24 August 2017

The Novella: Expanding a Short Story or Writing One From Scratch?

by Brian Thornton

As I mentioned when I began my summer-long look into the second coming of the novella, I have finally written one.

It was a bitch.

That's understandable, because, like so many people doing something for the first time, I went about it all wrong. Which is another way of saying that I had make a ton of mistakes before I could begin to learn from them.

In my last few entries I've included excerpts from interviews with several successful writers who seem to have really mastered the form and function of the novella. Although these authors are disparate in approach, tone, form, and style, they almost uniformly agree (with the exception of Steve Liskow) that their successful forays into novella writing were generated from scratch, intended from the beginning to be novellas.

(Steve Liskow mentioned that his novella, Black Orchid award-winner "Stranglehold," began life as "a 6800 word short story that didn't quite work..")

My initial foray fit neither of these models. "Suicide Blonde" started out as a short story that worked, in fact it worked so well that it was my second sale to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (where I maintain a 66% acceptance rate by not having submitted anything in the years since.). So why expand it into a novella, rather than start from scratch?

Put simply: because I had no idea what I was doing.

Look, I've sold several book-length pieces of nonfiction. Those were simple (Note I don't say "easy") to write. I'd earned an advanced degree in history and learned how to research and write professional-grade nonfiction work in grad school (I will not dignify anything I wrote as an undergrad with the title "professional," including the bi-weekly newspaper columns I wrote for beer money–The Gonzaga University Bulletin paid twenty bucks a pop at the time. That wasn't exactly small potatoes for a starving college student).

But I had zero experience writing a novella. And I thought, "Hey, maybe it'll be relatively easy to expand one of my short stories. People are always saying that wished that 'Paper Son' and 'Suicide Blonde' were longer, that they wanted to read more about the characters, so why not go that route?"

Having done it, I will say that, while I am committed to expanding another of my short stories (the aforementioned "Paper Son") into a novella, I am loathe to do so again once that is wrapped up.

Nope. My third foray into novella writing is going to be a from-scratch original story. And even though I'm going to finish expanding "Paper Son" into a novella, I am going about it far more efficiently than I did with "Suicide Blonde." That first attempt was trial and error: I wound up incredibly pleased with the results.

Having learned from my mistakes with "Suicide Blonde," I've mapped out the existing plot of my original story with "Paper Son," and am working on fleshing out addition scenes that ought to fit pretty seamlessly in with my original narrative and revising my original ending. I think it's going to work well. It feels great to have a sort of "system" for this sort of thing now.

And I anticipate having exciting news about a publication date for "Suicide Blonde" sometime in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned to this page!

Lastly, in two weeks I touch base with my previous interview subjects (as well as a couple of surprise guest stars) for a final wrap-up of my summer-long foray into Novellaville.

See you in two weeks!

23 August 2017

Bread and Circuses

This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.

I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass. 

There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.

I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.

I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.

Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.

We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.

The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.

I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.

Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.

22 August 2017

Mystery #1: How to Balance Motherhood, Work, and Writing

Hi everyone, I want to tread lightly as we mourn the great writer and friend, BK Stevens. I'd written this post three years ago, and tucked it away for an emergency day that didn't come, although I came close many a time.

Sleuthsayers have been very kind to me, but I've struggled to balance my 'big three': medicine, writing, and my children. This summer, I realized it would be best for my family and my sanity if I gave someone else the opportunity.

Next month, you will meet Dr. Mary Fernando. I first met her through Capital Crime Writers, the Ottawa writers' association. Her first novel, An Absence of Empathy, was nominated for the Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel, sponsored by Dundurn Press. In addition to her obvious talents as a physician and a writer, Mary likes to laugh, and I think you'll have fun together.
Shoot. Her face is cut off (perhaps fitting in a crime blog?), but that's Mary Fernando, me, a skull, and Elizabeth Hosang.

Best wishes, everyone. Perhaps it's fitting that my last column is about family. Yesterday, my eleven-year-old son, Max, turned toward me. "You said you weren't working in August."

"I said I wasn't working [at the hospital] as much. But that means I'm writing more. You know that."

"I hate your writing. I hate it. It takes you away from us."

So I'll work on getting our family back on track. Today, we watched the partial solar eclipse. Tonight was their last, despised swimming lesson. Tomorrow they'll revel at a barbecue before I start back at the hospital again.

See you online, and at Bouchercon in Toronto!
Facebook   Twitter   website

Original post:
When I was in med school and residency, I knew I wanted kids, but I had no idea how I’d make time for them AND emergency medicine AND writing. So I used to corner parent-writers at parties and say, “How do you do it?”

Dr. Ilsa Bick, a writer and a psychiatrist, said, “You have an advantage. You started writing young.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I shook my head, genuinely confused. Writing in my twenties wouldn’t help me stay up all night with a colicky baby.

But now I see a few advantages, like before I procreated, I’d already written my million words of garbage, I’d published a handful of short stories and won a few awards (including Writers of the Future, where I met Ilsa), I’d written a few novels, and I’d perhaps most importantly, I’d learned iron-clad self discipline.
From the Kobo office. Cool place.

Still, since this spring, I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to become a more attentive mom.

Over the past two years, I’ve doubled my emergency room shifts per month. I still need to write. So motherhood was sliding on to the back burner. Now that my daughter has enough of an attention span longer than a few minutes, it’s all too easy to foist both kids off on the electronic babysitter (Netflix and/or YouTube).

So I tried a few different tactics.

I read about how other people prioritize their family life.

I wrote about balancing medicine and my family for the Medical Post.

And I started doing video diaries/vlogs (video blogs), walking my dog with my kids while talking about writing.

Last year, the fearless fantasy writer, Michael La Ronn, introduced me to #walkcasts. Those are podcasts you record while walking. Walking is a good idea for writers, who tend to be sedentary. And podcasts are fun, as you can hear on Michael's podcasts here. So I recorded ten of them, but I never got around to putting them in order, labeling them, etc.
On impulse, at the end of August, I started recording videos instead. Just a minute or two. Just long enough to say a few words about writing and show people the neighbourhood and our dog Roxy’s hind end as she trots in front of me.

