Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s Booked & Printed columnist, Robert C. Hahn, passed a milestone recently with his 100th column. Here he shares his thoughts about the health of the mystery field.
Starting with the January 2003 issue of AHMM and reaching to the July/August 2014 issue, I have written over a hundred columns covering roughly 350 books for this iconic magazine. It has been, and remains, a pleasure. Over the past 25 years I have reviewed well over 2,000 books, primarily mystery and suspense, for AHMM, Publishers Weekly, the now defunct Cincinnati Post, and other publications.
Some observations on how the publishing world has changed:
The advent of e-books has opened the doors for many new authors to be published and reach an audience effectively ending the monopoly print publishers had on the gateway to publishing success.
While big publishers continue to market bestsellers and create new bestselling authors, a growing number of niche publishers are giving new authors a start and allowing them to build impressive backlists.
One of the saddest developments has been the emphasis on big sales that led to many so-called mid-list authors being dropped by the houses that had published them. Thankfully, some niche publishers have discovered that these authors often have devoted followings, which make for dependable, if not spectacular, sales, and they have picked up some of the slack.
Some changes have been obvious: the plethora of new and expanded roles for women in all areas of the genre, the supplanting of the USSR as the major enemy for thriller heroes to tackle, to name a few.
The number of quality mysteries from foreign countries (other than the United Kingdom) has greatly increased, introducing American audiences to a host of memorable sleuths from Scandinavia, Thailand, Italy, Greece, etc.
Geriatric detectives are no longer an oddity as our population continues to age and remain productive so too to the sleuths who are solving crimes.
My respect for authors has grown, rather than lessened, through this experience, but at the same time my expectations have grown as well. The diversity of types of mysteries within the genre is amazing but so is the depth. If a reader wished to limit his (or her) reading to just historical mysteries, or just cozies, or just procedurals, he could do so and still have a wealth of choices. And in spite of the sheer numbers of new titles being published, the imagination of today’s authors manages to keep coming up with new variations, new twists, new ways of making the old seem new again.
The difficulty for readers is finding a way to separate wheat from chaff, to find gold, not fool’s gold. Among the tools readers can use for that task are publications like AHMM and EQMM, where readers can be exposed to many authors each issue as well as offering critical reviews of new publications. Likewise the excellent annual anthologies sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and the Year’s Best Mystery series edited by Otto Penzler are an excellent way to discover new favorites.
Robert Lopresti writes the very popular Shanks stories for AHMM, but this one is a little different. He sent it to us with the request that it go on our blog immediately. He explained that it is “based on a scam that recently did major damage to the mother of a friend of mine. . . . I consider the story a kind of public service, since it warns people about this thing.” Here it is. Enjoy, and be warned!
“Please hang on,” said Leopold Longshanks. “I’ll have to start up my computer. It’s down in the basement.”
“Of course,” said Jake. “I’ll wait.”
“You’re too kind,” said Shanks. He was in his home office, checking his e-mail. His publisher had replied, in a cranky mood, concerning Shanks’s complaint about the proposed cover for his new novel. The artist had apparently been unaware that only the bullet is fired out of a gun, not the entire cartridge. You would think the publisher would be grateful Shanks caught it before they all got laughed at, but no.
There was also an email from the organizers of a conference, reminding him that he had agreed to speak. Shanks was happy to do so, good publicity, but was less than thrilled by the topic they had assigned him. He was supposed to find something new to say about that old classic: Why do people read mysteries?
The question we should be asking is why more people don’t. If we could double the readership I could buy a better computer, and a new smartphone—
Phone. He picked it up. “Jake? You still there?”
“Yes, sir.” He had a slight accent. East Asian, perhaps?
Jake had called a minute earlier, identifying himself as being “from the technical support division of Windows. We have reports that your computer is sending out malicious messages. Apparently it is infested with malware.”
“My gosh,” Shanks had said. “That’s terrible.”
“Yes sir. Your computer could crash at any moment. But I can fix it for you.”
“Really? That’s wonderful! How can you do that?”
“I have to take control of your computer for a few minutes. Are you in front of it now?”
And so it began.
• • •
Frustration. That was the thesis for Shanks’s speech. People are drawn to mysteries because they are frustrated by injustice. Crimes unsolved. Felons unpunished.
He had planned to use bankers in the mortgage collapse as a showpiece—nobody in that whole crowd had done anything indictable?—but now he was thinking there might be a better, local example.
Namely Betty Shawcross, right across the street. Nicest neighbor you could ask for, although she was getting up there, close to eighty.
One day, about six months ago, she had come rushing over in tears. Seems she had received a phone call about malware on her computer and let the authority figure on the other end take control of her machine. By the time Shanks and his wife arrived the machine was spitting out its contents to some distant interloper and neither the off button nor CTRL-ALT-Del would stop it. Shanks had had to yank the plug out of the wall.
The computer technician they brought the machine to said flatly that he wasn’t going to mess with the infected thing. “Replace it.”
But Betty didn’t want to.
“How much money did she lose?” Shanks asked later.
“Not much,” said Cora. “That wasn’t as bad as having to get new credit cards, and change bank accounts. But here’s the worst part, Shanks. I told her ‘it could have happened to anyone,’ and you know what she said? ‘It would never have happened to me five years ago. There’s no way I would have fallen for that.’ Now she’s so afraid that she’s falling apart that she doesn’t want to buy another machine.”
“That’s terrible,” said Shanks. “She’s always talking about video-calling her grandkids.”
Cora nodded. “Her son is trying to talk her into buying another computer. Boy, I’d like to hurt those creeps.”
“Me too, my love. But there’s no way to get at them.”
• • •
“Jake? You still there?”
Amazingly, he was. “Yes sir. Are you ready now?”
