04 June 2024

The Force of Star Wars

James A. Hearn visits us again to discuss the inspiration behind one of his recently published stories.
—Michael Bracken 
The Force of Star Wars:
The Story behind “An Evening at the Opera House”
in Private Dicks and Disco Balls: Private Eyes in the Dyn-O-Mite Seventies

by James A. Hearn

Using the Force, Jedi Master Yoda lifts Luke Skywalker’s stranded X-wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah and sets it gently on the shore. Luke, having failed to move the ship himself, stares at Yoda in wonder.

I don’t… I don’t believe it.

That is why you fail.
— The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

It’s May 13th again, and my phone is blowing up with texts, pictures, and videos of my older brother, Sidney. There he is dunking my sister Barb underwater in her hot tub, “baptizing” her for probably the thousandth time. He went to live with Barb’s family after our Dad passed away in 2007, as some of you may have read in a previous SleuthSayers post about my Dad. Someone sends a video of Sidney “doinking” whoever’s behind the camera, and I’m laughing along with him. (For Three Stooges fans, the doink is the gag where Moe asks Curly to pick two fingers, then uses those fingers to poke his fellow stooge in the eyes.) Sidney’s doinks—his made-up onomatopoeia for this joke—could travel across the room and even through telephones. “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”

The Village Opera House in old Fort Worth.

The phone messages are flying in from across the country, as they do every May 13th, from our far-flung family members. It’s been five years since Sidney’s passing, and we’re remembering all the goofy, laugh-out-loud, crazy shit he used to say and do. (Apologies to Mom in Heaven, but shit is the best word here. Not dirty things by any means, just outrageous.)

Sidney-isms, we call them. He had his own unique language, and while strangers sometimes had a difficult time understanding him, we were native speakers. Out of all our family, I may have understood him best, for reasons I’ll explain.

Cooking hamburgers in
my backyard with Sidney.

As you can probably tell from the photos, Sidney had Down syndrome. This is a genetic condition caused by trisomy of the twenty-first chromosome, where the body’s cells have three separate copies of chromosome twenty-one instead of the usual two. Trisomy produces the telltale features common to all people with Down—such as small ears, almond-shaped eyes, and a wide range of health challenges of varying profundity–and occurs in about one in 700 live births.

Sidney couldn’t read, write, or count to ten. In his twenties, he needed a cane to walk because of a degenerative hip. In his thirties, the hip was replaced, and he graduated to a walker. And toward the end of his life, reaching the ripe age of fifty-nine, he needed a wheelchair. There was no way Sidney could ever hold a job or be self-sufficient, as some people with Down can. But my big brother had other, more important talents and abilities. His hugs drove away our troubles, and his jokes made us laugh so hard we cried. And he had the most gifted imagination I’ve ever encountered.

After graduating from Jo Kelly School (a facility in Fort Worth specially designed to educate students with disabilities), his “work” was looking at his comic books, playing his records (read-along storybooks and soundtracks composed by John Williams), and watching his favorite TV shows and movies.

Sidney as Yoda.

The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were among his favorites. Others were Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Twilight Zone, Batman, and The Adventures of Superman to name a few. He watched hundreds of shows, and since we shared a bedroom, so did I. And not just shows with ray-guns and rocket ships, but Westerns and detective shows. The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, The Rockford Files, and Magnum, P.I. Throw in comedies like Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, Sanford and Son, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island.

A million cultural references were filed away in his brain, to be used as the situation warranted. For example, whenever something exciting happened, he might clutch his heart like Redd Foxx and yell, “Elizabeth! Honey, I’m comin’ to join ya!” He was the original meme generator before the Internet was a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye.

The pantheon of Sidney’s Imaginarium—a sort of holy trinity—was Superman, Star Trek, and especially Star Wars. He watched and listened to these adventures over and over and over again. For Sidney, there was no such thing as too much of a good thing. He would often act out entire scenes, where he voiced all the characters, provided his own sound effects, and put himself in the starring role. He was Clark Kent, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one.

Growing up in the seventies, I shared a room with Sidney. If he watched Star Trek late nights on channel 39, so did I. (Woe to the person who touched his TV!) If he was “reading” his comic books, I read mine. Together, we consumed thousands of hours of cop shows, comedies, science fiction, and fantasy.


Please don’t think this time was wasted or spent idly, by either of us. These stories enabled Sidney to live out his dreams, to take his mind places where his body could never go. And by experiencing these things with him, I was able to understand what he was saying when others couldn’t. To borrow a concept from Star Trek, I was his universal translator in years to come.

By osmosis, I absorbed his world and became a part of it. I played Jimmy Olsen to his Superman, Spock to his Kirk, Darth Vader to his Luke. We acted out our favorite scenes and played at being heroes. We routinely leaped tall buildings in a single bound, performed the Vulcan mind-meld on each other, and blew up the Death Star. In Sidney’s productions, the Good Guys and Gals always won.

Sidney was my best friend, and I owe him a debt of gratitude not just for being a great brother, but for giving me a desire to create my own stories. I never would’ve been a writer without him, and life would’ve been a dreary, shadowy reflection of itself without Sidney to brighten things up.

When I heard about Michael Bracken’s seventies-themed private eye anthology, I knew I had to write a story about someone like Sidney, for Sidney. “An Evening at the Opera House” was born. The Opera House was a real-life theater in our hometown of Fort Worth where we saw Star Wars together for the first time. A New Hope was born in each of us that day, long before George Lucas gave his most famous movie that title.

Like my characters with Down, Sidney was fine just as he was. Perfectly imperfect, and thus as fully human as anyone. And like my private detective Harvey Lisch—a pretentious, arrogant, and slightly neurotic version of myself—whenever I feel the malaise of life tugging at my heels, I stop and think about a very special brother whose unparalleled imagination shaped my life.

This story’s for you, Sidney. In Heaven, are you flying through the clouds like Superman? Visiting strange new worlds as Captain Kirk? Wielding a lightsaber in a duel with a dark lord? I think you are, and you’re doing it with gusto.

Sidney’s headstone is right between our parents,
as they wished. The “S” stands for a
Super Brother.