I can’t say my videos are blowing up YouTube. My son Max laughed and said, “Why do you only have two views?” But you know, for once I’m not as worried how many likes or views I get. This is my way to combine two of the big loves of my life, and if the rest of the planet doesn’t see it, well, it’s probably just as well for my kids’ Internet privacy.

No matter what happens, or how many trolls give us the thumbs down, I will love my kids. And I will love writing. This feels like a win to me. It makes me more present if I’m recording my walks instead of just getting lost in my own thoughts.

If a young’un were to ask me now, “O Great and Wise Melissa, how do you do it?” I’d say supportive partner is priceless. A tight circle of family and friends will keep you afloat. But it takes ferocious will to make time for multiple serious interests. Do you let the kids weep for a few minutes while you finish your word quota for the day, or do you let the words slip away because kids come first? 

Medicine waits for no one. Are you willing to scale back your career now for the sake of your writing, or go all-out doctor and pick the pen back up in twenty years? You decide.

You can see how writing can easily drop off the to-do list. That’s why I encourage you to keep writing no matter what. Even one line, one word a day. Just keep at it, and it will add up to a song lyric, a poem, a short story, or a novel. Something beautiful for you, and maybe for the world.

21 August 2017

Days Are Darker Without Bonnie

I'm not sure what I can write about today. A couple of subjects came to mind but nothing could jell. My mind is on Bonnie and her family.

I read "The Last Blue Glass" this afternoon and am once again touched by how Bonnie's characters are strong and vibrant. That is one of the best short stories I have ever read and believe me I've read many through the years. Cathy and Frank Morrell. I surely think I must have gone to high school with them. Didn't you?

I don't want to get too maudlin here but I want Bonnie's family to know that I also lost my love, my other half and I can feel some of your pain.  I wish I could give you words of wisdom but there aren't any. Don't believe it when someone tells you that time heals. It doesn't.

What happens is that time passes and as it does pass on by, the hurt lessens just a little. And then a little more. You never get over that hurt and that loss. You just go on day by day and keep getting up and getting dressed and doing whatever you can to keep busy throughout the day and that night as you lay down to sleep you are thankful that one more day has passed.

Bonnie BK Stevens
Bonnie BK Stevens
Tears help a lot and don't ever hesitate to cry. But laugh too. Think of all the wonderful times you've shared. Let the memories help sustain you. At times when you least expect it, a memory will come up and it might tear the scab off, but more often it will bring a laugh. Laughter is as healing as tears are.

I am truly sorry that I never met Bonnie. From what everyone says, I know I would have liked her a lot. But as a fan and reader, I will enjoy reading her books and stories. And I will remember her as one of our SleuthSayers family and the many times she made thoughtful or witty comments to my articles.

Yes, our days are a bit darker, but I honestly don't think Bonnie would want us to stay there. Get out in the sunshine and live every day. Read and Write and think good thoughts for Bonnie Stevens aka B.K. Stevens. Rest in Peace, Bonnie.

20 August 2017


by Leigh Lundin

Bonnie BK Stevens
Bonnie BK Stevens
Around the corporate offices, we’ve been feeling depressed and not terribly energized since Bonnie died. Art’s devastated, John found it difficult to start his article yesterday, Rob’s glum, and our ladies have tried to cheer one another up. Bonnie’s impact was amazing.

I don’t feel much like writing and I won’t. You may have guessed last week’s post came about because we didn’t have a complete article. The story behind that is inspiring.

Bonnie had given me one of her books populated with gentle characters and genteel plots. B. K. Stevens’ stories were family oriented and she always made it clear her writing was a family operation.

On 10 August, Bonnie’s husband Dennis wrote that Bonnie had been working on Saturday’s column but wound up in ICU. He apologized the article wouldn’t be finished in time.

Afterwards I thought— what consummate pros, Bonnie and Dennis. It touched me and further augmented my admiration for our members… for indeed, Dennis is a behind-the-scenes colleague.

Someone said the hearts of her friends, family, and us SleuthSayers, a family of sorts, have a Bonnie-shaped hole in them. Along with everyone else, I miss her gentle intelligence. Blessed be.

Bonnie BK Stevens
This sketch of Bonnie I used on SleuthSayers for the first time last week. An enchanting French friend, Michèle Gandet (daughter of the charming Micheline as mentioned by RT and myself), said the picture shows a joyful woman. Michèle stated it perfectly.
Footnote > In writing this article, my fingers scribed a couple of oddly humorous typos, perhaps inspired by Bonnie’s playful side. I initially wrote ‘gentile plots’ instead of ‘genteel’ and ‘consummate prose’ instead of ‘pros’. Maybe it’s my own self-mocking drollery, but I like to think Bonnie would be smiling.

19 August 2017

Jewels From the Bargain Bin

Like many of you, I was shocked and saddened by the recent passing of our friend B.K. Stevens. I can't remember when she and I first met face-to-face--one of the Bouchercons--but we've exchanged (literally) hundreds of emails over the years. I miss her deeply. It was I who, with the blessing of our board, invited her to join SleuthSayers a couple of years ago, and I believe she enjoyed the group. I know I always looked forward to her insights--Bonnie was one of those writers who seemed always to to be able to find the humor in this crazy pastime of ours. I'm pleased that her fictional characters will live on, and I look forward to discovering or re-reading her many stories in back issues of AHMM and other publications. Once again, deepest condolences to Dennis and the rest of her family. 

Not that it matters, but my post today involves one of the many subjects that Bonnie and I often discussed…

I've always loved movies. I grew up in a town too small to have a traffic light, much less a theatre (actually it did have a rickety wooden building that screened what my granddad called "serials," with John Wayne and Tom Mix, but it burned down when I was four or five), so the first cinematic experiences I really remember are the movies my parents or my older cousins took me to in our two nearest "cities," one seven miles west and the other twelve miles east. I can still recall the names of some of those thrilling adventures: The Missouri Traveler, Operation Mad Ball, Old Yeller, Fire Down Below, Calamity Jane, The Seven Year Itch, The Lion and the Horse, Bend of the River, and so on. Later, I devoured movies at every opportunity, in high school, college, and the Air Force, and since by that time I could also see them regularly on TV, I furthered my addiction at home, late at night. Even now, I spend way too much time in front of either the big or small screen (mostly small, via Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video). I'm hooked--what can I say?

