08 July 2024

Towles in Hollywood

One of the oldest plot lines in the canon is the one about the old guy who comes back to triumph. From the days of the old war horse and the old samurai to the old gunslinger, the old spy and the old cop, the age and experience of a supposedly washed-up guy turns out to trump vain and overconfident youth in these stories.

Guy, that is, as in masculine. I am sure there are some mysteries where the surprisingly capable older character is female, but lets face it: the pattern for the older woman sleuth was set by Miss Marple, who appears to have been born complete with her spectacles, sweaters, and skepticism. 

The females in the plots under consideration tend to be young and beautiful with surprising tastes in May-December romances. While I am old enough to enjoy the triumph of age over youth, I feel a certain impatience with what are clearly fantasy plots based on masculine wishful thinking.

So it was with real pleasure that I discovered Eve in Hollywood, a short novel tucked into Amor Towles' new collection of stories, Table for Two. He's taken Eve Ross, a character from his 30's New York novel, The Rules of Civility, sent her to Hollywood at the height of the studio system, and landed her right in Raymond Chandler territory. It's a good move.

Eve is great: brave, intelligent and loyal. And like almost all Towles's characters, she is a charmer. Indeed, charm is almost the hallmark of this author, whose characters are almost uniformly entertaining, eloquent, and appealing. His particular talent has seldom been on such varied display as in Eve in Hollywood.

Besides Eve, we have Charlie, the widowed and retired cop who meets her on the train west. He's returning home from New Jersey when he chats with Eve, regaling this eager listener (how different from his chilly and bored daughter-in-law!) with tales from his professional past. They won't be wasted on this gal.

No sooner have we met Charlie, then we are introduced to another supposed has been, Prentice, a once important screen actor who, literally, ate himself out of stardom. Prentice still has an eye for pretty starlets, though, and, more importantly, a genuine and protective sympathy for actors on the lower rungs of the treacherous Hollywood ladder. 

He and Charlie are going to be our comeback guys but with a difference. No cliched feats of derring do from these two, and plenty of mistakes, wobbles, and mishaps, and plenty of help accepted from younger friends. No age-inappropriate romancing, either. These are realistic older guys, and their great moments are all the more satisfying for being almost entirely plausible. 

The book is unusual in structure as well as in theme, being organized in short chapters, each from a different point of view. We get Eve, Charlie, and Prentice, but also a wide range of other voices and characters, from Olivia (de Haviland, a real golden age actress) to an out of work still photographer, a big time studio lawyer, and the house detective at fancy Beverly Hills Hotel where Eve, Olivia, and Prentice are residents. 

This design requires tricky plotting to keep the action moving, and Eve in Hollywood is a real master class in structure as well as in differentiating characters' speech and outlooks. But far from being a novelty ornament, the organization of the novel is a fine complement to the plot, which relies less on individual heroics and super hero skills than on the cooperation and courage of folks of ability and good will.  

This novel began as a Penguin Books ebook and as a print edition, apparently published by Towles, himself, while one of the stories was an Audible original: signs that even best selling, big name authors are dabbling in new ways to reach audiences.


Janice Law's The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books at:


The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available at: 


07 July 2024

More than One Way to Creatively Write

A few days ago on the 1st of July, Chris Knopf wrote about writing letters. The essay reminded me of my mother.

Historically, we know many male writers through their books and novels, but only a few women writers. We can, however, study a number of women of yesteryear through their correspondence. My mother, Hillis, followed in that tradition. She was an inveterate letter writer.

And she would write anyone, sometimes asking questions, often asserting a strong opinion. Occasionally a public figure received a note with a schoolteacher rebuke. I imagined the recipient gulping and mumbling, “Yes, ma’am.”

When I graduated high school, I received a congratulatory letter from the state’s governor. In one missive, Mom mentioned in passing I would be graduating, and somebody picked up on it.

She contributed trivia questions to a radio quiz show, and after a while, the show’s host began to reach out to her. On occasion when Mom visited the city, she’d chat with the show’s presenter prior to lunchtime.

Once after bidding him goodbye, Mom steered her kid (me) down the street where she came across a panhandler in front of a coffee shop. The man looked distressed. Mom said, “Let’s go inside and I’ll treat you to lunch.”

“I can’t,” said the derelict. “They won’t let me in.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Won’t they? We shall see about that.”

Uh-oh. My mother was barely five feet tall standing on a phonebook, but Dear God, she was fierce.

