton’s unusually robust, athletic, and handsome physique lends a dynamic touch. At the same time, Norton’s restraint – very much in keeping with the original stories  – helps to downplay the soap opera additions TV favors.

So how is Grantchester as a mystery series? Pretty good on the screen and in print, too, where five volumes are out, beginning with Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death. The TV series goes, quite naturally, for extra drama and emotion; the novellas add more than a soupçon of clerical doubts and guilts. Sidney is conscientious and scrupulous to a fault – except when the requirements of a murder case require a little stretching of the rules.
The print Sidney worries, on the one hand, about neglecting his parish duties and failing to engage his parishioners, and on the other, about the morality of interfering in the lives of those touched by crime. Needless to say, the TV Sidney does not ruminate very long on either. Where both Sidneys converge is in their struggles with the weekly sermon. Print Sidney fusses about this task and muses on its content seriously. TV Sidney concludes many episodes with the Sunday sermon, a neat reflection of the issues raised by the case of the week.

The first Father Brown story appeared in 1914; the first volume of the Grantchester stories in 2012,
and what interests me is the difference roughly one hundred years has made in the approach to detection. Father Brown was a rival of Sherlock Holmes, and if he is too good a clergyman to sulk like Sherlock when crime is thin on the ground or to complain at the poor quality of the murder on offer, he certainly thrills to the chase and pursues the puzzle with the same eager joie de vie that he gobbles Mrs. McCarthy’s famed strawberry scones.

One hundred years later, Cannon Chambers has been infected by modern angst. Two wars  have erased the optimism of the Edwardians, and his time fighting with the Scots Guards has left him with bad memories and more taste for whisky than is really good for him. He meddles in crime in spite of himself, spurred on, it is true, by his great friend and backgammon partner, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who appreciates both his logical acumen and his psychological insight.

The good padre is conflicted on the romantic front, too. Though Mrs. Maguire ( Tessa Peake-Jones) runs his household (1950’s bachelors require self sacrificing and efficient housekeepers – see also The Doctor Blake Mysteries) everyone agrees that he needs a wife. Various characters either seek to introduce him to Ms. Right or put themselves forward for the role. Alas, pleasure produces guilt, an old crush interferes with present possibilities, and complications ensue.

Fortunately, Runcie has already completed five volumes with one more to come. Perhaps the good Cannon Chambers can find the right woman and retire to domestic bliss. Perhaps. But in the meantime, he has lots of cases to solve in charming – but clearly dangerous – Grantchester.

18 May 2016

I Couldn't Help Overhearing

by Robert Lopresti

It is one of those super powers most fiction writers seem to have: the ability to eavesdrop.  Comes from a natural curiosity about our fellow mortals, I suppose.

Lots of people listen to what is said around them, but we writers, well, we tend to put them to good use.

Take, for instance, Harlan Ellison, the science fiction and fantasy author (and winner of two, count 'em, two Edgar Awards, by the way).  He was at a party once and overheard someone say "Jeffty is five.  Jeffty is always five."

He assumes that this was a mondegreen, but it inspired a stunning short story, "Jeffty is Five."  It won a Hugo and a Nebula and one poll of SF fans voted it the best short story of all time.

Not bad for an overheard snippet of conversation, huh?

There are also stories about overheard conversations, which I think is due to the writer's special interest in the subject.

James Thurber's "The Lady on 142" begins with the narrator and his wife waiting for a train in the Connecticut suburbs.  He hears the stationmaster saying over the phone "Conductor Reagan on 142 has the lady the office was asking about."

The narrator's wife assumes the lady was sick. Our hero suspects something much more nefarious is going on.  Complications ensue.  I liked the story so much that I ended Thurber On Crime with it.

Before Harry Kemelman started writing about Rabbi Small he made it into Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Department of First Stories with "The Nine Mile Walk," in which a casually overheard remark leads to the discovery of a murder.  It is one of my favorite crime stories.

I have stolen a lot of overheard dialog and put it in the mouths of my characters, but I don't think any of my stories were inspired by  an overheard remark.  Songs, ah, that is a different subject.  Years ago I attended a music camp and took a class from Geof Morgan who was a Nashville hitmaker, until he reformed.  He told us to listen to conversation for the rest of the day, waiting for a hook.

I remember thinking, sure, someone is just going to toss off  a country song hook while I happen to be standing nearby.  A few hours later I heard a woman say:  "She's thinking of giving up California."  And voila.

She's thinking of giving up California
Moving someplace farther from the sea
When she talks about giving up California
I think she's really giving up on me.

And not long ago I was walking through the library where I work and I heard one student say to another: "Whatever page you're at, whatever stage you're at..."

I silently added: "Whatever age you're at."  And I was off.

So, how about you?  Have you ever overheard the kernel of what became your next masterpiece?


  

17 May 2016

The Bradbury Building – Screen Star

by Paul D. Marks


Well, I had a post all written, even pulled pictures for it, and was ready to go. Then realized I had signed a non-disclosure agreement and, therefore, have decided not to run it. But since I did the photo here of me in the long white hair figured I’d run at least that anyway and let you all try to figure out what that post was about…

In the meantime, I’ll talk about the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. A famous LA landmark and one that’s been in tons of movies, many in the mystery and noir genre. It played Philip Marlowe’s office in Marlowe, starring James Garner. Some people say that Marlowe had his office here in Chandler’s books, but there’s no real proof of that. Oh, and of course, it makes an appearance in several of my stories.

Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark. It’s also a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, as well it should be.

Bradbury Building interior
It was commissioned by Lewis L. Bradbury, a goldmining millionaire, and opened in 1893 (old by LA standards), a few months after Bradbury’s death.

According to Wikipedia, “The design of the building was influenced by the 1887 science fiction bookLooking Backward by Edward Bellamy, which described a utopian society in 2000. In Bellamy's book, the average commercial building was described as a ‘vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above ... The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior.’ The influence of this description can be seen in the Bradbury.”



