It’s a Trap!

Many of our stories this month pick up on the theme of entrapment in its various forms.

David Tallerman’s “Step Light,” our cover story, features a trap so subtle that its victim barely recognizes his predicament. On the other hand, street-wise tough Skig Skorzeny may be old and infirm, but he can spot a trap when he sees one in Jas. R. Petrin’s “The Devil You Know.” Madame Selina uses her gift as a medium to snare the imaginations of her clients in “The Spiritualist” by Janice Law. And theft and homicide cases converge at a spa detox center for the wealthy in John H. Dirckx’s “Trap and Release.”

Meanwhile, David Edgerley Gates offers a perplexing procedural as Montana Deputy Hector Moody returns in “Crow Moon” to solve a case involving a drunken Vietnam Vet with a broken neck. A copy editor in Julie Tollefson’s “Abundance of Patience” revisits her career and the newspaper industry in light of massive layoffs. And finally, John Gregory Betancourt brings a “new” Mystery Classic to our attention: James Holding’s “The Norwegian Apple Mystery” featuring sleuth Leroy King.

There’s no escaping the great fiction in our March issue: Once you start reading, you’ll be hooked.

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Remembering Jim Ingraham

At the beginning of this year, we received some sad news: Our author Jim Ingraham has died. An ex-marine (WWII) and a retired professor of American history, Jim Ingraham had been at various times, a movie extra, a piano player in saloons in Detroit and Providence, and a portrait painter. We published “Mystery of the Chinese Ball” in 1986, and since have published nine more. He’s also written and published half a dozen novels. Last year we bought a new story from him, and he told us then in an e-mail that “I’m not a very interesting person but some people around here think it exceptional that I wrote this story at the age of 91 and sold it at the age of 92 and am working on other stuff.” On the contrary, he was a very interesting person indeed, and his life experiences informed his stories. Like his P.I. Duff Kerrigan, Ingraham grew up in Maine; he told us once: “Where Duff Kerrigan lives on the docks of old Portland, was my boyhood paper route. In real life the area has changed, but in Duff’s life it’s as it once was.” He did an interview with us for our September 2007 issue, which we think you’ll find interesting too, so you can read it here.

AHMM: You come from an academic career. Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you come to write P.I. stories? How has your writing been influenced by your work as an academic?

JI: After graduating from NYU as a history major (I didn’t want to spend my life grading English papers), I wrote three sprawling novels, one of which caught the attention of a New York editor who gave me a lot of advice. I spent two years trying to satisfy him and failed. I just didn’t understand story organization. After I had tried for many years to get published, your predecessor, the late Cathleen Jordan, accepted my story “Mystery of the Chinese Ball.” She rejected at least ten subsequent submissions but always encouraged me to keep trying.

Through some form of osmosis I began to realize that crime stories provided the structure I had been searching for. Before I became a history major at NYU I was a music major at Michigan State. Strange as it may sound, the biggest academic influence on my writing has been my acquaintance with the music of Beethoven. All of art is composition and symmetry and Beethoven is the grand master of that. It’s the structure, the order, not the content, that led me to write the Duff Kerrigan stories.

AHMM: What are the origins of the Duff Kerrigan character?

JI: I guess Duff Kerrigan is me. I think every first-person narrator is a version of the writer. Hemingway’s point-of-view character is always the same—Robert Jordan in one book, Nick in the “Three Day Blow.” It’s always Hemingway—not a portrait of himself, but an emanation from himself.

AHMM: Like you, Duff Kerrigan grew up in Maine. To what extent is that an important aspect of his character, and of yours? You now live in Florida; do you visit Maine often?

JI: What I like about Maine people is their lack of pretension. Maine, unlike Massachusetts, was not founded by Puritans. It became established by fishermen and farmers and resisted the encroachment of the Puritans. The people I like to write about are ones I admired as a boy—self-respecting, independent working people who do not intrude upon their neighbors. I see Duff as that kind of man.

I don’t try to avoid the postcard image of Maine. I just try to represent my memory of Maine and its people truthfully. The first member of my mother’s family took a job in a lumberyard in Kittery, Maine, in 1623. Her people were obstinately Yankee. My father’s father arrived in this country at the age of fifteen. I don’t believe my mother’s people ever forgave her for marrying an immigrant’s son, especially a Catholic immigrant’s son. Maine, like all of New England, seethed with intolerance, of Irish Catholics on the coast or French Canadians who came down to work in the mills. The tourist magazines like to present Maine as though no “foreigners” had ever settled there. I grew up among Irish longshoremen in Portland, who were looked upon as trash. I could write a lot of stories about this aspect of Maine life, but it’s still too painful to think about. I ran away from home twice before I was in the eighth grade.

I go back to Maine at least once a year. I visit the waterfront and upstate woodlands and pastures, sit with people, talk with people, absorb atmosphere, I love it but can no longer tolerate the winters.

