Past, Present, Future Crime: December 2015 issue

Reviewing our annual index (on pages 108–109 of the current issue) puts 2015 in perspective. We published 79 short stories that represented all subgenres of mystery fiction and ranged in tone from humorous to ironic to tragic. Our authors came from the four corners of the earth with stories just as far-ranging in their settings. Which is not surprising: Crime is part of the human condition, and crime fiction captures the universal struggle of human beings under extraordinary conditions.

Many of the stories in our December issue also take a retrospective turn. Long submerged memories surface for a retiree in Theresa E. Lehr’s cover story “Lake People.” Turn-of-the-century bounty hunter Placido Geist discovers the last surviving participant in a botched bank robbery ten years on in “The Sleep of Death” by David Edgerley Gates. Suspicious coincidences put a teen in the CIA’s scope for fifty years in “Larry’s Story” by David Braly. And Marianne Wilski Strong sets her tale “Warsaw” in the heady days before the fall of the Soviet Union. More contemporary issues surface in Catherine Dilts’s “Industrial Gray” and Neil Schofield’s “The Purslow Particle,” both of which touch upon work-a-day maladies.

In this issue we offer up great stories now, just as we’ve been doing since AHMM first came on the scene in 1956—and there’s plenty more great fiction to come in the future!

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Ken Wishnia: Putting on The Editor’s Hat

Or, damn, you people are making me work!

I’m supposed to be a writer, not an editor. I’ve published six novels and a bunch of short stories in various anthologies, but Jewish Noir (PM Press) is the first time I’ve ever proposed, assembled and edited an anthology by myself. I had been warned, by none other than Reed Farrel Coleman, that editing an anthology is a lot of work, but I had no idea that it would be quite so much work. Also, the publisher’s contract should have come with a label saying, Warning: You Will Lose Friends—if you do the job right.

Jewish noir jpegBut first, the fun stuff. It was a real treat to be able to work closely with such luminaries as Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison, S.J. Rozan, David Liss, Wendy Hornsby, Jason Starr and Eddie Muller, among others. I had to do a lot of back-and-forth emailing with the contributors, including some face-to-face discussions and sitdowns with authors to go through their manuscripts page by page.

And thanks to our generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir” policy, I also got to collaborate with writers like Canadian author Melissa Yi, who was a joy to work with. She sent me two stories for consideration, and I ended up replying with a carefully worded email explaining that I liked the first half of the first story and the second half of the second story, and asked if she would be willing to combine the two stories along these lines to create a totally new story. That’s asking a lot, but not only was she willing to do it, after revising the two stories into one, she ended up adding a new section that gave her story “Blood Diamonds” a crack-of-the-whip sting of an ending that will linger in your mind for long after you’ve read it.

All this from a definite non-Jew, you should know.

But I have to say that some of the non-Jewish authors’ attempts at capturing Jewish culture made me laugh out loud. One author had a family dinner featuring matzoh ball soup, latkes and potato kugel. This may not seem like much to some readers, but I don’t know any Jewish cooks who would ever make all three of these dishes at the same time, especially the last two, which are both labor intensive high-calorie potato-based dishes that are variously fried in oil and served with sour cream, or baked and sizzled in rendered chicken fat (using traditional recipes, anyway). I told the author that’s like having a “typical” Irish dinner of corned beef and cabbage and an Irish stew and a shepherd’s pie and a steak and Guinness pie and boiled potatoes and some Irish soda bread. A bit much, I would say.

Then came the brisket. Vey iz mir. At one point, it seemed like every other story had someone getting ready to chow down on some brisket, which my family only has once a year on Passover, for God’s sake. I emailed the authors, asking, “Are you guys just Googling ‘Jewish food’ and picking the first thing that comes up? You never heard of chopped liver? Or some nice flanken for a change? Maybe a piece of herring?”

They pleaded guilty.

But the Jews know from guilt, too. Even some of the Jewish authors messed up the Yiddish words and phrases in their stories. Part of my job was to establish a style to standardize the transliteration of common Yiddish expressions. What fun.

For the uninitiated, Yiddish was the primary language of the majority of Central and Eastern European Jews for many centuries (German Jews typically spoke German). Descended from Middle High German, with a vocabulary that is roughly 30-40% Slavic and Hebrew, depending on whom you ask, it is written using the Hebrew alphabet. So if it looks like Hebrew and sounds like German, it’s Yiddish.

