Happily Ever After: B. K. Stevens

In this post, B. K. Stevens offers insights and reflections on the bittersweet prospect of wrapping up a long-running series. Stevens has long been adept at juggling multiple series, and several of her recurring characters have appeared in AHMM, including P.I. Iphigenia Woodhouse and academic amateur sleuth Leah Abrams. Those tales, like the Walt Johnson/Gordon Bolt stories she discusses here, are notable for their humor and fraught relationships among characters. Stevens introduced a new series in our pages with “Interpretation of Murder” (December 2010), which featured American Sign Language Interpreter Jane Ciardi. The story won a Derringer Award, and Stevens has now written the first Ciardi novel, also titled Interpretation of Murder, forthcoming from Black Opal Books winter 2015. Meanwhile, her martial-arts YA novel Fighting Chance is also due out winter 2015 from Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press. Look for her next story, “A Joy Forever,” in our March 2015 issue.

Happy endings are hard. At least, they’re hard to write well.

Not everyone would agree. Years ago, a well-regarded author addressed a writers’ group to which I belonged. At one point, he said he’d never write a novel or story with a happy ending, and a member of the group asked him why.

“Because it’s taking the easy way out,” he said, and went on to argue that happy endings are both inartistic and unrealistic. Slapping a happy ending onto a story is a lazy way of avoiding the real challenges literature and life present. Anyone who writes a story with a happy ending, he said, can’t have genuine insights into life, into its inevitable hardships and sorrows. Such writers are pandering to readers, reassuring them by tying everything up neatly. Real life is seldom that reassuring, never that neat. So unhappy endings are far more honest than happy ones, and inconclusive endings are far more sophisticated.

He had a point. We’ve all read stories with happy endings that feel forced and false—implausible last-minute rescues, overly convenient coincidences, deep animosities easily resolved in the final paragraph. We have a right to feel cheated by such endings, to see them as clumsy attempts to escape from the conflicts that have driven the story.

But there are other sorts of happy endings. Long, long ago, at Kenyon College, I took a course in the English novel from John Ward—I want to mention his name, because something he said in class one day had a profound, lasting effect on the way I read and the way I write. The class was discussing the ending of a truly great novel. I won’t say which novel, because if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you; if you have read it, you may recognize the scene I’m about to describe. Two admirable characters are locked in a seemingly impossible situation. They love each other, but it looks as if honor will force them to part. The man starts to leave. Then the woman says the perfect thing, the man turns back to her, and they spend the rest of their lives together.

Mr. Ward—in those days, at Kenyon, we called all our professors “Mr.” or “Ms.” regardless of the degrees they’d earned or the positions they held—commented that in this novel, an unhappy ending would have been hard on the reader but easy for the writer. In any delicate situation, he said, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways for things to go wrong. In this scene, the woman could have simply remained silent, or she could have said too much or too little, or she could have said something insensitive or foolish. Any writer could come up with a wrong thing for her to say. But to find the one perfect thing—the one thing completely consistent with her character, the one thing that would in fact make this man turn back to her, the one thing that would make him realize the barriers between them mattered less than the love drawing them together—that was hard. That was damn hard.

Yes, it’s easy to write a sloppy, unconvincing happy ending. But writing an unhappy ending is also easy. Writing a happy ending that rings true and actually resolves the complications created during a story isn’t easy at all.

And are happy endings in fact unrealistic? Undeniably, life is difficult. For far too many people, it’s almost unrelieved misery—torn apart by war, distorted by poverty or persecution, cruelly limited by devastating illness, injury, or loss.

What about the rest of us? Many of my Facebook friends are mystery writers, and many write pretty bleak mysteries. Love never lasts, plans always go awry, friends turn traitor, the deck is stacked against the righteous, the most corrupt have the most power, violence erupts on every corner of these mean streets, dames lie, clients lie, partners lie, everybody lies. If the battered protagonist can crawl home at the end of the day and douse shattered ideals in a glass of lukewarm gin, that’s the most anyone can expect.