After Sidney passed, I sometimes wondered what he would’ve been like if he’d been born without Down. What if he could’ve unleashed that powerful creativity and shared it not just with the family, but with the world? Would he have become a novelist? An actor? A composer like his beloved John Williams, whose records were the soundtrack to his life?

I don’t ask that question anymore. To do so implies there was something wrong with Sidney. That he was somehow, well, lesser than someone born without Down. But there was nothing wrong with him. He was loving, kind, funny, and fun-loving. He was unabashedly, unapologetically himself, and that’s a lesson we all should take to heart.

Thank you, Sidney. Like Yoda to Luke, you gave me the power to imagine a better world. You gave me the power of belief. May the Force be with you, Brother.

James A. Hearn

An Edgar Award nominee for Best Short Story, James A. Hearn (www.jamesahearn.com) writes in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He and his wife reside in Georgetown, Texas, with a boisterous Labrador retriever who keeps life interesting.

03 June 2024

A taste of honey. Or vinegar. Pick your poison.

There’s no accounting for taste, thank God.

The discrepancies provide an incredible richness of opportunity, a cornucopia of variety, bottomless choice. That doesn’t mean I’m not constantly bewildered by people’s preferences in books, art, love and lighting fixtures.

I’ve long since abandoned the notion that someone’s devotion to something I find utterly without merit denotes a lack of character. I hope others allow me the same tolerance. If you believe ABBA represents the pinnacle of musical achievement, I respect that. Even if you fail to appreciate the profound importance of Grand Funk Railroad to the triumph of 20th century American Popular Music.

Granted, I tend to associate with people who share many of my tastes and predilections, as every person does. We’re a self-organizing social species. It’s natural and expected. That’s why it can be unsettling when one of my close cohort professes a love for Jonathan Livingston Seagull or the Cowsills.

Speaking of lighting fixtures, go into the biggest lighting store you can find and look at the stuff hanging from the ceiling, then imagine any of it lurking above your dining room table. Or better yet, leaf through one of those gargantuan books of wallpaper samples. Be aware they only sell this stuff because people buy it. Oh, the humanity. Some people are utterly devoted to avant-garde music. I try to imagine setting up a romantic evening of good wine, fine food, comfy couches and an hour or two of a John Cage composition featuring a bucket of bolts thrown on the piano strings. I admire people who admire this stuff, but I don’t understand them at all.

Much poetry escapes me, though I don’t read enough, I admit. When I stumble on a nice poem, I’m smitten, even if I don’t know why. I feel the same way about opera; while much of it sort of grates, the right aria can make me weep. If I’m in the right mood.

I’ve never met a mystery short story I didn’t like. Yet I’m confounded by many of the general short stories in publications like The New Yorker. I think, what’s the point? Is there a point? What am I missing?

As to literary fiction (a definition I’d argue with), I feel if you don’t have much of a plot, the writing better be fantastic. I love words, perfectly constructed sentences and clever metaphors and similes. When those are present, I really don’t care what happens. Though give me a stem-winding thriller with a few clunky turns of phrase and I’m all in. When the writing and the story are well rendered, I’m in heaven.

Clothes have nothing to do with writing, but I’ve worn basically the same style my entire life. The Harris Tweed sport coat I wore for my fifth-grade class picture, and my high school senior portrait, is still hanging in my closet, having suffered a few alterations. It’s disintegrating, so maybe it’ll have to go to the dump, though not without a small ceremony.

I agonized mightily in the early seventies, when everything sartorial turned to shit. I used to cut down the heels of platform shoes with a hot wire, and had tailors reduce lapels and pocket flaps. I had a decent stockpile of thinner ties from my father’s business career that kept that segment alive. If you see me in a leisure suit, I’m a corpse. Everyone thought I was just being contrary, but I held firm until things shifted back toward the sane in the 1980s.

Back to good writing, it’s always been there, you just have to seek it out. And more has been written in the past few thousand years than I’ll ever be able to read, so the well never runs dry. Political speech has rarely been worse, so that category has suffered serious degradation. On the other hand, there are a lot of very talented political journalists who revere the language and demonstrate it with every column. Again, you just have to hunt around for the gems.

As a cabinetmaker and house designer, I keep up with trends, and lately interiors have all been white or grey. Light grey, with no natural wood to be found (my houses are loaded with cherry and mahogany, oak floors and the occasional chestnut beam). Fashionable exteriors tend to board and batten siding and black window frames. The most recent house I designed used those elements, because that’s what the client wanted. It looks fine, though I had to go well outside the contemporary mood to convey any distinctive style.

Which tells you all you need to know about taste. It’s the tyranny of the popular, and the poverty of individual imagination.

02 June 2024

My First Story

First story I recall telling happened in 1st Grade. I didn’t plan a tall tale, nor did I intend to entertain anyone, only myself. As mentioned back on Criminal Brief, our teacher, Miss Ruth, who’d been in place since the War of 1812, taught the dangers of gossip and rumors in a Game of Telephone, aka Telegraph aka Game of Whispers.

She paraded us down to the gymnasium, where we took off our shoes. Lining us up alphabetically in a row, she seated us on the floor. Then she explained the plan: Teacher would whisper a short story to Sara Arnett, who would in turn would whisper to Roger Batton beside her, and so on across the row, passing through me, dead center in the middle. Mike Young, seated last, would hear the final iteration. Finally, Sara and he would stand and deliver what they heard, Versions 1,0 and 1.32, so to speak, thus we could grasp how inaccurate rumors were.

bunny and duck

The story took a few minutes to reach me, a tale about a wee bonnie bunny on a bicycle. At that moment, lightning struck and Igor babbled in my ear.

I’ve always been a mad scientist. It dawned on me I could run a double experiment. I related a story to Walter Meyers about an ice-skating ducky with an umbrella. Snap. Story Version 2.1 moved on and on.

Then I panicked. What if the teacher did a trace-back? Had I just sinned, lied in some way? Surely worse than lying, what if they kicked me out of school? Forever? What if no one hired me, would I live on the streets while my classmates ran farms and worked at big name companies?