The Bradbury Building 2005
The outside of the building is a rather plain brick façade. But inside, you’re in for a treat. The Bradbury is built around an atrium-like central court. The ceiling is a gigantic skylight that lets in natural light, which falls on glazed brick, polished wood, marble and wrought iron railings throughout, giving it warm and changing light throughout the day. The birdcage style elevators are something to see.

In my novel-in-progress, The Blues Don’t Care, I describe it this way: “From the outside the Bradbury Building looked like any other office building, brown brick and sandstone in an Italian-Renaissance meets L.A. style. Inside, it was like being transported to a great European palace or maybe a train station of the industrial age. Bobby had heard of this building, though never had occasion to visit. He was awed by its breathtaking beauty. A glass skylight let shards of light fall on glazed brick and wrought iron grillwork. Marble flooring. Bobby stopped for a moment to catch his breath before heading to the open-caged elevators. He told the operator his floor, rode to the top, walked to room 501.”

Details of elevators and glass ceiling
The Bradbury is an office building and various types of businesses lease space there. Today one of those lessees is the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division, so be good if you visit…

The Bradbury in DOA
The Bradbury is the star of many books/stories, movies, videos, commercials and TV shows. It made its first screen appearance in China Girl (1942), filling in for a Burmese hotel. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Michael Connelly, Max Allan Collins and others have used the Bradbury in their writing.

It features prominently in the original version of D.O.A. (the good version!), I, The Jury (based on Mickey Spillane’s novel), Mission Impossible (the old TV show), the Jack Nicholson movie, Wolf, and more.

Videos by Janet Jackson, Genesis, Heart, Earth, Wind and Fire and more.

More recently, it shows up in Blade Runner, The Artist, CSI NY, etc.

The Bradbury in Bladerunner


To say I love this building would be putting it mildly. It’s a fantastic place. And if you ever come to LA make sure to hit it in downtown at 304 South Broadway.

***



-------------------------
Bradbury Building interior: By Luke Jones - originally posted to Flickr as Bradbury Hotel, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7271823

Bradbury Building 2005: By Highsmith, Carol M., 1946- photographer, donor. - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pplot.13725.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16340394

Detail of elevators and glass ceiling: By JayWalsh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30719803

Bradbury in Bladerunner: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2276721

16 May 2016

Things That Go Bump or Scream in The Night

by Jan Grape

I'm  a notorious insomniac. It all started the night I was born. I didn't arrive until two am. I have no idea what my mother was doing out so late. She was barely eighteen. I think it was because she and my dad had a thing. But me sleep? No way. I was sliding naked into a brightly lit, cold room where some giant fellow slapped me on the butt and made me cry. Of course mother and I finally did get to sleep around four. Well, that was when I got to sleep.

First, this really sweet faced nurse cleaned me up and dressed me and I got to flirt with my dad. One look at him and I understood why mom married him. Tall, good looking, dark hair and blue eyes. Next I flirted with the boy baby next to me in the nursery. Must admit I've been making eyes with boys ever since. We did sleep a little while.  Mom went to asleep pretty soon after I arrived. I think that giant guy gave her some kind of knock out drops. Those bright lights and those darn nurses kept bothering me every few minutes. It all led to me having trouble going to sleep some sixty-seventeen years later.

The other night I was reading, Michael Connelly's latest book, The Crossing, featuring Harry Bosch and his half-brother Mickey Haller. A wonderful read by the way. If you like that sort of thing. Any way I heard this loud male voice say, "Get Out." or "You Get Out of Here." I wasn't sure of exactly what he said, it was something along those lines. Okay it's 2:30am and the house is really quiet that time of night. No television noise. The AC isn't running at that minute. I did notice the time.

Normally, I wouldn't exactly get scared. My little town is almost like a village and it's probably as safe as anyone can be. But, I do live here alone. And we do have full time police force. In fact, the police station is right up the street from me. A mile or less.

The loud male voice just hit me wrong that time of the night. I only heard that one remark. he didn't repeat it nor did I hear a response. I'm smart enough not to look out my windows or turn on the porch light to SEE what might be going on out in the street in front of my house. I didn't remember hearing any cars screeching or banging together, however I was involved in my book. And this book isn't like a Stephen King. If I'd been reading a King book I would have turned off my light, gone to bed and covered up my head. You know, just in case something was out there and could GET me.

I did pick up my phone and dial 911. The dispatcher said, "911 what's your emergency." I said, "It's not exactly an emergency. I want to report hearing a man's voice outside my home, yelling to someone." He asked for my phone number, I'm on my only phone, a cell phone. Then he asked to verify my address. And I started to give him my name about the time he was asking for it. He asked me again to detail what I had heard and assured me the police were rolling this way. I told him I was a 77 year old woman, widowed and lived alone. That this voice at this time of the night had scared me. He said "Did you look out?" I said, "No. I'm all locked up inside and didn't look out because if someone is out there I don't want them to see me. They might not be happy about that."

He kept me on the phone for a couple of minutes, I assumed until the police arrived. There wasn't a siren and I didn't even hear a car, but in a couple more minutes I heard someone walk up my front porch steps. Then someone said, "Mrs. Grape" and knock on the door. I said, "who is it." Then realized it must be police because they called my name. I got up, turned on the porch light and could see a police officer there. It was a very pretty female police officer. I opened the door.

My goodness, she was young, wearing an officer's uniform. Shorter than my five, three, she looked to be about five two and maybe a little more. Loaded down with belt and gun and all kinds of equipment that likely brought her weight up to maybe 110 lbs. She said, "I'm with the police." I said, " Come in." She stuck out her hand, shook mine firmly, and I said, my name is Jan. She said her name was Sara.

Police officer Sara said, "I walked up and down the street out here. I didn't see anything and all the houses around here looked dark. Have you heard anything else?"