She took him by the elbow and ushered him inside. Immediately the staff said, “He has no money to pay. He has to leave.”

The cheeky waiter was fortunate Mom didn’t haul off and slap him in the kneecap. Mom pretended not to hear him.

“Young man, you will bring us salad, ham and turkey sandwiches, and coffee, thank you.”

Across the restaurant, spoons and forks hung in mid-air. Cups suspended before reaching the lip. All eyes turned on a server facing off against a munchkin who looked like she could devour him for lunch.

“But ma’am…” The waiter saw a steely flicker in Mom’s eyes that couldn’t be broached, a glint suggesting his continued good health might come into question. “Y-Yes ma’am. W-Will you be having dessert?”

Postal Cards versus Post Cards

As proficient as she was catching the ears of movers and shakers, Hillis was locally known for her postal cards. Postal cards and post cards are different. Postal cards refers to official US Postal Service cards, typically manilla-colored rectangles with no illustration other than guides for the address. They come pre-stamped, postage paid. Post cards, aka picture postcards, are common commercial cards, often a bit larger than postal cards. They require separately purchased postage.

One other thing– The Post Office offered for sale official USPS uncut ‘penny postal cards’. Firms could buy sheets of cards, print their message, promotion, or advertisement on the backs, and then cut them to size.

picture post card   official postal card
picture post card   official postal card

Project Manager

Mom didn’t so much have hobbies, but rather projects. Hobbies are done for sheer enjoyment, the journey not the destination. Projects have a goal, a destination.

Dad was well aware of Mom’s projects, so when he came across hundreds of sheets of postal cards to be discarded, he asked for them. The printing on the back was no longer accurate, but the postage on the cards was still valid.

Dad presented them to Mom and she was gleeful. Sheet by sheet, she laid them face down on her work table. She rolled adhesive over their backs, and then fitted sheets of white paper over the preprinted card backs, and finally, with a paper cutter snipped them to size. Mom now had many hundreds of official, paid postal cards or, as Dad might say, a week’s supply.

Then Came the Fun

Mom’s handwriting was compact and efficient, if not particularly feminine. She could pack three quarters of Shakespeare ’s Hamlet on the back of a newly minted card, flip it over and sideways, and fill the right half of the face of the card. It turns out as long as she left three inches on the right for an address, she could do whatever the hell she wanted with the rest of the card. Mother could do things with cards no one thought possible.

The local postmaster admitted he enjoyed reading Mom’s cards. Mom pretended offense. Although privately pleased, she gently reminded the man he shouldn’t read private mail.

The Queen of Cards

Mother made special cards for children in hospitals. Using her famous blue-black ink, she’d start lettering a message along the edge of a card, writing a note to the child in a spiral, requiring the victim, er, recipient to turn and turn the card to read the note.

Sometimes, she’d purchase stickers or clip tiny pictures from magazines to decorate her cards. Occasionally she’d integrate pictures into the message itself. She experimented with lemon-juice invisible ink, but her most innovative cards bore no written message at all.

A child who might be hospitalized for sometime might receive an envelope from Mom containing needle, thread, and a brief note, instructing the recipient to retain the needle and thread. Every few days thereafter, a postal card would arrive with no writing other than tiny numbers and dots in the message area. Yep, Mom’s get-well postal card was a connect-the-dots picture puzzle solved with needle and thread.

spiraling message   connect-the-dots
spiraling message   connect-the-dots

T’was a sad day many years later, when Mother used her last card. By then, I was an adult. (Stop sniggering!) By then, many around the country and especially our counties had benefitted from Mom’s postal cards. That last card marked the end of a writing legacy.

06 July 2024

Historicals with Horses


Since my column here at SleuthSayers about period fiction last week, I've had some interesting conversations with fellow writers about the Western genre. Some of them like it, some hate it, etc. Some don't even consider those stories historical (but they are). As I think I've said before at this blog, Westerns are just historical fiction with horses. To me, one good thing about writing Western stories--whether they're novels, shorts, or screenplays--is that they can usually be considered mysteries as well, and therefore marketable as mystery fiction, because a crime is almost always involved. (Uness maybe it was the movie version of Old Yeller, where the only crime was the older brother's attempt at a Southern accent. But that's another story.)

As I said to one of my writer friends in an email on this subject the other day, part of the Western genre's appeal to me is the definite line those stories draw between right and wrong. It's a black/white structure: there were good people and evil people, with very few gray areas in between--unlike the way our world is today. This is especially true in the older Westerns, the ones I watched in the movie theater and on TV as a kid. 