Then Sara and Mike stood. She repeated Story 1.0, after which Michael rattled off Story version 2.16. Poor Miss Ruth looked dumbfounded. With a slightly stunned expression, she mumbled, “I’ve never had this happen before.” Probably wishing she retired half-a-century earlier, she muttered, “Let’s… Let’s go upstairs.”

Without realizing it, I’d just told my first story.

01 June 2024

Titles, Titles Everywhere, and Not a One Will Work

I like story titles. They not only catch the eye, they sometimes provide a look ahead, and if they're good enough, they can make the story better. The main thing is, titles makes a difference to editors and publishers, and in turn, to readers. 

I especially like cool titles, the ones that are witty or grand or "different" in some way. When I see one of those I find myself wishing I had come up with it. You know what I mean: The Guns of Navarone, "The Gift of the Magi," To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. That list could go on and on, and almost did, in a column I posted here at SleuthSayers early last year, called "A Sense of Entitlement." Those kinds of titles inspire me to try to create good ones for my own writing. 

With my short stories, I've found it's best to come up with a title early on, either before the writing starts or soon afterward. It can then serve as sort of a guide or compass to me during the course of the story. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes I charge off into battle with no hint of a title in mind. (Apparently I'm in good company there: Larry McMurtry once said in an interview that he had already written four hundred pages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before he came up a title for it. He eventually solved the problem while on a trip to Fort Worth. He was leaving a restaurant when a bus passed by with the name LONESOME DOVE CHURCH printed on the side--and suddenly he had his title.) In my case, several of my recent stories were completely finished before I had suitable titles, and I spent a looooong time trying to find some that fit the bill. 

Does that ever happen to you? What do you do when it does? How do you come up with satisfying titles at all, whether before, during, or after the writing, and avoid those that just don't do the job? (All of us have at some point "settled" for a lesser title, and that's never a good feeling.) What are some of your coolest titles? What are some titles by others, that you especially like? Let me know your thoughts on all this, in the comments.

Here are some things I usually think about, when I'm wrestling with a title choice. With each of these, I've included twenty examples from my own published stories, mainly because they were easy for me to find. 

1. Titles that are character names or nicknames:

Annabelle, Frankie, Lucifer, Sneaky Pete, Diamond Jim, Sweet Caroline, Purple Martin, The Jumper, Checkpoint Charlie, Mr. Unlucky, The Cookie Monster, The Sandman, The Messenger, The Locksmith, The Barlow Boys, King of the City, Billy the Kid, Shrinking Violet, Tomboy, Mustang Sally. 

(If your story's finished and you're stumped, you can even go back and substitute a catchy name/nickname for your protagonist or another main character and make that the story title. That's what I did to create some of the above. Sometimes even the villain's name will work. Think Hannibal, or Goldfinger.)

2. Titles that are place names:

Dentonville, Ship Island, Blackjack Road, Turtle Bay, Sand Hill, Rooster Creek, Palm Canyon, Hardison Park, Lookout Mountain, Mythic Heights, Dreamland, Redemption, The Starlite Drive-In, Silverlake, Shadygrove, Plymouth West, Crockett's Pond, The Rocking R, Bad Eagle Road, The Pine Lake Inn. 

(Same thing here. If finished, you can go back and set your untitled story in a neat-sounding location. Title problem solved!)

3. Titles that are times or time periods:

Flag Day, From Ten to Two, An Hour at Finley's, Summer in the City, 200 Days, Twenty Minutes in Riverdale, Run Time, War Day, Midnight, The First of October, Intermission, Nap Time, Valentine's Day, Flu Season, Break Time, Ladies' Day, Dry Spell, While You Were Out, A Day at the Office, A Night at the Park. 

4. Titles that are "possessives":

Molly's Plan, Thursday's Child, Bennigan's Key, Nobody's Business, Lindy's Luck, Lucy's Gold, Hartmann's Case, The Deacon's Game, Merrill's Run, Dooley's Code, Rosie's Choice, Dawson's Curse, Hildy's Fortune, Button's and Bo's, The Governor's Cup, The King's Island, Walker's Hollow, Lucian's Cadillac, Fool's Gold, The Devil's Right Hand.

(Like the others I mentioned, this can also be a last-minute bailout, and save you when you just can't decide on a good title otherwise.)

5. Titles that are a play on words:

Gone Goes the Weasel, A Bad Hare Day, Murphy's Lawyer, A Cold Day in Helena, The Rare Book Case, The Three Little Biggs, Henry's Ford, R.I.P. Van Winkler, Andy Get Your Gun, Della's Cellar, Escape Claus, Don't Mansion It, Ex Benedict, Mattie's Caddy, Snow Way Out, A Loan-ly Murder, Low Technology, Take the Money and Ron, North by Northeast, Amos' Last Words.

(My favorite kind of title.)

6. Titles with a double (or hidden) meaning:

Weekend Getaway, Tourist Trap, A Warm Welcome, Old Soldiers, High Anxiety, Quarterback Sneak, Burglar Proof, Gas Pains, Pocket Change, Spell Check, The Big Picture, Deliver Me, True Colors, Poetic Justice, Cat Burglar, The Coldest Case, A Sterling Event, Conventional Behavior, Business Class, A Trivial Pursuit.

7. Titles that are familiar phrases:

Little White Lies, In Other Words, Batteries Not Included, Nothing but the Truth, Not One Word, Eyes in the Sky, Better Late than Never, One Less Thing, Some Assembly Required, Eight in the Corner, A Stitch in Time, Name Your Poison, This Seat's Taken, No Strings Attached, The Outside World, In the Wee Hours, Unlucky at Love, A Shock to the System, The Noon Stage, The Gospel Truth. 

(My least-favorite kind of title--even though "The Noon Stage" was one of my favorite stories to write. BTW, I left out the ones with familiar two-word phrases, of which there are many.)

8. Titles that use "and" to connect two things or names:

Rhonda and Clyde, Bourbon and Water, Pros and Cons, Moonshine and Roses, The Browns and the Grays, The Ghost and Billy Martin, Art and Poetry, Punch and Judy, Lost and Found, Gert and Ernie, Camels and Starships, Friends and Neighbors, Trial and Error, Outfitters and Critters, Hearts and Flowers, In-Laws and Outlaws, Sunlight and Shadows, Lewis and Clark, Ducky and the Shooter, The Miller and the Dragon. 

