Listening to Stories

Not too long ago I attended the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, where the lovers of cozy mysteries meet once a year. I always enjoy my time there catching up with old friends and discovering what new books are out. This time around I had the pleasure of moderating the “Make It Snappy” panel, where I had a chance to probe the nominees for the Agatha award for Best Short Story about the finer points of writing short fiction.

Kathy Lynn Emerson, Linda Landrigan, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Edith Maxwell

Kathy Lynn Emerson, Linda Landrigan, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Edith Maxwell

Malice also gave me a chance to meet up with and record a new podcast with Leslie Budewitz, who lives in Montana. Leslie read her 2006 story “The End of the Line,” and after that we talked about her inspiration for the story, how she manages two culinary series, and her non-fiction book, Books, Crooks and Counselors, which is a must-have legal reference for mystery writers.

Leslie’s dramatic reading of her story demonstrated for me just how the narrative voice need to serve the story. Her narrative was confident, active, with a cadence that keep me engaged without being too aware of the language itself. I was never pulled out of the story by an awkward turn of phrase or unduly repeated word.

Listening to the story—even when reading alone I hear the story I am reading—is one of life’s pleasures. The performative aspect, that audible dimension, is a large part of what I find so satisfying in a beautiful passage of writing—and frustrating when the language is clumsy or when the writer tries too hard to affect a particular style.

AHMM and our sister magazines EQMM began our podcast series seven years ago as a way of reaching out to new audiences—and with thousands of downloads each month, we feel we have been successful.

Our podcast series mostly features authors reading their own stories. They are free: You can download them from iTunes or

It wlll be a while before Leslie’s recording is ready to go up, but in the meantime, you have 35 other stories to entertain you while you wait. Including our newest, Jim Fusilli’s reading of “The One Armed Man in the Luncheonette.”

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Bob Tippee: Unhinging the Workplace Setting

Bob Tippee is an award-winning business journalist who writes about the oil and gas industry. His stories for AHMM are often set in fiercely competitive workplace cultures; our June cover story, “The PLT,” is an excellent example.

Fiction, of course, must transport the reader beyond immediate reality into a world of the writer’s imagination. Hugely important to that world is setting, a bundle of qualities unique to any story that might be said to fit along a spectrum defined by other-worldly fantasy at one extreme and here-and-now familiarity at the other. Settings between those poles must be somehow exotic: places where a reader might wish or be loath to go but cannot, possibly in combination with times inaccessible as well.

Whatever the setting, the writer must make it interesting and believable, simultaneously and continuously. Failure of one of these factors of setting bores the reader; failure of the other punctures the trance. Creating a setting in which a character can change fundamentally and believably, while struggling with a meaningful problem, in a way that resonates beyond the story itself, amounts to hard work and great fun.

Within this tension between interest and believability in setting, it seems to me, a subtle balance applies. Settings fantastic or exotic in some way inherently create interest. Because they strain believability, however, the characters and problems that interact within them need close tethers to what readers find familiar. And because believability attaches easily to places proximate in space and time, interest depends on out-of-place behavior by characters subject to outsize stresses. A writer profits by placing familiar characters in extraordinary settings or extraordinary people in familiar settings. Other combinations jeopardize interest or believability, or at least deprive background of structural contrast able to sharpen depictions of character and place and, sometimes, spawn handy little tornadoes of irony.

A familiar setting that seems sparsely explored by fiction writers is the contemporary workplace. Of course, many crime stories ply their investigations in police stations. Many literary stories evoke their subtexts in or near university English departments. Yet most people don’t work in cop shops or on college campuses. Most people work in windowed offices or cluttered cubicles, behind store counters or in Starbucks chairs, in converted garages or at dining room tables. These are the places where people, lots of people, chase their dreams or squander their time, bust their butts or watch the clock, stretch their brains or narrow their vision, fulfill themselves or lose their souls. Why aren’t more stories set there?

Interesting things happen in the workplace. People at work exercise ambition, lust, jealousy, ego, fear, and every trick life has taught them about seeming to have no deficiencies while succumbing to those they do. In the workplace, especially the corporate workplace, people conduct themselves with practiced calm, a mark of professionalism that can suppress thoughts, feelings, and individuality while generating the raw material for neuroses that, in the mind of a fiction writer, can lead wondrously to anything.