I said, "No, only a dog barking."

She said she saw and heard a dog. Said it was an Alaskan Husky.  She said she wasn't too fond of big dogs. And she asked again to tell her what I heard.

I repeated it all again. This loud male voice and at 2:30 in the morning. I didn't know if a couple of guys were arguing or what? I didn't know if it was in front of my house or down the street. How noise travels this time of night. I said, "I didn't know if a couple of guys were arguing and could maybe start shooting one another."

The dog started barking again and that's when I realized that a man shouting, "Get Out." or "Get outta here" was probably yelling at that dog. Maybe the dog was in his yard and he was trying to chase him away. AND boy, did I feel dumb.

But Sara said,  "I'm glad you called. It could have been something dangerous and you and I are both glad it wasn't. Don't ever hesitate to call. I'm going to sit in the patrol car down here a little ways for a few minutes and be absolutely sure there's nothing to worry about.

I thanked her and apologized a couple more times. I asked her name again to be sure I had it right.

She said, "It's Sara."

I said, "I can remember that."

And then she said, "Just ask for the girl. I'm the only girl in the department. I get a little teasing about that."

I said, okay. I also made a mental note to tell her soon she should never put up with the guys just calling her a girl. She had to pass the same qualifying as the "boys" did.

I also didn't tell her that I write mysteries and that my imagination often goes wild especially with things that go bump or scream in the night.

15 May 2016

The Girl with the Golden Gun

by Leigh Lundin

I’m seeing another woman. She’s stunning, vivacious, rich and generous, and… she can dance.

Miss Fisher’s fan dance

I told my girlfriend. Surprisingly, she doesn’t mind, which is saying a lot given her antipathy towards the Antipodes. Not our Stephen Ross’ New Zealand, mind you, that other country down under that does horrible things vis-à-vis soccer, rugby, and the purported game of (yawn) cricket, but that’s another story.

Anyway, about my new Australian darling…

But wait. First I’ll tell you why I longed to murder Lawrence Welk. I’ll tie this together, trust me.

Ever since I was a little kid, I despised that dastardly big band leader and his insipid Champagne Bubble Music™. His primary talent was outliving the really good musicians of the swing era, Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Glenn Miller, King Oliver… pretty much everyone other than Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Welk’s idea of pop was pap and pablum for the masses. His flaccid phonographic flummery almost ruined the music of the 1920s and 30s for me, one of the most creative eras in the 20th century, and we're not talking Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Shostakovich. Imagine a modern Clyde McCoy on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey muting a trombone, Viola Smith thumping tom-toms

Listen to this as you read on:


This piece was not written nearly a century ago during the 1920s flapper era… it was written practically yesterday by Greg J Walker for the Australian television production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I wouldn’t normally write about television mysteries when I haven’t read the original books, but I confess I’m doing exactly that. That’s how smitten I am and it’s all Dixon Hill’s fault.
original Phryne

MFMM is, if you haven’t guessed already, a period piece and to my eye… and ear… dazzlingly done. It features wealthy flapper Miss Fisher, christened with the appropriate given name of Phryne. (You may recall the suitably scandalous Phryne (pronounced like Friday with an ’n’ instead of ‘d’) from classical studies.)

The rest of the ensemble includes Phryne’s ever-fluid household, primarily comprised of Mr. Butler, Cecil, her ward Jane, and especially gentle Dot. The police presence includes newly minted Constable Hugh Collins and Inspector Jack Robinson.

The young constable is earnest although inexperienced, but the inspector proves highly intelligent and smart enough to give Phryne her head: Her charm, wit, money, and standing in society allow her to access social circles he can’t. As Phryne gives an entirely new meaning to ‘man eater,’ he’s sufficiently wise to let her do the romantic pursuing.

If you’re guessing characterization is key, you’re dead on. Phryne is engaging and entrancing. She carries a gold-plated revolver and is slightly reminiscent of Emma Peel. Inspector Robinson manages to be both firm and lenient with her and sensibly underplays his rôle. Phryne’s imposing Aunt Prudence– every family needs a matriarch like her– is an old dear who represents old school and old money. And then there’s Phryne’s companion/assistant, little Dot– she steals scenes and everyone’s heart.

Miss Fisher’s logo
Lady Detective

Before I stray too far, I must mention that Dixon Hill wrote the original article that intrigued me a year and a half ago. Curiously, two of my female friends expressed no interest in the series but one of me mates (oops, I've been overdosing) has started watching Miss Fisher from the beginning. Miss Marple she’s not. One review said Phryne ‘sashays’ through the stories, something a guy notices. Clearly we males find Miss Fisher fetching.

The historical detail is impressive. I admire many cars built in the 20s and 30s and Miss Fisher drives a beautiful Hispano-Suiza. Other viewers will applaud the costume of the era and Phryne wears at least a half dozen each episode. Indeed, one of the mysteries takes place in a house of fashion.

Sometimes writers imprint our present-day morals and values on the past, often imbuing a protagonist with a superior outlook. Not much of that shows through here– by nature Phryne is open-minded and the flapper era was daring, progressive, and sexually expressive. Thus Phryne’s physician friend Mac who dresses in men’s clothes comes off as genuine rather than contrived, not so much butch but a don’t-ask-don’t-tell person you’d like to know.

Miss Fisher’s Mysteries
The plots? They take second place to the characters and costuming, but even when you guess the culprit, you enjoy how Fisher and Robinson get there.

And the music? Most of it’s straight out of the 1920s and early 30s and thoughtfully offered in three albums (thus far). Wonderful stuff. I’ll leave you with Duke Ellington’s dirge, East St. Louis Toodle-oo.



Legendary drummer Viola Smith is still among the living at age 103½!

14 May 2016

Size Matters

by B.K. Stevens

I don't remember exactly when I wrote the first draft of One Shot. All I know for sure is that it was before Prince Charles and Princess Diana got divorced.