9. One-word "summary" titles:

Survival, Ignition, Clockwork, Driver, Stopover, Oops!, Premonition, Creativity, Oversight, Turnabout, Partners, Trapped, Mailbox, Diversions, Sorcerer, Lightning, Proof, Fantasyland, Teamwork, Cargo.

10. Titles with "ing":

Burying Oliver, Getting Out Alive, Saving Mrs. Hapwell, Wronging Mr. Wright, Remembering Tally, Just Passing Through, Traveling Light, Mugging Mrs. Jones, Splitting Christmas, Playing with Fire, Going for the Gold, Cracking the Code, Saving Grace, Spending Money, Fishing for Clues, Catnapping, Waiting for the Bus, Stealing Roscoe, Driving Miss Lacey, Pushing Joe Carter. 

(Once again, this kind of title can be a good lifeline when you can't come up with anything else. Invent an appropriate action and add "ing.")

11. Titles (usually long) that have a "rhythm":

Debbie and Bernie and Belle, The Early Death of Pinto Bishop, On the Road with May Jo, The Friends of Lucy Devine, Liz and Drew and Betty Lou, The President's Residence, Romeo and Isabelle, An Evening at the Robertsons', What Luke Pennymore Saw, A Surprise for Digger Wade, A Nice Little Place in the Country, Everybody Comes to Lucille's, The Moon and Marcie Wade, We Can Work It Out, Turn Right at the Light, Last Day at the Jackrabbit, Whatever Happened to Lizzie Martin?, Billy Dinkin's Lincoln, From the Hill to the Park, Bad Day at Big Rock.

(One of my favorite "lilting rhythm" movie titles is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.)

12. Three-word "Robert Ludlum" titles (like The Bourne Identity, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.):

The Zeller Files, The Jericho Train, The Donovan Gang, The Winslow Tunnel, The Pullman Case, The Plimpton Scholar, The Artesian Light, The Midnight Child, The Foreverglow Case, The Nelson Enigma, The Ironwood File, The Sallisaw Blowout, The POD Squad, The Delta Princess, The Florida Blues, The Willisburg Stage, the Navarro Principle, The Dolan Killings, The Long Branch, The Cado Devil.

There are of course many, many other types and sources of titles, but the above twelve "prompts" are some that I've found to be handy. Looking back over my stories, I also found a lot of titles that use "of the," "in the," "to the," "from the," "at the," "with the," "for the," and so forth--but hey, enough is enough.

If somehow you're still reading this, I'll mention one of my most recent accepted stories--its title came from a local TV news broadcast I saw not long ago, about a shooting in a nearby city. When the reporter asked a wide-eyed bystander what happened, the guy--a friend of both the suspect and the victim--solemnly said, "Bubba done shot Jasper." Those weren't the actual names he used on the air (I've changed them here to protect the innocent, although one of them wasn't), but I admired that profound observation enough to steal it and use it myself. Several weeks ago, thanks to that news report, I sold a mystery story called "Skeeter Done Shot Billy Bob" to a crime anthology to be published this fall. 

Titles really are everywhere.


31 May 2024

Guest post: Twisted Up

When the mother of my friend Stuart Connelly died some years ago, her cremains were tucked into her youngest child’s closet and promptly forgotten until Stuart’s wife’s insisted he lay his mother to rest. What were Mom’s wishes? his wife wanted to know. Stuart had no clue. To find out, he hit the road with a banker box filled with family artifacts and a box of ashes, hoping to learn just enough about his mother to answer that question.

In his new memoir—out this month in time for this (waning) month of mothers– Stuart finds himself performing a series of increasingly uncomfortable errands in search of the story: knocking on people’s doors, asking to see the basement where one of his relations died; walking into police stations to inquire about fifty-year-old cold cases; and asking an old family friend if he and mom were in fact more than just friends. The book is called Offered In Secret, and I’ll let him take it from here.

— Joe D’Agnese

Twisted Up

Stuart Connelly

A huge number of TV viewers have gotten themselves in a tailspin over Sugar, a current streamer on Apple TV+ about an LA-based private detective. Without going into details that might give away story and plot, let’s simply say that the love the show initially garnered grew out of its wonderful execution of the noir trope of the lone, noble investigator refusing to give up the case, no matter what. The disappointment and backlash came with a mid-series twist that radically altered this basic conception.

I get it. The show was solidly satisfying without the damn twist. But I also think it’s important to interrogate the idea that mysteries, which by their very nature are supposed to be complex, speak to us because the elements are in fact predictable. Not the specifics, but the story beats.

The idea that the powerful, well-respected community leader is behind the nefarious deeds, or that the person who hired the detective did so to get him looking in the wrong direction… These are not twists, they are hallmarks. We read and watch to see how the dots are connected, not to be surprised that the dots exist in the first place. I describe the show as satisfying rather than great or exciting or intricate for exactly this reason.

Cover found in his mother’s personal effects
is a rare photo of Stuarts parents together
that does not show either person’s face.

Even the inevitable defeated-hero, Chinatown-style endings of so many detective stories don’t disappoint, because we the audience can see how the insurmountable forces all lock together, how the case was doomed from the jump. Again, there can be satisfaction without attendant happiness. At least there’s no confusion.

We like a bow tied around the mystery; we don’t like surprises that upend the format.

I recently published a memoir, Offered In Secret, in which I became a reluctant detective in my own real life story. And if there was any bow at the end, let’s say that if it was tied at all, it was a slipknot.

You could say mine was a missing person case, although I knew where the woman was: in a box in the passenger seat, melted down to a few pounds of powdered residue. I was searching for a relationship with my mother inwardly while I was searching for a burial site for what remained of her exterior. I had a paltry number of letters and photos and telegrams and newspaper clippings she had saved. As I read and analyzed these, I drove 1,800 miles in search of memories to connect the two of us. This would seem straightforward enough, but I uncovered secrets in my mother’s life I couldn’t have conceived as a fiction writer. I connected dots that I didn’t even know were there.