A couple of weeks ago I watched two films I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing: Waterloo Bridge (recommended by Paul Marks) and In a Lonely Place. I liked them both. I've also recently re-watched familiar favorites like L. A. Confidential, Apocalypse Now, The Big Country, Raising Arizona, and Aliens. And, in so doing, it occurred to me that most people's favorite films are probably those that are well-known: the Citizen Kanes, Godfathers, Chinatowns, Casablancas, Fargos, Vertigos, etc. They're great movies, yes, but they're supposed to be. They're classics.

What I especially enjoy, though, is to "discover," either by accident or through the recommendations of friends (thanks again, Paul!), good movies that I've not heard about, or that I didn't think I would like. The following is a list of a round 100 of those "pleasant surprises." Most are those that you might find in the six-foot-diameter, three-to-five-dollar DVD bin at Walmart, but I liked 'em all. And yes, I know I wrote a similar column about guilty-pleasure movies earlier this year, and this list recycles some of those--but more than half of these are new entries. (I've dug through a great many of those discount bins since then.)

Anyhow, if you're ever stuck for something new to watch, give one of these lesser-known gems a try:

From Noon to Three (1976)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Sands of the Kalahari (1965)
Park (2006)
Born Losers (1967)
Magic (1978)
A Family Thing (1996)
The Hanging Tree (1959)
Melancholia (2011)
Used Cars (1980)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
The Gypsy Moths (1969)
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)
Duck, You Sucker (1971)
The Last Sunset (1961)
The Dish (2000)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2007)
Waterhole #3 (1967)
Proof (2005)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Ghost World (2001)
Remo Willians--the Adventure Begins (1985)
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)
The Professionals (1966)
Dillinger (1973)
A History of Violence (2005)
Cloverfield Lane (2015)
In Bruge (2008)
Vanishing Point (1971)
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Island in the Sky (1953)
Good Neighbor Sam (1964)
Pawn Shop Chronicles (2013)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Cashback (2006)
Copland (1997)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Lockout (2012)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Red Rock West (1993)
An Unfinished Life (2005)
Edge of Darkness (2010)
Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Game Change (2012)
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
Killer Joe (2011)
Idiocracy (2006)
Nebraska (2013)
What About Bob? (1991)
Mystery Road (2013)
Frequency (2000)
Big (1988)
The Sea of Trees (2015)
Leap of Faith (1992)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Mexican (2001)
The Great Train Robbery (1979)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Across the Universe (2007)
The History of the World, Part I (1981)
Brassed Off (1996)
Lady in the Water (2006)
Top Secret! (1984)
Ransom (1996)
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
16 Blocks (2006)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
The Cooler (2003)
Seven Men From Now (1956)
Hidalgo (2004)
The Book of Eli (2010)
True Romance (1993)
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Always (1989)
Heaven's Prisoners (1996)
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Manhunter (1986)
Silver Bullet (1985)
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Secondhand Lions (2003)
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Dead Again (1991)
Will Penny (1967)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Nevada Smith (1966)
Necessary Roughness (1991)
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
The Edge (1997)
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
Rustler's Rhapsody (1985)
The Great Race (1965)
Undercover Brother (2002)
The Salvation (2014)
The Flim-Flam Man (1967)
Stripes (1981)

If you've heard of some of these, I'm pleased--not many are instantly recognizable. But I think they're worth your while. Some have won awards, many are technically excellent, and a few will make you laugh or cry. If you do watch any of them on my recommendation and they make you laugh or cry for the wrong reasons (believe me, I've seen a lot of those, too), I apologize. My taste is sometimes a little weird.

Here's the question of the day: Do you have any obscure favorites you can point me to? I received a lot of great suggestions from your comments, last time.

My Netflix queue awaits your replies…

18 August 2017

Remembering B.K. Stevens

On Monday, B.K. Stevens—an award-winning mystery writer, a member of the SleuthSayers family here, and a great friend to so many of us—died in Virginia. As her husband Dennis explained in phone calls and emails with me and then on Facebook, Bonnie collapsed at their home on the previous Wednesday night and was taken to the hospital; she was unresponsive and did not regain consciousness. Her death is a loss that's already been felt strongly not just here among her peers at SleuthSayers but throughout the larger mystery community, where she was admired not just as a writer but also as a person, full of wit, wisdom, and generosity. She was one of my own best friends in the mystery world, and all of this is simply a heartbreak.

Bonnie and I first crossed paths back in 2011, when each of us won Derringer Awards—Bonnie in the Long Story category for her story "Interpretation of Murder," originally published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and centered on American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi, and me in the Novelette category. Bonnie was already enjoying a remarkable career at that point—she published more than 50 short stories in all, most of them for AHMM, and many of them part of three long-running series, featuring respectively Leah Abrams, Iphigenia Woodhouse, and Walt Johnson & Gordon Bolt. You can read stories from the first two series in Bonnie's outstanding collection Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime (Wildside Press), and you can get her own in-depth reflections on all her work—and insights into the woman behind that work—in an extensive and illuminating interview in the latest issue of The Digest Enthusiast from Larque Press.

Bonnie and her daughter Sarah Gershone,
an ASL interpreter, with Interpretation of Murder
at Malice Domestic
But while she was already a regular and much-admired contributor to AHMM and to Woman's World too, more recent years have brought Bonnie and her work into the spotlight more fully. While this post should hardly be about me, I'll admit I've felt a great kinship with Bonnie because of the ways our careers seem to have risen together in those recent years and even intertwined at times. We've often found ourselves finalists together for several awards, and we've regularly toasted one another's successes along the way. Bonnie's fiction has earned nominations for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards—not just for her short fiction but also for her books, with 2015's Young Adult novel Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen) earning both Agatha and Anthony recognition. Bonnie's first mystery novel was also published in 2015—Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal), expanding on characters from her Derringer Award-winning story; in another bit of intertwining of our careers, my own first book appeared that same year, building from my own story from our shared Derringer wins. Bonnie and I talked several times about that coincidence, about what those stories had meant for us, about how remarkable all of it seemed.

