17 November 2022

All the Cockroaches Coming Out...

 by Eve Fisher

I haven't written about the 2022 election in South Dakota, because it basically took its dismal normal shape:  we are a ruby-red state, and people will vote for anyone with an R in front of their name.  Our new Secretary of State, Monae Johnson, is an election denier, as were many of our State House and Senate candidates.  But that's not the worst of it.  Hell, this election proved that Jason Ravnsborg wasn't the worst we could do, at least in my humble opinion.  Meet two major losers:

Bud May (R), who got 2,348 people to vote for him for a House Seat:

This is his mug shot from Nov. 13, 2022 on one count of second-degree rape. Link

"The alleged victim said May decided to force himself on the victim in a bathroom stall at a bar and says May said to her at the bar: “I am 6′8″, white, it is all consensual.” According to the police report, he fled the area, and upon being detained he claimed he had no involvement at first, then claimed: “it was simply a hug.”

Apparently  the woman was hiding behind a bar counter with dirt, blood and an abrasion on her face when law enforcement arrived. She said May raped her in multiple ways and that the blood on her was May’s, who had been in an altercation before the alleged incident. May’s mugshot clearly shows a bloody wound on his left eye, which had settled into a dark purple by the time he appeared in court Tuesday morning via video conference from the Pennington County Jail.

Fun guy.  Thankfully he lost his election.

And here's Joel Koskan, who ran for a SD State Senate seat (R):

Mr. Koskan was arrested for one count of exposing a minor to sexual grooming behaviors. It’s a class four felony. However, the DCI probable cause statement shows years of child molestation (incest, BTW) of one of his 5 children, and "surveillance". He got a plea deal, in which he agreed to "accept some responsibility for his actions, but ultimately would deny any sexual intercourse had occurred throughout the alleged abuse" and would not have to serve any time or register as a sex offender, or be separated from his other 4 children (who are still living with him). Thankfully, the judge in the case is reconsidering this plea deal. (LINK)

He still got 2,495 people to vote for him.  Thankfully, HE lost.  

I wish I could believe that these two bastards are anomalies.  But they're not. When I was working as Circuit Administrator of the now-defunct 4th Judicial Circuit, we had a grandfather who was convicted of molesting all 4 of his grandchildren. He'd only been caught because the oldest (around 12) was now pregnant. The judge at the time (brought in because all the locals had to recuse themselves) gave him probation "because he had no prior criminal record."

And then there's South Dakota's Jabba the Hut (look up a picture of him online, I'm not providing anything that fat and ugly), Ted Klaudt, farmer, rancher, and former Republican member of the South Dakota House of Representatives (1999-2006) from Walker, South Dakota. Thankfully, in November 2007 he was convicted of four counts of raping his two foster daughters and he was sentenced on January 17, 2008, to 44 years in prison, where he still resides.  

And to add to the general mood of this piece, South Dakota has the third-highest rape rate in the U.S., with 72.6 rapes per 100,000, up from 68 in 2018. (LINK)

Meanwhile, Gov. Noem has been fighting the culture wars against LGBQT+ with all flags flying, in a steady determination to eliminate transgenders from... well, everywhere.  And yesterday the Rapid City based Family Heritage Alliance (having fits about LGBQT+ wherever they go) pitched a major one about SDSU hosting a drag show last night. But the sponsor of this event was the Gender and Sexualities Alliance student organization, and they held it at the Student Union, and not a penny of taxpayer dollars were spent. Oh, horrors!  (LINK)  (NOTE:  Said Family Heritage Alliance failed to speak out against Mr. Koskan before, during or after the election.)  

Personally, I'd rather have drag queens reading to my grandkids than Jason Koskan, Ted Klaudt, and Bud May, not to mention Matt Gaetz , Dennis Hastert, Jim Jordan, Larry Nasser, Roy Moore, Herschel Walker, Charles Herbster, Newt Gingrich, Bob Allen, Mark Foley - Seriously, the list is just so damn long of people I don't want my friends, children, or grandchildren exposed to.  And none of them are gay. 

Meanwhile, can we make it, someday, that "nice white men" can no longer get away with incest and rape?  Asking for children and women everywhere. 

From South Dakota, where Mayberry keeps looking further and further in the way-back mirror...

16 November 2022

Attempted Language

  I have been thinking lately about the weird ways the English language deals with certain incomplete actions.  The weirdest part is that all of the examples I come up with are about bad things.  Let me give you eight-ish examples.

1. This particular flea jumped into me ear because I hear people talking about the events of January 6th as a coup. For this column I am not interested in discussing politics but language.  Surely if that's what it was, it was an attempted coup, right?  Because it didn't succeed.

2.  And then there is what the Russians are doing in Ukraine.  I have seen it referred to as genocide.  Well, the dictionary says that that is killing a lot of people in the hope of destroying a nation or ethnic group.  But if that's what's going on we would have to call it attempted genocide, because (hooray!) they don't seem to be succeeding.

3. On a more personal basis, let's say I tried to punch you on the nose and missed.  (I'd be glad I did, because I really do like you.)  In some states I would be guilty of attempted assault.  In others the charge would be actual assault.  If I had connected with your schnoz (sorry!) it would be assault and battery.

4. And then there is mutiny.  My knowledge of that offense is based strictly on fiction, mostly the movie based on Herman Wouk's famous novel. But I was under the impression that even discussing mutiny amounted to mutiny.  So is there such a thing as attempted mutiny?

I asked two people likely to know more than me.  Mystery writer James Lincoln Warren served in the Navy and his wife Margaret Warren was actually a Navy attorney.  They point out that charges of mutiny are extremely rare; simply "disobeying orders" is the more likely offense. But Margaret notes that the Uniform Code of Military Justice does recognize the existence of "attempted mutiny." So Fred MacMurray in The Caine Mutiny has been dethroned as my source of legal wisdom. Much thanks to Margaret and James.

5. I think for many years people tended to confuse impeach with "remove from office." Thanks to a certain politician we have become aware in recent years that it only means indict, not convict.