In that long-ago world--Bonanza, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, etc.--it was easy to identify the villain or one of his friends, because the good guys always shaved every morning and wore clean clothes, while the bad guys appeared to have been been dragged into town behind the stagecoach. Another thing: the streets of Virginia City or North Fork or Dodge City were always neat as a pin, with nary a sign of mud or ruts or horse droppings. In fact, the downtown thoroughfare in all those different shows often looked suspiciously like the same street. (How could that be? Even as a kid, I knew Nevada and New Mexico and Kansas were a long way apart.)

Other puzzling things happened, as well. As Clint Eastwood once said in an interview, why did the good guy always wait for the bad guy to draw first? He said that made no sense. And when a reporter asked Stagecoach director John Ford why the Indians chasing the coach didn't just shoot one of the horses, Ford replied, "Because that would've been the end of the movie." That, I guess, does make sense. Later, of course, Westerns got smarter in that regard, and way more authentic, although the standoffs in the street and the hero waiting politely for the other guy to draw have persisted to this day. 

Having said all that, these recent discussions of the horse opera and its fans have prompted me to revisit some of the movies I've watched and re-watched over the past years. Here are a few observations, by me and me alone, so feel free to disagree.

My 10 favorite Western movies, in no particular order:

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The Big Country (1958)

Unforgiven (1992)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Shane (1953)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

High Noon (1952)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Open Range (2003)

The Searchers (1956)

NOTE 1: There actually is sort of an order to these. I consider Once Upon a Time in the West and The Big Country the absolute best of the bunch.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Tombstone (1993)

The Man from Snowy River (1982)

Hondo (1956)

Will Penny (1967)

The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Rio Bravo (1959)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

True Grit (remake, 2010)

Quigley Down Under (1990)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Hombre (1967)

NOTE 2: I didn't include the wild and crazy Cat Ballou (1965), Blazing Saddles (1974), From Noon till Three (1976), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), or Rustler's Rhapsody (1985), but if you haven't seen those, I recommend them. 

Good Westerns you might not have heard of:

The Homesman (2014)

The Last Sunset (1961)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Hostiles (2017)

Duck, You Sucker (1971)

The Proposition (2005)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Lone Star (1996)

7 Men from Now (1956)

Old Henry (2021)

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

The Salvation (2014)

Appaloosa (2008)

News of the World (2020)

Ride the High Country (1962)

NOTE 3: I also didn't include any TV series or mini-series in my lists, but of those, I think the best, by far, are Deadwood (2004-2006) and Lonesome Dove (1989). Runners-up might be The English (2022) and--if you count it as a modern-day Western--Justified (2010-2015). Once again, my opinion only. Disagreements are welcome.


What's your view, on Westerns old and new? Like 'em? Hate 'em? Tolerate 'em? Do you agree with any of the above choices? What are some I overlooked? If you do like Westerns, have you tried writing any, either novels or short stories? Have you had any published? In what markets? Were they standalone stories, or installments in a series? Was writing them work, or fun? Please let me know in the comments section.

Final thoughts:

1. I'm looking forward to seeing Kevin Costner's recently-released Horizon. Haven't gotten around to it yet.

2. If you haven't written a Western story but you want to . . .

"Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let's go."--John Wayne, The Cowboys (1972)

05 July 2024

Don't Ask a Writer

Inspired by Melodie Campbell's excellent SleuthSayer's article of 25 May 2024 – Three Things You Should Never Ask an Author, I'd like to add some stuff.

The questions Melodie listed were:

  1. How much money do you make?
  2. Do you used a pen name?
  3. I'll give you my unpublished manuscript to read for free, if you'll recommend me to your publisher.

I'll add the follow things you should not ask a writer. I have been asked these questions, many more than once.

1. I have this idea. I'll give you the information. Why don't you write it up and we'll split the money?

Used to get this a lot when I first started writing, especially from my old buddies in law enforcement. My answer – I'm writing another book right now and have enough ideas for the next ten years.

2. Who's your ghostwriter?

I've never had a ghostwriter. I make up my own stuff.

3. You still writing?

Get this one a lot. Just got this one from a relative I haven't spoken with in a while. I told him my 49th book was published in June, I just finished two short stories this month and I'm half way through another novel.

4 . Where do you get your ideas? (A question asked of nearly every published writer)

Life. I get my ideas from life. What I see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and imagine. I also subscribe to an idea service in ... wait, I'm sorry, it's secret.