Even crime. Even if most do not, people in the workplace can pad expense accounts, sell company secrets, trade stock on inside information, bribe officials, pay or take kickbacks, lie to bankers, extort money from colleagues with sinister pasts, misrepresent goods or services for sale, get carried away extracting revenge for professional slights—the list has no end. Many workplace crimes are trivial, as crime fiction goes, but some are not. Even a trivial crime can be interesting when committed by a character unhinged from normalcy: the executive passed over for promotion whose resentment spins murderously out of control, the middle-grade drone using corporate anonymity to hide an incendiary secret (think Clark Kent), or—one of my favorites—the climber obsessed with ambition who will do anything in pursuit of vacuous goals.

Behavior unhinged from normalcy makes fiction interesting in ordinary settings and crime believable in work settings. The story, though not necessarily the narrative, starts with whatever unhinged the focus character in the first place.

Workplace settings must, of course, feel real. Stereotypical descriptions of work in a corporate office might fool a reader who toils in a police station or English department, but not a cube rat worried about the next performance review who has a report due and can’t make the copy machine work. It helps a writer to have been there.

I’d welcome more fiction than appears now with edgy characters encountering their humanity in here-and-now offices, shops, and entrepreneurial garages. Maybe more of all the many good folks who work in places like those then would read short stories.

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A criminal act is never an isolated event: There are always consequences. Victims want vengeance; detectives want truth; citizens want justice.

In Marianne Wilski Strong’s “The Breaker,” an old coal processing plant is haunted—a consequence of the exploitative treatment of its workers, including children. In Brian Tobin’s “Entwined,” a moment’s distraction leads to the death of a professor, a man who touched many lives. A history of brutality entangles young lovers and parents alike in William Dylan Powell’s dark family drama “Sewing on Sunday.” And Elizabeth Zelvin’s nuanced “The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat,” set in the Cold War fifties, examines the results of a decision to become a traitor of sorts.

In other stories, Key West P.I. Megan Trevor boards a dowdy gambling cruise to find out where the money is leaking out in John C. Boland’s “Her Father’s Daughter.” Bob Tippee brings us a tale of the corporate snares that await the young and ambitious in “The PLT.” And for our Mystery Classic this month, Evan Lewis introduces us to a hardworking journalist from another era in Richard Sale’s “Flash!”

But in all these stories, the intended consequence is reading pleasure.

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The Two Mississippi Rivers by Joe Helgerson

Joe Helgerson is the author the very entertaining series of stories featuring Sheriff Huck Finn set in turn-of-the-century Marquis, Iowa—continued in our May issue with “The Case of Captain Nemo’s Half Brother.” He has also written two clever YA books, Horns & Wrinkles (2006) and Crows & Cards (2009), both published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. The latter was named a Smithsonian Notable Book. The Sheriff Huck stories, which he talks about here, go back to June 2002, but he published two stories with us in 1983, beginning with “Eighty-Seven Miles of Smoke and Mist” (April 1983).

I’ve always had a soft spot for crackpot theories, especially when they’re my own. One of my favorites contends that there’s not one but two Mississippi Rivers that drain North America. One’s measured in miles, the other in pages. One carries away our topsoil, the other our imagination. The first starts in Lake Itasca, the second in Samuel Clemens’s inkpot.  Having grown up in a small town on the Mississippi myself, it was probably inevitable that these two rivers would eventually mingle in my writing.

I wish I could say that my love of Mark Twain’s work dates back to my childhood, but that would a lie, and we all know how fiction writers hate those. So I’ll give it to you straight: I’ve only a faint memory of my parents reading Tom Sawyer Continue reading

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As Luck Would Have It: Our May Issue

Some investigators and criminals are blessed with brains and nerve, some with sheer dumb luck. How else to explain the ability of hapless housebreakers Yarnell and Beaumont, in R. T. Lawton’s holiday burglar series, to dig themselves out of impossible situations—literally so in “Groundhog Day”—albeit none the wiser, or richer? And luck also serves efficiency-obsessed industrial engineer Vi Celucci, in Robert Mangeot’s “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson,” when it sends some counterfeit bills her way, prompting her to trace their source.