Looking into my divorced mother’s friend, who was at the time an international student half her age, I dug up some surprising information.

Montreal Biosphere
Tapan, Mother, at Montreal Biosphere

From the book:

[A]mong my mother’s keepsakes, there was a photo of the [Montreal] Biosphere site after all. This one was taken less than eight years after the World’s Fair visit. (I could date the picture because in May of 1976 the Biosphere caught fire and its Plexiglas shell melted away, leaving only the naked metal superstructure). It should serve nicely as the introduction to a new character in the Carolyn Connelly drama: meet Tapan Sarkar.

At the time this photograph was snapped, the man in question was a Syracuse University electrical engineering student. It seemed that there were more surviving photos of Tapan with my mother than me with her. Certainly more than my father with her. There was a slew of other pictures of the man from India in Carolyn’s possession when she died, shots of him throughout the years, but no matter when the shot was taken, the age difference between the two was always apparent. He may have actually been closer to my age than my mother’s.

Tapan had been a fixture of my childhood. He was a gentleman friend of Carolyn’s who, I’d slowly begun to realize, had a much larger footprint in Carolyn’s life than I ever realized.

I’d known from the start that this work, this thing I was planning on writing, was a feathered fish: half memoir, half investigation. Those can be very different pursuits, but what I knew they had in common was the fact that they both were narratives that had to be wrestled into shape. They both were bits and pieces that needed assembly. Both puzzles.

Tapan Sarkar was a puzzle piece that I hadn’t placed on the board yet. I’d never even been able to gauge the general location. He wasn’t a corner, an edge, part of the sky or bit of the horizon. No, Tapan was one of those off-putting puzzle pieces with the splashes of strange colors shot through so incongruous that you don’t believe it forms any part of the picture and you suspect it might belong to a different puzzle altogether.

Until something clicks it into place and you can suddenly see the bigger picture.

That bigger picture was an answer to a question I hadn’t yet asked. When I got the chance to verify it by asking the new question, the answer didn’t match the one I’d pieced together. There was no great confession, no peek behind the curtain. No satisfaction.

But there was discovery. What I discovered was that real life has more twists than connect-the-dots. They may not be as game changing as the twists that Hollywood contrives, but they’re more reliable and beautiful in their messiness.

What’s great about the detective as an archetype is that they are us. They come to the world of the story from the outside in media res (like us), without knowing any of the players, causes, or effects (like us), and struggle to puzzle it all out so it makes sense. We crave in our fiction a sense of order that we can’t get in the world itself. What I suggest is that looking for order in the id-choked chaos of crime is unnatural; there is a beauty in the chaos itself.

Now, this Apple TV+ show may not be playing fair, with a twist that strikes viewers like a grenade lobbed from a different story (perhaps even a different genre). That’s a valid concern. But let’s fight against bringing our rigid conventions to the people we’re asking to hear stories from. If Offered In Secret is any genre, it’s a road trip. And the one thing we all know about a road trip is this hoary truism: it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Why not take the ride? Take some time to enjoy and soak in the subversive, more questions-than-answers tension of Twin Peaks, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, or the more recent I Saw The TV Glow?

And maybe give the new detective show that’s annoying everyone a second chance.

See you in three weeks!

— Joe

30 May 2024

Voices, Voices, I Hear Voices...

So many of my fellow SleuthSayers have written such excellent articles on writing that I feel like it's got to be my turn to give it a go. But all I can really say about writing is: 

Read a lot, stare out the window a lot, and, when possible, sit down in your chair and write. 

Get up and go for a walk. Read some more. Stare some more.  Sit down and write some more. 

Repeat endlessly, until the damn thing is done.   

So much for the actual process of physically putting words on paper.  (There used to be more cigarettes involved, but I quit smoking in 2010.)

As for all the endless stuff that goes into getting to the point where you want to put words on paper, well, I'm certain that insanity runs in my family, and that we all hear(d) voices. 

Like so many writers, of course I have notebooks crammed with things I spot, things I hear, conversations I overhear, etc.  For example:

  • The other day I was driving down a street I hadn't been down before and spotted a decorative rock in the front yard, about 3 foot tall and shaped like a crouching monkey.  Hmm...
  • Or the time I was at a 12-Step Conference and overheard someone at breakfast explaining that they'd do a Step Five, but they were never going tell a sponsor everything they did "because there's no damn way I'm going to prison, okay?"  Hmm...
  • In Italy, watching as a resident's little dog pissed on a tourist’s suitcase; the resident kept walking, muttering “scuzi” without stopping. Hmm...
  • On a recent news feed scroll, "TSA finds small bag of snakes in man's pants." Hmm...

Any detail counts. You never know when you'll use it.

Now I will admit, freely, that plots are not my strong point. In fact, I have to claw plots out of thick clay with my bare hands.  But one trick I have learned is that, if you know your characters, they will tell the story themselves.  Especially if you can see them walking, know some of their habits, and hear their voices as they speak.

One gift I do have - and it may be having been adopted so young from Greece, so that I had to learn a new language (English) quickly, along with a variety of accents - is that I memorize voices.  I watch a lot of Britbox and Acorn TV shows, and I'm always turning to my husband and saying, "That's the guy in New Tricks [or some other show], but at least 30 years younger."  Because I recognize the voice.  

This is why I am infuriated at the common soap opera device of having someone getting plastic surgery to look exactly like someone else - and somehow the surgeon managed to get the voice exactly the same too...  No.  No, no, no, no.  A really good impersonator has a special gift all  their own.  

And I also memorize accents: I can reel off a variety, at least in my head, from various American accents to Australian to Scots to Irish, etc.  Some I can actually reproduce myself.  Since my mother's family came from Kentucky, and I spent my summers there, I can do a dead-on impression of Mitch McConnell that I can proudly say has made many Southern friends snort coffee out of their nose.    

The result is that I can and do take someone's voice and/or accent and listen to them talking, interacting, in my head, and, as I say, a lot of the time they'll tell me what's going on, especially (please tell me I'm not the only one...) when I get really stuck. 

And I get stuck a lot.  Like I say, I have to dig for plots the way other people have to dig for buried treasure.  

Lot of work.  

