01 August 2021

Sports Build Character


women's soccer

Why yes, I watch women’s soccer. No, I don’t watch men’s. Why do you ask?

I started watching women’s soccer (‘futbol’ in other parts of the world) three or four years ago. Women’s bodies in motion… What’s not to like? it’s wonderful. Except for Sweden in the Olympics opening game.

Lord Jesus

If you’ve seen international men’s soccer, you’ve met the drama queens, that star player from Italy or India or Indonesia who collapses on the field (the pitch), gasping, groaning, giving a grand performance as he prays to Saint Sebastian he may walk again. Once the referee flashes a yellow or red card, suddenly he hops to his feet, all fit and well once again. Lord Jesus, it’s a miracle.

When one of the women is knocked down, she gets up, perhaps given a hand by an opponent, and keeps  on playing. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but I’ve never yet seen a drama play.

US-UK soccer

Meanwhile on ESPN…

Yes, I know the rumors (definitely exaggerated) that the majority audience ‘plays for the other team’, but it doesn’t matter. When buying season tickets for the Orlando Magic, my friend Thrush also bought season tickets for the Orlando Miracles, the women’s counterpart of the Magic. At some WNBA games, we were about the only guys present, but no one cared. We weren’t looking for dates.

Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso

Now, Back to the Game

I have a reason for bringing up soccer. Apple TV offers an original comedy series that improbably grew out of adverts for NBC Sports.

Check out Ted Lasso. Two Americans are hired to coach a British football club, a sport they know nothing about. We’ve seen the fish-out-of-water premise before– mix-ups, screw-ups, bust-ups, dust-ups, and usually happy fix-ups. This show delivers more than you expect.

Ted Lasso is not about the sport, but about the people. It’s funny– Melodie Campbell funny– but the best aspect is the characterization. Several cast members carve out three-dimensional spaces for themselves. It keeps heart, a big heart. And characterization… Did I mention characterization?

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a soccer/football fan or don't like sports at all. Athletics doesn’t matter because the action occurs in the boss’s office, in the locker room, in the showers, in restaurants, and especially the local pub. A few moments happen in bed. The first season took ten episodes before we saw a play on the pitch (field). That was simply a build-up for an easy-to-miss key moment between egotistical player Jamie Tartt and…

You had to be there. It’s about characterization. We can learn from it.

Apple TV. Season 2 commences now.

Coaches Beard and Lasso
Coach Beard — Coach Lasso

31 July 2021

Stories, Slightly Used


  

While trying to come up with a topic for today, I re-read Michael Bracken's post earlier this month about reprints, and was reminded what a big part those recycled stories have played in both his and my short-fiction marketing in recent years. So (this isn't the first time I've looked to Michael for writing ideas) I thought I'd post a few memories of my own experiences with regard to previously published stories. NOTE: I think "previously published stories" is to "reprints" what "pre-owned vehicles" is to "used cars." It's probably just supposed to sound better. (I still prefer to say "reprints.")

I didn't realize, when I first started writing for publication in 1994, that you could resell stories that had already been published. But the more I wrote and published and the more how-to-write books I read, I came to discover what an important thing reselling stories was, to the writers of short fiction--and that it's one of the big advantages short stories have over novels. I actually did a SleuthSayers post on the whys and wherefores of reprints last year, but it was more instructional than anything else, and I didn't use any examples. So, today, I'll point out some real experiences.


The Same Old Story

The first short story I re-sold was called "A Thousand Words"--and its length was, coincidentally, about 1000 words. It was a mystery story about a bank robbery, one I'd first published in a literary magazine called Pleiades in January 1995. The reprint appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of Dogwood Tales Magazine, a truly interesting and kind-to-their-writers publication. Like so many, DTM put all four feet in the air after a few years, but I wound up selling them three more stories before that happened. I can't remember how much I was paid for the reprinted story, but I'm sure it was less than I'd earned from the original at Pleiades. Still, reselling it got an older and idle story out of its hammock and out into the world again, and I recall receiving some positive feedback about it from readers. (Not that it matters, but I later sold "A Thousand Words" six more times, here and there.)

More reprints followed, because many of those first stories I sold were now past the "rights-revert-to-the-authors" date and also because I learned to start actively seeking out reprint markets. Over the next several years I sold dozens of them, to both anthologies and magazines. I'm not certain how many stories went to each, but I would suspect a larger percentage ended up in anthologies--especially in recent years. Generally speaking, anthologies seem more likely than magazines to consider previously published work. Then again, some anthos demand only original stories, so always read the guidelines before submitting.

By the way, I am no minor thief: I'm stealing not only Michael's idea but also a couple of his bullet items, as follows:


Most Often-Reprinted Story

The short story I've sold the most times is a 1200-word humorous Western called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell." I'm not sure why it's the one that landed in the most places, but I suspect it might be because it's (1) very short, (2) it's funny, and (3) it's almost all dialogue--three things that can sometimes add to a story's marketability. That story has been published in:

Dogwood Tales Magazine, March/April 1997 issue

Mystery Time, Spring/Summer 2000

Desert Voices, December 2004

Taj Mahal Review, December 2005

Crime & Suspense E-zine, February 2006

Rainbow's End and Other Stories (collection), October 2006

Crime & Suspense I anthology April 2007 

Kings River Life, May 2020

and will appear a ninth time in the Crimeucopia anthology As in Funny Ha-Ha in August 2021.