It's not just coincidence, though, that drew Bonnie and me together, but a more fundamental commonality of belief about how short fiction should work. As she and I served on panels together at Malice Domestic or even talking more casually at Bouchercon or the Virginia Festival of the Book or while sharing a table at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, I found myself struck by and honestly thrilled by how often Bonnie's thoughts about crime fiction and short stories meshed with my own and by her gift for articulating those thoughts in ways that made them so much clearer to me; she came back time and again, for example, to Poe's essay on the single-effect in short fiction—a cornerstone for both of us about the art of composition—and she spoke about it with the grace of the professor that she was for so many years. More recently, Bonnie and I had back-to-back essays on our fiction in the "First Two Pages" blog she hosted (more on that in a moment), and we both commented on how our thoughts on the beginnings of stories echoed one another—on slow beginnings, in fact, and our faith that readers would stick with them, contrary to conventional wisdom about starting quickly. The story Bonnie wrote about, "The Last Blue Glass" (originally published in AHMM and linked here), was an Agatha finalist this year and is currently in contention for the Anthony Award for Best Novella, and you can read her essay on the story's first two pages here. As often with Bonnie, as much as I enjoyed her fiction in its own right, that joy and pleasure was always enhanced by hearing her talk about the process of writing the stories—thoughts on prose and plot and structure and more that served as evidence of her superior approach to the craft of writing.

As regular readers of SleuthSayers know, her posts here were carefully considered essays on that craft as well—analyzing stories with a keen eye or explaining in comprehensive detail some fundamental approaches to crime fiction that any writer could learn from, opening perspectives for all of us time and again; just check out her essay from last fall about "Camouflaging Clues" or another on "Whodunits: Pet Peeves" or her analysis of "The Twist" in one of O. Henry's most famous tales. Perhaps more than all of them, her essay "Sayers vs. Aristotle: What's So Funny?" surely proves that Bonnie was as brilliant an essayist and critic as she was a fiction writer.

Beyond sharing her perspectives and her wisdom in posts like those, Bonnie was generous to writers in other ways. I mentioned her blog above, "The First Two Pages," where each Tuesday Bonnie hosted a writer of novels or short stories to explain "how he or she faced the challenges of those brutally difficult—and vitally important—first two pages." These weekly posts offer great insights into craft but also gave Bonnie a chance to turn attention toward other writers throughout our community, give them opportunities to reach more readers and find new fans. And as you'll hear below, Bonnie was also quick to reach out to fellow writers with congratulations or support, celebrating the larger community always.

Bonnie was generous to me as well—sometimes in small ways, but aren't those often the ones that count the most? Bonnie and I both enjoyed a good bourbon, a Manhattan in particular in her case, and I'll always remember waiting for our flights in the Albany airport after Bouchercon, and Bonnie and Dennis buying a round of drinks for us, the three of us chatting while we waited. At other conventions, we always made a point to find time together, often with Dennis and Bonnie hosting again (there may be no better hosts), and there in person or later in emails, we always found more points of common interest: our shared admiration of Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night as one of the true masterpieces of mystery, for example, or our love of Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small novels. Over time, Bonnie and I began talking about funneling our shared interests into plans for collaborating on a major project, one that was ongoing and even ramping up when she died; in fact, I have two emails from Bonnie in my inbox now, one about that collaboration and another continuing our prep for a workshop we were scheduled to co-present at last weekend's Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival.

"All things considered, I think our plans are coming together well," Bonnie wrote to me on that Wednesday morning, and I left a voicemail for her early the next morning to talk in particular about those final touches to the Suffolk workshop. When the return call came, I picked up the phone, enthusiastic to chat, looking forward to the weekend—but it was Dennis on the line instead, bringing the first round of troubling news. 

There is much to say here, of course, about the swiftness of time and the poignancy of regrets and the emptiness of plans undone and promises unfulfilled. But instead let me simply say this again: Both professionally and personally, Bonnie Stevens was one of my dearest friends, and her death is sudden and sharply felt—a loss to all of us in the mystery community. I will miss her in so very many ways.

In the parlance of obituaries, Bonnie is survived by her husband Dennis Stevens and their daughters Sarah Gershone and Rachel Stevens, and our condolences and good wishes go out to all of them and to Bonnie and Dennis's grandchildren as well. But Bonnie is also survived by an outstanding body of work that will surely continue to give readers joy and pleasure in the years to come—and give us writers, now and in the future, models of excellence by which to measure our own work, models to aspire toward ourselves.

I asked several friends of Bonnie's in the mystery community to share a few of their own thoughts and memories, and I'm glad to welcome them here now.

Discovering a new story from Bonnie over the transom was always a thrill. She was a writer’s writer. Her stories are well conceived, well written, and well plotted, but for me her great skill was in character. Even those that were comic were always drawn with enormous sympathy and warmth. In addition to the mystery, each story was always firmly rooted in the relations between characters. I always felt that her skill with characters was a reflection of her empathetic, articulate, and engaged personality. Hers was an influential voice in AHMM’s pages for nearly 30 years.

As I’m sure many others will attest, Bonnie was a lovely person—generous with her time and with a kind word for all. When she and I worked together on her collection of short stories, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, her perception and intelligence came to the fore. Each story displays her mastery of the form, as well as her insight into what makes a compelling character and intriguing plot. Her introductions to her various series show her firm grounding in the history of the genre, and her comments on each story shed light on its genesis and development. She unselfishly shared her knowledge and talent with so many, and despite her untimely death, her legacy will continue.

Bonnie was an exceptional short story writer, and an even better human being. When I was nominated for a Derringer, she was one of the first people to send me congratulations. It meant the world to me because she is one of my absolute favorite short story writers. She could take a seemingly simple setup and turn it into a gripping tale. But more than even her stories, I recall a time she said a few well-placed words when I was feeling particularly frustrated and downtrodden about my own work. I doubt she would even remember her kindness that day, but I sure do. She embodied the idea of "paying it forward." My life is richer for having met her and read her work. She will be missed.