Another gift I have is research.  Remember, I'm a retired historian, from an age when, as a graduate student, if you wrote a paper or a thesis or a dissertation, you damn well better be able to show every reference for every statement you made.  And I do love research.  For example, my first post this May began with an anonymous tip about RFK Jr.'s arrest for heroin in Rapid City back in 1983.  Well, researching that led to me finding the story about RFK Jr. and Riverkeeper and the bird smugglers, and next thing you know it's testosterone and sex diaries...  You never know where you're going to end up, or, again, how you'll use it.  

The result is my head is crammed full of trivia:

  • The most popular cafe in post-WW2 Vienna was the Gasthaus Kopp.
  • It's not "the man in the moon" but the "rabbit in the moon" in both East Asian and indigenous American cultures.
  • The nobility in Heian Japanese culture painted their faces white but blackened their teeth, and were apparently (diaries abound, not to mention "Genji") highly promiscuous. 
  • In France, cold cream is called cĂ©rat de Galien ('Galen's Wax') after the 2nd century Greek physician who invented it.
  • The primary translator of Edgar Allan Poe in French was Baudelaire, whose translation is still in common use.
  • Etc., etc., etc...

But all of that is the preliminary work, which (let's admit it) sometimes is the most fun.  For the actual writing, well...

Read a lot, stare out the window a lot, and, when possible, sit down in your chair and write. 

Get up and go for a walk. Read some more. Stare some more.  Sit down and write some more. 

Repeat endlessly, until the damn thing is done.  

I'd go back to smoking, but I'd just have to quit again...

29 May 2024

44 and Counting

Last month R.T. Lawton did a piece crunching the numbers on his 51 stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with my more modest collection, especially since "Professor Pie is Going to Die" arrived this week in the May/June issue.  "Pie" is #43 and there is another novella awaiting publication, so my current total is 44.

R.T. made his first sale to AHMM in 2001.  I made mine in 1981 so not only has he sold more but he did it in a much shorter time.  He has made $21,376  while my stories earned $16,415.  His stories average out to 5,065 words while mine come in at 4,280, with a meridian of 3,400 words.  (I tend to write very short, but a few novellas bump up the mean considerably.)

I am doing far worse than R.T. on percentage of stories sold: 94 rejections give me a sale percentage of 32%.  Under the current editor, Linda Landrigan, I have been hitting 54.4%, which may have to do with her preferences but I hope is also because I have improved as a writer.  

R.T. also has more AHMM reprints to his credit than I do, but that depends on how you calculate them.

Here's the easy way to figure mine:

    Black Cat Weekly: $50

    Japanese Mystery magazine:  $350

However, I also self-published a book, Shanks on Crime.  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on it, but then a Japanese publisher bought the rights to translate it and paid me $3,600. Nine of the fourteen stories were from AHMM so: 3,600 x 9/14 =   2,324.

But, wait! There's more.  The book sold well enough in Japan that the publisher decided to put out a book of my otherwise uncollected stories, five of which were from AHMM. So: $3,600 x 5/9 = 2,000.

Since those books were published they have earned some royalties and the percentage from AHMM stories turns out to be $585.

Which brings us to:

AHMM: $16,415

Reprints: $400

Japanese books: $4,909

Total: $21,714

That's for 43 years worth of work. You will notice R.T. is still ahead of me.   He would probably agree that  it's a slow way to get rich.  But I've had fun.

28 May 2024

Understanding a Story's True Meaning

It's strange how you (okay, I) can start writing a story intending it to be about one thing, and in the end, realize it's really about something else. Has that happened to you?

With my newest story, "A Matter of Trust," I wanted to portray the dissolution of a marriage (with a crime thrown in, of course). The story opens with a happily married couple enjoying dinner. An argument develops because the wife is worried about her husband's health. His blood sugar is too high, thanks to his love of jelly. He agrees to start cycling, a way to get his weight--and his blood sugar--under control. The argument ends, and the two are happy once more. For a time anyway. Neither of them foresee that the husband would become addicted to the jelly donuts sold by a shop in town--a shop he begins to secretly ride his bicycle to each day. And they certainly don't anticipate the events that would come from that addiction.

As my writing progressed, I realized that the husband--the main character--was an emotional eater, and jelly (rather than his wife) was the love of his life. I started working that concept into the story, going back to the beginning and layering the idea into the husband's thoughts. I'd expected that doing so would be enough for the man's actions to not only be believable but also understandable, even if the reader wouldn't agree with them. He would be a real person, rather than a character who did things because the plot dictated it. That should have been enough for a solid story.

But when I reached the end, I realized, what I'd written still wasn't enough. (Don't you hate when that happens?) Why had this guy come to associate jelly with love? That was the key question. Once I figured out the answer and layered it into the story, only then did the husband become full-blown and the story have real heft. Only then did I realize that a story about the dissolution of a marriage turned out to actually be a story about ... Well, I'm not going to say. I don't want to give everything away. (But I promise, there's a crime in there!)

This type of analysis can be useful for most stories. Readers become invested when characters feel real. So the more an author understands why a character does what he or she does, the more the character will (hopefully) come across as a complex human being rather than a cardboard cutout. 

I hope I've enticed you to read "A Matter of Trust," maybe with a jelly donut by your side. The story is in the anthology THREE STRIKES--YOU'RE DEAD!, which was published a month ago by Wildside Press. Every story in the book involves crime and sports (baseball--major league, minor league, and high school--biathlon, boxing, bull riding, figure skating (that story is by fellow SleuthSayer Joseph S. Walker), marching band/football, running, swimming, tennis, ultimate Frisbee, zorbing, and cycling, of course). It can be purchased in trade paperback and ebook formats from the usual online sources. The trade paperback also can be purchased directly from the publisher.

Before I go, I'm delighted to share two bits of news:

  • My short story "Real Courage" is a finalist for this year's Anthony Award. You can find links to read all five of the nominated stories for free by clicking here.
  • I have been named the recipient of this year's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award--the lifetime achievement award given by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. This award is given for "having produced an impressive body of short crime fiction" and for "having made a major impact on the genre." To say I'm honored to have been selected is the height of understatement. The award will be given out during opening ceremonies at Bouchercon in August. I hope to see you there.