6. What is the difference between "I tried to warn you" and "I warned you?"  Unless the email doesn't get delivered, isn't the result the same?

7. Another  sign of our interesting times: I have heard people talk about conspiracy when contextually they obviously mean conspiracy theory.  

8. Slightly different issue...  If you take the sentence "He was tempted to do it" and change it to "He was tempted to do it by the devil," the word tempted shifts its meaning.

9. Slightly MORE off-topic.  Somebody should use the ambiguity of "had" in a mystery story.  Agatha Christie could have built a novel on it, and for all I know she did.  Here's what I mean: "John had his house robbed" probably means "Somebody robbed John's house," but it could mean "John arranged for someone to rob his house."  The cad.  

And that's all I've got.  I hope it entertained you, if not, I at least, uh, tried.

15 November 2022

Batter Up!

My disinterest in baseball probably stems from my single season as an outfielder for the worst team in my local Little League when I was a fifth grader. The coach rarely showed up, and my mother, the only parent who regularly attended practice, would stand at home plate and belt fly balls and grounders to us.

That may be why I’m surprised to realize, around the time of this year’s World Series, that two of the best stories I’ve recently read were baseball themed: Joseph S. Walker’s mystery short story “Give or Take a Quarter Inch,” first published in Tough and reprinted in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year (Mysterious Press, 2022), and Aeryn Rudel’s horror novella Effectively Wild (Grinning Skull Press, 2022).

Walker writes about a kidnapping where the ransom demand isn’t money. Instead, Ryan Vargas, a retired, Cy Young-winning pitcher whose wife has been kidnapped, comes face-to-face with a batter he had struck out three times during the batter’s only major league game nineteen years earlier. To save his wife, can Vargas give the kidnapper one last at-bat?

Rudel writes about Martin “Wags” Wagner, a washed-up catcher relegated to the minor leagues who is presented with an opportunity to return to the big leagues. All he must do is mentor a promising young pitcher—a pitcher with no experience that the organization keeps separated from the rest of the team and who gets stronger each time he takes the mound. When Wagner discovers the pitcher’s secret, he must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to relive his own dreams.

Both Walker and Rudel captured and held my attention through their characters. In Walker’s story, Vargas’s nemesis—Mickey Loch—was as finely drawn as the protagonist, and Rudel presented an excellent portrayal of Wagner as an everyman desperate to hold onto his dream career.

While baseball is important to both stories, I found I was not hindered by my lack of knowledge of the sport. Each author provided enough information for me to understand what was happening without burdening the stories with arcane details that only true fans would appreciate.

My memory is hazy on this point, but I don’t recall my Little League team ever winning a game. On the other hand, Walker and Rudel both—to use an already over-used cliché—knock it out of the park.

My story “Little Spring” was reprinted in Haus (Culture Cult Press), marking my first official publication in India. (Several years ago I had a story published in India without my permission or prior knowledge.)

14 November 2022

Love, Murder, and The Crown

In Shakespeare's day, royalty and the nobility were the only celebrities. Writers and players were merely part of the hoi polloi, to be dazzled and fascinated by their doings and, in the Bard's case, to write about them.

In the sixteenth century, the sovereigns of England ruled as well as reigned. Shakespeare would never have dared to write the Netflix TV series The Crown, which bares the most scandalous shenanigans and dysfunctional family secrets of the House of Windsor. Nor would the Lord Chamberlain's Men have dared to produce it at The Globe. Even in the history plays, Shakespeare was careful to make the current dynasty, the Tudors, the good guys. His Richard III was such a powerful a piece of propaganda that a lot of us didn't know a case could be made for the justice of the last Plantagenet's cause until we read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, one of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.

There are plenty of murders among Shakespeare's characters. Indeed, some of his plays end with the stage strewn with bodies. Some murder for love—Othello kills Desdemona in a fit of jealousy. But more often, unhappy lovers kill themselves—Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet. There's an occasional McGuffin in Shakespeare—the handkerchief in Othello springs to mind. But most of Shakespeare's plays are about winning, losing, and pursuing power. His characters usually murder for power and ambition. The Macbeths, Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, all the killers like Julius Caesar's faithless friends and schemers like Iago and Edmund the Bastard want to topple those above them and either take their place or manipulate those who do for their own advantage.

In The Crown, there are no murders. I'd say this is because modern monarchs have no power. Indeed, landed aristocrats whose titles go back for centuries no longer sit in the House of Lords, ousted in favor of Life Peers, who according to the Parliament website, "have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health and public service. They bring this knowledge to their role of examining matters of public interest that affect all UK citizens." (My personal favorite is Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who wrote mysteries as Janet Neel, using her civil service experience in the Department of Trade and Industry. Death's Bright Angel is another of the best mysteries of the twentieth century.) There is no ambition the members of the royal family can fulfill by killing one another. Watching the real Charles take up the burden of his throne at his mother's funeral, I didn't think he looked triumphant, but as if he'd just taken the weight of the world on his shoulders, knowing he doesn't have the power to fix it. Watching the dramatized Charles agonize his way to a divorce, which only takes place when his mother finally agrees it's the only course, can you imagine him having killed Diana to gain his freedom instead? There isn't even any malice in the ways they repeatedly hurt one another.

In one episode of Season 5, having come as close as she ever will to apologizing to Princess Margaret for forbidding her marriage to Peter Townsend many years before, the Queen says, "I love you very much." Margaret says, "I love you too." (Or maybe it's the other way around.) Then there's a shocked silence. The Queen says, "How middle class! Let's never do that again."

First I was amused. Then I thought, How would she know what middle class people do? She's never met one except to shake hands. It reminded me of a moment in Murder in Provence, where Roger Allam, playing a French detective in the Police Justiciaire in a very English way, leans over in bed, pecks his wife on the cheek, and says, "Night night. Love you—as the Americans say." That was funny too. But does it really make us hopelessly banal to express our love verbally on a daily basis? Not to guilt-trip Roger Allam or the Queen (or their clever British scriptwriters), I've done it ever since 911.