5. Where to you live?

I can't tell you. It will upset Cthulhu and we don't want to upset the big guy.

Cthulhu widescreen wallpaper © free4kwallpapers.com

The Big Guy in profile

6. How do you write from a woman's point of view, when you're not a woman?

I use a computer. I used to use a typewriter but the balls quit working (I used an IBM selectric typewriter with the revolving typeball ... never mind). Before that I had a Smith Corona portable electric, and before that a big, bad Underwood manual typewriter.

7. Why do your characters have sex in your books?

I've asked my characters this and they tell me to shut up and write what they do. I'll echo Ray Bradbury here, "All my characters write the book. I don't write the book."

AND William Faulkner who said, "It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does." (Also, there isn't sex in all of my books and stories).

8. Why don't you write a best seller?

Oh, Lord. If I wrote a best seller I'd be a best selling author, when, in fact, I'm a barely selling writer, which is more ME.

9. Why hasn't anyone made a movie out of one of your books?

Two answers. 1. Hollywood is too busy filming big movies with big explosions and lots of CGI stuff. 2. Hollywood is also too busy remaking movies that don't need to be remade because they are too lazy to try new stuff. OK, they do try new stuff but not enough.

10. What was that book you wrote? The one with the good ending.

No response.

11. Do you know any big writers?

Yeah. Most writers are bigger than me. I'm only 5'6". (168cm)

That's all for now,


04 July 2024

Happy 4th! (Now with Jokes!)

Another turn in the rotation, another Summer holiday! Happy July 4th to SleuthSayers near and far!

And of course, me being me, I have some thoughts about this most American of holidays, and I fully intend to let 'er rip.

You know, some current events. Laced with a fair bit of (hopefully) relevant historical analysis. Some snark. Some "getting real."

So, the usual.

But first, some writer-adjacent humor!

A writer and his agent were stranded in the Sahara Desert, the only two survivors of a plane crash. After wandering for several days without food or water, they climbed the top of yet another sand dune, only to see an oasis, with a lagoon and a bubbling spring of fresh water beckoning them.

The two of them stumble/tumble/run down the dune to the oasis, and just as the writer is kneeling down to take a drink from the lagoon, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a stream of yellow liquid arcing from behind him into the lagoon.

The writer looks over his shoulder, and to his horror, sees that the agent is PEEING in the pool!

”What the HELL are you doing?” the writer yells.

The agent beams back at him. “I’m improving it.”

Q: What has twenty-seven actors, three settings, two writers, and one plot?

A: Six hundred and seventy-one Hallmark movies!

Q: How many mystery writers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Two. One to change the bulb, and the other to give it an unexpected twist at the end!

He is not wrong.

Q: What do you call an immaterial fantasy writer?

A: A non-fungible Tolkien.

Q: What's the difference between a 19th-century shipwright and a 21st-century writer of fan fiction?

A: One tries to fit as many cannons as they can onto a ship. The other tries to fit as many ships as they can into canon.

Q: Why don't escaped convicts make good writers?

A: Because they never finish their sentences!

And on that note, let me come clean.

This year I have no moral to impart. No examples from history to share. No pithy remarks about the state of our Republic, other than to express my continuing pride in it and abiding faith in its foundation: the People.

Nothing I say here is going to change who anyone reading it plans to vote for. So let's take the day and grill, and watch fireworks, and listen to that one uncle tell that same story about the time he met Ed Begley, Jr. in an airport one July 4th many, many years ago, and hold our loved ones close and make the best sorts of memories.

Happy Birthday America. I love ya!

See you in two weeks!

03 July 2024

Long Time Reviewing Shorts

Recently a discussion on the email list of the Short Mystery Fiction Society  (which you can all join for free, by the way)   led me to talking about my habit of reviewing short stories.  Some members wanted to know more and it struck me that it might be useful to go into detail here, rather than repeating myself to individuals.  So this may get a little deep into the weeds here.

In 2009 I decided to make notes on the best short mystery stories I read and I produced a list at the end of the year that ran in Criminal Brief.    I have kept that up ever since, moving it to SleuthSayers  when we started up.

In 2011 I added a wrinkle.  I started the Little Big Crimes blog where I reviewed the best short mystery story I read each week.  And I've been doing that ever since.

(By the way, I run Litle Big Crimes with Blogger, the same system that we use for SleuthSayers.  It is quirky - and that's being kind - but it has held up all these years - and it's free!)