The problem is that very few contemporary American Jews have had significant contact with genuine literary or conversational Yiddish. Many of them merely remember a few phrases and expressions that bubbe (that’s grandma to you) used to say. But since they’re remembering from way back, they often get it wrong. Think of the classic Mike Meyers Saturday Night Live sketch, “Cawfee Tawk,” whose host was always saying, “I’m getting vaklempt,” meaning emotionally choked up.

The correct Yiddish is farklempt.

The tricky part about getting it right is that if your character is a third or fourth generation descendant of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, then it would be acceptable, even “correct,” to have that character make a mistake in his or her Yiddish. For example, in Eddie Muller’s story, “Doc’s Oscar,” the narrator complains about his “khazerai  wheelchair.” This is ungrammatical. Khazerai is a noun, meaning “filth, mess, piggishness,” and is not used in Yiddish as an adjective. But after checking with an expert native speaker (my father Arnold Wishnia), who confirmed that Eddie’s character, a boorish Hollywood type of a certain generation, would have said it that way, we decided to leave it in with an explanatory footnote to that effect in the introduction.

We’ve already received an email commenting that “khazerai wheelchair” is wrong and ungrammatical and that we’d better fix it or else. I directed the commenter to the explanatory note. Hope that works.

But the hardest part of being an editor is when you have to reject a story, or deal with authors who—ahem—won’t change a word of their not-quite-flawless stories. This was a situation in which it might have been better to be a paid editor working for the house. Then you can hide behind the generic “this isn’t right for us” response, or the fact that your job is on the line if you accept sub-standard work.

Then there were the people who wanted to be part of the anthology but found out about it too late to be considered. (The slots filled up in about a minute and the anthology ballooned to nearly twice its proposed size, to 32 contributors, and has gone way over budget.) I have already apologized to several authors who were not invited and have promised them an invitation to submit to Jewish Noir 2, should that ever come to pass. (Note: My agent will kill me if I distract myself from my current novel-in-progress with something as insane as doing Jewish Noir 2 at this point.)

Doug Levin! Why didn’t I think of inviting him? Oops.

And Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen favorite, Doug Allyn, who turns out to be Jewish. Who knew?

Even Eddie “The Czar of Noir” Muller said that he recently learned of some Jewish ancestry in his lineage, which raises some serious issues regarding the suppression of Jewish ethnicity during less enlightened times. I mean, how many Americans “discover” that they have Christian ancestors? But that’s a whole other subject for a separate blog.

Now go check out Jewish Noir. Or I’ll sic the global Jewish conspiracy to control world finances and media on you.


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Reasons to Cheer: November 2015 issue

November is our Bouchercon issue. As we prepare to travel to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the conference, the AHMM staff is in a celebratory mood. For one thing, this issue introduces a brand new series from Elaine Viets: death investigator Angela Richman makes her debut in “Gotta Go.” We also celebrate the return to these pages of some reader favorites: John F. Dobbyn with “The Golden Skull”; William Burton McCormick with “Hagiophobia”; Russel D. McLean with “The Water’s Edge”; Chris Muessig with “A Boy’s Will”; Janice Law with “The Dressmaker”; and Joseph D’Agnese with “The Truth of What You’ve Become.” And in the spirit of Bouchercon, we celebrate the genre with an essay by Ken Wishnia on the shifting boundaries of Noir.

Contributing to the celebratory mood, we note the publication of books with AHMM roots. We are proud to publish Loren D. Estleman’s Four Horseman stories set in WWII–era Detroit; he has now collected them in Detroit Is Our Beat (Tyrus Books). John C. Boland has a new collection of stories featuring his “unromantic” spy Charles Marley in The Spy Who Knew Nothing (Perfect Crime Books), all but one of which first appeared here. And B. K. Stevens’s American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi, who first appeared in these pages, is now featured in a new novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books).


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All in the Family

Disfunctional family dynamics provide rich ground for crime stories, as three of September’s stories demonstrate. A well-off London woman hears unsettling news about her fourth husband in Neil Schofield’s “Middleman.” Two vacationing sisters skirt dangerous emotional territory in “Ross Macdonald’s Grave” by Terence Faherty. And a would-be burglar provokes unsettling memories in Bob Tippee’s “A Pushover Kind of Place.”