Back then, I'd already published several stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, including one introducing police lieutenant Dan Ledger: "An Ounce of Prevention," published in --good grief!--1989. One Shot (then titled "Fatal Distraction") was supposed to be the follow-up. But the draft ran several thousand words too long.

At first, that didn't worry me. Every Hitchcock story I've written, before or since, started out too long, Cutting's part of the process. I'd come to enjoy watching stories snap into shape as they got tighter.

But this story, I realized, needed expanding, not cutting. Characters begged for more development. And Ledger never found the murder weapon. In real life, true, the police often don't find murder weapons. In this story, though, since the victim's a prominent gun-control advocate, the gun that kills her has ironic significance. Leaving it unfound felt sloppy.

Maybe, I thought, this story's really a novel. I changed the title to First Things, developed characters further, decided where to hide the gun and how Ledger finds it. The plot felt solid, but the book hadn't reached novel length. I added subplots and sent it out.

It came close. Several agents requested the full manuscript before rejecting it with regrets. It reached the final round of a contest that would have led to publication. But it never quite made it.

Discouraged, I put it aside. I created other characters for Hitchcock but didn't write about Ledger again. The second part of his story hadn't been told. Skipping ahead felt wrong.

The television script came next. Years later, while watching Columbo, I had the crazy thought that my story might work as an episode. I'd have to make huge changes--reshaping a whodunit into a how-will-he-solve-it, replacing Lieutenant Ledger with Lieutenant Columbo--but in other ways, the story seemed right for the series. So I wrote the best query letter of my life and mailed it directly to Peter Falk, asking him if he'd read a script. Incredibly, he wrote back personally. Even more incredibly, he said yes. I bought a book on screenplay format and got to work. The subplots felt tacked on now. I dropped them and mailed the script.

But I knew I hadn't really transformed Ledger into Columbo. My detective now ate chili, said "one more thing," and had a sad-eyed basset hound waiting patiently in his car. Unfortunately, I liked Ledger too much to change him in more fundamental ways. When the gentle rejection came--from Mr. Falk's assistant this time--I wasn't surprised.

More years passed. I started reading about online publishing but felt skeptical. How can something be published unless it's printed on paper? Then I read that online sales sometimes rival print sales, and that one online publisher, Untreed Reads, was looking for mystery novellas.

I searched the garage, found the box of Ledger manuscripts, and started revising--again. With all the manuscripts stacked on my printer, I went from one to another, culling the best from each, combining, cutting. Scenes I liked had to go. Undoubtedly, though, the pace improved. Switching from third-person to first-person made Ledger's voice stronger and emphasized the humor. Also, writing the novel had helped me get to know my characters. I could bring their personalities out in fewer words. And I changed the title to One Shot. Obviously, it was the perfect title, the only possible title--why hadn't I realized that before?

I made other changes, too. In the novel, a reporter declares she wants to cover the big stories– "Rain forests! Charles and Di! AIDS!" Oops. Now, she yearns to cover "Global warming! Brad and Angie! Terrorism!" (By now, "Brad and Angie" sounds dated, too.)

I'd thought I'd finish the novella in weeks. It took months. Frustrated, I told my husband, "If the damn thing doesn't get published this time, I'll damn well rewrite it as a limerick."

But Untreed Reads did publish it. After waiting over two decades, Dan Ledger made his second appearance in 2011. One Shot hasn't exactly been a best seller, but it's still out there, somebody buys a copy every so often, and the people who read it seem to enjoy it.

Ironically enough, after the first few years, Untreed Reads decided to reclassify it as a short story and lower the price. So you could say One Shot ended up where it started out, except that this version of the short story is a lot longer than the original one--and, I think, a lot better, too.

Lately, I've been thinking about writing another mystery for Dan Ledger. Will it be a short story, a novel, a television script, a novella? Not a television script--one attempt at that was enough to convince me it's not my strength. Other than that, I'm not sure. I just hope I don't have to rewrite it half a dozen times to figure out how long it should be.

By the way, I did write that limerick, just in case. It begins "The victim was shot in the chest" and ends with "Now in prison the killer must rest." I won't reveal the middle lines--they'd give away the plot. But if a market for mystery limericks ever develops, I'm ready.



We regret to inform readers of the following: While foiling a daring plot masterminded by the notorious Coke brothers, Bonnie suffered injuries. The NSA remains mum but Al-Jazeera reports she prevented the petro-chemical conglomerates from cornering the global market of caffeine. Unfortunately when ejecting from her F-22 Raptor, Bonnie broke her right arm, although USA Today notes she can shoot effectively with either hand.

Or something like that. As I said, the NSA isn't talking and Bonnie's unable to type at the moment, having undergone surgery. We SleuthSayers wish Bonnie well during her recovery, and hope to see her in two weeks, in time for the clandestine medal-pinning ceremony.

— Editor

13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection

By Art Taylor

Last week, Bouchercon announced this year’s finalists for the Anthony Awards, and I was pleased to get two mentions on that slate: one for my own writing, with On The Road With Del & Louise (Henery Press) earning a nomination for Best First Novel (just on the heels of winning the Agatha in that category the week prior), and another on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out Books), which earned attention in the Best Anthology or Collection category. I’m honored, needless to say, with the attention! And congratulations as well to fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, whose Agatha-nominated novel Fighting Chance earned another honor as a finalist for this year's Anthony for Best Young Adult Novel—great news all around!

Soon after the Anthony news came out, I reached out about hosting here a quick chat with the other finalists for Best Anthology or Collection:

I have a couple of these anthologies already on the shelf, and I’ll be picking up the others soon, and just wanted to offer a chance for all of us to share some information about our respective collections and the writers who contributed.

Two questions each below, and everyone’s stepping to the podium (so to speak) in alphabetical order. Join me in welcoming them to SleuthSayers today!