It is readily apparent, as we watch the royal family live their lives in the spacious environs of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, and their other stately dwellings amid beautifully landscaped grounds, why the middle classes commit murder over love while royalty does not. Space and money make quite a difference. I enjoyed the divorce episode in which several ordinary couples who've applied for their divorce decrees explain their irreconcilable differences. Then comes a scene in which Charles and Diana, attempting to have a moment of amicable closure, can't help turning it into yet another squabble. But they do it with plenty of room to get away from each other. Kensington Palace Green and Kensington Gardens stretching away beyond the palace give them a huge bubble of peace and privacy. The settlement at issue is a matter of millions of pounds. They don't even have to attend the divorce decree hearing personally.

How many of the murders we write in which love turns to hate take place when the characters are cooped up together with no place to go and one or both of them don't have the financial means to start over?

13 November 2022

What happens in Gatineau doesn't stay in Gatineau

"By day he worked for the Canadian government as an IT specialist.

By night, he worked as a drug trafficker and becomes a federal government employee  hacker, extorting companies and others around the world as a part of a criminal ransomware gang, amassing millions of dollars in bitcoin by threatening to expose the private digital information of victims who didn't pay up.”

For those who don’t know Gatineau, its a rather sleepy community in Quebec, so near the capital of Canada, Ottawa, that many federal civil servants live there because it’s lovely, nestled in nature, and much cheaper than Ottawa. Who would have thought that an international criminal in ransomware - masquerading as a 33-year-old simple bureaucrat - lived there? He has an addiction to making money and is very dangerous.

What is ransomware? It’s a form of malicious software that blocks access to a computer or computers until a ransom payment is made.  The ransomware criminals hold sensitive information on the locked computer and threaten to release the information publicly if the payment is not made. How much? Millions of dollars. In bitcoin that can’t be traced.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Fifth Estate, it’s an amazing CBC investigative journalism program. Here is the link: https://gem.cbc.ca/media/the-fifth-estate/s48e07

My summary:

The hacker, User ID 128, has a name: Vachon-Desjardins. He doesn’t live big, he lives in a small home in a sleepy community. He just wants more money. And then, even more.

He attacked universities and health institutions during COVID-19, their most vulnerable time, to extort millions. He threatened them with losing their valuable data and releasing personal information on patients. Why? For money. “He told me … he was having an addiction to money. He always wanted more and more and more. He [didn’t] know where to stop,”

Vachon was charged in Canada and, after the FBI got involved via the ransomware attacks in the United States, he was extradited and charged there too. “I think that a lot of individuals who commit these crimes don’t think that they’ll ever stand trial in the United States. I think that the 20-year sentence was a very good deterrence piece to prevent others who might consider committing this type of conduct, that maybe they should think twice.”

Vachon-Desjardins remains in Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, Fla., as he awaits his next hearing set for January, when restitution for his victims will be decided. He will then be assigned to a federal prison.”

Does crime pay for those who need more and more money? At first, it sure looked like it, “When police raided Vachon-Desjardins’ Gatineau home and arrested him on Jan. 27, 2021, they seized $742,840 and 719 Bitcoin, valued at approximately $21,849,087 at the time and $14,463,993 as of today.”

Today, he’s in a federal prison in the United States, serving a 20 year sentence.

What happens in a small home, in a sleepy community like Gatineau Canada? A lot apparently. And what happens in Gatineau never stays in Gatineau. It isn’t Las Vegas. Thank goodness.

Threatening institutions in Canada and the United States during COVID-19 should have a price — 20 years seems hardly enough.

12 November 2022

I Confess: New Fletch Is a Big Improvement

I thoroughly enjoyed the Fletch reboot. You might agree, or you might disagree, or likely you hadn't heard there is a Fletch reboot. Well, there is. September. Confess, Fletch skipped wide release and headed almost straight for streaming services, propelled by a Miramax marketing campaign so stealth it would've shamed a ninja.

Fine by me--in the short run. I last darkened a movie theater door sometime before the pandemic. I'm happy in my basement cave, the big screen primed and a glass of wine ready for crime comedy.

Jon Hamm takes up the Fletch mantle. Fletch, if you've never seen the 1980s films or read the novels, is an ex-investigative reporter turned odd combo of art writer and impromptu sleuth, with special stress on impromptu. Movie-version Fletch is forever under-thinking investigation aliases and winging his way through trouble, usually of the upper crust sort. Fletch isn't a bumbler, though. He's a glider, and given the chance, Jon Hamm glides like few can.

The film offers plenty of glide path. The set-up: An Italian count hires Fletch to help recover a stolen art collection. Fletch's contacts say one stolen piece was sold in Boston. Fletch gets wrapped up first with the client's daughter and next with Boston Homicide detectives. Fletch discovers a young woman murdered in the Beacon Street condo that his new Italian flame rented. Then the Count vanishes, presumed murdered. The more Fletch investigates, the more the crimes are connected back his girlfriend. There's an actual mystery here.

They make too few movies like this anymore. Paced but not hurried, snappy dialogue without banter, constant humor without stooping to sophomoric, a bit of style but not style-obsessed. Much too rare these days. That's my long-term worry over Confess, Fletch landing bang in my basement cave, zero marketing beyond rolling the dice on a social media buzz-let.

If Miramax thought a smart crime comedy would break the box office, Miramax would've tried that route. I get it. Jon Hamm is great, but he's a television guy, and Mad Men was a while ago. Box office leads aren't also doing Progressive commercials. Nobody casted in Confess, Fletch is pre-hyped to younger thrill-ride seekers actually buying tickets. This film franchise has been dormant for three decades. The Fletch demographic is home decompressing via binge watch.

Maybe no one wants to make movies like this anymore.