We’re delighted to make two introductions this month. Kathy Lynn Emerson’s new series character Mother Malyn makes her AHMM debut in “The Cunning Woman.” And we welcome Christopher Latragna, whose AHMM debut “Well-Heeled Shooters” is set on a St. Louis riverboat casino.

Also this month, R. T. Lawton continues his series featuring a Chinese youth thrust into his father’s drug trade and surviving by his wits in the jungle in “On the Edge.” C. B. Forrest returns with “The Runaway Girl from Portland, Oregon,” set in a San Francisco alley during the “Summer of Love.” And Lieutenant Cyrus Auburn and Sergeant Dollinger look into the murder of a traveling salesman in “Solo for Shoehorn” by John H. Dirckx.

Finally, we are saddened to note the passing of Maynard Allington, who died before we could publish his espionage story this month, “The Rostov Error.”

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By Hook or by Crook . . .

On her blog The First Two Pages, B. K. Stevens is engaging other writers on the perennial challenge of “capturing the reader’s attention.” It’s a topic of particular concern for the short story writer, who in the briefest of spans must convince the reader that what follows is new and fresh. AHMM readers will see some familiar contributors there, including Robert Mangeot, who analyzes the opening of his story “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsuit Jackson” which was published in our May 2015 issue.

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David Edgerley Gates: Perspectives

David Edgerley Gates is one of those writers who “paints” with words, producing vivid and complex portraits of both the inner lives of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. Whether he’s writing about the internecine struggles of mid-century New York Mob families, or the turn-of-the-century American West of the lonely bounty hunter Placido Geist, or—as in our July/August cover story, “In for a Penny”—police procedures of modern-day New Mexico, David creates fictional worlds both detailed and complete. In this post, he discusses the “canvasses” of such word paintings: the sense of place.

Linda Landrigan asked me post some comments here, and she suggested I might say something about the sense of place in my stories, which got me thinking about landscape as character. Not backdrop, but an active presence, as much a part of the story as events.

Physical landscape is important to stories, and Westerns in particular, because so often the interior landscape is uninhabitated. The strengths or weaknesses of the characters aren’t explained, or revealed, but reflected–a mirror, set an angle to catch the light. This is another way of saying the characters are ‘existential,’ meaning they define themselves in their immediate circumstance, and more than likely a hostile environment. This is true of noir, especially, which depends on the pairing of two unknowables: the implacability of Fate, and a fatal lack of self-awareness. In this sense, the landscape provides no camouflage. You become a silhouette. The darkness doesn’t hide you, because everything’s in shadow.

Is character Destiny? Yes, in the staged confines of a fiction. But you can still bump into the furniture. The geography of place, in a story, can be frightening, or familiar, or both at once. It’s never arbitrary. It has a purpose, and more than just setting, or the view through the windows. It informs. It establishes context. And it breathes. Landscape isn’t static. It has a specific gravity, and it can shift its weight. As a function of story, the shape of the landscape is more than a narrative device. It bridges the gap between the observed and the imagined. Not that it has to be actual—Middle-Earth or Westeros will do just as well—but it needs to be grounded in a felt reality. You have to be able to smell the rain, or the heat of day, winter in the air, damp smoke from a campfire when the wind changes. You can make a lot of this stuff up. You don’t want to make up how the weather was.

I suspect Linda was asking me about specific terrain, the Bootheel of New Mexico, New York in the late 1940’s, Berlin during the Cold War. Each of these places has its own specific gravity, an orientation toward the horizon line, a roadmap. It’s peopled with incident, much of it imagined, but imaginary or not, the landscape itself is as convincing as I can make it.

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Robert S. Levinson: Clark Gable, Mama, and the Velour Stetson

Robert S. Levinson, who wrote “Little Miss Somebody” in our July/August issue, has been entertaining AHMM readers since 2003. Drawing on his years working in the entertainment industry, Bob infuses his stories and novels with the creative energy of Hollywood, and its destructive currents. His latest novel, The Evil Deeds We Do, is a thriller centered around the music industry in L.A. Here he writes about the source of his fascination with Hollywood.

Hello, my name is Bob.

I’m a show business junkie.

Most of the stories I’ve had the good fortune to see published in AHMM and elsewhere have somehow dealt with some form or other of show business, set frequently, albeit not exclusively, in the “Golden Age of Movies,” an era when MGM boasted that its talent menu offered “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens” and justified the claim with Garbo, Gable, Tracy, Harlow, Shearer, Powell, Loy, Crawford, Beery, Dressler, Turner, Taylor, Lamarr, Rooney, Garland, the Marx Brothers, and even a couple Barrymores.