Most Prestigious Reprints

The reprints I suppose I'm most proud of weren't sales at all; they were out-of-the-blue selections for annual anthologies:

"Molly's Plan" from Strand Magazine, reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2015

"Gun Work," from the Coast to Coast: Private Eyes anthology, in BAMS 2018

"Rhonda and Clyde" from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, in BAMS 2020

"Biloxi Bound" from Strand Magazine, upcoming in Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021


Another Target for "Used Stories"

The three primary markets for short-story reprints are the same as the three primary markets for short stories: magazines, anthologies, and collections of your own work. I've now had seven collections published of my mystery stories--the first seven were by Dogwood Press, a small, traditional publisher that has no connection to the old Dogwood Tales Magazine. Those books of my own stories are:

Rainbow's End -- 30 stories, all of which were reprints

Midnight -- 30 stories, all reprints

Clockwork -- 40 stories, all reprints

Deception -- 30 stories, 93% reprints, 7% original stories

Fifty Mysteries -- 50 stories, 46% reprints, 54% new stories

Dreamland -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

The Barrens -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

An eighth collection is upcoming, from VKN Publishing in Moscow. They're creating a bilingual book containing five of the ten stories I've published in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with those stories featured in English side-by-side with their Russian translations. As stated, all five of those stories will be reprints. 


Bottom Line

As Michael said in his column, the main thing to keep in mind regarding future reprints is: retain the rights to your stories whenever possible. If you've granted "all rights" to whoever publishes a story, that story is no longer yours and cannot be resold. The other thing to remember is to then be on the constant lookout for markets where you might take published stories that are gathering dust and put them to work again. 

Question to my fellow writers: What are some of your experiences, both positive and negative, regarding the marketing of your previously pubbed stories? I would suspect your adventures would be more interesting than mine.


Now . . . I wonder how long I'll need to wait before I reprint this column . . .



30 July 2021

Pulphouse: A FIction Magazine


Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine published my first private eye short story, "Women Are Like Streetcars" in July 1992. The story has been reprinted five times (in the U.S., Denmark, and France/UK), and is included in the newly released volume. Stories from the Original Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine (July 2021).

With this volume, editor Dean Wesley Smith has selected some of his favorite twisted stories from the first incarnation of Pulphouse's fiction magazine, stories he describes as "Sort of half-beat off kilter, yet still high-quality fiction and great stories." So happy to see my story including with cool stories by Jerry Oltion, Kent Patterson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Ray Vukcevich, and J. Steven York.

The story of Pulphouse Publishing is too big to be condensed in this blog but Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and the others at the publishing house created a specialty house of limited, signed editions and moved into paperbacks. 

Worked there in 1992 as an assistant editor, which is where I met my wife Debra Gray De Noux who was art director and associate publisher at Pulphouse. I learned so much about writing and editing and publishing in my time there.

The small, specialty Pulphouse Publishing was founded in 1988 by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and was active until 1996, publishing 244 different titles. Beginning with Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, it also published ground-breaking print runs of Author's Choice Monthly Collections, Axolotyl Press novels, Short Story Paperbacks, and Mystery Scene Press. Books came out in limited edition leather bound and hardback, each numbered and autographed by the author, as well as trade paperbacks.

Partial list of famous authors published by Pulphouse Publishing includes
List of authors published by Pulphouse includes well known mystery writers

Kevin J. Anderson
Michael Bishop
Alan Brennert
Ed Bryant
Mark Budz
Adam-Troy Castro
Charles de Lint
O'Neil De Noux
George Alec Effinger
Harlan Ellison
Marina Fitch
Ester Friesner
Ron Goulart
David H. Hendrickson
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Damon Knight
Joe Lansdale
George R.R. Martin
Judith Moffet
Andre Norton
Jerry Oltion
Mike Resnick
Spider & Jeanne Robinson
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Robert Sheckley
Robert Silverberg
Dean Wesley Smith
Michael Swanwick
Jeff VanderMeer
Karl Edward Wagner
Lawrence Watt-Evans
Kate Wilhelm
Jack Williamson
F. Paul Wilson
Roger Zelazny


Max Allen Collins

Bill Crider

O'Neil De Noux

Lauren Estleman

Brian Garfield

Joe Gores

Ed Gorman

Edward D. Hoch

Stuart M. Kaminsky

John Lutz

Margaret Maron

Marcia Muller

Bill Pronzini

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Teri White

The new incarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine continues through WMG Publishing, Inc. Issue 13 was just released. Available as magazines and eBooks. Can't talk up Pulphouse/WMG Publishing enough.

Their covers are the coolest.


That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com

29 July 2021

Pro Tips


Luck has a lot more to do with success in life than most people want to admit.  Which is exactly why most trust fund babies are "born on third base and think s/he hit a triple."

But even luck has its limits:  If you never write anything, you'll never get published, because last I heard the "Secret Arts Patrons Society" (a/k/a SAPS) have quit going around door to door paying random strangers for ideas.

See above if you never submit anything.  

Sometimes it takes all day to write one decent sentence.  That's all right.  There's always tomorrow, when you can rewrite it and make it better.  Or make it worse.  You never know.  

BTW, read all the really good literature you can get your hands on, but also keep some really bad books* around, so that when you're really depressed, you can remind yourself how bad writing can get and still get published.  You may not be Stephen King or John LeCarre, but you can do better than this.  Hope!

*No, I'm not providing a list - I don't need that kind of hate mail. 

BTW, when you do hit the writing zone, and the words flow out like water, it helps to keep the following items handy:

  • Something to eat
  • Something to drink
  • A squirt gun full of water so that if anyone tries to interrupt, you have something with which to drive them away.  Sort of works on cats, too.

If someone is keeping two sets of books, they're doing something illegal.  They're also probably keeping that 2nd set as insurance against their boss.   

Speaking of insurance, the more ads you see for an insurance company, the less likely you'll ever get a claim paid, because those ads are all paid for with your premium checks.

This probably also works with all those pharmaceutical, bank, and investment firm ads.  