Why do I review a story every week? Well, a bunch of reasons:

1. I enjoy reading a lot of short stories.  The reviewing process makes me feel like I am accomplishing something by reading them.

2. Since I like to read (and write and try to sell) short stories it is in my interest to encourage people to read them.

3. Finding something to write about every week forces me to think more deeply about the stories which increases my enjoyment and is good for my writing.

Why do I review the best story? I have no desire to write negative reviews of anything.  And as for producing a blistering attack on a short story - well, talk about breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

How do I decide which is the best story? That's easy.  It's the one i like the most.  If, as happens on rare occasions, I am torn between two stories, I choose the one I can think of the most interesting things to write about.

What do I get out of it besides the benefits mentioned above? One thing I don't get is any kind of payment.  It may sound odd to even mention that but I felt I had to say so in my blog a few years ago when there was a scandal about reviewers taking money.  Not that anyone ever offered!

On the other hand, some publishers (and editors and authors) have given me copies of books or magazines to review and I am grateful for that.  Last year I purchased 16 anthologies (plus magazines) so freebies are a nice change.

And that reminds me: since I believe in full disclosure I always mention at the beginning of a review if there is any factor that might have affected my choice, such as receiving a free copy, or the author being a friend of mine.  

That brings up another benefit: I have made friends with a lot of writers who thanked me for selecting them. (They hsve to find that out without help from me, by the way. Notifying them would feel like I was saying "Now what are you going to do for me?")

Another plus, of course, is that some readers find out about me because of my reviews.  This has led to my worldwide fame.  Okay, maybe not. But I do average about 1700 readers a week, and that ain't nothing.

Do I have any regrets about reviewing?  One, I don't read as many novels as I would like or even old short stories.  It's hard to keep up with even most of the mysteries.  I take off my hat to Michele Slung, who reads many more each year for Otto Penzler's best-of collections.

And another regret: I wish more women and people of color showed up in my best-of lists.  Next year I hope to keep track of how many I read of various groups and figure out how the percentages are working out.

The thing is, I really do pick the story I like best each week, and I can't change my preferences by an act of will.  One reason I have written this piece is in the hope that more people will be encouraged to write their own short story reviews.  Who knows? They may even disagree with me.  That would be very welcome!

02 July 2024

A Misheard Announcement

 Some months back, I reported in this blog that I had retired from my day job as a criminal magistrate. Those golden years lasted for days.

            I’ve returned to meeting jail inmates, albeit on a part-time basis. The staff calls me on an emergency basis to plug the holes that sometimes occur in any small office—illnesses, vacations, etc. I'm happy to help. I enjoy the work, and the occasional magistrate session keeps my bar card from getting dusty.

            They also allow me to read that collection of typos and misunderstoods that crop up occasionally in police reports. Often, these mistakes happen when a patrol officer in the field calls in their report using the department’s voice-to-text system. Others arise when line personnel use a word and, perhaps, aren't entirely clear on the definition. In either case, the results can be entertaining.

            What follows are a few of the recent examples of reporting errors. Besides a bit of fun, I hope they remind writers and citizens that police officers are human. They make mistakes just like the rest of us. Rarely are the errors cataclysmic breaches or deliberate violations of constitutional norms. More commonly, they are the errors we all make. A failure to proofread carefully or the assumption that what we actually said was what we intended to say. Anyone who has ever dictated a text message understands. We want our police officers to be flesh and blood people so that they might empathize with the individuals they encounter. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it when that humanity is displayed.

            “Behind the driver’s seat, I located a bottle of permanent schnapps.”

J.H. Henkes, Creative Commons.

        The sentence stopped me when I saw it in a police report. I had a vision of a Harry Potter-like, never emptying liquor bottle. If you have a bottle of permanent schnapps, don’t hop on a broom or behind the wheel of a car. Cast a spell for a Lyft.

            “The driver appeared to have delighted eyes.”

            I believe that the officer who called in a report intended to say that the allegedly impaired driver had the enlarged pupils of someone with dilated eyes. The voice-to-text knew better. Maybe Alexa or Siri or whatever system handled the transcription hoped that since the rest of the driver’s body was going to jail, at least his eyes might be happy.

            “I was marinating my right leg across his back.”

            Usually, given enough time, I can discern what the officer intended to say--peppermint schnapps, dilated eyes—before voice-to-text seized control. Here, I still don't have a clue. Perhaps we can make this one a contest. The best answer to the question of what the officer was trying to do during this arrest wins.

