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 JaniceLaw.com.

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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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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