If everyone is "deep state", there is no deep state, and the person telling you that is probably themselves bat-s*** crazy, with a side of fries.

This works with anything else where it's said, "Everyone is… i.e., "Everyone is crooked" means, "I'm a corkscrew."

If someone offers you a bribe, they're doing something illegal.  They're also making a comment on your morals and your intelligence that I personally believe deserves defenestration.  

Any scheme that soaks the ultra-wealthy in the name of riding out the apocalypse / doomsday in style is fine with me, but it takes great panache to continue the grift for 14 years and still not have built anything but an extra-large barn with a lot of guns.  (Hell, I knew a guy who had a bunker with land mines in his property and all from his own funds. And he was picky about who he'd allow in when The Day came.)  Meanwhile, Barrett Moore is still raising money for his Haven.  (See Here)  Of course, Jim Bakker is still selling survival gear (HERE).  I have been assured by those who have watched his ads that Bakker tells his customers that they can take the 60 meal bucket (600 calories per meal, which is a hell of a lot less than McDonalds - you're gonna get svelte!) and when it's empty, turn it into a personal toilet. Pro tip:  There is a lot of money to be made from the Doomsday business.  

Although I still want to know how many true Doomsday preppers would be satisfied with a 600 calorie meal?  That's one Big Mac, no fries.  

It's never a good idea to hold an exorcism in a public place, but Home Depot?  

"Police in Lackawanna County announced they broke up a reported 'exorcism' that happened inside a Home Depot, in Dickson City Tuesday." The group was performing an exorcism for the dead trees in the aisle, i.e., the lumber. I want names, church affiliation, and how many beers went into this decision. (News

It's never a good idea to spread a pandemic among your own constituents, but as we all know, the GOP and various media outlets have been ignoring that pro tip for quite a while.  Recently, however, Fox News "It's all a hoax!" pundit Sean Hannity, Senator Tommy Tuberville, Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and others have been begging people to get the vaccine.  My personal theory is that (1) lawsuits are coming and (2) they've begun to realize that, in the immortal words of Barry Hughart, "Corpses cannot pay taxes!" (Bridge of Birds) Nor can they be signed up for monthly or even weekly payments to the politicians or PACs or media outlets. Well, you can sign them up, but they won't pay.  Keep your customers alive.

Speaking of keeping customers alive, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is August 5-14, with of course a few days on either side of that to get "ahead of the crowds".  Projected attendance this year is over 700,000.  Meanwhile, South Dakota Covid cases are rising fast:  the Delta Variant, of course.  Since for some reason I doubt that all 700,000 rallygoers will be fully vaccinated, masked, and socially distanced, the pro tip is either get a lot of health insurance or STF home.

Finally, if you happen to be driving late at night and looking at your cell phone and hit a man and kill him and the sheriff doesn't give you an alcohol test and instead loans you his personal car to drive yourself home and the alcohol test is given the next day and no charges are filed for months and when they are they're three misdemeanors and you can pay $1,500.00 and make it all go away and you have the money because you're the State Attorney General, the pro tip is DO IT.  And quit blaming the victim.

BSP:  "The Sweet Life" is in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.


And because you know that you've always wanted to read a mystery where Mrs. Elton of Emma is the detective, determined to catch the killer, especially if it's Harriet Smith, my "Truth and Turpitude:  Murder at Abbey-Mill Farm" is in the current issue of Crimeucopia: The Cosy Nostra, now available at Amazon.com.

28 July 2021

Vikings


One of my embarrassing favorites is The Vikings, a Kirk Douglas picture from 1958, directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had done 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a couple of years before, with Douglas and James Mason, for Disney. 20,000 Leagues still gives me nightmares, that giant squid. The Vikings sticks to my ribs for different reasons.

Clearly, a lot of it is bogus. The wife accused of adultery, with her pigtails pinned to the wood stocks, and her husband throwing the axe. The guy loses his nerve, and Kirk steps in. (We know, and so does everybody else, that Kirk himself has been schtupping her.) But he saves her bacon. Then there’s the stuff that you figure was probably made up, but rings true. Kirk, again, dancing on the oars as the long boats make their way up the fjord. The story Dick Fleischer tells is that the stunt guys started walking the oars, and Douglas said he could do it, too. Fleischer is, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, if you break your balls, the picture shuts down. Douglas goes ahead, and you can see it’s him, not a stunt double. And then the moment when Tony Curtis throws his hawk at Kirk, and the bird takes his eye out. These are guys who can inhabit a mutual hatred.

So, when The Vikings comes on TV, the TV Guide listing calls it “Incredible, but rousing, Norse mayhem.” I could cotton to that description. Borgnine is worth the price of admission. He’s about to be pushed into a pit of wolves. He turns to Tony Curtis and asks for a sword. Curtis gives him one, and Borgnine jumps into the pit, calling, “ODIN!” Is this remotely genuine? Who cares? The immediate result is that Curtis then gets his hand cut off. Fair is fair.

I thought I’d give Vikings a shot. It’s supposed to be significantly more authentic. The hair is certainly scary. But it’s all mayhem, all the time. I admit, when Ragnar takes Gabe Byrne down (spoiler alert, but you knew it was coming), it was thoroughly satisfying, but these people are portrayed, essentially, as brute psychopaths.

Excuse me. These are the guys who sailed out into the cold, dark Atlantic and discovered Iceland, and Greenland, and then the Canadian Maritimes, for European fisheries. They established Baltic trading posts. They raided England and Ireland, and the coast of France. Over time, they became not Vikings, a word that means pirates, but Normans. And they changed Europe.

Of the half-dozen books on history my grandfather wrote, two are still in print, and still taught in courses on the Middle Ages. The Renaissance of the 12th Century is the better-known, but The Normans in European History runs a close second. His thesis is that the Norsemen, who began as ravaging predators, turned into settlers, and governors. Normandy, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Crusader states.