I begin this memory voyage back in time with MGM, not studios like Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Fox, RKO, or Columbia, because it was MGM where and when I believe my love affair took root, all thanks due my mother.

She was barely out of her teens then, a devoted Gable fan, who decided one day she had to meet the King, her screen idol. First, though, there was a little obstacle to overcome. The family was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Gable was three thousand miles away in Culver City.

Mama’s solution: We had to move west. My father, a hat maker, had no objection. Gable? Gable was competition for his wife’s affection only in her wildest imagination. Besides, Dad was anxious to escape to a new life with the family far from the Brownsville friends he’d grown up with, many of whom had graduated to Murder, Inc.

En route to Los Angeles, Dad found work making hats in Dallas, where he hand-formed a one-of-a-kind velour Stetson for Gable, who (long-arm of coincidence) he’d read somewhere loved and collected hats. Once settled in L.A., with three-year-old Bobby in one hand, an oversized hat box in the other, Mama set off by bus and trolley for Culver City, where the scene at the entrance to the MGM lot went something like this:

Mama: I’m here to see Clark Gable.

Security guard: Is he expecting you?

Mama: (Displays the hat box) No, but I have a hat for him. It’s a surprise gift.

Security guard: Sorry, missy. If you’re not expected by Mr. Gable, I can’t allow you in.

Man (Approaching): Aren’t you pretty. You got pretty violet eyes, you know? Is he your little brother?

Mama: He’s my son. My Bobby.

Man: Son? You don’t look old enough to be married. You sure you’re married?

The guard (Laughs): Pretty funny, Chico.

Chico! Now Mama recognizes him as one of the Marx Brothers. Her eyes grow misty telling him about Gable and the hat. He nods understanding, uses the security guard’s phone to make a call that results in a studio pass for us; is briefly our tour guide before halting a tram full of costumed extras heading for distant locations in the vastness of the MGM back lot, and instructs the driver to drop us off close as possible to Gable’s set. As the tram starts down the street, he returns my wave and blows Mama a kiss.

A cowboy directed Mama to an oversized trailer outside a soundstage. Gable, dressed in cowboy garb, was relaxing in a director’s chair, laughing it up with a pair of stagehands. Mama gasped at the sight of him, took a deep breath, and waited with as much patience as she could muster until the stagehands left and Gable resumed studying his script. Commanding me to stay by her side, she marched the most direct line to Gable and stood staring, silent, hesitant to interrupt him. Finally, he looked up. He saw Mama first, but the smile was for both of us.

“I got something for you,” Mama said at last.

“I don’t suppose it’s the little fellow here.” He leaned forward, picked me up, and sat me on his knees.

Mama offered Gable the hat box and launched an explanation.

Gable carefully removed the velour Stetson and held it delicately in his large hands. He studied its contours and smoothed the Stetson knowingly with the backs of his fingers. He tried it on and expressed delight at the perfect fit.

“I have to have a look,” he said. He took me into his arms, stood, and urged Mama to follow us up the stairs into his dressing room trailer.

He didn’t have to ask Mama twice.

In front of the vanity mirror, he tried the hat at various angles, studying the effect of each position, commenting as the tilt went forward and back, the angle left and right. Finally, he passed judgment. “It’s going to be one of my favorites,” Gable said.

They talked while I wandered the trailer. When it was time for him to head back to work, he first found two photographs to autograph. After signing one to Mama, he wondered about inscribing the other to my dad.

“That’s all right,” Mama said. “You can do it again for me.” Gable gave her a curious look. “It’s in case I lose one.”

He broke out what I came to call the Gable grin. “Then please thank your husband, and give him this from me,” he said. He gave Mama a hug and a handshake. “And this, Helen, is for you,” Gable said. He pushed back the Stetson, took Mama in his arms and kissed her gently on the lips.

That began my infatuation with the movies and, when I was a pre-teen, chasing after autographs.

I was much older, a newspaper guy with the Riverside Press-Enterprise who covered the major studio sneak previews that occurred regularly in town, the year Gable showed up for his Paramount picture, But Not for Me, and got a standing ovation when he entered the theater.

He and his wife Kay settled in the row directly behind my wife, Sandra, and me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and ask him if he remembered Mama and the velour Stetson. Too many years had passed.

Maybe I should have.

What do you think?


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