            Although, imagining this visual continues to make me smile.

            “The suspect possessed a machine gun conversation device.”

            Although I suspect that the police found the defendant in possession of a conversion device, the sentence as written begs the question. What conversation does one really need to have with their machine gun except possibly, "Don't point that at me, please" or "Put that down now!" Everything else seems useless chatter.

            “He knows he is accomplished.”

            This one may not be immediately as funny as some of the others. Hence, I buried it in the middle. The officer set out facts leading her to conclude that the defendant had sufficient intentional involvement in the crime to be guilty as an accomplice. But, perhaps, the defendant also had a healthy sense of self-esteem. He was an accomplished accomplice. That's good. In court, prosecutors get paid to say bad things about a defendant. Without a healthy ego, the defendant's psyche might be bruised.

            And, speaking of…

            “A bruise farm on her arm.”

            Likely, the officer dictated that a bruise began forming on her arm. In the relationships-as-punching-bags world of domestic violence, however, the phrase as electronically adjusted might be accurate. On some days, the bruising seems to sprout across a field of victims.

            Finally, my favorite for this collection.  

            The following sentence offers a potent lesson on the dangers of misusing homophones. Think about your interpretation and your emotional reaction to the sentence as reported and the sentence as intended.

            “The gun was concealed in his waste.”

            “The gun was concealed in his waist.”

            The second sentence (the intended one) offers a hint of danger, the real-life work-a-day world of the beat cop. The first offers a visual that has stayed with me as I envisioned the grumbling patrol officer tasked with collecting that bit of evidence. Likely, that duty would fall to the rookie officer. In police work, as in other jobs, waste slides downhill.

            I hope your eyes have been delighted to review the list of typos and misheards. If not, toss the blog in the waist basket.

            (I’ll be traveling on the day this posts. If you have an answer to what the officer meant by his marinating leg, I’ll likely be slow in responding to you.)

            Until next time. 

01 July 2024

Dear Friend:

            I know you haven’t heard from me for a while.  I’ve been busy, what with geo-political upheavals and the local zoning board hearings, the copy editor’s final notes on the review copy of my book, to say nothing of feeding the needy cats and attending my cousin’s son’s bar mitzvah (I was there for the bris, not actually there, but in spirit) taking so much of my time, I can hardly drag myself into the email ecosphere. 

I do have a topic in mind, and that’s the importance of maintaining a regular correspondence, even though you’re so much better at this than me.  I have two points:  1.  Connections established and preserved over time through the written word are precious and indispensable.  2.  Writing letters is the best practice any writer can ever have.  By that I mean any person who writes for a living/wants to write for a living/loves writing/is occasionally stalled in a big writing project and needs to limber up before going back at it again.  For writers, writing letters is like training for the New York Marathon.  Without the dehydration and sprained ankles. 

You might not believe this, but I’m always very excited to see your emails pop up in my gmail account.   You could tell me anything you want, and I’d be enthralled, because I can hear your voice in your words, see your face, and imagine your life going through various triumphs and travails.  I find myself really wanting to know all about Spotty’s gastrointestinal difficulties, the struggle to pay all those vet bills, your benighted spouse denting the new Subaru, little Evelyn’s soccer goal, and the short-listing for the National Book Award. 

My life is so much less interesting than yours, since most of it is consumed by hours at this keyboard in a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side with two cats and a neighbor whose snoring is loud enough to be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Though by now, it’s become sort of soothing.  I might miss it when I start my book tour, sending me to places where the walls are thicker and the loudest noises are the Harleys fleeing from law enforcement. 

You might realize that we’ve been writing to each other for about thirty years, ever since we started passing notes in Mrs. Braverman’s social studies class, including that one Mrs. Braverman intercepted where I noted she had a little piece of tissue stuck to her chin and nobody had the courage to tell her.   She got very red, but did thank me, sotto voce, after class, to her credit.  Since then, all this back and forth with you has never stopped, even when you were in Beirut and I had that little time away in rehab. 

The thing about letter writing is it’s very different from face-to-face conversation, or talking on the phone, which has it’s own peculiar qualities, positive and negative.  There’s something honest and pure about a letter.  Maybe because it isn’t a two-way communication until you hear back from your correspondent.  You’re writing it all alone in the quiet, dispensing a monologue that you control without interruption, unless a cat decides to jump on the keyboard.  Yet the whole time I’m writing to you, I’m thinking of you.  You’re there in my heart and in my mind.  I know who I’m addressing, and what you might want to hear about.  What amuses you, what stirs you to fire off a rejoinder.  It’s tailored exactly to your sensibilities and the tempo of our relationship.  And thus maybe the most personal of all types of communication. 