The longest-lasting and most influential Norman adventure is of course the Conquest, in 1066, the defeat of the Saxon king Harold by the bastard duke William of Normandy.

There’s a straight line, leading to the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book. A legacy of those sea-raiders in their long boats, with their devotion to the Norse gods of war. Their striving, their fury in battle, their thirst for spoils, their fierce clan loyalties, and at the last, their hunger for Valhalla and an ever-lasting fame.

Incredible, yes, but rousing.


27 July 2021

An Appealing Short Story


     Following a conviction in a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to appeal. He or she
argues that errors the judge made during the original trial affected the outcome of the case to such a degree that the defendant should be entitled to a "do-over." The appellate judges do not retry the case, but rather read the court reporter's statement of facts and evaluate the defendant's claims. Appellate courts issue written opinions weighing the merits of those raised issues. 

    A common claim on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence. The jury, the argument goes, succumbed to the passion of the moment. In a sufficiency challenge, the appellate court is asked to rule that the admitted evidence could not support a finding of guilt by a rational trier of fact. When the claim is raised, appellate courts spell out the facts. They articulate why a sufficiency claim is not supported by the evidence (or conversely why it is). Appellate opinions are often technical. They are organized around the defendant's claims of error and hash out the arguments regarding those claims. The reading is not necessarily dry, but rather it is purposeful. A sufficiency claim lets the reader get involved in the story of the case, to read what the evidence showed to have happened. 

    I came across a local case recently, Andrews v. The State of Texas. The defendant, Mark Andrews, and his wife, Doris, shared a house with another couple, Don and Amy. Andrews and Don had worked together at a local trucking company until Don quit because of health problems. Mark Andrews later left as well. He became a professional gambler. This career choice routinely had him out of the house from 3:00 am until 8:00 am. The Andrews owned three dogs, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker. Diesel and Sparky slept with Doris. All three dogs barked at strangers. Don and Amy called them burglar alarms. 

    On January 8th, 2016, at 4:30 am, Mark Andrews burst into Don and Amy's bedroom. He screamed for them to get help. While Don called 911, Amy followed Andrews into his bedroom. She saw him beside the bed, screaming Doris's name. Doris was lying on the bed in a blood pool. Andrews asserted that someone was in the house. He searched from room to room. Then he returned and began chest compressions on Doris. Amy recognized immediately that Doris was beyond saving. Centered on a rug in the bedroom, as if on display, she saw a hammer. While her husband stayed on the line with the emergency operator,  Amy observed that the door to a safe concealed in the living room stood open. Andrews, she testified, looked overly dramatic and announced that the safe had been burglarized. 

    When the police arrived, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker barked wildly and had to be put outside. The police found no sign of a forced entry. Further investigation revealed that Andrews had recently researched funeral costs, had finances in disarray due to gambling losses, and that Doris owned life insurance. The murder weapon, the hammer, belonged to Andrews and was normally stored in a secured shed. The police discovered the shed unlocked and the door showed no evidence of damage. 

    There were other threads of evidence in the case as well. I am skipping over them for our purposes. The jury convicted Andrews of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed. The court of appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction, writing that whoever murdered Doris had: 

        -The physical strength to commit the offense (Don did not. Andrews did).

        -Access to the shed to retrieve the hammer without using force (Andrews did). 

        -Not aroused the alarm of Tinker, Diesel or, Sparky (Andrews would meet this criterion). 

    It is this last point I want to focus upon in a blog for crime fiction enthusiasts.  Sherlock Holmes readers will remember "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes deduces that the thief of a famous racehorse was someone well-known to the stable dog. 

        "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

        "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

        "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." 

        "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

    Holmes grasped that the nighttime visitor was someone the dog knew. The government's evidence in the Andrews trial made clear to the jury that Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker had barks that were "high-pitched" and "yippee [sic]." They did not like strangers and had to be put outside to enable the police to conduct their investigation. Yet, on the fateful evening, they sounded no alarm. The prosecutors raised the point, and the appellate judge went so far as to drop a footnote citing Sherlock Holmes.

    I worked with the prosecutor who handled the case. I called Kevin and asked him if he knew about the Arthur Conan Doyle story. He did not, but he will. We concluded our conversation by finding a PDF of "Silver Blaze" online. 

    After I hung up, I thought about all of this. As mystery fans, we have the best of both worlds on display. Seasoned trial attorneys independently found significance in the same absence of facts as Sherlock Holmes. The contemporary example of life imitating art should make the story continue to feel real and viable. Conversely, the appellate judge knew about "Silver Blaze." He recognized the parallel between the case he was deliberating upon and this hallmark of the literary canon. He purposely incorporated Arthur Conan Doyle's story into his opinion and in so doing, gave names to the anonymous stable dog: Tanker, Diesel, and Sparky. 

    Is it over the top to say that Doris got some justice because of the "dogged" work of the police and prosecution? I think it probably is. 

    Until next time.  



26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.

25 July 2021

One Movie at a Time


2020 was a long dreary year, but partway through 2021 the future started looking brighter as more people got vaccinated and stores, restaurants and various events began to open up. And then, the D mutation flexed its muscle and put question marks on how bad the future could become.

In our little cul-de-sac of nine houses, the majority of homeowners had a hello and wave relationship with their neighbors. During the eighteen years we had lived in this small community, there had not been a single organized get-together for all the neighbors to get to know each other. It was a friendly place… up to a point, but very few of the neighbors socialized with each other. Then one evening, one of our next door neighbors and his spouse proposed an idea they had. Seems the neighbor had a DVD projector, a folding table to put it on and a movie screen he'd made out of an old white sheet.