AHMM: Is there a chance that Duff Kerrigan may appear in a novel?

JI: I guess there’s every chance, although I have nothing planned. I think of Duff as engaged in tight little plots that unfold in a few thousand words. But who knows? Good ideas pop up all the time.

AHMM: Have you published any novels?

JI: Glad you asked! My novel Remains to be Seen has been purchased by Five Star Mysteries and is scheduled to appear in July 2008. It’s a fair-play whodunit, unfolding in an academic setting in Maine and follows a murder investigation by a young woman detective called Perci Piper. A major character, Vinnie Milano, comes right out of Duff Kerrigan’s neighborhood in Portland.

AHMM: Which writers do you admire and why?

JI: I admire writers I can learn from. There are, of course, the giants on whose shoulders we all stand. But aside from them, I admire Ross Thomas, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Somerset Maugham, Tony Hillerman—pretty much in that order. To me, Ross Thomas was the best of the modern crime writers—witty, urbane, structured. Hemingway for his understanding of point of view, Greene for his seamless placing of characters in the story’s atmosphere, Hammett for his directness, Maugham for his storytelling, Hillerman for his evocation of atmosphere.

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Happy New Year!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine passes a milestone this year as we celebrate our sixtieth anniversary. You’ll see to the right the special cover we commissioned from Joel Spector for our January/February issue.

The magazine debuted in 1956, capitalizing on the fame of director Alfred Hitchcock and his association in the popular mind with the mysterious and macabre. The television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents had reinforced this association when it began in 1955, but we have now out-lived the TV show by decades thanks to the creative fecundity of our authors and to the loyalty of our readers: your appetite for murder and mayhem appears to be endless.

Though now eligible for AARP membership, AHMM still strives to keep up with the times. We maintain a lively Facebook presence, where we have lately been posting classic covers from past issues, and if you haven’t yet checked out our podcast series on iTunes and Podomatic featuring authors reading their stories, I encourage you to do so.

And even after threescore years, we’re still looking to try new things. Our January/February issue also features our first-ever graphic short story, “Not a Creature Was Stirring . . .” by Dale Berry.

Over the course of the year, we’ll be looking for other ways to celebrate our sixtieth anniversary. But most importantly we will continue to do what has gotten us this far: Bring you, month in and month out, the best mystery and crime short stories from both new and established authors.

Thank you for sixty years of support, and here’s to a delightfully criminous 2016!

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The Joys of the Dark Side by Elaine Viets

Every sub-genre has its peculiar satisfactions—a reality recently borne in on Elaine Viets, who launched a new and darker series in our November issue. Here she reflects on some of the opportunities it offered.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine heralded my return to the dark side in November with a hardboiled short story. “Gotta Go” introduced Angela Richman, a death investigator in mythical Chouteau Country, Missouri, stronghold of the over-privileged and the people who serve them.

Death investigators work for the medical examiner’s office. At a suspicious death, DIs are in charge of the body. The police handle the rest of the crime scene.

AHMM brought good luck. As “Gotta Go” was published, I signed a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer for the Angela Richman mysteries. Brain Storm, the first mystery in the new death investigator series, will debut at Thriller Fest this July.

After a decade and a half of writing traditional Dead-End Job mysteries and cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper novels, I was back writing bloody, forensic-heavy mysteries. The death investigator mysteries aren’t too gory—not like Patricia Cornwell “I boiled my dead boyfriend’s head.” This death investigator series is more like the TV show Forensic Files, without the commercials.

I was back home again.

My first series, the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries, were hardboiled. When Random House bought Dell and wiped out that division, I switched to the traditional Dead-End Job mysteries, featuring Helen Hawthorne. The Art of Murder, the fifteenth novel in the series, will be published in May 2016. I also wrote ten cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries.

I love both series, but wanted to write dark mysteries again. But I didn’t want to do another police procedural, or a private eye with a dead wife or a drinking problem. Other writers had done those and done them well.

But death investigators were a profession many readers didn’t know about. Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International agreed. She believes Angela Richman is the only death investigator series.

Last January, I passed the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University. I wanted the training—and the contacts—to make the new series accurate.

I’ll still keep the Dead-End Job mysteries. In fact, I’ll need them. Their light-hearted look at Florida will keep everything from becoming too grim. The sun-splashed craziness of South Florida should counteract the intensity of the death investigator series.

Now I that I’m writing dark again, my writing has changed.

My characters can cuss. Angela Richman’s best friend and colleague is Katie, Chouteau County assistant medical examiner Dr. Katherine Kelly Stern. Pathologists tend to be eccentric, and Katie is based on a real pathologist who’d perfected the art of swearing. Her profanity was a mood indicator. I could tell how angry she was by whether she used “fricking,” “freaking,” or the ultimate F-bomb and how often she employed these and other cuss words. Oddly enough, when she swore, the words didn’t sound offensive. Katie cusses with style and grace in Brain Storm.