Honestly, Hollywood didn't even make the original Fletch movies like this. Fletch (1985) exists to let Chevy Chase shtick his shtick. Seriously, there have been interviews about the lack of a traditional script. The plan was Chevy. The shtick works, but it doesn't hit hard. It can't when Chevy riffs through scenes played as skits, some legit hilarious, few with conflict even decent comedies need. Shtick without story wears thin. Witness the sequel, Fletch Lives (1989). Its contribution to entertainment was that actors and crew banked a paycheck.

Confess, Fletch takes the road more scripted. Good thing, because director and writer Greg Mottola asks the cast to act their comic roles. Much of that script sticks to the source material, Gregory McDonald's Edgar-winning novel (1977). Updated for a double-generational leap, of course. The best tension onscreen isn't between Hamm and his girlfriend or any of the suspects. It's the inter-generational joust between Hamm and Ayden Mayeri's Junior Detective Griz. Mayeri is gloriously Millennial in speaking her value while learning to keep up with Fletch.

Confess, Fletch can be nitpicked. The suspects could've used character depth. More danger would've sharpened the humor. The forensics and evidentiary exposition creeps toward a high-budget episode of Castle. But smart comedy doesn't have to be inventive genius. It has to be good, and Confess, Fletch is pretty good.

Please, someone keep making films like this.

Side note only discovered while researching this: In the 1980s, Gregory McDonald relocated to Pulaski, Tennessee, sixty miles from my basement cave. McDonald got involved in local anti-Klan efforts, which makes him especially cool.

11 November 2022

The Curious Case of Mr. Poe & Mrs Hale

The centerpiece on our dining room table this month was inspired by three recent books my wife did on the subject of Thanksgiving. One figure is our old pal, Edgar Allan Poe. The limited edition Bobblehead depicts Sarah Josepha Hale.

Together, they and the turkey add up to an interesting tale with a connection to the mystery genre. In the 19th Century no editor was more powerful than Sarah Josepha Hale. For fifty years she edited the most-read periodicals in the nation, Godey’s Lady’s Book, published out of Philadelphia.

For $1 to $3 a year, Hale’s readers received monthly magazines that brought the world to the farflung homes of a growing nation, delivered by stagecoaches, steamboats, and pony express riders. In each issue, readers found sheet music, clothing patterns, blueprints for Victorian home designs, recipes, news, editorials, literary reviews, and works of fiction.

When Hale spoke, readers listened. When she suggested young ladies wear white dresses when they married, they did. When she described the curious European custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s home, Americans followed suit. Fifty percent of the nation blushed when she shared this exciting French word with her readers: lingerie. Hale drew the line at bloomers; she did not weigh in on that controversial bit of clothing until someone had invented a free-flowing garment women could wear when taking outdoor exercise.

Hale was a consummate crusader, but not in the way we think. She never warmed to the notion of giving women the vote. But every issue celebrated the idea of women’s education and important causes to which she urged her readers to contribute a few cents here and there. Micro-funding, in other words, as a way of making a big difference.

She ushered in the novel practice of paying professional writers for original work, instead of simply stealing copy from other publications.

Godey’s welcomed writers we would all recognize today: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Stowe. Hale’s review section sang the praises of the young Louisa May Alcott. And then, one month in 1830, Godey’s celebrated the work of another young writer no one had ever heard of:
“It is very difficult to speak of these poems as they deserve. A part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry; but then we have parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelly [sic]. The author, who appears very young, is evidently a fine genius; but he wants judgment, experience, tact.”
The poetry collection was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, the second volume of work ever published by—yes, you saw this coming—Edgar Allan Poe.

Scholars find it strange that Hale asked one of her regular contributors to cast a glance at one of Poe’s more forgettable works, and that the review appeared so quickly after publication. In order for the review to appear in this volume, she (or her reviewer John Neal) would have had to have received galleys months before the book came out. How did a 21-year-old self-published author with little clout or pocket money pull that off? We find something of a clue in a letter Hale received from her son, David E. Hale, Jr., a few years later:

I have communicated what you wrote to Mr. Poe, of whom perhaps you would like to know something. He ran away from his adopted father in Virginia who was very rich, has been in S. America, England, and has graduated at one of the Colleges there. He returned to America again and enlisted as a private soldier but feeling, perhaps a soldier’s pride, he obtained a cadet’s appointment and entered this Academy last June. He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like Mathematics.

Turns out, Hale’s son attended West Point, where he made the acquaintance of Poe. Did Poe cozy up to David, knowing David’s mother was the nation’s most influential editor? Who knows. We do know that nearly everything in David’s letter about his friend is a lie, but that’s how Poe rolled.

Poe later became a regular in Godey’s pages, contributing 22 pieces from 1834 to 1849—a mix of short stories, poems, essays, and literary gossip. The latter attracted the most notice. His column, “The Literati of New York City,” skewered his contemporaries to such a degree that New York writers complained, and Louis Godey—the magazine’s publisher—insisted on inserting a disclaimer that the opinions expressed in these articles were those of Mr. Poe’s, not Godey or Hale’s.

It’s hard to tell what Hale actually thought of Poe. One of Hale’s biographers suggests that she grew fond of Poe’s small, impoverished household, when they were living in the same city, Philadelphia, and may have helped the family with groceries and other necessities. While the magazine lavished praise on his later work, continuing to celebrate his “genius,” she’s on the record as having paid him pitifully for his work—50¢ a page for a story that appeared in her Christmas annual. (In this case, he would have pocketed $5 for a 10-page story.) That is not terribly bad, if that was all her budget allowed, but at the same time, Nathaniel Hawthorne demanded (and got) $25 a story from Godey’s. Hawthorne famously argued that if he held out for better pay, he’d be able to support his family writing only 12 stories a year. Can’t really blame him.

I have to wonder what Godey’s genteel readers made of the most famous story of Poe’s to appear in the magazine, the one in which a wealthy nobleman entombs his enemy alive in a basement crypt. A modern Hale biographer suggests that “The Cask of Amontillado” fit neatly within Hale’s worldview. She saw the world of men as hopelessly corrupt, goes the theory; women were the only hope for decency in such a world. (That particular issue goes for astronomical prices online.)

