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 to me as a child, and I’m afraid it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Tom just had too many answers for my taste. I’ve always leaned toward people who were bigger on questions than answers, people like Huck. But it wasn’t until college that I bumped into Huck skulking around the English department’s halls and really got hooked on Twain’s work. What attracted me to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were the voices, which I’d heard echoes of growing up in my hometown, where old timers hung out at my dad’s gas station and spit tobacco juice on the drive while grumbling about the government fencing in the river with dams. Twain’s humor roped me in too. And finally there were the descriptions of the river, the wet one, which amplified my own memories of the sandbars, fogbanks, and large boats prowling by in the night. All that hit the spot, and to this day I keep several copies of Huck’s adventures lying around my workroom, close at hand in case I need to dip my toe in something wet real quick.

As I read and re-read Huck’s adventures over the years I began to wonder what other people and stories might be found along Twain’s Mississippi. At some point the question of what Huck might have been like as an adult, after he’d lit out for the territories, started orbiting around inside my head. Still, Huck was part of Mr. Twain’s family, not mine, so I didn’t feel quite right about filching him outright and creating the further adventures of Huck Finn. That’s when I came up with the notion of having a fictional character doing the heavy lifting for me. Thus was born Humfredo Mulendorfor, my hero, who thought Huck’s name might just be glamorous enough to get him elected sheriff of a one-horse town. One of the major virtues of the second Mississippi river, the inky one, is that it allows people traveling along it to slip in and out of other people’s skins. That’s what Humfredo was all about.

My Sheriff Huck stories are set around the year 1904 because I wrote the first one for AHMM in 2002, and the span of 100 years between the past and present passed the Goldilocks test. It seemed just right. A hundred years ago wasn’t so far back that the world was completely different from today, but it was far enough removed that life was different enough to give pause and maybe make us wonder how we’ve gotten to where we are today. Also, Mr. Twain was still alive at that time, which seemed fitting.

I chose the fictional town of Marquis, Iowa as my setting for a couple of reasons. First because Samuel Clemens lived along that stretch of river for a couple of years as a young man, when he worked for his older brother Orion in Keokuk, Iowa at the Ben Franklin Book and job printing office. He earned $5 a week. I’ve often wondered if he was over paid.

I also chose that part of the river because I’ve been partial to Iowa and Iowans ever since I first moved away from home to attend school in Des Moines. One of my roommates at that time hailed from Keokuk. He was as practical, forthright, and idiosyncratic a fellow as I’ve ever met. He made a powerful impression on me, particularly when he kept wondering what his Wheaties would taste like with beer instead of milk. I was immediately drawn to someone like that, someone with questions, not answers. To his credit, he eventually got around to answering his question too, as one hung-over morning he poured a cold can of beer over his cereal. No slacker, he gagged most of it down too. Theory wasn’t enough for that man. He needed empirical knowledge. Ah, the college years.

And by the way, Keokuk is a lovely town to visit, full of strange and unexpected lore. I passed through there with my family a couple of years back and didn’t have any trouble imagining young Sam Clemens blowing his weekly salary on cigars.

As to how Captain Nemo’s half brother got involved in all this—let’s just say that Mark Twain’s inkpot wasn’t the only one known to overfloweth. Jules Verne’s put out quite a stream too, especially for someone like me, who’s always enjoyed Science Fiction. In the end, it seemed kind of natural that Captain Nemo’s half brother would steer the Nautilus up the inky Mississippi the first chance he got. I’ve heard on good authority that he met his match in Sheriff Huck

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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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Creative Friction: Heating Up Crime

Crime may be personal, but it occurs within the context of social or cultural frictions that give each criminal act its particular character. Several of this month’s stories arise from the stresses of such cultural frictions.

In our cover story, Martin Limón introduces a new series character, Il Yong, an American soldier turned freelance security specialist who operates in the highly contested cultural zone where North Korea and China operate. Two stories are set amidst the ideological frictions of the Cold War: Terrie Farley Moran’s “On Target” and John C. Boland’s “Marley’s Lover.” And the generational frictions of the sixties drive “A Crown of Thorns” by David Edgerley Gates, set on the campus of the University of New Mexico. In this issue we also welcome the return of some favorite characters: Madame Selina and her young assistant Nip confront a

menacing apparition in Janice Law’s “The Ghostly Fireman,” Eureka Kilburn as a teen has a sense for what’s really going down in a hot environment in Jay Carey’s “We Are All Accomplices,” and those big-hearted fixers Akin and Jones zero in on scam artists in Dan Warthman’s “Mr. Smartphone.”

This month’s friction fiction will warm you in the cold season.

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A Taste for Evil

The stories in this month’s issue should appeal to discerning palates. In B. K. Stevens’s “A Joy Forever,” unhappily married Gwen becomes a wonderful cook, with a specialty in comfort food. What could be wrong with that? While for more exotic fare, readers (and others) should beware the coconuts in Susan Oleksiw’s “Perfect in Every Way.” (Check out Susan’s comment’s about the March issue on her blog One Writer’s World.)

Meanwhile, nineteenth-century ship captain Eban Hale and his sharp-eyed wife Lucinda deal with an unsavory trading partner during a voyage through Indonesia in Donald Moffitt’s “The Color of Gold.” A war-scarred veteran is further destabilized on the set of a Cold War-era horror film in Joseph S. Walker’s “Pill Bug.” An apparition in the London fog is all wrong in Tony Richards’s “The Woman in Brown,” but it’s years before anyone understands why. Mystery writer Ben Clark shows he knows a thing or two about plotting murder in J. A. Moser’s “Blueprint.”

For our mystery classic this month, Les Blatt introduces us to Average Jones in “Red Dot.” Average Jones investigates fraudulent ads—surely a hero for our own times.

Bon appetit!

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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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