Bonnie and I became listserv acquaintances in 2014, but our true friendship began in January 2015 when, while reading back issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, I came across her short story, “Thea’s First Husband.” I didn’t know it had been nominated for Macavity and Agatha awards, only that it moved me in a way few stories, other than Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” had. As a bottom of the heap short story writer, I recognized I was reading how a master interweaves plot, dialogue, and setting to escalate tension and intrigue a reader. I wrote Bonnie a fan e-mail telling her this and asking if she ever taught classes. I told her I had had some success with having stories and two novels accepted, but hadn’t had the guts to try for AHMM or EQMM, but reading her story moved me and I hoped there was a way I could learn from her.

She replied with joy that her writing had touched me, but told me she was a retired English professor who didn’t teach online classes. Bonnie then gave me a one-paragraph summary of things I should read. I read those things and also her novels, Interpretation of Murder and Fighting Chance, and the collection of eight AHMM short stories, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. The comments between the stories tell a tale of Bonnie as a writer in themselves. We met a few months later at Bouchercon Raleigh and began a tradition of sharing a planned dinner or drinks at any conference we both attended. We also posted blogs for each other, exchanged congratulatory emails, discussed writing and writing opportunities, and talked family.

Bonnie’s Jewish faith and family traditions with her husband, Dennis, daughters Sarah and Rachel, and grandchildren were even more of a passion than her writing. Her Facebook posts were filled with the accomplishments of her grandchildren and her love for her family. Behind the scenes, this year, we compared our joy at having our first grandchild bar/bat mitzvahed and kidded we should introduce her single daughter to my unmarried son.  Such a match. Bonnie and I could be related!

There won’t be any more dinners or talk of introducing our children, but what I will remember is a package I received a week after Malice 2017. It contained a note and five copies of the May/June 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine that Bonnie and Dennis took the time to collect from their registration bags and the giveaway room. The note told me she knew I would want extra copies of this issue because had my name on the cover and contained my first AHMM story, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place.” She thought it was an award-winning story. Who knows if it will be nominated for anything at the 2018 events at which it is eligible, but I saved the note. With Bonnie and others guiding me, I’ve already won the biggest award in my book—Bonnie’s approval.

I met Bonnie Stevens through her writing. I’ll never forget reading “Thea’s First Husband,” and thinking it was the most brilliantly written story. So, like any avid fan, I wrote her a letter. And, she answered, graciously and humbly. She invited me to join her at her Malice Domestic banquet table when the story was nominated for an Agatha. That’s how I met her husband Dennis. If ever two people were meant to be together, Bonnie and Dennis Stevens were that couple. Some of my happiest memories are of seeing Bonnie and Dennis approach me at writing conferences, her arm in his, perfectly content.

Bonnie brought so much of herself, both in skill and experience, to her writing. She also learned from her family and incorporated their knowledge into her stories and novels. Her protagonist Jane Ciardi, a sign language interpreter, in her short story “Silent Witness” [originally "Interpretation of Murder"] and her novel Interpretation of Murder, was based somewhat on her daughter Sarah Gershone’s skill. For Author’s Alley at Malice Domestic one year, Bonnie and Sarah appeared together, demonstrating American Sign Language for the audience. For her YA novel, Fighting Chance, Bonnie collaborated with Dennis, a martial arts expert, to choreograph the scenes accurately. She delighted us all in describing how she and Dennis “practiced” the moves.

Dennis and daughters Sarah and Rachel were Bonnie’s greatest supporters. When she received the contract from Black Opal Books for Interpretation of Murder, they gave her some very special gifts which she featured on her Facebook page: a black opal necklace from Dennis and a personalized cutting board. Somehow, the girls thought it appropriate for a mystery writer to be celebrated with a surface that would see a lot of action from knives. Both gifts delighted Bonnie.
My first Malice panel included Bonnie. She was so incredibly kind and helpful, putting me at ease and encouraging me. Her support for me and others was demonstrated in so many ways. She sent a message welcoming every new group of Guppies and many notes of congratulations.

While I will continue to treasure her stories, I will cherish the times we spent together and the emails she sent me. She was a master of the craft, yet talked to me as if I were an equal. Her belief in me is a tremendous, sustaining gift. I am so very grateful for our friendship.

I’ve known Bonnie for more than a decade. We always talked about getting together for a meal at the next Malice Domestic, but somehow, we never found the time. It’s something I truly regret.

I spent tonight reading through old emails from Bonnie. She was so supportive and gracious, as well as well-prepared and thoughtful. Back when I was program chair of Malice Domestic, I always tapped Bonnie to be a moderator because I knew she’d do a bang-up job. She approached the job of a panel moderator analytically, reading her panelists’ books and coming up with excellent questions that made the panels interesting and helped showcase her authors and their books.

Incidentally, that’s the same way she approached her writing, analytically and thoroughly. She once said she would write perhaps thirty pages of notes before she started writing a story. The notes sometimes were way longer than the story ended up being. It’s a process what worked wonders for her, as her many award nominations can attest, as well as her Derringer win.

Bonnie also had a wry side and a delightful way with words. I came across one email in which she described some connecting flights she’d taken right before catching the flu. She said, “the planes were packed so tightly that it was positively claustrophobic, and I'm sure germs of every sort were making lots of new friends.”

Bonnie wrote a lot of great stories, including “The Last Blue Glass,” currently and deservedly up for the Anthony Award for Best Novella. But the story of hers that stands out in my mind most is one that never got published, at least not traditionally. Bonnie wrote a story about an old dog, based in part on her old dog, Alex, and she put it on her website. In the story, Alex had physical problems, as old dogs are apt to do, which resulted in some less-desirable behaviors, including defecating in the house. Bonnie wrote to me that some dog-less friends who read it wondered if anyone would really put up with such behavior, but Bonnie knew full well that they would, because she herself did. She said, “We really did put up with the real Alex's bad habits, for a couple of years, until the night his heart gave out and he died in our arms; nothing would have made us happier than putting up with his habits for many, many more years.”