Then these writers set their stories aside for a few minutes and post Facebook messages. “Here’s our youngest grandson playing with our brand new kitten. SO adorable!” “Church choir practice went late again last night—and IMHO, we sound AWESOME!” “Happy anniversary to the love of my life! Forty-seven years ago, you officially made me the luckiest man on the planet—and you’re even more beautiful now than you were on our wedding day!” I read the messages, I scratch my head, and I wonder, “Why does this guy write noir?”

No human being lives a life untouched by pain, disappointment, and conflict. But for most of us, there’s also the occasional kitten. Sometimes, love lasts, friends prove loyal, and people tell the truth. Sometimes, happy endings are possible—not perfect endings, not now-I’ll-never-have-another-sad-moment-as-long-as-I-live endings, but endings that are, on the whole, more happy than sad.

Undoubtedly, some stories should have unhappy endings. They tell such tragic tales, or portray such flawed or broken characters, that any other sort of ending would feel wrong. I’ve written some stories like that, and their endings have been harsh. Sometimes, though, a happy ending is the right choice.

About a year ago, I decided to end my longest-running series of short stories for Hitchcock, and I wanted to make that ending happy. The series began way back in June, 1988, with a story called “True Detective.” It was followed by “True Confession,” “True Romance,” “True Adventure,” “True Crime,” “True Love,” “True Story,” “True Suspects,” “True Colors,” “True Blue,” and “True Test.” The next story would bring the series to an even dozen, and that seemed like a good place to end. Among other things, it wasn’t getting any easier to keep coming up with titles beginning with “true.” I’d started by using names of actual magazines but soon had to give that up and settle for any “true” phrase I could scrape up.

More than that, whether or not these characters feel real to anyone else, they’re very real to me, and I wanted to give them a break. Ever since the first story, Lieutenant Walt Johnson has been feeling guilty about getting the credit for cracking cases that have in fact been solved by his brilliant but self-effacing subordinate, Sergeant Gordon Bolt; I wanted to find a way to ease Walt’s conscience. And Bolt falls in love with Walt’s widowed mother way back in “True Romance,” but she keeps turning down his proposals. After over twenty years, it was time for Bolt to finally achieve his heart’s desire. So I decided to write one last story, “True Enough,” that would relieve these characters of the burdens I’d saddled them with. (By the way, I doubt any readers have wasted a minute wondering how these characters got their names. But in case even one reader ever has, this seems like a good time to reveal that I originally thought of these two as a variation on Holmes and Watson. So the dazzling detective is Bolt, rather than Sherlock, and the comparatively dim companion who records his triumphs is Walt Johnson rather than John Watson.)

Did I find a convincing way of giving these characters the happy ending they deserve? Others will have to answer that question—I’m not objective enough to judge. I know the happy ending to this series can’t possibly be as utterly right as the one in that English novel I read at Kenyon so many years ago. But I’m grateful to Mr. Ward for teaching me to appreciate well-crafted happy endings, and for helping me realize that happy endings can sometimes be, in their own quiet way, satisfying and true.

30 Comments

Filed under How'd That Happen

In Extremis

Mystery stories are often driven by people in dire straits—such as an accountant standing on a skyscraper ledge, waving a pistol. That’s the crisis facing Loren D. Estleman’s resourceful Four Horsemen police squad in “Tin Cop.” Meanwhile, broken ex-Wall Streeter Pit Geller finds himself holed up in Las Vegas with a family torn apart by a dead guy in John Gregory Betancourt’s “Pit and the Princess.” Jay Carey imagines policing a future Sarasota, Florida ravaged by global warming, destructive storms, and crumbling infrastructure in “We Are Not Insured Against Murder.” A literary publisher finds himself at the end of a rope—specifically, a noose—in John C. Boland’s “The Man Who Stole Trocchi.” A curious “curator” roaming Europe is unaware of the wolves at his heels in Stephen Ross’s “Gallery of the Dead.” And B. K. Stevens closes out her long-running series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt this month in “True Enough: Bolt’s Last Case.” To mark this transition, watch this blog space for the author’s reflections on her decision to say goodbye to one series and start another.