As a trial run, he hung the sheet from his pergola in his back yard and set up his projector on the table. We brought over two sets of Bose speakers from our old sound system and we set up some canvas camping chairs on their back lawn. The next door neighbors on the other side of our house were also invited to attend the trial run.

The movie selected was Trouble with the Curve, starring Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout who had a rocky relationship with his ambitious lawyer daughter. Everything worked well that night, so now it was time to expand to a larger audience, but we needed a bigger venue than his backyard.

The neighbor with the initial idea made up a handbill invitation to a free movie and ice cream social night. That same neighbor and us would would supply the ice cream, bowls and spoons. Everybody else would bring their favorite ice cream topping to share.

A few days before the event, I went around the cul-de-sac ringing doorbells and handing out handbill invitations. At the time, we didn't know if the audience would be the same seven who attended the trial run or a potential high of twelve in attendance. Since the number of attendees was an unknown factor, our driveway, which had the least slope to it, was elected as the bigger venue for this showing.


The movie screen/white sheet was hung with plastic hooks from the rain gutters over our garage door, while the projector and table were located about halfway down our driveway. The ice cream table was set up off to one side on the sidewalk. Everyone brought their own chairs and found places to put them where they would have a good view of the movie. Tiki torches filled with mosquito repellant were set up off to the side in order to ward off any unwanted pests.

Amazingly, there were eighteen in attendance for ice cream and the movie. Because we didn't know how well this project would be received, we had only allowed a half hour between ice cream social before the movie was scheduled to run. But, when the ice cream half hour was up, the attendees were still engaged in on-going conversation with the neighbors they had lived side-by-side with for years with only a wave and a hello. Of course, ice cream time got extended. Finally, I had to instruct everyone to pick up some popcorn which my wife had bagged up and then to take their seats, the movie was about to start. Otherwise, we may not have wound up this party until well after midnight.

For this movie, we showed Second Hand Lions with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Another hit. Afterwards, surprisingly enough, everyone stuck around to take down the screen and carry all the equipment and tables back to the original owner's house and/or backyard.

There's nothing like success. For our next event, we may expand the social time by making it a covered dish supper with each family bringing something for the table. This way, they can talk with their neighbors for a longer period of time.

The question now is which movie to show. It needs to be a family friendly one, kids may attend, yet be appealing to a wide audience. Any ideas?

We're just coming together, one movie at a time.

24 July 2021

Feast or Famine


 

 Years ago on a writer web site, I wrote about doing a screenplay as a writing exercise. "What's the worst that could happen?" I said. "Someone buys it?"

A few writers who did shop screenplays piled on to tell their horror stories, but I think they missed my point. I had no interest in selling it. I just wanted to see if I could do it.

So, before the pandemic, I submitted Holland Bay to Down and Out. I did not expect an immediate response. My policy with a manuscript once the publisher asks for it is to forget it exists. I work two jobs, care for an ailing wife, and labor under the delusion I'm the next Robert Heinlein (minus the ideological pretensions.) So, in the interim, a fellow SF writer told me, "Hey, your stuff's a good fit for my publisher, but they want a long list of material because they release fast. Can you spin up an arc?" As I worked up a good rant about how busy I was and how I needed to finish my original trilogy, I went into the restroom at work before telling him off, and came back to say, I had an idea for a nine-story arc.

Um... Yeah. But I didn't expect it to overwhelm me, especially since I had nothing scheduled beyond the trilogy I was wrapping up. And come pandemic time, I discovered I can dictate. So dictate I did. But the publisher passed on all that work. Meanwhile, Down & Out pulled the trigger. No problem. I can work on revisions and publicity while I shopped this monstrosity around.

Well... No. CHBB not only took it, they work faster than Down and Out. So now I've got a scifi novel coming out next month and will have to go through final edits between now and then. Meanwhile, copy edits came back on Holland Bay. Somewhere in there, I'm taking a long-planned vacation to New England.

From the be careful what you ask for department...




23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer


 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."



I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.

22 July 2021

Balance: the Key to Keeping Burnout at Bay!


Fact #1: Like many other artists (musicians, scupltors, painters, actors, etc.), most writers can't subsist on what they make by writing alone.

Fact #2: Like so many other artists, most writers have either a side hustle or a full-on day gig (or both) to make ends meet.

Fact #3: Juggling the writing career and the side hustle can be draining.

Fact #4: Sometimes the day gig/side hustle can take so much from you that you've got nothing left for the writing.

Fact #5: The above four facts are a pretty good thumbnail of my COVID Year-From-Hell.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT a recent selfie.

Those of you who follow my rotation in this blog (BOTH of you! *RIMSHOT*) know that my day gig is (and has been for decades) teaching history. And I love my day job.

That said: "COVID."

Let me repeat for emphasis: "COVID."

I'm not here to gripe about my COVID experiences. Other teachers elsewhere have done a great job laying out the challenges teachers across this country faced during the past fifteen-to-sixteen months. You can read some of their stories here.

Instead, I'm here to talk about the resulting burnout, and its impact on my writing. And also about what I did to counter the effects of said burnout.

Truth is, in this case, it was a simple choice. Allow me to illustrate with a visual aid:

Just in case you needed directions.

And yes, it really is all about "Balance." 

Not THIS kind of "balance." (Crappy album, by the way. Avoid it if possible.)

So what did I do? How did I achieve this "balance"? Well, it wasn't easy. Basically, I had a four-step process:

FIRST: Commit to whatever is right in front of you.

When I was in college, I had a terrific professor. Really engaging lecturer, tons of charisma. He also happened to be assigned as my academic advisor. And in between funny stories about his time as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless, he gave me a single piece of advice.