That was Bonnie. Full of love and heart and graciousness. I wish we could have put up with her for many, many more years to come. She will be missed.

17 August 2017

Goat Glands, Radium, and Dr. Blood

I was watching cable TV the other night, and they were running the usual ads for losing weight, avoiding erectile dysfunctions, the occasional mysterious ailment and the latest patent medicine cures.  I will quote none of them, for none of them were memorable enough.  Whoever's writing these ads, they don't have the ring of
"Amazing Blue Star Ointment!  Cures jock itch, ringworm, tetter, psoriasis!  Ask for it by name!"  (See the original ad HERE).

But Blue Star Ointment still doesn't cure erectile dysfunction and, amazingly, doesn't even claim to. Not so with three of my favorite patent medicine doctors of all time, if you exclude James Thurber's "Doc Marlowe".   

Doc Brinkley
Let's start off with J. R. Brinkley (1885-1942), a/k/a the Goat Gland Doctor.  Doc Brinkley claimed to be a licensed physician, but he bought his degree from a diploma mill called the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University.
NOTE:  Can you imagine the school song for this one?
We could sell ice in the arctic!
Sorry.  (Not really)  Anyway, Doc Brinkley's first go at being a professional something-or-other was in Greenville, SC, with a partner who called himself J. W. Burks (one can't help but think he just misspelled "Burke").  They promised to restore men's manly vigor by injecting colored water (which they called "electric medicine from Germany") into their veins for $25 a shot.  (To give you an idea of pricing, an average worker made between $200 and $400 a year back then.)  Well, sooner or later the chumps catch up, and our physicians had to move on.

Doc shed his partner, and went back to Kansas City, while Brinkley took a job as the doctor for the Swift and Company meat plant, patching minor wounds and studying animal physiology. When he learned that goats were the healthiest animals slaughtered there, he did a little study, then set up a clinic, and started implanting the testicular glands of goats in his male patients for $750.00 per operation.  The surprising thing is the number of men willing to undergo such a process.  Even more surprising is that some men claimed it worked wonders. When the wife of his first goat-gland transplant case had a healthy boy... Well, the ad's on your left. What's less surprising is that there were a number of patients who got infected, and some died.  Brinkley would be sued over a dozen times for wrongful death between 1930-41.

Meanwhile, he made a lot of money and built his own radio station, KFKB ("Kansas First, Kansas Best" or sometimes "Kansas Folks Know Best").  Brinkley was KFKB's lead DJ, speaking for hours about his treatments (for which a lot of goats gave up their testicular glands: As a contemporaneous joke put it, What's the fastest thing on four legs? A: A goat passing Dr. Brinkley's hospital!") and giving medical advice (which were always to undergo his treatments and take his medicines). He also featured other entertainment: French lessons, astrology, storytelling and music ranging from military bands to gospel and early country. And the customers came.  In 1924, a San Francisco grand jury handed down indictments for fake medical degrees and doctors operating with them, including Brinkley (he'd illegally applied for a California medical license).  But when agents from California came to arrest Brinkley, the governor of Kansas refused to extradite him because he made the state too much money.

But in 1930, the pressure was on for cutting back on fake medical degrees, and Brinkley lost both his medical and broadcasting licenses.  So he did the logical thing and ran for governor of Kansas.  He damn near won.  He got over 29% of the vote on a write-in campaign.  (He lost to Harry Hines Woodring, who was later FDR's Secretary of War.)  Four years later, he ran again, and won over 30% of the vote.  This time he lost to Alf Landon, future GOP Presidential candidate.

But, debts and irate patients were hounding him, so Brinkley moved to Del Rio, Texas, just across the bridge from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. He set up a clinic and a "broadcast blaster", radio XER-AM. the "Sunshine Station Between the Nations".

He sold airtime to other advertisers (at $1,700 an hour), who sold stuff like "Crazy Water Crystals", "genuine simulated" diamonds, life insurance, and all sorts of religious paraphernalia and beliefs.  

Image result for Dr. Mel-Roy book of dreamsNOTE 1:  Among them was Dr. Mel-Roy, Ps.D and Ms.D, the "Apostle of Mental Science," who, with his Book of Dreams and his cape and turban, explained the secrets of the sub-conscious world. Sam Morris, a 1940s "Radio Temperance Lecturer" told Americans about the evils of alcohol and explained the true reasons why nations fell from positions of prominence and power...  Rev. George W. Cooper, a former moonshine runner from North Carolina, cowboy evangelist Dallas Turner and Rev. Frederick Eikenreenkoetter II (better known as Rev. Ike preaching "get out of the ghet-to and get into the get-mo!") who called himself unreal and incredible to those with limited consciousness all made rounds on XERF and the rest. Dr. Gerald Winrod pushed cancer cures, scripture and attacks on communism, and Brother Mack Watson and Brother David Epley sold holy oil, prayer cloths and even "the hem of His garment."  
"If there was a sick person between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains who wasn't listening in to Doc, it was because he had no radio set." Furthermore, "the new radio powerhouse had enough juice to blanket any United States or Canadian station operating within fifty kilocycles of its wavelength."  (History of XER-AM)  
NOTE 2:  All I can say is that Reverend Ike must have been a child when he was on XER-AM, because he was just getting started, metaphorically, in the 1970s, when I caught a broadcast of him on Atlanta's own Ted Turner channel TBS, sitting on a golden throne, draped in ermine, while telling his listeners to "send me your money today."  I had to hand it to him; at least he was honest about it.
Image result for reverend ike 

Doc Brinkley also gave a start to up-and-coming country and roots singers, including Patsy Montana, Red Foley, Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, the Pickard Family, and more.  (See Wikipedia).  Del Rio became known as "Hillbilly Hollywood".

"We can all thank Doctor B.
Who stepped across the line.
With lots of watts he took control,
The first one of its kind.
So listen to your radio
Most each and every night
'cause if you don't I'm sure you won't
Get to feeling right."