27 May 2024

Yikes, I'm History!

I turned 80 last month, and it's a quarter century since I first heard part of my lifetime categorized as "historical" (literary) and my age as "geriatric" (medical). I was outraged by both at the time. While I prefer the term "aging," I have come to appreciate the fact that I can remember times and experiences that are vanishing quickly or already lost in our throwaway digital age.

I dreamed one night that I was hanging out with Robert Downey Jr and Leonardo DiCaprio. I raved about Downey's Oscar-winning work in Oppenheimer as Werner Heisenberg, and to get over the awkward moment with DiCaprio (not nominated), I said one reason I enjoyed Oppenheimer is that I lived through that era and understood the context.

I asked if they knew who Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were. Leonardo, who'll turn 50 this year, had never heard of them. And I was off and running with the whole story as known to the child of a Jewish family growing up in Queens in the 1950s, in a family very much like the Rosenbergs except not so far to the left, though I had aunts and uncles who were. That, as much as the rush to judgment, was what made the Rosenberg execution so shocking.

"I knew kids who knew their kids," I told the movie stars. True. 

The dream ended with bureaucratic types coming in with paper files and old-fashioned fingerprinting apparatus. This suggests that like the Rosenbergs' story, my mother's dictum, "Never sign a petition—it could ruin your life!" is still kicking around in my unconscious. Like most young people, I ignored my mother's advice. The state of the world today demonstrates how much good signing petitions did, so my mother was right about that. But my life was never ruined, and I hope it's too late now.

I'm two years older than the oldest Baby Boomer. My family lived without a car till I was nine, without a TV till I was ten. I first rode in a plane when I was sixteen. As an adult, I didn't have a computer in my home till 1984 (a Commodore 64), when my son was in high school, and I didn't learn to use one (a Mac Classic II) till I was forty-seven. I still have dreams about using an old rotary phone and having to dial over and over because for some reason my finger can't make it all the way around. I remember when you couldn't get pecan pie, maple sugar candy, or croissants in New York. If you wanted them, you had to go to Florida, Vermont, or Paris.

I remember when a college-educated girl (not woman) had to start in any field, including publishing, as a secretary and had to wear a skirt to work. The skirt had to be rehemmed, up or down, every year as fashion dictated. No such thing as wearing whatever length suited you until about 1970. I remember pantyhose, and before pantyhose, stockings and a garter belt. I even remember the dreaded girdle back in the mists of time.

Like the Boomers, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot: at college, in my off-campus apartment waiting for a friend who was due for a visit. She arrived two hours late. When I opened the door, she said, tears streaming down her face, "Oh, Liz, the President is dead."

Until that moment, I'd never been touched by assassination. No terrorism. No school shootings. Beheadings happened back in the sixteenth century, in Tudor times. Tsunamis happened on a distant side of the world, when there was a distant side of the world. Earthquakes happened only in Japan and San Francisco. Tornados happened only in Kansas, and they led to the Land of Oz.

On the one hand, we're not in the Land of Oz any more. On the other, I remember the Suez Crisis in 1956. On a rainy afternoon when I was twelve, I heard that the British and French had bombed Cairo. Once World War II (which we still called "the War") was over, the British weren't supposed to go to war. I was afraid that World War III was about to start. I remember thinking, "I'll never get to go to college." Wrong.

If you keep going even when nothing turns out the way you expect, I've found that every wall you hit turns out to be another bend in the road. And if you live long enough, you get to be history.

26 May 2024

On Whiteyball

Whitey Herzog, former Major League Baseball player and manager, passed away in April, at the age of 92.  

What does that have to do with writing?  Stay tuned.  I’ll get there, with a little meandering along the way.

I was twelve years old when Herzog managed the St. Louis Cardinals to victory in the 1982 World Series.  You’re never again a fan of anything the way you’re a fan when you’re twelve, and the Cardinals were my team.  Downstate Illinois, where I grew up, was in a perpetual state of simmering conflict between fans of the Cardinals and fans of their fiercest rivals, the Chicago Cubs (plus a few people who rooted for the White Sox, apparently just to be weird).  Now, my father was, and remains, a die-hard Cub booster.  When I was very young, however, I had a crush on a babysitter who liked the Cardinals, which was enough to cause my loyalty to permanently shift to the redbirds.

Whitey Herzog

(Six years old, and already a femme fatale was alluring me into betraying my own family. Shocking. I was destined to write crime stories!)  

Baseball in the early eighties was a very different game than the one played today, and not just because the abomination known as the designated hitter was still safely quarantined in the American League.  Power wasn’t nearly as central or dominant; the Cardinals, as a team, hit only 67 home runs in their championship year (by way of contrast, in 2023 the Atlanta Braves hit 307, and even the team with the fewest homers, the Cleveland Guardians, hit 124).  Instead of waiting for a shot over the wall, St. Louis followed a strategy widely called Whiteyball, built around sound defense, solid pitching, and, above all, speed.  It wasn’t at all unusual for the Cards to string together a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice fly, and a squeeze bunt, putting themselves on the scoreboard without ever getting a base hit.  Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon described playing the Cards this way: “You think you’re just getting a few mosquito bites, and all of a sudden your head falls off.”

I loved this aggressive style of play.  I still do, though you don’t often see it these days.  Even before Herzog arrived in St. Louis, my favorite player was Lou Brock.  Brock was a member of the elite 3,000 hit club,

My Lou Brock shrine

but more importantly to me, he was perhaps the greatest stolen base artist who ever lived (I know what the stats say, and I hear some of you yelling the name
Rickey Henderson, to which I reply, with a dismissive curl of my lip, that I am familiar with his work).  Brock was retired by 1982, but his aura still hung over the team.