"I found this great job working as a night-time security guard. I was manning a desk all night and it gave me so much time to study while getting paid."

Now, I worked a lot different jobs in college, including several that were part of the campus "work-study" program. At exactly NONE of them did I get a single opportunity to crack a book and catch up on my homework. I know there are jobs out there like this (and I believe my advisor was telling the truth about his own experience), but it has never been my experience that you can do one thing well stealing time from something else you're obligated to succeed at.

So what I'm saying is: "Lean IN." Give it your all. Leave everything you've got at whatever you're working on, on THAT particular playing field.

In a conversation with my agent the other day, she told me how she's more swamped than ever, because so many people, while cooped up during COVID, have been writing books. That doesn't surprise me.

But the day job I work isn't the type to which I would feel good about phoning in the work. It's just not a job you can do well if you're half-assing it. On top of my day gig, I have a mortgage and a marriage and a child.

So how much writing was I going to get done during COVID? I published this, and I'm pretty proud of it:


In fact, I used COVID to finish up several project I'd left in various stages of completion during the previous couple of years. I've also written and placed three short stories (so far) this year (2020-2021). Three stories, three different anthologies. Publication dates forthcoming.

And yeah, I know, three short stories in a year might sound like light output, but a couple of things:

1. I write VERY slowly.
2. If I write it, it sells, it gets published and I get paid.*

(*with the exception of my first "mistake" novel, and a few early dry runs of short stories that have really not progressed much past the "rough sketch" stage.)

How did I manage this? Simple: when I was at work, I worked. When I was playing with my son, I played with my son. When I was spending time with my wife, I spent time with my wife.

And when I wrote, I wasn't worrying about my day gig. Or my mortgage, or my family. Because, by leaning in and taking care of business on each of these fronts, I was able to clear my mind and better focus/be way more productive than I had any right to be.

Second: Find a way other than writing to keep your subconscious working on your writing.

I keep a writing journal in which I write about my creative process, into which I transcribe story ideas, snatches of dialogue or narrative as they come to me, and I make a point of writing in it three to five times per week, writing day or not.

Find your thing that helps you continue to churn. Keeping out heads in the pensieve (I know, I know, Harry Potter reference) is part of makes us successful.

Third: Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough one. It means not kicking your own ass if you don't write for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. There were several months while trying to teach during COVID that I was so stretch so thin and so stressed and so gassed, that I was lucky to journal a couple of times per week.

Whoever said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," boy, did they have that right. Beating yourself up about not writing just takes time and energy away from where it is better spent: getting your butt into that chair and getting to work. Work now. Recriminations on the way up the aisle to accept that Lifetime Achievement award.

This one is essential to combat the burnout that is an inevitable portion of most of our professional lives during the Time of COVID. You want to finish that novel? You're not gonna get it done kvetching at yourself about it. In fact, your work is likely to suffer all the more if you're playing these sorts of mind games with yourself.

Or better yet, don't!

Fourth: Build in transitions!

With the challenging day-gig year that I just wrapped up on June 25th (you read that right, June 25th!), I'll admit that I ended the school year pretty danged fried.

Which was why I cut a deal with myself: I didn't even think about writing until I'd had two weeks' distance from the end of the school year. 

I did other things: read. Organized my stuff at home. Played with my family. Slept. A LOT.

Transition time helps the brain reset itself. I've never regretted down time in my writing schedule. My work is always the better for it.

And that's it. My four step process for coping with, and transcending, burnout. What's yours? Let's hear from you in the comments!

Now that's more like it!


See you in two weeks!


21 July 2021

Weird Doings in the Manor House


I just read (well, technically listened to an audiobook version) of a novel that might quite a lot of noise when it came out in 2018.  It doesn't appear to have been mentioned at SleuthSayers and it's worth a bit of chat.

The book is Stuart Turton's The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  (The 1/2 was added to the title in the U.S. and I think it's an improvement.)  I can describe it so it sounds like a typical Golden Age manor house mystery, but it is miles from that.

The story takes place between the wars at Blackheath, a decrepid country estate. There is a party going on, heaps of guilty secrets, and a threat that the daughter of the family, Evelyn Hardcastle, is about to be murdered.  Our hero hopes to prevent the killing, or, at least to solve it.

Sounds like pretty standard stuff, but don't be fooled.

On the first page our hero wakes up in the forest screaming a woman's name (not Evelyn's).  He has no idea who he is, where he is, or what is going on.  He eventually finds his way to the manor house and attempts to piece things together.  But this is far from an ordinary case of amnesia.

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Every morning Bill Murray wakes up on February 2nd.  Now imagine that every time that happens Bill is in the body of a different cast member.

That is our hero's fate.  Every time he falls asleep (or is knocked unconscious , or even killed!) he wakes up in the body of a different "host." But his mission remains the same: discover who will murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night.  Only then can he leave Blackheath.  Complicating things: he has two rivals, also trying to solve the mystery.  And only one of them can escape the trap...

If that sounds complicated, trust me, you don't know the half of it.  I would give a shiny new dime for a glimpse of the charts Turton must have used to keep track of what all the various characters are doing when and where.

But the cleverest part, as far as I am concerned, is this: Each of the host bodies our hero occupies has a personality of its own, and as each new event unfolds he struggles to determine if the reaction he is feeling is his (whoever he really is) or that of his host.

Clearly there are non-natural events going on here (though it turns out to not be as woo-woo as you might expect).  But there is also a genuine mystery with a non-mystical solution to be puzzled through.

Preparing to write this piece I discovered that Netflix plans to make a TV version.  I wish them luck. I don't know how they can make it all explicable to a casual viewer.

And writing about this book reminded me of another manor house mystery I read years ago: Farthing by Jo Walton (2013).  This book takes place in 1949 – admittedly a little late for a Golden Age style novel - but it has the classic elements: a manor house, a family and guests stuffed with secrets, and a killing of a prominent figure.