Cute story. But why is this unlikely pair decorating our Thanksgiving table in 2022? Because besides giving America white wedding dresses, Christmas trees, and the outlet for one of our most macabre authors, Hale also became the Mother of Thanksgiving. She was obsessed with the holiday her entire life and lobbied five US presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday that occurred on the same day every year. At that time in history, the holiday was declared by governors and lesser officials for whatever day they thought reasonable. George Washington had proclaimed a Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, 1799. John Adams did so too, but Jefferson maintained that the separation of church and state prevented a president from declaring a religious holiday. Later presidents whom Hale approached trotted out similar objections.

So it went until the depths of the Civil War, when Hale’s letter landed on the desk of Abraham Lincoln. His proclamation for the last Thursday in November 1863 was mocked by Confederate-leaning newspapers, but nevertheless observed by the Union. The holiday didn’t become official until an act of Congress in 1941.

I for one remain eternally grateful that Mrs. Hale lobbied presidents on behalf of this holiday. I shudder to think what we’d all be consuming at our bountiful holiday tables if Mr. Poe had been the one with the holiday obsession. I don’t think I could stomach carving the Thanksgiving raven.

I learned about this story and other connections from my wife's nonfiction books:

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, by Denise Kiernan (Dutton, 2020).

Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday, by Denise Kiernan. (Philomel, 2022.)

10 November 2022

Veterans Day

 Dear SleuthSayer faithful–it's that time of year again, with Veterans Day falling on a Friday, and just days after a mid-term election whose high voter turn-out (both red AND blue voters) warmed the cockles of my heart. Yep, you heard me: I don't care WHO you voted for, as much as that you actually DID vote. Because democracy is best when it's PARTICIPATORY.

In 2015 a former student reached out to me and asked that I serve as that year's featured speaker for her high school's Veteran's Day assembly. I have posted below the speech I gave on that day. I hope you will join me in thanking all of our veterans, living and dead, for their service to our country, and to the world.

I know I promised you a conclusion to the story of the Queen's Poisoner begun last go-round in the rotation, but with me being a veteran and an historian, and tomorrow being Veterans' Day–one of the most historical of American holidays–I'm going to beg your indulgence and repost the speech below, given at a local high school several years. I feel the sentiments expressed below if anything, more strongly than I did when I originally gave this speech.

I love this country. I am honored and humbled to have served her. I wish you all the best on this, a day of remembrance.


Hello, and thank you for that warm welcome. While I’m at it, I’d like to thank Dr. _______, the staff, and the student body here at __________ High School for inviting me to speak to you today, on this occasion where we take time to honor our country’s veterans. My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran. It has been my privilege to teach Ancient & Medieval World History at _______ Middle School, here in the ______ School District, for the past ________ years.

But before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”

I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

And over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

And as the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served.

I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.

During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.

I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.

The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.

In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things, and so much more.

None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.

Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when he died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered. To be celebrated. To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.

And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself. 

A fraternity. 

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.


Coming in two weeks: the conclusion of the tale begun with an eccentric Swedish queen and her court poisoner. See you then!

09 November 2022

He Ran All the Way


John Garfield.  He was the immediate precursor to Brando and Monty Clift and James Dean, pretty much the first Method actor in Hollywood pictures – or at least the first star.  His movie career only lasted thirteen years, and a recent New Yorker profile calls him “half-forgotten,” but I don’t buy it. 

Garfield was nominated for an Oscar in his first picture, Four Daughters, and then again for Body and Soul.  It’s fair to say, though, that the second half of his output is more interesting than the first.  Not that he’s ever less than compelling – Air Force, for example, is a pretty lame effort for a Howard Hawks, even if Garfield is good – but the later pictures are more invested.  The same year as Air Force, he made The Fallen Sparrow.  Based on the Dorothy Hughes novel (Hughes wrote In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse), Fallen Sparrow sets up the compromised hero Garfield fully embodies in Force of Evil and The Breaking Point.  Postman is of course about a guy who only thinks with his dick, but a more conflicted and ambiguous Garfield shows his colors in the final five years.

Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947, Force of Evil in 1948, We Were Strangers in 1949, The Breaking Point in 1950.  Garfield hits his stride.

He’s muscular and assured, but transparent.  His emotions wash across his face like water, even when he’s ostensibly playing a mug or a tough Joe: you can read him.  He has the quality to appear natural, as if his character is only now inventing himself.  Force of Evil is masterfully written and fluidly shot, but it’s an actor’s movie, Garfield, Thomas Gomez, and the incomparable Marie Windsor, a B-movie queen in an A-list part.  Garfield plays a mob lawyer, and as the iron hand of his own doom closes on him, he rises to something like redemption, and makes it seem inevitable.

We Were Strangers is a political thriller, set in 1930’s Cuba, written (in part) and directed by John Huston.  The picture got tarred with a Red brush, which is of more than passing interest.  Garfield was about to get caught up in the Red Scare.  In the meantime, the movie tanked at the box office.  It was probably too subtle, and psychological, and it rationalized freelance assassination. 

Warners released The Breaking Point the following year, in spite of Garfield’s supposed political sympathies and the studio’s hard line against Communist influence, and the picture got good reviews.  [I wrote about it in a previous post, August 2019.]  But the handwriting was on the wall.  Garfield testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, denied he was a Communist, denied he knew any fellow travelers in the movie industry, and refused to name names.  It got him blacklisted.  He was disowned by Hollywood. 

He went back to New York, and opened in a revival of Golden Boy.  He died in May, 1952, of heart failure.  He was 39. 

Knowing this, his death foretold, Garfield might seem a haunted presence, but in life, not.  He was a kinetic force, his energy not so much performance, as inhabited, from the inside out.  Whatever suit of clothes he might put on, you can imagine no one else wearing them.

The Criterion Channel is hosting a Garfield festival.  