First, while the titles of our respective collections already might give some sense of what readers will find on the pages within, how would you describe your own editorial principles/guidelines in selecting stories for and shaping your particular anthology—or in Chris’s case, for sorting through and considering your own stories?

Christopher Irvin: Witnessing the collection come together, story by story, was one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. I'd kept an assortment of lists in notebooks over the past few years of potential line-ups for a collection, but it wasn't until late 2014 (when I was seriously thinking of pitching a collection) that I began to recognize themes of family, melancholia, regret, etc., that were present in nearly all of my work. It was a revelation that has since made me step back and reflect more on my work and the decisions (conscious, or more likely unconscious) that I make in my writing. Long story, short, the selection fell in along the above mentioned themes, trending a tad more 'literary' toward the end, especially with the four new stories in the collection. It's been fun to see how my work and interests have evolved over the past few years. It's one of the reasons I  really enjoy reading other author's collections as well.


Thomas Pluck: When you're putting together an anthology to fight child abuse, it inspires all sorts of anger in the contributors. It's a subject that we don't want to think about, and when we do, it quite rightfully ticks us off. The strong abusing the weak. So the natural instinct is for writers to tackle the subject head-on, and write about it. The first Protectors anthology has many more stories about children in danger, and while it was a great success, it made for a tough read. For the second book, I specifically asked for other kinds of stories. The book is called Heroes for two reasons: it's a loose theme, and the Protect H.E.R.O. Corps is who the book benefits. That stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative; the HERO Corps is a joint effort between USSOCOM and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to train and hire wounded veterans as computer forensic technicians, to assist law enforcement in locating and rescuing the child victims of predators. It's a very tough job, one that combat veterans are suited for, because they have experience with the toll such a job takes. With such a heavy subject, I wanted lighter stories. And while we do have a few tales where children are rescued, the stories run the gamut from traditional crime and mystery, whimsical fantasy, historical mystery, revenge tales, horror, and tales of everyday heroism. The order was the tough part. It's a huge book of 55 stories. What I did was label each story with a colored sticky note, yellow for sunny or happy, red for rough or bloody, and blue for in between, and I arranged them like a palette. I played around until I could start strong with an uplifting tale or two, then dip to a few hard hitting ones, give readers a break, then hit them again, make them elated, then ease to a strong ending. Like a story.


Todd Robinson: I've always had the idea to do a Christmas-themed anthology. There are a couple out there, but none that feature the kind of lunatic writers that oil my gears, the writers who we published in Thuglit magazine.

I didn't do open submissions on it. I reached out to writers that I'd worked with at least two or three times each—writers who I knew would bring their own distinct styles to whatever they sent my way, and they truly outdid themselves. Considering the narrow theme of Christmas, I'm still amazed at how different each story is from the next. My guys and gals KILLED it.


Art Taylor: Murder Under the Oaks was produced in conjunction with last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—which is nicknamed the City of Oaks and hence the collection’s title. In addition to featuring invited stories by some of the featured authors from the 2015 Bouchercon—including Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, Sean Doolittle, and Zoë Sharp—we hosted a contest that garnered more than 170 submissions, which first readers trimmed to 27 that were sent my way. My goal in making the final selections was two-fold: first, I wanted to include the best stories I could, obviously (which wasn’t hard, since so many of the entries in that final batch were terrific in many ways), but second—in keeping with the missions of Bouchercon itself—I wanted to represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the types of stories that fall under that larger genre of “mystery.” Many readers are disappointed is a mystery anthology doesn’t include detective fiction, so I was careful to represent that segment of the genre with both amateur and professional detectives (a police procedural in the mix, in fact). But there are lots of other types of stories beyond that: from the cozy end of the spectrum to some really dark noir, from historical fiction to contemporary tales, a bit of raucous humor here, a more poignant story there, something close to flash fiction alongside a novella, and right on down the line. Balancing that mix was important to me, and I hope attention to that helped to provide something for all readers.


Kenneth Wishnia: First of all, we adopted a generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish noir” policy, which turned out to be prophetic (and how Jewish is that?), because the collection includes stories by a diverse group of authors, including Asian-Canadian author Melissa Yi, Los Angeles’s own Gary Phillips, luminaries as Marge Piercy and Harlan Ellison, and self-professed survivors of Bible Belt redneck culture, Jedidiah Ayres and Travis Richardson—both of whom have been honored for their contributions: Jed’s story “Twisted Shikse” was selected for a forthcoming “best crime story of the year” anthology and Travis’s story “Quack and Dwight” has been nominated for the Derringer and the Anthony Awards. Mazl tov!

I also stressed that submissions did not have to be textbook “Noir with a capital N,” and so we ended up with stories depicting the Holocaust, cynical Jewish humor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto phenomenon, child sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the broader contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.

Sounds pretty noir to me—even without the obligatory doomed detective and femme fatale slinking around dark alleys.


Second: There’s a whole range of different ways to tell a story, of course—but are there certain elements that consistently stand out to you as the hallmarks of a great story?

Christopher Irvin: Make me care, right? That's the bottom line that every editor wants. I need to empathize with characters—good, bad, ugly—no matter how long or short the work, I need to want to come along for the ride. My time spent editing for Shotgun Honey had a major impact on my writing to this end. Much of my writing, especially in Safe Inside the Violence, involves indirect violence or characters on the periphery of violence. Perhaps the run up to a seemingly normal encounter in their everyday lives.

There is a 700 word limit at Shotgun Honey. Authors need to bring it from the first sentence if they want to succeed. Often this results in an immediate violent encounter to up the stakes and keep the story moving. While this can be (and has been) done very well, reading these stories, learning from these stories, pushed me to go in a different direction. 