Luck, or fate, detours Brian Ellis on his way to a regional sales meeting, but the film buff handles the resulting situation with aplomb, and a few good lines, in John M. Floyd’s “Dreamland.” The young Chinese clerk called Rabbit feels he has encountered some bad luck when a professional thief calling in his markers demands that he draft an unusual will in “Rabbit and the Missing Daughter” by Leah Cutter. And Evan Lewis has a little fun with genre conventions in his story “The Continental Opposite,” introducing young P.I. Peter Collins (whose name, in underworld parlance, means “nobody”).

Finally, we welcome the return to these pages of Sheriff Huck Finn, Deputy Joe, and the other residents of turn-of-the-century Marquis, Iowa, in Joe Helgerson’s “The Case of Captain Nemo’s Half Brother,” in which another quirky character gets his day. Check back here on Friday, when Joe Helgerson will talk about his inspiration for this series.

With a lineup like this, your chance to enjoy our annual humor issue is more than just dumb luck.

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How’d That Happen: Janice Law talks about Nip and Madame Selina

One of the more interesting detecting teams on the scene right now is Janice Law’s medium Madame Selina, her young assistant Nip, and her spirit guide Marcus Aurelius. In addition to being a short story writer and award-winning novelist—The Prisoner of the Riviera, featuring British painter Francis Bacon, won a Lambda Award for best gay mystery of 2013—Janice Law is also a painter. You can view samples of her work at her Web site

I had only done one series character before Madame Selina and her assistant. That was Anna Peters, who fought crime of one sort or another through nine novels. When I came up with an idea for a story about a nineteenth century medium in New York City, I assumed that the short story would be the beginning and end of her career. However, one of my Sleuthsayer colleagues, Rob Lopresti, not only liked the story but uttered the fateful words, “this would make a good series.” Who knows what triggers the subconscious? Pretty soon Nip Tompkins had more to tell me. As a result, there have now been eight stories and counting. Why these two characters and why New York just after the Civil War? Blame a long career in academe, teaching, among other things, 19th century American lit, which inevitably involved the history of the period. Madame Selina’s dual role of medium and detective has involved the big issues of the period: the carnage of the Civil War and its consequences, the coming of the Irish, the dangerous lives of African-Americans, Spiritualism and its debunkers, along with those favorite 19th century plot lines, endangered heiresses and fiscal chicanery. As for the characters, Madame Selina came from an interest in the medicine and psychology of the period, odd mixes of science and superstition. Nip was another matter. Occasionally a character is just a gift, a quiet voice in the ear. An orphan sprung from the ghastly Orphan Home to assist in the illusions of the seances, Nip has a good heart, a sense of humor, and considerable ingenuity. I’ve found him a nice foil for the tricky yet sincere Madame Selina and an amusing narrator. Does Nip believe in Marcus Aurelius, her guide in the spirit world? He started out credulous—he was after all only eight years old. Then he grew skeptical, especially since keeping Aurelius up to date on railroad stocks and Tammany Hall required a good deal of leg work from him. But lately, he’s developed a more nuanced attitude. Although he has his doubts, he’s convinced that Madame Selina’s faith is genuine and he’s nervous until the late Emperor of the Romans answers her call.

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How’d That Happen: John C. Boland

John C. Boland is, in addition to being a first-rate storyteller, a journalist by trade and, more recently, publisher of Perfect Crime Books. His first story for AHMM appeared in 1976, and since then his stories and novels have been shortlisted for Edgar, Shamus, and many other literary awards. In this post he shares some insights into his marvelous series featuring CIA officer Charles Marley.

I envy writers who sit down in the morning, launch into a story with some idea of where it’s headed, and by lunchtime have 3,500 publishable words. When I say I envy them, that also implies I resent their efficiency. I’ve done it in their admirable way now and then. But most of the time my method is closer to making sausage in a dimly lit garage.

My story in the April Hitchcock’s, “Marley’s Lover,” is a case in point: bits from a failed literary story have been chopped free and stuffed into a mystery casing. I like both stories, as it happens, though both have weaknesses. In “Marley’s Lover,” I got to ridicule the connect-the-dots fallacy that produces “history,” I got to complain (as usual) about the damage inflicted on all of us by time, I got to brush alongside the question of why a number of American Communists became life-long traitors and, finally, I got to duck it by borrowing the words of the British spy Kim Philby on the matter of “staying the course.” There is an implication at the very end that my retired CIA case officer, Charles Marley, has been more of a fool than usual. Continue reading

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