Good-bye, Mr. Moffitt

It is with sadness that I report the death of Donald Moffitt, who died Wednesday, December 10, in Maine at the age of 83. Best known for his science fiction novels, Mr. Moffitt came late in his career to our pages with his story “Feat of Clay,” set in ancient Sumeria, which we published in the September 2008 issue. A third story in this series will be published in 2015 in our pages. In addition, he published a series of stories featuring nineteenth century seafarers Eban and Lucinda Hale, the next of which will appear in our March 2015 issue. Both series were richly imagined and enlivened by Don Moffitt’s in-depth historical research. He was a pleasure to work with, and I’m so very glad he gave us a chance with his stories.

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Season’s Greetings

AHMM, January/February 2015

AHMM, January/February 2015. Art by Eric Fisher.

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Major Crimes: The Writers’ Room

One of the pleasures of Bouchercon is the opportunity to talk shop, and when the conference is held in Long Beach, California, “shop” may include the people who write mysteries for film and television. This year I had the opportunity to attend a meet-and-greet with some of the writers and actors for the TNT show Major Crimes, and though they represent a different medium, I was struck by the similarities of concerns faced by writers everywhere.

James Duff, Mike Berchem; Terrie Farley Moran

James Duff; Mike Berchem; Terrie Farley Moran

The primary difference, of course, is the collaborative nature of the writing process. The writers begin work on a season at the very big table in the writers’ room, where they spend a few weeks hashing out the theme for the season and the story arc over 15 to 19 episodes. A spinoff from The Closer, Major Crimes is an ensemble show, which brings its own challenges. One added difficulty, according to the show creator/producer/writer James Duff, is the switch in dynamics as they are aiming for a multi-faceted view of the justice system.

Of the eleven or so regular writers, Mike Berchem, brings to the stable his knowledge of just how the system works. Before his transition to scriptwriting, he was a homicide detective in L.A. for 23 years, so he gets the final pass of each script. For his own scripts, he finds it a challenge to “write to a clock, with some rising action three or four times in a episode” to accommodate the commercial breaks and ensure that people will come back to the show. Kendall Sherwood, one of the youngest writers, noted that she is more drawn to the emotional scenes, and what she finds most challenging is “how to get a clue to come to light organically and in a way that serves the story structure.” James Duff added that even the personal stories interwoven into the procedural must track with the overarching theme of the season.

But despite the collaborative nature of the process, the writers for Major Crimes are also concerned with many of the same challenges as the other writers at Bouchercon: establishing and developing interesting characters, telling engrossing stories involving crimes, pacing the stories to engage the interest of their viewers, and moving their characters along arcs of both plot and emotional development.

These are just a few snippets from the conversation with the scriptwriters that suggested to me new ways of thinking about pulling a short story together.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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