Thomas Pluck: My own writing, I write what interests me, what terrifies me, what angers me. I go for extremes, life-changing experiences, the things I would never want to discuss in public. It forces me to put my heart into it, and that resonates. While editing anthologies, I have to tone down my relentless inner critic, and just try to enjoy them. If I do, they go in the "good" pile and I think what could make them better, if anything. I have some legendary authors in here like David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss. I didn't edit those stories, obviously. If there were typos in the manuscript, we corrected them together. There are a few authors who have their first publication here, who needed a little editorial help for clarity. That's my mantra: clarity, economy, then art.

What makes a great story? For me, I lose myself in them. The characters, the world, the story itself, they can't be ignored. Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" is one. It begins with a scene so real, then descends into a nightmarish dream world, like the character is spelunking in his own subconscious. "Placebo" by Vachss is another, so spare, like a folktale. Not a word wasted. Some writers have that gift, a voice that draws you into their world. You either have it or you don't, the best we can do is trust the voice we have and let it do the work.


Todd Robinson: For me, it always starts with a great character voice and their arc within. If I don't care about the characters, why in sweet fuck-all would I care about their story?


Art Taylor: In the fiction workshops I teach at George Mason, I often quote John Updike on what he looks for in a short story: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” That may sound kind of broad, but it strikes me as solid criteria—and solid advice for writers too in crafting their own stories. A couple of words I come back to time and again are compression and balance. In terms of compression, I look for stories that start as close to central action as possible (the conflict hinted at right there in the first paragraph or first line) and then rely on sharp and suggestive details rather than lengthy explanations—glimpses of larger lives and bigger stories beyond the edges of the page. Balance can refer to many things: between character and plot, for example (each informed by the other), or between beginnings and endings—especially in terms of endings that seem both surprising and inevitable in some way, as if every line, every word, has been building inexorably toward where the story ends up. When a writer can manage compression and balance—and then entertain all along the way… well, that story is a keeper, for sure.


Kenneth Wishnia: I was looking for the same elements that I look for in a great novel: vivid, compelling writing (Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Feeding the Crocodile,” which is up for an ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story), a suspenseful set-up that engages the reader right away (Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die”) or a non-traditional story that makes me laugh at life’s absurdities (Rabbi Adam Fisher’s “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah”). Some authors hit the trifecta (David Liss’s “Jewish Easter”), but I would have accepted any combination of two out of three, or even just one if the author really nailed it.


A quick final word from Art: Do check out all these anthologies yourself—and look forward to seeing everyone in New Orleans later this year!




12 May 2016

"I Hope You Get the Help You Need"

by Eve Fisher

Ripped from the headlines of South Dakota:

State Receives $300,000 for Mental Health Task Force.

Investigation continues into 50 year old woman's death (35 year old boyfriend claims he woke up and there she was, dead... Yes, there were a few drugs lying around...).

Man accused of killing state trooper wants case separated (he's planning on blaming the other defendants for everything).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7678578
Fourth of July State Park Camping Reservations open soon (we have some GREAT camping sites; really GREAT).

Report shows an elderly woman found in a freezer died of natural causes  (now why her son brought her to South Dakota in a freezer, that may not be so natural, but he died in February, so we may never have an answer to THAT mystery).

Officials tackling gopher problem at state fairgrounds (no joke, folks).

Entertainment Lineup  announced for RibFest 2016 (June 2-5th, W. H. Lyons Fairground)  .

And a story about someone sentenced to prison for various appalling acts committed under the influence of meth and God only knows what other substances he had in his system.  At his sentencing, someone said, "we hope you will get the help you need while in prison and can turn your life around once you [eventually] get out."

This last story connects with the first one, about the mental health task force:

"A grant of about $300,000 will bolster the work of a task force proposed by the state Supreme Court's chief justice to study issues surrounding mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system.  Officials on Wednesday announced the grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to the state Department of Health.  The state is providing more than $100,000 through in-kind contributions to support the work.

Homer Simpson

"Gov. Dennis Daugaard says the group is set to analyze why and how individuals with mental illness become involved with the justice system.  SD Chief Justice David Gilbertson says the criminal justice system often isn't the most appropriate and cost-effective response."  Mental Health Task Force

To which my answer is "d'oh".  

I've talked before about how our society has criminalized addiction, mental illness, and mental disability.  Some of it was purely political:  
"One of Richard Nixon's top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper's Magazine. 
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday. 
"You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."  John Ehrlichman interview, CNN

Other reasons were the natural fallout resulting from the scandal of "snake-pit" mental hospitals about the same time that people figured out that mental health institutions were expensive.  In other words, the search for social reform AND economic reform:
Snakepit1948 62862n.jpg
"Perhaps what is most interesting about the change in policies of involuntary commitment is the coalition that helped bring it about: a combination of "law and order" conservatives, economic conservatives, and liberal groups that sought reform in the provision of mental health services. But the policy shift had hardly anything at all to do with the mentally ill or the practitioners who treated them. It was designed to lower taxes and shift responsibility away from the federal government. Ironically then, the need for reform perceived by those involved and concerned with the mentally ill (practitioners and families) was co-opted by the interests of capital."  Reagan and the Commitment of the Mentally Ill

In any case the result is that today, instead of going to hospitals, most of the mentally ill, mentally disabled, and the chronically addicted go to jail. (Explains why we have the largest prison population in the world, doesn't it?) According to NIH, "prisons have effectively become the new mental illness asylums". NIH Report on Prisoners and Mental Illness

And, according to the Atlantic: "55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission." The Atlantic.

So when someone says "I hope s/he finally gets the help s/he needs" the simple answer is no, most of the time, s/he won't. They will be warehoused. They may or may not be put on psychotropic drugs which may or may not be suitable for their mental illness. If they are mentally disabled, they may be put on tranquilizers, just to calm them down. [This turns them into zombies.]  If they are addicted, they may go through a six week addiction program. Or not. Depends on if there's any money. And, when they've done their time - and most prisoners will eventually do their time - they will come out, in pretty much the same shape they went in, if not worse.