In Bull Durham, veteran catcher Crash Davis tells young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh to stop trying to strike everybody out: “Strikeouts are boring.  Besides that, they’re fascist.”  I have similar feelings about the home run.  It can be spectacular, but it’s an individual feat, a single player imposing his will on the game rather than a team working together.  Once the ball leaves the bat, there’s nothing to watch except the hero jogging around the bases.  Give me, instead, a battle of wits between a pitcher and a speed demon on first who keeps edging a couple inches closer to second.  Give me a well-executed hit and run, the ball squeaking under the glove of a second baseman pulled out of position.  Give me a beautifully placed bunt trickling along just inside the foul line, the runner charging from third, the bang-bang play at the plate (and no review via replay, thank you very much). And, what the hell, give me the best defensive shortstop who ever lived doing a backflip as he runs to his position, just for the sheer joy of it.

Ozzie Smith on his way to work

At its heart, Whiteyball is built on a simple idea: make something happen.  If you stand at the plate just waiting to hit a home run, you’re going to fail more often than you succeed.  Often you’ll strike out and turn around to trudge back to the bench.  But if you get a couple of guys on base and just manage to put the ball in play, all kinds of things start to occur.  Aggressive baserunning has caused more than a few defenses to utterly fall apart, after all.  In Whiteyball, every runner and every ball put into play has the potential to bring in a run.  Every pitch becomes a test of strategy and improvisation.  For me, at least, it’s a style that’s a heck of a lot more fun to watch–and it looks like a heck of a lot more fun to play, too.

Which brings me, finally, back to writing.  When I read about Herzog’s passing, and thought fondly back to the way his team played, it occurred to me that make something happen is a pretty accurate description of the way I approach writing, on a couple of levels.

First, on a macro level, I feel like my focus on writing short stories has a certain affinity with the principles of Whiteyball.  A novel, in this possibly tortured analogy, would be a three-run homer.  Instead of building my fiction-writing campaign around that, I’m going for the equivalent of bloop singles, stolen bases and drag bunts: short stories in magazines and anthologies, as many as I have the time and imagination to produce.  For me, at least, it’s more fun, just as Whiteyball was more fun than, say, watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa turn games into steroid-fueled home run derbies.  Every story I send out is putting a ball in play–and you never know what might result.

As a career strategy, it seems to be working out.  I’m enjoying the hell out of writing, seeing my name in a fair number of publications and, hey, getting invited to be a SleuthSayer is kind of like being called up to The Show, right?

Words of Wisdom from Bull Durham

Make something happen is also a pretty good strategy on the micro level–that is, within the world of each story.  When you’ve got five thousand words (and sometimes a lot less) to work with, there’s only so much space you can spend on passages of introspection and detailed description.  Those things have their place, of course, but, most of the time, it’s action and incident that drive the story forward and keep the reader engaged.  When I’m working on a story and I just get stuck, I can often get unstuck by making something happen–a new character arrives, a gun goes off, a police car comes around the corner at just the wrong moment.

I’m not suggesting that Whitey Herzog actually directly influenced the way I write. After all, I didn’t publish my first short story until thirty years after his 1982 triumph.  But I do find an affinity between his style of baseball and my style of writing, and I think the central idea is one that can be helpful to any writer–and indeed, in a lot of areas of life.

When in doubt, make something happen.

RIP, Whitey, and thanks for some of the greatest moments of my childhood.

(And now a word from our sponsor: if you're interested in my most recent effort to make something happen, check out today's release of Black Cat Weekly #143, which includes my story "Sunrise at the Moonshine Palace." Thanks to BCW editor and fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman for selecting this tale of music and murder!)

25 May 2024

Three Things You Should Never Ask an Author

Moving beyond the ubiquitous and somewhat innocent, "Where do you get your ideas"- (you really don't want to peek into the dismal tangle that is my brain...)

Allow me to present three loaded questions you should definitely NOT ask an author!

1.  How much money do you make?"

I understand that people are curious about how much you can make writing a book.  I also understand that some are wondering if they can give up their day job for the dream of becoming an author.  But truly, it is rude to ask such a question of a complete stranger.  Would you ask your lawyer?  Your accountant?  Hairdresser?  

Still, I get asked this regularly.  Usually, I describe the standard royalty arrangement:  "Most authors earn around 10% of cover price."  With a $20 book, that's 2 bucks per sale.  A bestseller in Canada is usually considered to be 5000 copies (about 7000 in the States, I hear.)  That means, if my book is a bestseller, it would earn $10,000 at least.  Keep in mind that 96% of books published these days do not sell 1000 copies.

That usually shuts them up.

2.  "Do you use a pen name?"

Usually, this comes with the line, "I've never heard of you before.  Do you use a pen name?"

The first time I heard this, I laughed out loud, and responded, "You mean like James Patterson?"

Talk about an unintentional insult. You couldn't be that famous because they haven't heard about you.  Or is it intentional?  I'll always give the benefit of the doubt.  And in fact, I have used a pen name.  But only for my erotica.

Luckily, most people who come to see me at events these days already know about me. 

3.  "I'll give you my unpublished manuscript to read for free, if you'll recommend me to your publisher."

It's true.  I get this at book signing events every year from complete strangers who obviously know nothing about how this biz works.  

I must have been a naive little writer, when I first started having success.  For instance, it came as a shock to me, that people would befriend me on Facebook and in person, pretend to enjoy my company, and then ask me to recommend their manuscript to my agent or publisher.

In fact, they would beg me, and then get angry when I tell them my publisher and agent do not welcome this.  Talk about feeling used.

Here's the scoop with that:

First, it takes time to read any manuscript.  The stranger is asking me to give up my precious leisure time, for free.  To read a book I wouldn't have chosen.

Next, and more important:  The stranger is asking me to put my reputation on the line - which is in fact, my bread and butter in this writing biz- for a complete stranger.  They are asking me to badger my already overworked agent and/or publisher to look at a work that may or may not have any relevance for what they publish. Why would I do that?  

Who in their right mind would risk their hard-earned relationship with their agent and publisher, for a stranger or mere acquaintance?

In every case where I have relented and done this - that is, taken a chance on someone I know who has a manuscript with some merit - my agent and publisher have not taken them on.  And the aspiring writer has been disappointed in me.

The sad fact is, agents and publishers don't appreciate authors in their stable creating more work for them, by making them feel obligated to read a manuscript they didn't ask for.

So What Should You Ask an Author?

That's easy!  "When is your next book coming out?"

About Melodie...(from a recent article.)  See the whole article on her website,