Finally, under pressure from the US, Mexico revoked Brinkley's broadcast license in 1934.  But he still practiced "medicine":  the traditional goat gland transplant, as well as "slightly modified vasectomies" (I don't even want to know...) and prostate "rejuvenations".  But eventually the times - and the regulations - caught up with him.  In 1941 he was sued for being a charlatan, lost, and got hit by a multiple malpractice lawsuits that stripped him of every penny he had.  He died the next year, penniless. 

I'm happy to announce that Penny Lane has made a documentary about Doc Brinkley called "Nuts!" Here's the official website:  http://www.nutsthefilm.com/#film.  And here's the Trailer! (WARNING: Definitely rated "R")

And a little Mexican Radio, just because...

Next blog post!  Radium and Dr. Blood!!!!!

16 August 2017

Sartre, Camus, and Me

by Robert Lopresti

I am writing this on Tuesday, August 15. Normally I write well in advance but in response to the events of the last few days and Barb Goffman's column, I decided to write about existentialism.  Or my understanding of it, anyway.  Let's see if I can make that seem like it is reasonably connected.

This topic was on my mind because last week I had the privilege of hearing from some readers.  A book club had decided to examine my story "Street of the Dead House," and the organizer was kind enough to summarize the discussion for me.  Their reflections were full of insights, including things that had never occurred to me.  But I suggested that one element they missed, or at least did not mention, was the existentialist frame of the story.

The story is a retelling of  Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders on the Rue Morgue," from the viewpoint of the orang-outang.  In my version the ape has been experimented on by a mad scientist, giving him the power to think and, eventually to communicate via sign language.  The first sentence of the story is "What am I?"  and that is the question my character has to wrestle with.  He chooses to make the decision for himself. and carry it out through his own actions. More in line with Sartre and Camus than Dupin, I think.

So, here is my feeble understanding of existentialism, or the part that matters to me right now.  Consider this sentence.  I know you have heard similar ones:

I do bad things, but I am really a good person.

To which the existentialist says: no.  There isn't some hidden reserve, some secret part of you that is separate and unsullied by the things you do. You are what you choose to do.

Now move to a different sentence, one we have heard variations of in the last few days:

Yes, I went to protest the removal of a monument to the Confederacy, and I marched beside Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners, but that doesn't make me a racist.

And our existentialist might frown at labels like racist, but they would say, you showed your allegiance, you demonstrated which side you are on, and who you are comfortable with.  You can't claim that that isn't what you meant, because it is what you DID.

But on the bright side, implicit in existentialism is the idea of choice.  If you are what you do, you can always choose to be something different, by doing something different. 

Anne Frank, of all people, put it this way: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

So that marcher who says he isn't what his actions say he is can start to improve the world this moment  by choosing different actions.  He can apologize, renounce old associations, and make up for past mistakes. But talk is not enough: people will continue to judge  him by his actions, especially if they contradict his words.

I thought about ending this with something Kurt Vonnegut said in one of my all-time favorite novels:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. 

But the last few days have even made me rethink that.  It turns out that Vonnegut's thinking only works if you pretend convincingly.

For example, let's say you are a public figure, and in a moment of crisis when people are counting on you, you say something that was weak and offensive.  After heavy criticism you finally say something better, and that's a good thing.

But you have to say it like you mean it.  Ideally you should apologize for your first statement.  You should not immediately send out messages whining about how badly you have been treated, as if having your actions criticized was worse than people being killed or hospitalized.  You could even stop associating with people who advised you to say stupid things in the first place.

Because if it is obvious you are just pretending to be something, people are likely to realize what you really are.

For all the SleuthSayer readers out there: be a little extra kind to yourself this week.  You deserve it.


15 August 2017

Thoughts on Cowardice

This is Robert Lopresti, butting in where I don't belong with some bad news that should not wait.  We just learned that our beloved fellow blogger B.K. Stevens has passed away.  Art Taylor will be writing at length about her in this space on Friday, but I wanted to let you know.  She will be missed more than I can say.  I apologize to Barb for stepping into her space.  - RL 

Barb here: Before we get to what I wrote earlier about cowardice, let me express my shock and sadness upon Bonnie's death. I've known her for more than a decade, and she was always such a warm and welcoming presence in the mystery short-story world. To Dennis and Bonnie's family: I'm so, so sorry. And now, I guess, onto my regularly scheduled post.

by Barb Goffman

Am I a coward?

I've been sitting this morning, thinking about it. Thinking about what happened this weekend in Charlottesville.

I'm a Jewish woman. I'm not religious, but I am Jewish. And when I read some of the signs of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville, especially those condemning Jews with vile, hateful words, I cringed. I was saddened. And I was angered. And I was scared.

It reminded me of one set of my maternal great-grandparents, who were killed by the Nazis in Poland. It reminded me of my paternal grandfather, who fled the Cossacks in Russia. He escaped to America but never truly became free--I understand they haunted him in his dreams all his life.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a boyfriend back in college, nearly thirty years ago. He asked me--if we were ever put in a position to have to hide or fight from the Nazis--would I deny who I am, pretend to be otherwise to survive? I said yes. I considered myself pragmatic. He thought it cowardly. He surely would have fought, and I expect wherever he is today, he's doing his part.

Am I cowardly?

I work as a crime-fiction editor. I often tell my clients to avoid hot-button issues. Unless your character is actively involved in politics for plot purposes, why give the character political views? You'll end up turning off some potential readers. There's no upside.

That's a phrase I use a lot. There's no upside. It's why I rarely post about politics on Facebook, my preferred social-media platform. The people who agree with me on political issues don't need me to weigh in. I'd be singing to the chorus. And the people who disagree with me--I'm not going to change their minds. And since I can't stand arguing with people, I refrain.

It's gone so far that I have a short story coming out soon with a character named Don. He was named after a friend's husband, but this weekend I worried about it and emailed the editor to see if there's time to change his name to Dan. I didn't want people distracted from the story by the other Don. I didn't want to invite any comments that tied me to him.

Perhaps I am cowardly.

Perhaps I've been wrong about there being no upside to addressing political issues in fiction and in real life. Bigotry grows in darkness. It festers in corners when no one is looking and tries to infect those around it. And then, when it feels it has some strength, some backing from those in power, like now, it slithers out, surprising the rest of us who thought that way of thinking was long gone except for a very few outlying people.