So why does Walton remind me of Turton?  Well, the murder victim is the diplomat who, in 1941, brokered the peace treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, allowing Hitler to control everything on his side of the English Channel.  In other words, this book is alternative history.

Your first reaction may be the same as mine: Hitler might have signed such a treaty but there is no way he would have honored it for eight years.  But Walton can explain that: Germany is still fighting the Soviet Union and has no appetite for a second front.

Like the best alternative history, Walton's book tries to think through the consequences and repercussions.  For example: I was surprised by who winds up being U.S. president, but it makes sense.

There are two more books in the series (ironically titled the Small Change trilogy) and I look forward to reading them.

Until next time, stay out of creepy old houses.

20 July 2021

Over and Over and Over Again


In “Bad Contracts” three weeks ago, I wrote about selling all rights to several of my stories. Luckily, I’ve not sold all rights to all of my stories.

Retaining rights has allowed me to license reprints and other subsidiary rights—either by actively seeking them or by having editors contact me—and the extra money and extra publications have always been welcome.

Additionally, by retaining rights, I’ve been able to release the audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995) and four short-story collections—Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), Tequila Sunrise (Wildside Press, 2000), Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), and Yesterday in Blood and Bone (Wildside Press, 2005)—each of which contains one or more reprints.

So, what opportunities have I had?

MOST-OFTEN REPRINTED STORY

My most-oft reprinted short story, “The Great Little Train Robbery,” originally appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (June 1985), was reprinted in Detective Mystery Stories (September 2002), in Sniplits (April 2008), and, as “The Great Train Robbery,” in Kings River Life (August 19, 2017).

MOST PRESTIGOUS REPRINTS

“Smoked,” first published in Noir at the Salad Bar: Culinary Tales with a Bite (Level Best Books, 2017), was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), and “Feel the Pain,” first published in Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003), was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005).

MOST CONVOLUTED PUBLISHING HISTORY

“Of Memories Dying,” first published in Midnight (Tor Books, 1985), has the most convoluted publishing history. After it first appeared, an agent told me it would make a great opening chapter for a horror novel, and I began working with it.

Though I was unable to turn it into a novel, I did turn it into a novella. “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unknown” was included in my audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995).

In 2000, retitled as In the Town of Dreams Unborn and Memories Dying, Barley Books released it in England as a small-sized gift book.

In 2002, the original story was included in Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), a collection of my horror stories.

I later wrote “Dreams Unborn,” a non-horror novella prequel published in Small Crimes (Betancourt & Co., 2004), and “Dreams Unborn” was named an Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.

And the original story—“Of Memories Dying”—was recently reprinted in Horror for the Throne: One-Sitting Reads (Fantastic Books, 2021).

TRANSLATIONS AND OTHER RIGHTS

In addition to straight-forward reprints, I’ve also licensed audio rights to several stories, I’ve licensed foreign-language rights—Chinese, German, Italian—to another handful, and I once negotiated, but ultimately didn’t license, film rights to one.

TAKEAWAY

I’ve listed several of my reprint and subsidiary rights placements, but the point isn’t that I’ve had these opportunities. The point is that all writers who retain rights to their work can license reprint and subsidiary rights over and over and over again.

But whether we actively seek them out or whether the opportunities find us, we must own the rights to our work in order to take advantage of these opportunities.


“Sonny’s Encore” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #9and my private eye story Disposable Women was published yesterday at Tough.

As the editor of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1I’m quite pleased to note that Alan Orloff received a Thriller Award for his story “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins was nominated for a Thriller for his story “The Mailman.”

19 July 2021

The Changing Landscape


Fifteen years ago, I could send my stories to about thirty potential markets. A few were literary, some were supernatural or sci-fi, a couple were romance. Most of my work was crime/mystery, but I had those other options.

Many of those markets are gone now. The landscape changes more quickly than we can keep track of it, especially since the pandemic, but keep track of it we must.

I currently have at least one submission at each of the mystery markets that still takes stories year-round. I have stories ready to send to the markets that open sporadically, too. I used to write a novel and three or four short stories a year, but, in the last year, I have produced twenty-three short stories and no new ideas for a novel. The changing market is a factor, and I've started paying attention to the territory more than the map.

Fifteen years ago, if I got an idea for a short story--which didn't happen often--I wrote it and looked for a place to send it because there were so many potential markets. Now, I look at the markets and submission calls first and use those submission calls as writing prompts.

Yes, I'm looking for novella markets, too, even though I only write one novella a year, and that's for a contest I have won twice. Are there more anthologies now, or am I simply paying more attention?

In the last year, I have sold twelve stories, five still due to be published. Ten of those twelve sales are to anthologies.

Anthologies often have a specific theme, the idea that I use as a prompt. Last year, one story appeared in Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, about love gone bad.

Another was in Mickey Finn: 21st-Century Noir. A third ws in The Killer Wore Cranberry, a collection of humorous murder stories involving Thanksgiving. There is at least one Christmas anthology looking for material, and one of my unsold stories was rejected by another holiday collection.

I've always been able to write fairly quickly to a prompt. It's no different from the years of essay tests in high school and college, expecially grad school.

But there's another reason I'm paying more attention to anthologies now, too. Time for a brief history lesson.

When the Mystery Writers of America added short stories as an Edgar Award category in 1951, the award went to the best collection of short stories for the year. In 1955, an individual story won for the first time, Stanley Ellin's "The House Party," which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Before the mid-1970s, "mainstream" magazines often printed the Edgar-winner. The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker, and McCall's all featured a winning story, some of them several times. So did Argosy, Esquire, and Story. Between 1976 and 1998, Playboy published four of the Award-winners, three of them written by Lawrence Block.