I’m sure you’ll answer this with a very funny satire on writers entering the formative stages of sentimental middle age, but I know you know what I mean.  I know because you’ve always sent me two letters, or emails, to every one I write back to you, so I know you understand why this is important.  And so much fun. 

Just because it isn’t a love letter, doesn’t mean you can’t send a letter to someone you love. 


Your Friend


30 June 2024

ShortCon and the Long Haul

Subtle clue I got on the correct plane

As I write this, I've just returned from the very first ShortCon, an ambitious new conference specifically for writers of short mystery and crime fiction. The history of our genre is deeply grounded in short stories (think Poe, Doyle, and the golden age of the pulps), but the form often receives scant attention at the major conferences, such as Bouchercon. ShortCon's goal aims to correct that.

Organized by Michael Bracken and Stacy Woodson (along with Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and Angie Carlton, and with my apologies for the oversight in my initial post), the event was held at Elaine's Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia and was, I think, a rousing success. It's easy to be pessimistic about the future of the form I spend most of my time writing.

Many once-prominent markets have disappeared, and reading in general seems threatened by the ever-shortening attention span of the iPhone age. The ShortCon sessions didn't ignore those realities, but they also provided ample evidence that there are a lot of people, both readers and writers, who remain passionate about these stories.

Certainly there were passionate reactions the night before, when Elaine's hosted a Noir at the Bar event in association with the Con. I was honored to be invited to be one of the readers, and my story "Kindling Delight" (available in this collection!) was well-received, to my considerable relief (this being the first time I'd read to more than five or six people). Though the other readers were all terrific, it was particularly intimidating to follow LynDee Walker, whose lively delivery of an uproarious story about a Piggly-Wiggly cashier with a dark past and just a bit of a violent streak had the audience in stitches.

ShortCon readers
Noir at the Bar readers (L to R) Jackie Sherbow, LynDee Walker, Brendan DuBois, Tom Milani,
Adam Meyer, Joseph S. Walker, and Stacy Woodson, moderator and host Jeffrey James Higgins

The day of the actual conference was structured around presentations by three speakers who provided a wealth of insight, experience and advice. First, in the morning, Brendan DuBois discussed craft– how to actually create a story with a solid plot, memorable characters and an engaging voice. Then, after a lunch break (and let me take a moment here to note that Elaine's provided excellent food and superb, considerate service throughout the event),

Jackie Sherbow offered behind-the-scenes information about what actually happens to a story once it's submitted to Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock. Also, she gave everyone present a secret code guaranteeing one acceptance per year to each magazine (just kidding! Or am I? Maybe you should register for ShortCon 2025 just to be on the safe side). Finally, Michael Bracken's presentation was a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to making and sustaining a career as a short story writer (and who would know better?). Finally, Stacy Woodson moderated as all three speakers participated in a lively Q & A session.

The second ShortCon is already being planned for June 7 of 2025, in the same venue, with new speakers and content. I'd strongly advise writers interested in maximizing their potential as short story writers to keep an eye out for registration information. I know I will be, and I'm very pleased to have been at the first gathering of what I believe will be many to come.

Before I started writing regularly, I imagined writing to be a solitary pursuit. It often is, of course, with many hours spent staring at the screen, lost in the maze of your own mind. Many of the rewards of writing, however, have proven to be social, as I've gotten to know and befriend many of my fellow writers. This happens on a daily basis through the activities and discussions of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, as well as at events like Bouchercon and, now, ShortCon. It was a real pleasure meeting and talking with a number of folks who, until now, have just been names on discussion posts and Tables of Contents. We may write about terrible people doing awful things, but the mystery writers I've met have been unfailingly wonderful folks, and invariably generous with their knowledge and experience.

(A brief aside: my brain is a strange and often frustrating thing. It's reliably accurate and retentive when it comes to space and geography. Dropped in the middle of Los Angeles today, I could take you directly to the sites of a dozen used bookstores I frequented when I lived there thirty plus years ago. Names and faces, however, tend to fall straight into a memory hole, despite my frantic efforts to retain them. Watching movies, I often have to ask my wife to remind me who the characters are, because I can't tell them apart. If you were introduced to me at ShortCon, and then five minutes later I introduced myself to you again with no apparent knowledge of who you are, please don't take offense. I tend not to be able to link names and faces until I've met a person many, many times. Believe me, I'd fix it if I could.)