08 November 2022

Extra! Extra! Why I'm Tuning in for Alaska Daily

About twenty years ago, a new TV show aired with a big-name star (whose name, ironically, I can't recall) about a newspaper reporter. I was a former newspaper reporter—I'd loved being a reporter (mostly)—and had been eager to see the show. But I ended up watching only a couple of episodes because the show was ridiculously over-the-top. I remember complaining about it to a friend (another former reporter). Why, I said, can't there ever be TV shows about journalists that are realistic? And he said, "You want to watch a TV show about taking notes in meetings or interviewing people on the phone?" He had a point (and he hadn't even mentioned the third prong in the triumvirate of fascinating things reporters do: type up their articles). While the articles reporters write may be interesting, the news-gathering process? Not so much.

Yet the new show Alaska Daily is proving my old friend and me wrong. Airing at 10 p.m. ET Thursdays on ABC, and available for streaming on Hulu, Alaska Daily is my favorite new show of the season. I've read reviews complaining about the show, but I'm going to focus on what I like about it: it puts a spotlight on the importance of local journalism at a time when so many newspapers are going under, leaving many communities without a watchdog of their powers that be.

The show has what I'm assuming will be a season-long arc, in which series star Hilary Swank, playing a big-deal NY reporter who's pushed out of her job, moves to Anchorage, Alaska, to work at the city newspaper (the fictional Daily Alaskan) to investigate the crisis of missing Indigenous women. Swank's character is teamed up with an Indigenous reporter, played by Grace Dove, and in each episode they make some (sometimes significant) progress. This is an important story line based, sadly, on real life. 

Each episode also has a stand-alone story line. These have included:

  • A state official who misappropriated public funds
  • A radicalized local man who is stockpiling bomb-making materials. (The story stemmed from a reporter interviewing the winner of the largest cabbage at the state fair, and you can't get more local journalism than that.)
  • A beloved Anchorage restaurant owner selling out to a chain

Do I have issues with the show? Sure. For instance, the episode about the restaurant ended with the reporter writing a first-person article about the restaurant and why it was important to her and her family and why the owner had sold it. It was heart-stirring, but it blurred the line between news articles and opinion pieces—something that's already too blurry in too many people's minds. Nonetheless, I liked the episode. I've liked all the episodes, in fact, because they show reporters doing what reporters actually do: interviewing people, gathering facts, and making a difference in their community. (Wanting to make a difference, that's why everyone I knew who was a reporter went into the industry; it certainly wasn't for the money or for glamour.)

I like the reporters at the Daily Alaskan, even Swank's bristly character, who I assume will be toned down as the season progresses as she learns from her experiences and grows. I like the paper's newsroom, set in a strip mall because of financial issues (which is why they have a tiny staff, like so many real newspapers today that are struggling to survive). I like the paper's commitment to doing journalism right. 

So often these days, people see reporters as the bad guys. Alaska Daily puts its reporters in a positive light, and that's why I'm tuning in each week. I hope you'll check it out too.


While I have your attention, I'll be appearing this Saturday, Nov. 12th, at a Mystery Author Extravaganza at the Miller Library in Ellicott City, Maryland, along with fourteen other authors from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. We'll be talking about our new books and stories published this year. Books will be available for sale. Click on either link in the next paragraph to get the full list of participating authors.

The event is free and open to the public (no matter where you live). It starts at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. You also can watch over Zoom if you can't attend in person. To register to attend, click here for in-person or here for Zoom. (Walk-ins to the in-person event are welcome if you decide at the last minute to attend.) The library's address: 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, MD 21042.

07 November 2022

Creativity. Damned it you do, damned if you don't.

Creative work often presents itself as pure invention, when in fact, it’s merely a reconstitution of existing forms.  These are successful forms, which is why writers, editors and publishers produce this work by the trainload.  One only needs to see a lot of blockbuster movies, listen to commercial radio and read thick airline-oriented thrillers to know this is true.  There is tremendous comfort in diving into the familiar.  Like that cardboard container of MacDonalds French fries, you know what you’re going to get, and you can’t wait to get at it.

I’m totally down with this.  I read Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Rex Stout because they’re a known commodity.  Important for me, they’re also really good at it.  They know how to maintain a familiar rhythm and context, while introducing just enough surprise and variety to keep the stories interesting.  Also true with some of my favorite TV shows, recently Shetland and Longmire. 

The hang up is that without genuine creativity – offering ideas, themes and plot structures that have never been tried before – the whole art form will eventually die of arterial sclerosis.  It becomes boring, dulling the senses and deflating like a tired old balloon. 

Here enters risk vs. reward.  Most fresh ideas fail.  It’s the cruel reality of biological evolution, that it takes thousands of beings to produce that one mutation that will improve the life prospects of a particular species.  Contrary to common wisdom, publishers are always looking for that one big idea that will transform the industry, and their financial well-being, but in the process kill more nascent innovations than a blue whale scooping up krill. 

Most artists succeed, in the sense of wide recognition and good pay days, because they remind us of what we already know.  But occasionally, someone rips up orthodoxy and shows us something so wonderfully different that we can’t resist assimilating the fresh mutation.  As to TV shows, I’m thinking The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.  Philip K. Dick was so unceasingly creative that his work inspired some of the finest sci-fi movies ever made.  Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the modern detective story.  James Joyce invited readers into the consciousness of his characters in a way that permanently altered the literary arts.   

This is why we need what Steve Jobs called the crazy ones (Philip K. Dick and Vincent Van Gogh were certifiably mentally ill, but that’s not exactly what he meant.)  Business folklore is full of risktakers, iconoclasts, scruffy revolutionaries working out of their parents’ garage.  The ones we know about were not only prolific idea machines, they were also inured against the effects of failure, or had the persistence to fail forward, to keep screwing up until something finally clicked. 

A breakthrough requires two distinct capabilities.  One to come up with the idea, the other to introduce it to the world.  As a practical matter, I think the latter takes the greater risk.  When I was in advertising, I’d remind my fellow creatives that if our campaign fails, we might lose an account, but our partners who worked inside the client companies could lose their jobs.  Creative people tend to dismiss the sensibilities of the money people, but when a half million books get remaindered, they aren’t the ones typing up their resumes. 