Body counts. In cozy and traditional mysteries, the murders take place off-stage. Readers aren’t forced to take a blood bath when they read the death investigator mysteries, but they will see crime scenes and forensic procedures. They’ll get a firsthand look at the sights, sounds, even the smells of death.

Real weapons. In cozy mysteries, when Josie Marcus battles killers, she resorts to “domestic violence,” using kitchen tools, gardening equipment, and whatever she can grab for weapons.

Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job mysteries is a little bolder. She’s armed with pepper spray to take down killers, though in Checked Out she did get sprayed with her own weapon.

In Brain Storm, when Angela confronted the killer, she was in an office, surrounded by the standard supplies: waste baskets, chairs, coffee mugs, letter openers. I was prepared to have Angela grab one, when it dawned on me: Wait! This isn’t a cozy.

I can use firepower.

So Angela shot the killer in the head. It felt so good.

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“The Finlay Millions” and the Carr Detective Series by S. L. Franklin

S. L. Franklin, author of the Carr detective series, first appeared in AHMM in the July/August 1999 issue with “Capriccio with Unaccompanied Violin.” Since then he and R. J. Carr have appeared in our pages thirteen more times, most recently in the current issue with “The Finlay Millions,” which he talks about here.

The basic situation for “The Finlay Millions” came to me several years ago—the old house, the death of the reclusive owner, some heirs in the wings including an estranged wife—but converting the situation into an R. J. and Ginny Carr mystery wasn’t as simple as turning open a tap and letting a story run out.

I once heard the jazz musician Patricia Barber explain in an interview that to recast a classic standard song by, say, Rogers and Hart, into an effective jazz performance, she first had to find a way to “break into” the piece. That was my original difficulty in writing “TFM”—discovering a means of cracking this particularly hard nut of an undeveloped set of characters and situations. Those familiar with Carr mysteries will realize that my difficulty was compounded by the fact that the series stories are always told via multiple voices, those of R. J. and Ginny, but often those of other characters as well, so it’s a rare Carr mystery that follows a straight narrative line.

Another problem was—as it always is for me—bringing new characters to life. R. J. and Ginny seem, I hope, well-defined in every story, both in what they do and in how they think and express themselves. Other characters, especially those who narrate, need to be just as well-defined, and when the sometimes kindly but often dilatory muse of detective fiction finally fired my feeble brain cells with images of Bill Finlay—bulky, limping, seventy-three years old, a retired engineer from Syracuse—I had at last both a means to break into the plot outline and a narrative voice and perspective that actually drew me, the author, into the story even as I put Bill’s words down on paper. (Yep—Carr stories: still made by hand.)

Some mystery plots are schematic, others formulaic; some psychological, others ratiocinative. Mine tend instead to be intuitive and organic.

To illustrate what I mean with a rather trite and overblown metaphor: From the kernel of an original, dormant idea grows a story—living, if it succeeds—that is shaped and nurtured by its characters as they come to life and respond to the fictional situations they face. In the case of “The Finlay Millions,” the tale’s outcome is in many ways the product of R.J. and Ginny, the Finlays and Penny Wright, at least as much as it is a result of the tentative original design of the author.

Put in another way, “TFM” is not plot driven but character driven, as—within reason—is every Carr story. The basic premise of the Carr Detective Series, in fact, has always been a what if: What if real people with real human weaknesses and strengths, thoughts and feelings, were suddenly to find themselves in the artificially melodramatic strictures of a mystery plot? How would they behave? How would the action advance?

Ambrose Bierce defined literary realism as the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” He, of course, was a fantasist with a grudge, who had only the works of contemporaries like Theodore Dreiser to gauge by. The Dreiser version of realism, however, largely consisting of a mix of human failing, squalid situations, and cynical fatalism (which mix, incidentally, underpins many a noir mystery story) is not the only realism the mind can conjure. There exists a far different realism of everyday concerns and problems—e.g., Bill Finlay’s physical frailties and objections to his younger brother’s attitude; Penny Wright’s struggles to relocate her aged and ailing father—and this realism is what I have attempted to establish as the hidden though underlying scenario of all the Carr stories.

A final note. Anyone who has made it through to the end of this ramble and still wants to know more about the Carr Detective Series, especially about R.J. and Ginny, can satisfy his or her arcane tastes at www.carrdetective.com. No charge and worth every cent.

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Season’s Greetings

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December 11, 2015 · 11:59 pm

The Ninth Annual Black Orchid Novella Award Given

Congratulations to Mark Thielman, whose novella “A Meter of Murder” won the 9th Annual Black Orchid Novella Award! The author was celebrated at the December 5th Black Orchid Banquet as part of The Wolfe Pack’s weekend of festivities. Mr. Thielman, who currently hails from Texas, is a former prosecutor. You can look forward to reading the novella—his first published piece of fiction!—in the July/August 2016 issue of AHMM.

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