Plus we bring you a bit of espionage when radio producer Margo Banning visits a munitions factory in “Margo and the Locked Room” by Terence Faherty. John H. Dirckx, well known to AHMM readers for his Cyrus Auburn procedurals, translates and introduces this month’s Mystery Classic, “Justice by the Book” by Pedro de Alarcón. Finally, Robert C. Hahn introduces us to a new crop of bibliomysteries in his Booked & Printed column.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hearing Voices: Joseph Goodrich

Being a playwright and actor in addition to a mystery writer, Joseph Goodrich has a nuanced view of voice, which he discusses here. He won an Edgar Award in 2008 for his play “Panic,” inspired by the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock. His plays include “Calamity Town,” based on the 1942 Ellery Queen novel of the same name, and most recently “The Red Box,”  based on a 1937 Nero Wolfe novel, which debuted this summer in Minneapolis to great acclaim. He edited Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947–1950.

As a playwright and a writer of fiction, I spend a lot of time alone in a room talking to myself. It’s only natural that the question of voice fascinates me.

When I talk about voice, I’m talking about two things, really: the voice of an author, and the voices of an author’s characters.

The first is a subtle combination of subject matter, language, experience, and perspective—the sum of all the choices a writer makes in the creation of a work. Those choices are as singular as fingerprints, and also serve as identification. It’s why Hammett doesn’t sound like Christie, and why Christie doesn’t sound like Highsmith. Another word for this is style, which Raymond Chandler once defined as “the projection of personality.”

A character’s voice is a lot like an author’s: It reflects the age, background, likes and dislikes of that character, and serves to distinguish one character from another. For me—and this is a result of years of working in the theater—the key to a character’s voice is sound. Marty Kaplan, the narrator of my short story “Red Alert” (AHMM, November 2014), is an East Coast wisecracker of a certain age who was once in show business. His sound is snappy, irreverent—and what he says is (I hope) entertaining.

When I’m moving words around at my desk, or contemplating notes scrawled in a Moleskine, or walking down the street with a head full of jangling story fragments, one of the things I’m doing is listening for the sound of the piece in question. Sound isn’t separate from sense, of course. The two are related. But “Call me Ishmael” creates a different effect than “Hey, it’s Ishmael. How are ya?”

Voice is what draws us to certain writers and characters. It’s the single most important factor in appreciating (or not appreciating) an author’s work.

An editor once cut some lines from one of Raymond Chandler’s stories because they didn’t advance the action. Chandler begged to differ. He believed that what readers really cared about was

the creation of emotion through dialogue and description;
the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not
for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment
of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the
polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from
him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his
mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and
the last thing in the world he thought about was death.

We’re all aiming for that golden combination of language, psychological truth, and urgent circumstance that makes for great reading.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that character is fate. Our fictional creations reveal their fates through the language they use. Voice is fate.

I’d better get back to mine.

It’s time again to start listening . . .

Leave a comment

Filed under How'd That Happen

A Gentleman and a Scholar

I was delighted to learn recently of the publication of Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, edited by Curtis Evans. It collects 24 original essays (and reprints two classics) in honor of the 70th birthday of mystery scholar and publisher Doug Greene.Mysteries Unlocked Cover

A retired professor of history at Old Dominion University, Doug is a great scholar of the genre and the founder and publisher of Crippen & Landru. So far, I have only dipped into this fascinating festschrift, but I have already enjoyed reading about Doug’s passion for John Dickson Carr (whose biography he wrote), the numerous volumes he has edited, and the many friends and colleagues he has assisted with his incredible knowledge of the field. In particular, Doug hasbeen a tireless and effective advocate for the mystery short story; Crippen & Landru specializes in story collections, and its Lost Classics series has returned many deserving but forgotten authors to print.

In person, Doug is as genial and generous as he is learned, and he has been a dear friend to me and Janet Hutchings at EQMM. Over the years he’s offered invaluable assistance to me with AHMM’s own Mystery Classic feature. As Michael Dirda, one of the contributors to this volume says, “[Doug Greene] is one of those key figures that emerge periodically in genre literature.”

Other contributors include John Curran, Steve Steinbock, Peter Lovesy, and more. If you love Golden Age detective fiction, this is a book for you. If you enjoy reading essays by people writing about literature they love, this is a book for you.