Humans are biologically programmed to avoid risk, otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it out of the Pleistocene.  This is why a truly fresh idea is often met with skepticism, if not outright fear.  We also learned in advertising how to somewhat overcome this natural reaction, but at the end of the day, it simply took a lot of guts and faith in the power of originality. 

I once wrote a line for a stock photo company that wanted to encourage their clients to take greater risks by supporting more pioneering photography.  I think it equally applies to the writers, editors and publishers of mystery fiction.

“There is nothing so difficult to create, so delightful to render, or so dangerous to defend, as a new idea.

06 November 2022


What the Bad Guys Wear this Season © South African Paramount Marauder

An Unexpected Heroine

Seldom do we encounter a housekeeper who singlehandedly defeats a criminal terrorist cell. On television, such a heroine would have a CIA backstory, keep a 10mm in her spatula drawer, and be trained in seventeen different ways to kill a bad guy with a broken pair of nail scissors. But no, Nellie appears so extra ordinary, she becomes extraordinary. Our calm and self-possessed iqhawekazi unpacks her most formidable weapon, her wits.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine arrived mere minutes ago, seven hours before today’s publication deadline. It contains stories by my betters, Eve, Janice, Mark, and O’Neil, and  a rare chance to see one of my stories in print. I’ll discuss the genesis of the story another time, but let’s discuss language… or in this case, languages.

South Africa has thirty-five languages, eleven of them official. My story, ‘The Precatory Pea’, is sprinkled with expressions from several. The Netflix television show Blood & Water illustrates how South Africans speak, sometimes coloring sentences with two, three, or four languages.

We do the same thing without realizing. We North Americans mix in Spanish, French, and Latin, plus numerous American Indian place names. We’re the richer for it.

The Name of The Name

“The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’”
“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.
“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.’”
“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’” Alice corrected herself.
“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways and Means’, but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting On A Gate’, and the tune’s my own invention.”

The table below contains unusual mixed-case words like siSwati, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might note, Zulu is a Nguni language but isiZulu is the name of the language… or something like that. The particulars fomented a searing war within Wikipedia. British Wikipedian’s were outraged, claiming the names were at best stolen loan-words or worse, made-up slang. South African editors responding by quoting the Oxford Dictionary, South African Edition, which Wikipedian’s initially didn’t believe existed. So, if you aspire to be ultra-obsessively, compulsively correct (and Good Lord who doesn’t?), Zulu is the people, isiZulu is the language.

Complicating the issue is what computer people call ‘camel case’, mixed capitals and lower case, but this is not unusual in South Africa spelling. For example, the name of the province where I lived is KwaZulu-Natal… birthplace of the Zulus.

I’m admiring and grateful Alfred Hitchcock’s chief editor Linda Landrigan took in stride these issues of languages on the other side of the planet. How terrific is that!

The Fame of The Name

“Must a name mean something?” asked Alice in Wonderland.

Well, yes. Meanings of names used to be important in Western civilization. They often denoted something about the child or birth (Tuesday, Ginger), or religion (Mary, Josh), an occupational name (Carter, Fisher), a place name (D’Arcy, DuPont), or pretty much anything at all (Pearl, Rose). Society has let these lapse from shared memory, but meanings of names remain important in other cultures. An African family naming their little girl Treasure or Precious softens the hardest heart.

I’m not the only one, but I have a habit of relating names to the character of people in my stories. Sometimes I use sounds; sometimes I go by popularity. In the telling of ‘The Precatory Pea’, I took into account ethnicity and name meanings of characters, e.g, Sipho– gift.


To my ear, South African English combines the sounds of British English with American Deep South vowels. “I like to ride my bike,” sounds like, “Ah lahk to rahd mah bahk.”

I enjoy the sound of several isiZulu terms. It happens to be a click language, so once in a while a *click* pops out. Many words use onomatopoeia. Anyone who’s been around aged farm machinery knows the sound of a tractor, ganda-ganda. A rattletrap vehicle is a skedonk. A bad guy is a skabenga– you can hear the word spit out in disgust.

I suspect Dutch Afrikaans has influenced some pronunciation. For example, ‘th’ sounds are pronounced with a hard T. The talented actress Charlize Theron is exceptionally tolerant of Americans mispronouncing her name, but in her home country, it’s spoken as Teron.

Johannisburg, Johannisberg, Johannesburg… I never know which spelling to use, never mind tasting the riesling. I learned it pronounced with a ‘Y’ as in “Yohannisburg.” So what happens? My hostess corrects me… “Johannesburg.” And then her Afrikaner friend corrects me back, “Yohannesburg.” I get verbal whiplash… or toungelash. At least all agree on Jo-burg pronounced as Joe-burg).

Salade Lyonnaise (salad of Lyon, France)

Salade lyonnaise is delicious, perhaps not often made with African spinach. Its distinguishing feature is warm vinegar and oil dressing with bacon scraps, heated but not so hot to wilt romaine, endive, or whatever lettuce you have at hand. Finish with chopped egg on the greens and dribble savory dressing over it. Try it!