So maybe I've been wrong not to post about politics more often. Maybe shining light, even among those who agree with me, will push the evil that has taken root in our country to die off, bit by bit. Maybe it would be a good idea for authors to create plots or subplots involving hot-button issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, and gay rights. It amazes me that these are even issues in the twenty-first century, but they are. So instead of backing away from these topics, perhaps crime fiction characters should tackle them head on. Will authors who take on these issues lose some readers? Maybe. But maybe they'll gain new ones. Maybe they'll make a difference in the thinking of some of the ones they already have.

Maybe that would be worth it.

Maybe the way to not be a coward is to take just one step that's scary or risky, or both, because it's the right thing to do.

This is what I'm thinking about today. Mystery readers and writers, I welcome your thoughts.

14 August 2017

The Land of Shady Habits

I set my first mystery in Saginaw, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Detroit. While I shopped that around, I also worked on a series set in Hartford, CT, where I now live, and many people asked why my stories didn't take place in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston. I told them there were already enough private eyes there to keep things under control. Twenty years ago, Robert Parker, Linda Barnes and Dennis Lehane all worked Boston. It's a wonder there was even a parking violation.
Rosemary Harris uses a fictionalized Southwest Connecticut and a couple of other writers have set an occasional mystery in the state (Thomas Tryon, a Hartford native, created a version of Old Wethersfield in The Other), but I don't know why we don't see more of them. The state has an energetic multi-cultural background--Irish, Italian, Polish, African, Hispanic--not even counting the original occupants. Manufacturing and the insurance industry flourished here, and the history offers truckloads of material.

So does crime. The two towns that still argue over which is the oldest one in Connecticut both have seen major foul play.

Wethersfield, on Hartford's southern border, still has a section called "Old Wethersfield," with colonial architecture, tall trees, and a cove that leads to the Connecticut River. Thomas Beadle, a merchant who contributed to the revolutionary war effort, lived along the cove with his wife and four children. When the Continental Congress devalued Connecticut scrip to 1/40 the face value to help finace the war, Beadle faced bankruptcy and disgrace. In December 1782, after months of planning and delay, he struck his wife in the head twice with an ax and cut her throat in their bedroom. He did the same to the children in their rooms, then wrote a suicide note, sat in his favorite chair with a pistol in each hand, and shot himself through the head. His act was the first mass murder in the American colonies.

Over a century later, Amy Archer-Gilligan
ran a nursing home in Windsor, which borders the northeast corner of Hartford, only about ten miles from Wethersfield. Although she was only tried and convicted for one death, she poisoned at lest five men.

In fact, between 1907 and 1917, sixty residents of her home died, mostly from stomach ailments.

Eventually, the court declared her insane and she spent years in an asylum, dying in 1962 at the age of 93. Her story inspired the popular play Arsenic and Old Lace. If it had become a TV movie, maybe they would have called it Gilligan's Trial.

The Nutmeg State boasts (?) other ground-breaking crimes, too (pun intended). In 1957, authorities captured George Metesky, AKA "The Mad Bomber," after he had planted over thirty bombs in the preceding decade. After years in prison, he died in Waterbury at the age of 90 (Crime in Connecticut appears to be connected to longevity). His arrest came about after one of the first uses of a psychological profiler, whose description proved remarkably accurate.

Wethersfield used to be the site of Connecticut's electric chair, where Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky was executed in 1960 after killing at least seven people in a series of liquor store robberies. His reign of terror caused package stores to close earlier in the evening than had been customary.

In September 1983, several Puerto Rican nationalists held up a West Hartford branch of Wells Fargo and escaped with over seven million dollars, the largest recorded haul in history at that time. By the time authorities tracked down the thieves, they'd spent most of the money on political activism.

A much darker first occurred in 1989. In Newtown, philandering airline pilot Richard Crafts went to prison for killing his wife Helle, the first time a Connecticut jury convicted a defendant for murder without the corpse being found. Prosecutors built a grisly chain of evidence about how Crafts destroyed the body, and the case is still notorious as the "Wood Chipper Murder." It may have inspired the scene in the Coen brothers film Fargo.

In 2005, Michael Ross became the first execution in Connecticut since Mad Dog Taborsky after a jury convicted him of raping and strangling at least eight women in Connecticut and New York. Ross, who looked slightly more dangerous than cotton candy, picked up most of his victims hitchhiking.

In central Connecticut, the Cheshire Home Invasion of July 2007 is still an open wound. Two career screw-up druggies battered Dr. William Petit in his home, forced his wife to withdraw money from a local bank as a ransom (The banks' surveillance video was evidence at the trial), then raped and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. The injured Petit managed to escape and alert police, who captured the fugitives within blocks of the house, driving Petit's car. Their trial and ultimate convictions aroused a movement to bring back the death penalty, which Connecticut had rescinded after Ross's execution. The movement failed.

In August 2008, Omar Thronton, fired for stealing beer from the Hartford Distributors in Manchester, entered the building with two 9 mm semi-automatics and killed eight co-workers before turning his guns on himself.

It's disturbing to notice how these tragedies seem to come more and more quickly. The most horrific of many school shooting rampages took place in Newtown, the home of the Crafts couple I mentioned above. On December 14, 2012, mentally disturbed Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 six-year-old students, five teachers and the school's principal. He shot himself when police answered the frantic 911 call, and his mother--who bought him the guns, including an assault rifle--was found shot to death in her home. Local Senator Chris Murphe is one of Congress's strongest voices for gun control, and President Barack Obama's private visits to each of the victims' families are now local legend.

I'm closing this installment with the story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if you don't follow football, you might have heard of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, a star athlete at Bristol Central high school (where one of my theater buddies used to teach English). Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015. while in prison, he was tried for two more murders, but was acquitted. Five days after his acquittal, guards found him dead in his cell, apparently after hanging himself.

Yes, it's a grim list. But it gets even worse. Next time, I'll discuss a few more cases, all of which involved people I know. I even used a couple of them for stories...