Mysteries Unlocked was a brilliant way to say Happy Birthday to a friend.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Behind the Scenes at 267 Broadway: Jackie Sherbow

Jackie Sherbow is the senior assistant editor for EQMM and AHMM. This post will also appear at Something Is Going To Happen.

My recent contribution to SleuthSayers, an inside look at the submissions process, had me wondering if people wouldn’t be interested in a literal inside view of our offices. So, come on in!

267 Broadway

267 Broadway

267 Broadway has been the NYC home of Dell Magazines since 2009. Its residents include the editorial staff for AHMM, EQMM, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Horoscope, and a variety of Dell’s puzzle titles. We work closely with our two other outposts, both in southern Connecticut (Milford and Norwalk).

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

When you arrive at Dell, you’re greeted by Mary Grant, our office manager, editorial assistant, and receptionist. She runs day-to-day operations here as well as provides administrative and editorial support to each department, and has been making lives easier for Dell employees for thirteen years.

Mary Grant

Mary Grant

 

The mystery team includes—along with myself and the editors—Deanna McLafferty, our Editorial Administrative Assistant. Along with working for all the other departments (yes, all of them), Deanna takes care of many day-to-day tasks for EQ and AH—anything you can think of on the administrative to editorial spectrum, Deanna has probably helped with it. You might recognize her as the kind soul who poured you a drink at the EQ/AH pre-Edgars Cocktail Party for the past couple of years.

Deanna McLafferty

Deanna McLafferty

To me, the reference room is the richest part of our floor, and a spot where you can easily lose a chunk of time exploring the multitudes of specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other literary goodies.

From the reference room

From the reference room

This shelf is a strange one now for us, as it features the dwindling slush pile of AHMM after its switch to electronic submissions (which I also talk about in the SleuthSayers post). As a comparison, I’ll include a photo of older stacks, from Linda’s home office.

AHMM's dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

AHMM’s dwindling hard-copy slush pile.

Paper manuscripts in Linda's home office.

Paper manuscripts in Linda’s home office.

Here are the card catalogs, which list all the authors and stories printed in the magazines.

EQ cards

And here are our back-issue archives, stored on shelves built specifically to fit our volumes.

EQMM back-issues archive.

EQMM back-issue archives.

 

AHMM back-issues archive.

AHMM back-issue archives.

And there you have it! Perhaps not as mysterious as you’d have thought, but chock-full of mysteries all the same.

7 Comments

Filed under Administrivia, Uncategorized

On the Job: the November 2014 Issue

Tragedy is part of life—but comedy can be murder. This month’s issue is bookended by Harriet Rzetelny’s “Tag Line” and Joseph Goodrich’s “Red Alert,” both set in the high-intensity world of television sketch comedy. In their different ways, both suggest that working relationships can be fraught—and sometimes deadly.

Also on the job, Eric Rutter’s police sniper finds that certain personal interests can undermine his focus in “The Shot.” P.I. Jack O’Shea, the “deception specialist,” returns to our pages in John Shepphird’s “Of Dogs and Deceit” to unpack a con he’s familiar with—sort of. And “The Bride Wore Blood” by Elaine Viets, an expert on job-related mayhem, reveals the challenges a cruise ship’s crew faces when a volatile bride and groom destroy their suite on their wedding night. Meanwhile, another young bridelife is upended on her honeymoon when her groom is killed in the remote Oregon Caves in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s historical “Crossing the River Styx.”

After reading this month’s stories, you may never look at your coworkers the same way again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jerry Healy

I returned from a brief vacation to learn with sorrow of the death of Jeremiah “Jerry” Healy, longtime friend and supporter of the magazine.

Jerry’s first story for AHMM, “Till Tuesday,” appeared in the April 1988 issue, and his January/February 2005 story “Two Birds with One Stone” was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Short Story. While some of his stories featured his popular series characters, Jerry also took the opportunity of his appearances in Hitchcock to stretch and try new things.

Not just a contributor, Jerry was an enthusiastic advocate for both AHMM and our sister magazine Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. At conferences his larger-than-life presence and infectious laughter were a pleasure to all who were near. Generous with his time, support, and goodwill, Jerry will be missed not just by our staff, but also by many in the mystery community.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized