07 June 2024


 Usually, when a novel becomes classic, it's often serious, almost intentionally humorless. No one's really laughing at The Great Gatsby or anything by Toni Morrison. The exceptions, of course, are Dickens, Twain, and Washington Irving. Dickens infuses whimsey into even his darkest tales (though it's hard to find in A Tale of Two Cities, which is unremittingly dark.) And if you can't find Twain's tongue planted firmly in his cheek somewhere in one of his books, you weren't paying attention. Irving, of course, suffers only because the television hadn't been invented yet to give him a job on Saturday Night Live.

But if you go through Harold Bloom's list of novels from How to Read, not one of them (except maybe Don Quixote) have anymore than unintentional humor.

And then we come to Joseph Heller's World War II novel, Catch-22. At the time, stories of World War II focused on the valor of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought, the brutality of the Nazis and the Japanese, and rightness of the cause. Heller skewered military bureaucracy mercilessly in his short book about a bombardier named Yossarian, who just wants to go home.

He can't, of course. Every time he comes close to reaching his quota for missions allowing him to rotate out, the vainglorious (and let's be honest here, stupid) Colonel Cathcart raises the quota again. It's forty-five at the beginning of the novel. It's eighty by the end. I actually rooted for Cathcart to be unceremonious shoved out a B-25's bomb bay in an "accident." Oh, um, spoiler alert. Doesn't happen.

Yossarian is surrounded by the insane. Stationed on the island of Pianosa off the coast of Italy, he's beset by all sorts of bureaucratic nonsense which gets men killed and even has the mess officer paying the Germans to bomb the airbase to keep his black market enterprise going. Because nothing is more American than profit. (I'm thinking Heller didn't vote for Reagan.)

Everyone in Yossarian's wing is killed over the course of the novel, except one who turned out to be living in neutral territory at the book's end. The book is absurdist about this at the beginning, but retells events from various characters' points of view, getting progressively darker. One character, who starts out as a rather oblivious jerk is revealed to have raped and murdered a woman in Rome, shrugging it off as, "Hey, I always get away with it."

The brass are absolutely worthless, with Catchcart obsessed only with looking good and making general, not that his superiors are much better. His adjutant, the aptly named Lt. Col. Korn, seems reasonable at first, but then reveals slowly how much he enjoys being the power behind the throne. Intelligence officer Captain Black has nothing but contempt for the pilots and is angry about being passed over for promotion in favor of a major named Major Major (middle name, Major. Clearly, Heller read the 87th Precinct books.) Major is an ironic choice for wing commander because he uses his power and position to avoid as much human contact as possible. Yossarian even dives through his office window to force the issue.

Perhaps the most despicable character (outside the rapist/murderer pilot) is the mess officer, Milo Minderbinder. Milo builds a black market initially to supply all the mess halls in southern Italy. Soon, its tentacles reach past the Axis lines, north to England and liberated France, over into Russia, and even back to America. Whenever confronted about his questionable deeds, Minderbinder justifies himself with long lectures about profit and his "syndicate," of which, "Everyone has a share." 

Heller is definitely a Dickens fan with his Meyer Meyer-like Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, and so on. His villains are completely oblivious to their malice. And it becomes obvious why Heller chose 1944 Italy as his setting. Most heroic tales of World War II come from France, from Stalingrad, and from the Pacific. But 1944 Italy was a hurry-up and wait front. The absurd and the horrific comes from confused men and women who aren't sure what's going on because Allied commanders are busy elsewhere grinding Hitler and Imperial Japan to pulp.

Catch-22 is often on banned book lists because of a knee-jerk "How dare you?" reaction. The Army Air Corps (now the US Air Force and, more recently, Space Force) is made to look incompetent. But like Lower Decks to the rest of the Star Trek franchise, where the Cerritos must follow where someone else boldly went, these people have followed the battle to pry Italy out of Nazi Germany's bloody hands. So while Band of Brothers and Midway are happening elsewhere, the people in pacified Italy have no idea what's going on.

This plays out later when writers combined Catch-22's absurdity with the play Stalag 17 to create Hogan's Heroes. In that, the enemy is bungling and incompetent, since they're far from the English Channel, Africa, and the ominous Russian front. This allows a motley crew of Allied prisoners to function as an underground and pitting self-important German brass against each other.

But it comes to fore with both the movie and television series M*A*S*H. Richard Hornberger (as Richard Hooker) wrote a novel skewering the Korean War's hurry-up-and-wait situation, which led to the same issues as depicted in Catch-22. As the Vietnam War erupted, the novel M*A*S*H provided ample anti-war fodder for Robert Altman's movie. The television show focused more on humor, but made the bureaucratic morass a prominent feature. ("No, Colonel, I'm looking at the map right now, which is up-to-date, and I can assure you, you are not being bombed." Meanwhile, Henry Blake is hoping a mortar shell doesn't land in his office as he's on this call.)

War is hell. Sherman said it, and every book worth reading about war, from The Winds of War and The Longest Day to Catch-22 makes clear. But for every Saving Private Ryan, which shows the courage and tenacity of those under fire, there has to be a M*A*S*H or a Catch-22 to remind us how the Office Space mentality isn't just for civilians.

06 June 2024

Locked Rooms

Although the narrator of Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders claims that, "The locked room murder mystery [is] a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point..." I must confess not only to quite disliking the genre but to have no ambitions whatsoever to attempt one.