You can't fix people for free.  You can't put mentally ill people into the less-than-nurturing environment of prison and expect them to come out magically all better.  But at least there's a start. I'll take any mental health task force I can get.  Anything is better than nothing, and nothing has been the rule for a very long time.

Okay, now, a little question for all the mystery writers, the woman in the freezer - why do YOU think her son brought her to South Dakota?



11 May 2016

The Guns of Navarone

by David Edgerley Gates

My local library, the Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt system (Baltimore's excellent public resource), runs classic movies from their DVD collection the last Saturday of every month. THE COURT JESTER, THE SEARCHERS, SOME LIKE IT HOT. This past month it was THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

Alistair MacLean had a heck of a run, from the mid-1950's well into the 1980's. He regularly hit the bestseller lists, and a dozen of his novels were made into successful pictures, the best-remembered being GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, and WHERE EAGLES DARE. MacLean himself said he had a visual style, which adapted readily to movies.


THE GUNS OF NAVARONE came out in 1961 and did enormous box office. It broke big, being one of the first road-show spectaculars - with a runtime of two hours and forty minutes - and pulled in huge numbers. It was the highest grossing picture of the year, and it racked up seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, although it didn't make the finish line. It was rousing stuff, old-fashioned derring-do, but with a subtext that was basically antiwar.  The mission could have been a suicidal folly, and men's lives spent for nothing.

It stands up pretty well, fifty-odd years later. There's very little wasted motion. The set-up is brisk, the internal frictions get established early, the obstacles are sketched out, and we're off to the races. The leaky Greek fishing boat, the heavy seas, the impossible-to-climb cliff face, the Germans not asleep at the wheel but on high alert, the clock working against the team, the odds of blowing the guns going from bad to worse, and of course the traitor amongst them. Generic conventions, yes, but it's pretty consistently tense. Not that the actors don't help. Peck and Quinn are terrific, Niven is even better. (It's interesting that Niven's character is given the speech about the folly of war, since Niven himself, in real life, is probably the closest thing to an actual war hero.) They make their characters convincing.


Methinks the storyline owes more than a little to Patrick Leigh Fermor's wartime adventures on Crete, but MacLean would probably be the first to admit it. Commando operations usually have an element of desperation, and a high risk of failure. Not to mention a bullet in the head if you get caught. If anything, GUNS OF NAVARONE doesn't soft-pedal the cost, or pretend that heroics can paper over the consequences of taking up killing as a trade. Stanley Baker's veteran knife guy has lost his stomach for it, even as James Darren's baby-faced psychopath can't get enough.

Some the special effects look kind of cheesy, at this remove, although the picture's only win at the Oscars was for FX, but now's the time to bring up the technical specs. NAVARONE was shot using the Technicolor process, and the original limited-release prints had extraordinary clarity and color saturation, but when the picture went into general release, new prints were made. Accoring to IMDb, the film negative was damaged in the lab, and the resulting prints are second-rate. In other words, if you've seen NAVARONE on late-night television or VHS, sometime in the last fifty years, you haven't really seen the picture, not the way it's supposed to be seen. Get the restored version if you can. It's worth the effort to find it.

NAVARONE is the kind of movie that seemed to fall out of fashion
for a while, but it's not really a completely straight-ahead action picture, it's more ambiguous than that. They've got the nuts and bolts down, which can be the most fascinating part, the method, the mechanics of the job itself, but although the characters often reference getting the job done, there are just as many hesitations, as if there were a choice. Sometimes you don't get to choose. NAVARONE is about forced choices. Necessity isn't the lesser of two evils. It's when nothing else is left.

10 May 2016

Lessons Learned in Hostage Taking

by Melissa Yi


April 2013: 22:20

During my first night shift at a new hospital, a prisoner escapes while awaiting medical attention. I chase after him through an empty hallway, open the door to a stairwell, push open a second door, and discover his footsteps in the snow.
Only afterward, when the police have rounded up the prisoner and I'm safely home, do I realize that I could have been taken hostage if the prisoner had been lurking inside the stairwell.
I begin researching hostage takings in hospitals. 

September 20th, 1991: 00:00

Richard Worthington storms into a suburban Salt Lake City hospital with a shotgun, a .347 magnum revolver, and a bomb. He screams, “My life was perfect! Dr. Curtis ruined everything! He butchered my wife!”
He wants to kill the doctor who performed a tubal ligation on his wife, which she'd requested after eight difficult deliveries. Worthington takes two nurses hostage, shoots the one who tries to wrestle the shotgun from him, and breaks into a room where 22-year-old Christan Downey, surrounded by her family and her labour nurse, is about to deliver her first baby.
Worthington orders the nurses to bring two other newborns into the room with them. Then he forces Christan's partner, Adam Cisneros, to retrieve the homemade bomb Worthington had planted at the front entrance.
Worthington tells one nurse, Margie Wyler, to call his wife. After the call, he shoots the telephone, yelling, "I'm going to die tonight, and so are all of you!"
Worthington decides to move them up to the third floor, where Dr. Curtis's office lies, even though Christan can't walk because of her epidural. She lies in bed, pushed by Adam and Margie; the two infants are carried by Christan's sister, Carre, and the second nurse, Susan Woolley. 
Christan's epidural begins to wear off. Susan whispers, "Margie, Christan must have that baby."
Christian, coached by Margie and Susan, delivers a healthy baby girl, Caitlin, at 3:23 a.m.
Police negotiations break down. Sometimes Worthington answers the functional phone lines, sometimes not. He demands to speak to his wife or to Dr. Glade Curtis. But he warms to Margie, calling her "a beautiful woman" when he discovers that she has 11 children.
By late morning, Worthington is screaming less and begins to weep. The adult hostages pray.
Eventually, Worthington allows Adam and the nurses to walk to the door, but becomes enraged when he sees the SWAT team. He pulls the nurses back in and demands to see his wife.
The police refuse, but Worthington allows Susan to come into the hall to repeat the request.
They refuse again.
"But you'll let seven of us die?" cries Susan, although she returns to the room.
Meanwhile, police negotiator Don Bell, knowing that a hostage taker is less likely to kill someone he cares about, asks Margie to hug Worthington.
"I don't know if I can," she says to him over the phone.
"You must," Bell replies.
She does.
"The next thing I knew, Susan and I were running down the hall--free!" says Margie. Susan is carrying one of the babies, Erich. Carre follows, holding a second baby, Bryan. Last to leave are the newest mother and child, Christan and Caitlin.
At 18:00, eighteen hours after the ordeal began, Richard Worthington begins to walk out of the office before dashing back in. The officers tackle him.
Worthington pleads guilty to criminal homicide, aggravated burglary, and eight counts of aggravated kidnapping. He receives 35 years to life. He claims that his now ex-wife, Karen, was responsible for his actions. In 1993, he hangs himself in his cell.
Alta View Women's Centre increases security at the hospital
Margie returns to nursing after only three weeks.
It takes 2.5 years of therapy before Susan finally comes to grip with her post-traumatic stress. She, too, returns to nursing.
Christan enters Alta View on November 1st, 1994, to give birth to her second daughter, Alexa. She asks for a different room.