After about 1975, the winners seldom appeared in mainstream publications and tended to show up in magazines that catered to the mystery reader. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine printed the earliest individual story to win, and has published 21 winners since then. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has published three.

The terrain took another shift at the turn of the century. Since 2000, Ellery Queen has published three Edgar winners, but all the others come from an anthology or a collection of stories by one author (Laurie Lynn Drummond in 2005 and Stephen King in 2016). For mystery writers, this is both good news and bad news.

It's bad news because anthologies usually don't pay much. Generally, the author gets a royalty share divided by the number of writers in the collection. Last year, I made $3.08 from one anthology. Most anthologies don't sell many copies, either, so when you divvy up the take, there's not much to go around.

One glaring exception is the Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance, published in 2012. I received a roylty check last December, and that story– nominated for an Edgar but losing to Karin Slaughter's story in the same collection– has made me more money than all except two other stories, and they both won contests. My story appeared between the covers with stories by Alafair Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and other big names. It's the best exposure I've had since Border's Books went under. The local store displayed mysteries alphabetically, so my novels were on the same shelf with Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and Laura Lippman. Man, I miss that store…

Exposure matters. Yeah, it's hard to pay the bills with exposure, but it beats being a complete unknown.

Some new anthology calls lean toward my music background. Over the last couple of years, we've ssen books of stories inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, the Ramones, or hits from the 1960s. There are more music-themed collections taking submissions as I post this. Now maybe I can write off all those records I've bought as a business expense.

Yes, you have to hear abut the submission call somehow. Maybe you're in a writing group (Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example. Rob Lopresti is the reigning President) that passes the word along. Maybe you're Facebook friends with someone or on a blog site.

The MWAS anthologies have produced the Edgar-winning story four times since 2002. But you have to be an active member of the group to submit a story. The Akashic NAME YOUR CITY Noir series, now numbering several dozen books, is by invitation only. This may be true of many others, too.

But as anthologies proliferate, they give me more writing prompts. Not only are ten of my last twelve sales to anthologies (including next year's MWA collection, Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan), but I have sent five other stories to submission calls. And I'm working on two others.

18 July 2021

Spycraft, Old School


Zoo Station

Usually SleuthSayers learn spycraft from the invisible-ink pen of David Edgerley Gates. A month ago, Janice Law slipped past the yet-to-be-built Berlin Wall to recall David Downing. I depend heavily on my SleuthSayers colleagues for reading material, and I ordered up Zoo Station.

The tale has a much older ‘golden age’ feel of the 1960s and I had to double-check the copyright of the first in the series, 2007. The initial half of the book is slow paced but it builds tension out of proportion to pages turned. I wondered how the author accomplished that, and I’m not the only one. One critic’s comment on the back cover says, “Downing has shown that he can produce that creepy sense of paranoia along with the best of them.”

Furthermore, the book contains a feature I’ve rarely encountered outside a school textbook, a ‘Reading Group Guide’. Question 9 reads: “Given the relative lack of overt violence, how does Downing create the novel’s sense of menace?”

Yeah. How did he do that?

I have a few notions, but other readers will surely come up with better insights. Mostly I credit the immersive nature of the story where the author puts us in the scene with the perfect serving of detail.

The story’s set as the 1930s draw to a close. Perceptive people smell war on the horizon, but live in hope it doesn’t come. Kristallnacht has left its mark. Kindertransport is under way. Jews aren’t permitted to work, travel, or dine in restaurants. While the word ‘ghetto’ hasn’t yet arisen, Jewry are evermore isolated in restricted parts of cities.

The author has allowed history to do much of the heavy lifting. Much of life seems normal, ordinary, but it won’t remain so. We know the horrors that are coming; we want to warn the innocent, tell them to flee for their lives.

Whereas trains and train stations appear in backdrops and settings, mentions of government buildings feel eerily ominous. Downing mentions 15-foot high doors, evoking the architecture envisioned by Albert Speer.

No worthy espionage story would be complete without Soviet spies. One Russian spymaster isn’t so bad, but woe be he who crosses the path of Stalinist spymistress Irina Borskaya. She eats her young.

The novel’s protagonist, British journalist John Russell, advances through a character arc from somnambulance to getting his rear into gear, helping to get the word out while saving a life or two. His actress girlfriend suggests a hint of Cabaret, but with far more gravitas than Sally Bowles.

A minor note jarred me. Russell is virtually broke when we first meet him. He lives simply, but he drinks goldwasser. It seems a pretension more in line with 007 than our impecunious reporter. I excused the gold-flecked drink on the grounds it was a product of Gdańsk (Danzig), but the affectation seemed peculiar.

Along the line, our hero obtains a ten-year-old motorcar, a Hanomag. I thought myself reasonably familiar with cars of bygone eras, and those of the late 1920s are the peak of design– the Mercedes SSK, the Cord, the Packard, the Dusenberg, the Bugatti, and the gorgeous Auburn.

1928 Hanomag
1928 Hanomag © Bonhams Auction

I hadn’t heard of Hanomag. I had to stop to look it up. It turned out to be one of the homeliest automobiles ever made. Easiest way to tell the front from the back is to look for the single, motorcycle-style headlight, on the left in this photo. Oh well, our hero’s Hanomag ran most of the time and many folks had no cars at all.

As Janice suggests, Zoo Station reads as old style spycraft with luggage storage and postal drops, suitcases with false bottoms, and shadowy men who make others disappear. Downing’s novels aren’t nearly as gloomy as those of, say, John Le Carré.

When you’re bored with the current digital library on your Kindle or Kobo, stop in a musty used book store and pick up a dog-eared copy of Zoo Station. Go old school.