Nonetheless, recently I found myself reading three novels that contain locked room mysteries. What was interesting, even to a non-connoisseur ,was how the puzzle was embedded in different sorts of books, and how all three toy with deaths that might be murder that looks like suicide or suicide that might be murder. 

Yokomizo was a great admirer of western golden age mysteries, with a particular fondness for the puzzles of John Dickson Carr, and, it appears, for cerebral detectives of an eccentric nature. The Honjin Murders, published shortly after World War II but set in 1937, was his first to feature what would be his long running amateur sleuth, Kosuke Kindaichi.

Rather than beginning with the detective, Yokomizo uses a crime writer as his narrator ( a tactic that Anthony Horowitz has used to great effect in his Tony & Hawthorne novels) and presents the ghastly murders at the Ichiyanagi family compound in an almost documentary fashion. He describes how he learned of the case, quotes various official documents, and finally gives what he describes as accurate a reconstruction of his sleuth's detecting as possible.

The brutal murder of a couple on their wedding night presents a stiff challenge, and the solution is a masterpiece of ingenuity if scarcely plausible. But this is detection as escapist fiction, a bloodless puzzle despite the many gruesome details. It is only in the aftermath, when Kindaichi ponders the why, rather than the how, of the crime, that we get into the psychology of the characters and the peculiarly Japanese elements of the situation that make The Honjin Murders quite different from some of its prototypes.

I came across this interesting period piece, because Anthony Horowitz mentions a couple of locked room mysteries in Close to Death, a mystery that, yes, incorporates a locked room case. The novel also marks a deviation from the format of the earlier, and to my mind, more successful, Tony and Hawthorne mysteries. 

Close to Death
delays Hawthorne's arrival on the scene by relying on an ambiguous case from several years earlier which involved Hawthorne and Tony's predecessor. This was perhaps a decision taken in the name of realism, as poor Tony has been rather endangered and damaged in prior outings. But just as Sherlock is senior partner to Watson, so Hawthorne is the really key figure in Horowitz's outings.

The switch does, however, enable Horowitz to construct a nicely complicated puzzle set among the well heeled and elegantly housed, a sort of urban Midsomer, with, like the Midsomer Murders series, a good helping of social comedy and satire. Misdirection and red herrings abound, something Yokomizo does nicely as well, and if plausibility is stretched, the book is amusing.

Robert Dugoni, whose many novels include the Tracy Crosswhite series, features a tricky locked house killing in Her Deadly Game, featuring Keera Duggan, an ambitious young lawyer handling her first homicide defense and her first really high profile case. She is also juggling an alcoholic father, a vengeful ex-lover and various difficult siblings– the sorts of personal baggage now almost required of the modern sleuth.

The crime is ingenious and the solution very nearly as complex as the one Kindaichi comes up with in his case. The difference is that this locked room is embedded in a careful and plausible account of police procedures, forensic examinations, and legal strategy. Curiously, though, the resolution of Kerra's personal problems is perhaps less convincing than the rather glum conclusions of the old Japanese mystery.

The Honjin Murders, Close to Death, and Her Deadly Game are all ingenious and, in their own ways, revealing of the attitudes and values of their times and places. What is crucial in each is different and so are the techniques employed, although all rely on close looking and careful listening. Honor, respectability, money, safety, and revenge play out in different ways, but in each story, a powerful motivation leads to an elaborately organized death and a challenging puzzle.

05 June 2024

A Completely Unhelpful Guide to Being Published in Japan

Last week I wrote about my publication history at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and I mentioned being reprinted in Japan.  Several people asked me how I went about that.  I think I have discussed most of it at this site before but it might be best to put it all in one place. Unfortunately I doubt it will be of any use to you.

I self-published a book of my stories, Shanks on Crime, in 2014.  It contained 13 stories, most of which had first appeared in AHMM.  Two years later the same magazine published another  tale in the series, "Shanks Goes Rogue."

Not long after that I received an email from a literary agency in Japan. Did I own the international rights to the book and would I be interested in being published in Japan?  I answered yes and youbetcha. Turned out Tokyo Sogen, the oldest mystery publisher in Japan, wanted to translate and publish  my book.  (How did this happen? My speculation is that the publisher has readers going through AHMM and other magazines and one of them liked "Shanks Goes Rogue" and read in my bio note that I had a book available.)

They published Shanks on Crime (with the "Rogue" story added) using a title that the computer translates as Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer. To promote it they asked my permission to reprint one of the stories in their magazine which is titled Mysteries! Exclamation point in the original.  No pay, by the way.  I said, youbetcha.

The book sold well enough that they published a collection of my otherwise uncollected non-Shanks stories called The Red Envelope and Other Stories, or in Japanese Solve Mysteries in the Coffee Shop on Holidays (according to the AI translator). Both books made lists of the best foreign mysteries of the year, he said modestly.

I have had several Shanks stories published since them.  One of them, "Shanks' Locked Room," appeared in AHMM in 2021 and the Japanese publisher  decided to buy it for their magazine.  I am under the impression that Japanese readers like locked room stories (although mine was not traditional. The puzzle was: why would someone steal a room key and not use it?)  That one they paid for.

So now you know how to get a a story published in a Japanese mystery magazine.  It's a simple three-step process:

1. Get the story published in the USA.

2. Wait for an email from a Japanese literary agency.

3. Respond to the e-mail.

I said it was simple.  I never said it was easy.  Youbetcha. Ganbatte.

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 1.16, 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. Bunny Version 1.8 ended and Ducky Version 2.0 came to life, moving 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 skulk on the streets while my classmates ran solar 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.