Stockholm Syndrome


Pregnancy and giving birth is a time where you are intensely vulnerable, both physically and emotionally.
I started writing the latest Hope Sze mystery, Stockholm Syndrome.

I knew Dr. Hope wouldn't be pregnant ("I'm on the pill, thanks," she points out), but she is exactly the kind of person who would be sucked into a hostage taking. She would have to take care of a woman in labour. At gunpoint. Trying to outwit and outplay the killer.
This one is a thriller. This one, you can't put down. This one, I almost can't read any excerpt at a reading except the first page or two, because jumping ahead is such a spoiler.

"I was relieved when I finished it. I thought, at least this didn't happen in real life. And then I turned to the last page and I saw it did happen in real life," said Stephen Campbell, when he interviewed me on CrimeFiction.fm.

Sorry, Steve. CBC Radio Ottawa Morning's Robin Bresnahan and Ontario Morning's Wei Chen were also interested in the link between reality and fiction. And I'm ever so grateful that CBC Fresh Air's Mary Ito took the time to ask me about my "snarky" heroine and "very graphic" thriller.

If you want to hear more, I'm appearing at the Brantford Public Library on May 11th for Mystery Month. I originally wrote this post so I could upload videos for the talk, but I'm running out of time and will have to upload them later.

In the meantime, Happy Mother's Day. I say that without irony. In the end, if you look at the real-life hostage taking, who survived? Think of the courage it would take to have a baby, or return to nursing, in the same building where you were held at gunpoint for 18 hours.

I worked this Mother's Day, and it was busy, but much more peaceful than that other hospital in 1991. I'm proud of the book I wrote, and I think it's good practice to consider how we might act in terrifying situations, so that we have some mental preparation, if it should ever come to pass.

Hug your loved ones tight.

09 May 2016

That Damn Book

by Susan Rogers Cooper

It was 9:30 in the evening, April 25, 2016. I was sitting in front of the computer, staring at that damn book. I couldn't take it any more. I decided to take a break and quickly checked my email. There it was, right there in front of me: an email from Leigh, asking where my post was for tomorrow. Post? What post? OMG, that damn book! I quickly explained to Leigh that I was trying to make a deadline in three days and I was still @#*& words short. He rescued me – at least from the post.

So it was back to the book. That damn book. I'd basically finished the story at @#*& words, which weren't nearly enough. So I added weather: an ice storm. That would be good for a few thousand words, I thought. Wrong. Less than one thousand. Okay, bite the bullet (so to speak) and kill somebody else. Over a thousand words! Yay! Still short.

My hero, Milt Kovak, was the only one of the regulars in the book who'd not been targeted by the bad guy. Okay, let's get Milt. I didn't want to shoot him – the Milt books are basically first person narrative. It would be difficult for him to narrate while dead or even hospitalized. I didn't want to physically hurt his family. A fire! I thought. Scary but not necessarily harmful to anything but his house! And of course Milt's not there because --- because it happens in the middle of the ice storm! Two thousand words! I was on a roll! But I still had @#*& words to go.

Someone suggested a bomb. I'd never done a bomb. Did this book even call for a bomb? Not really. But what the hell! I added a bomb.

The minutes, the hours, the days wore on. And still not enough words for that damn book. But with one day to spare, I finished it. It was ready to go. I didn't want to even think about reading it yet again, but I knew I had to. That damn book! Well, actually, it wasn't half bad. It could be better – every book could be better when you send it off – but it wasn't half bad. But mainly, it was gone.

Now on to the second book in the contract!

P.S. And thanks, Leigh, for the title to this post!

08 May 2016

Professional Tips– S S Van Dine

by Leigh Lundin
I’d planned a different column for today, but due to a technical glitch, we were unable to get an important part of the article working, the audio mechanism. We’ll try again at another date. In the meantime, enjoy the following advice by the author of the 1920s-30s Philo Vance series, S.S. Van Dine, pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright.

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

by

S. S. Van Dine

Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound. — Wordsworth
The detective story is a game. It is more– it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader's interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws– unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:
  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions– not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective– that is, but one protagonist of deduction– one deus ex machine. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his co-deductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story– that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
  11. Servants– such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like– must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person– one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element– a super-radium, let us say– is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author's imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent– provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face– that all the clues really pointed to the culprit– and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary "popular" novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely ‘literary’ technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity– just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department– not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the homicide bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction– in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality.
    1. Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    2. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. Forged finger-prints.
    4. The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. The word-association test for guilt.
    10. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.
What are your thoughts?