Many words have both formal and informal variants. Informal forms and plurals are in parentheses.

term definition, description   language
Arch Desmond Archbishop Desmond Tutu
bakkie pickup truck
bandile increased isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
bok, buck any horned, antelope-like ruminant Afrikaans, English
buhle handsome isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
deurmekaar confused
dof daft, dumb, stupid
dwaal dazed
en and
hawu expression: wow, whoa, pfft isiXhosa, isiZulu
impi war, warriors
induna foreman, overseer
injakazi slut, bitch
inyanga (plural izinyanga) healer
isangoma medicine man, witch doctor, diviner, spirit talker, seer isiZulu
isigebengu (skabenga, plural izigebengu) bad guy, criminal, villain isiZulu
isipho (sipho) gift isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
isiXhosa language of the Xhosa isiXhosa, English
isiZulu language of the Zulus isiZulu, English
kokayi summoner, caller of the people together Shona
mach schnell hurry (verb), quickly, now
Madiba Nelson Mandela (clan name)
magondo hyena
mampara idiot, cretin
marogo African spinach isiZulu, isiXhosa
moegoe cretin, stupid person
nelisiwe satisfied
nkosana prince
rooibos South African red tea
salade lyonnaise salad of Lyon: egg, heated vinegar, oil, bacon French
schalk varlet, knave, servant
Selous Scouts controversial Rhodesian multi-race guerrilla special forces English
skedonk jalopy, beater, dilapidated car, junker isiZulu
svitsi hyena
uDokotela physician, doctor
umlungu (mlungu) white person
umndeni (mndeni) family
umthakathi (tagati) sorcerer, witch
umuthi (muti) medicine; any liquid of useful purpose isiZulu
voortrekker pioneer
xiang si dou aphrodisiac love beads

  (parentheses imply informal variants or plurals)


I owe thanks to Simon for describing Selous Scouts and approving the finished story. I extend appreciation to ABA for helping me get the wrongs right and the rights better. Thanks to RT Lawton for reading and advising. And I thank the real Nelisiwe, a gentle soul, an open heart, and a lovely person. She’ll be shocked to learn she’s known a world away. Nellie, I miss our shared lunches.

05 November 2022

Three Hitchcock Stories


I'll begin on a happy note: I received word a few weeks ago from Jackie Sherbow at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine that one of my short stories, "Going the Distance," will be included in their Jan/Feb 2023 issue, coming out next month. More about that in a later post.

On that subject, I've been fortunate enough to have three other stories featured in AHMM already this year--the first time I've had three in one year at AH since, I think, 1999. And the strange thing is, these three stories are different in almost every way. (I think that kind of variety is one of the things that makes this magazine fun for readers and writers as well. It's like a box of chocolate mysteries: you never know what you're gonna get.)

The first of my three stories was "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" (Jan/Feb 2022 issue). At 2300 words, it's the shortest story of mine that AHMM has published in a long time. It's not a whodunit, or even a real mystery--it's more of a straight crime story, about a violent and unforeseen event in the lives of two brothers on a fishing trip. The first half of the story takes place inside a vehicle and is almost entirely dialogue, and the last half is about an incident at a quick-stop gas station that's tied to something the two guys heard earlier on their truck's radio. It's a standalone story set in the rural South, it's told via the POV of one of the brothers, and it's different from most of my stories in that there are no female characters. (Well, there's one, a sister who's a partner in their small business, but she's only mentioned in passing.) One of the things that made this story so much fun to write is that movies and the love of movies play a vital part in the storyline, and the thing that saves the main characters' lives involves a well-known Hitchcock plot device called a MacGuffin (which probably made AHMM more receptive to the story). The original title was even "MacGuffins," but editor Linda Landrigan suggested a different title to make it easier to use in a cover illustration.

My second story at AHMM this year was "The Dollhouse" (May/June 2022), one of those whose title has a double meaning. This one is a whodunit, in fact it's two whodunits because it contains two separate mystery plots that are seemingly unconnected at first: one is a murder mystery and the other is an incident at a local high school. It's a bit more typical of my other recent stories in AHMM because it's the sixth installment of a series featuring southern sheriff Ray Douglas, his ex-lawyer girlfriend Jennifer Parker, and his deputy Cheryl Grubbs. (My upcoming story in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue is the seventh installment, and the eighth has been accepted at AHMM but so far has no publication date.) "The Dollhouse," which runs about 5200 words, is about the same length as most of my latest AH stories. It's told from the sheriff's POV and again contains a great deal of dialogue, mostly between him and his two crimesolving partners.

My third story, "The Donovan Gang" (Sep/Oct 2022) is different in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it's not present-day. It's sort of a whodunit Western set in 1907, in the Arizona Territory. Second, it mentions several real people from that time period, and actively involves another real person as a part of the plot. Third, almost the whole story happens inside a confined space: the interior of a stagecoach--which again gave me an opportunity for lots of talking between the characters. The six passengers are a preacher, an actress, a journalist, a lawman, a saloon girl, and a dentist--and there are another half-dozen minor players, some of them offscreen-only. The story is a standalone and is told from the young journalist's POV. Also, it's a fairly typical length, around 4100 words. The fact that it's set in the Old West isn't unusual for me--I love to write Westerns--but it is unusual for AHMM. Twist Phelan and I have agreed to call those "historicals with horses." 

One thing these three stories do have in common is that they're all told in first-person, which has always been the case in the series I mentioned but not in most of my standalones, which are usually third-person. These three are also all written in past tense, but those are the only kinds of stories I write. I don't mind reading present-tense stores, but I don't like to write them. (I'm actually not crazy about reading them either, but I've accepted it.)

As for upcoming stories at AHMM, I have three that have been accepted but not yet published. Two of them, as I said, are more installments of my Ray Douglas series and one is, believe it or not, a standalone science-fiction story. So yes, I can say from experience that Linda will certainly consider stories other than mysteries, so long as a crime is present in the plot, and in fact AH is one of only two respected mystery magazines (that I'm aware of) that are receptive to stories with paranormal elements. The other is Mystery Magazine. Remember that EQMM has been known to publish the occasional otherworldly tale but usually doesn't, and both Strand Magazine and Black Cat Mystery Magazine prefer undiluted crime stories.

For those of you who are writers, what's been your experience, with the kinds of stories you've had accepted and published at AHMM? Are they shorter? Longer? Series stories? Standalones? Do any of you stick to traditional mysteries? Has anyone had success with other genres there? And what kinds of stories have you most enjoyed reading at AHMM? How about the kinds of stories you submit to other markets? Is there any subject matter, like Covid, that you try to avoid completely? Inquiring (nosy) minds want to know. 

Meanwhile, thank you as always for stopping in at SleuthSayers. Keep writing and reading--and have a good November.