A lot of the conversations I had in Alexandria touched on my new role. On July 1, the day after this is posted, I'm slated to take office as the new President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, a prospect I find by turns exciting and alarming. (I assume that readers of this blog are already familiar with the SMFS, ideally as members, what with membership being free and all.)

A room at Elaine's

My fellow mystery writers gave me plenty of encouragement and a good deal of very welcome advice. I have, at this point, little idea of what I'm going to do as President of the organization. Coming out of ShortCon, however, I know that there is a body of very talented writers dedicated to writing short stories in the genre. I also believe that, while the upheavals of recent years have perhaps made them harder to identify and reach, there is and will always be a body of readers who consume such stories with pleasure. In the most abstract terms possible, my goal at SMFS will be to do anything in my power to help those two groups find each other.

If you have anything to say about how to accomplish that, I'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, thanks to everyone involved with making the first ShortCon so much fun. Can't wait for the next one!

ADDENDUM: We SleuthSayers generally try to avoid anything so uncouth as self-promotion, but I can't resist mentioning that I learned a couple of days ago that my story "Making the Bad Guys Nervous," originally published in Black Cat Weekly #102, has been named a finalist for the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for best PI short story. My thanks to the judges, and best of luck to the other nominees. The award will be presented at Bouchercon's opening ceremony. Hope to see you all there!

29 June 2024

I'll Have a History/Mystery, Please–with a Twist

Lately I've been writing a good many historical stories--most of them crime stories--and I'm only sorry I didn't start doing it sooner.

A word of clarification, here. When I say historical, I'm not talking so much about the Stone Age or ancient Rome or medieval England. I'm referring more to the past two hundred years or so, and mostly here in this country. 

How did I get interested in this? I blame it on a number of period-specific mystery anthologies edited by folks like Michael Bracken, Andrew McAleer, and others. Contributing to those anthologies has forced me to write a dozen or more stories so far about crimefighters (usually PIs) in the 1930s, '40s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, and at first I couldn't believe how much fun they were to write. By now I'm used to it– and I'm still having a good time. Part of it's the writing, and part of it's learning what's needed about long-ago people, places, and events.

Not that all my historical-mystery shorts have been set in the mid-20th Century. Since I grew up watching endless Westerns on TV and the big screen, I've written and published plenty of those as well, around seventy or eighty stories so far. (You might be surprised at how many of our current mystery magazines are receptive to tales of the Old West– I've had Westerns published at AHMM, Strand, Black Cat Weekly, Mystery Magazine/Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, Crimeucopia, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, even the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. After all, if you stop and think about it, almost every Western features a built-in crime or two.)

My latest historical mystery appears in the July/August 2024 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's called "Moonshine and Roses," it's set in the hills of eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, and it features treasury agent Joe McIinnis, who works for Eliot Ness's Alcohol Tax Unit in Cincinnati. The real star of the story, though, is the long-lost love of McInnis's life, the tough daughter of a moonshiner whose enemies are the official reason for a Fed to be poking around in the area. Maybe because it's a love story and a mystery and a shoot-'em-up adventure story as well, I've had some kind feedback on it from readers already, which always gladdens my doubt-filled heart. If you read it, I hope you'll like it.

The "twist" I mentioned in the title of this post is also a part of my Hitchcock story, mainly because I can't seem to resist inserting plot twists whenever I can. By the way, I think they work best when the entire story doesn't depend on the twist, and when the surprise provides a final "gotcha" onto the end of an already satisfying conclusion. (Think Die Hard, instead of The Sixth Sense.) Doing that kind of add-on ending (sometimes called a "double twist") isn't always possible, or even advisable--but with a little prior planning and foreshadowing, it often is, and when it works, I think it can help the story.

Questions: Do you write, and/or like to read, historical mysteries (novels or short stories)? In your opinion, how far back must you go, to be able to call a story historical? Is it cheating a bit, to use the too-recent past? How about Westerns? How about the amount of research that's required with any kind of period fiction? Do you do a lot of study beforehand, or are you already familiar enough with certain eras to write accurately about them? How about historical series stories? With regard to twist endings, do you often incorporate those into your fiction? Has that been successful for you? Do you like to encounter those kinds of reversals in the stories of others? 

Whatever kinds of stories you create--present-day or historical, straightforward or convoluted, standalone or series--I wish you the best, with all of them.

Write on!