“Almost, my friend.” Shanks sipped coffee. “Just hang in there.”
And here was an e-mail from his Hollywood agent, still trying to get a rational explanation from the studio about the allegedly disappointing net profits on their film.
Talk about felons unpunished.
Speaking of which, the phone was buzzing, signaling that Jake had hung up. Ah well.
Shanks opened a new file and began to type out some thoughts on his speech. He would have to disguise Betty’s identity, not that anyone at the conference would know her from Dorothy L. Sayers, but you couldn’t be too careful these—
The phone was ringing. Excellent.
“There was a technical problem, sir. We were cut off.” Jake sounded a little grumpy.
“I’m so sorry. All right, my friend. I’m sitting in front of my computer now.”
“Very good. I just need you to—”
“Wait, wait, wait. I have one question for you first.”
“What is it?”
Shanks raised a bushy eyebrow. “Do you have a beard?”
A longish pause. “A what?”
“Why would you want to know that?”
“I want to form some image of you. It’s a simple enough question.”
A sigh. “No, I don’t have a beard. Now, can we—”
“I’m guessing you use an electric shaver.”
“Listen, sir, your computer could break down at any minute. I will not be responsible if—”
“Then don’t waste time. Do you—”
“Yes! I use an electric shaver. Why?”
“I thought so,” said Shanks. “If I robbed people for a living I wouldn’t dare face myself in the mirror every morning with a razor in my hand. Jake? You there?”
Shanks checked his watch as he hit the off button on the phone.
He had kept Jake from ripping anyone off for a full quarter of an hour.
It was one minute off his personal best. Not to worry; sooner or later one of Jake’s friends would call back and give him another chance.
© 2014, by Robert Lopresti
It’s a great pleasure to congratulate Jas. R. Petrin, whose AHMM story “Under Cap Ste. Claire” (October 2013) has been named a finalist for the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award, given by the Crime Writers of Canada. Petrin is a previous winner in this category with his AHMM story “Killer in the House” and he has been named a finalist for an AHMM story every year since 2010. The 2014 winners will be announced on Thursday, June 5 at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto.
Kevin Egan’s newest novel, Midnight (Forge)—named a Best Book of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews—takes place in and around the New York County Courthouse. His story in our June issue, “Term Life,” draws its characters from the same milieu. Here, the author explains his fascination with the what goes on behind the bench.
“Write what you know.” It is a standard writing instructor mantra.
As a college senior I took two creative writing classes. The first professor insisted we write what we know. I didn’t know anything about anything. The second professor encouraged us to write about anything in the world. I chose a slave in ancient Rome. But years later, and after much hard work, I was able to steer a course between writing what I knew and writing about anything in the world. I published one science fiction novel and three cozy mysteries. Then I decided to write about something I knew well – my job.
I am a lawyer and have worked my entire career in the New York state court system, mostly as a judge’s law clerk. I also work at the New York County Courthouse, famous from the opening credits of Law & Order as well as other television and movie productions. It seemed like a natural combination: Add my insider’s view on interesting cases to a landmark setting and, voila, dramatic fiction would follow.
But dramatic fiction did not follow.
Courthouse details swamped story lines. Supposedly interesting digressions flowed for pages. Characters bobbed in oceans of description. One courthouse novel oozed to a stop after 140 pages of sludge. A second swelled to 450 pages but could not find a publisher.
What was up? Other writers who inhabited this world managed to write successful fiction. Why, after several novels, was my writing so out of control?
A revelation came one night as I watched a television police drama. It wasn’t a plot or even a plan. It was a realization that I’d been trying too hard to depict the courthouse while overlooking the fantastic mix of people who convened there everyday. There were many types of characters in the courthouse, from the judges dwelling in the rarified air of chambers to the engineers stoking the furnaces in the sub-basement. Each one had a potential story.
I began to focus on characters, investing them with dreams and desires, virtues and vices, problems without tidy solutions. Focusing on characters allowed me to tell stories without courthouse details overwhelming the narrative. Instead, the sights, the sounds, the feel of the courthouse seeped into the stories naturally. And so, within that much muted but still evocative setting, a wife commits murder to protect the reputation of her demented husband, a custodian must choose between his dying wife and his successful but estranged son, and an elderly man keeps up his end of a bad bargain. Character stories, but characters who coexist in a courthouse.
Write what you know . . . but don’t get lost in the details.
There’s an interesting profile of the short story writer Lydia Davis in the March 17th New Yorker. Davis is known for her very short, spare, evocative stories, and in the article by Dana Goodyear, she has some interesting things to say about the intersection of real life and the creative imagination.
But I wanted to share here another passage, one that demonstrates an ideal to which all writers can aspire:
One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.
How many of us are so alert to such writing mistakes? In my own writing, which is always a struggle, not so much. But in the works of others, sure, that’s the editor in me—though unlike Davis, I don’t always stop to analyze in such detail why the “little bell” is ringing.
I admire the depth of her engagement with language, her dedication to the discipline of scrutinizing each word in its relationship in the sentence. I think it behooves all writers to look at their writing with such a critical eye.
Mystery writers, I think I can safely say, love their metaphors and similes. Consider Raymond Chandler, whose prose still blinds us with its startling vividness:
His chin came down and I hit it. I hit it as if I was driving the last spike on the first continental railroad. (“Red Wind”)
It was blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely)
The voice of the hot dog merchant split the dusk like an axe. (Farewell, My Lovely)
Figurative language is one way a writer can (excuse the old cliché!) show without telling. It’s artful and it brings together levels of meaning. The power of the comparisons rests in the associations Chandler is making. They give the reader more entries into understanding the action. But this sort of device can also be clumsy and can draw attention to itself. That’s one reason we object to dead and mixed metaphors.
Davis’s comment is interesting to me because she brings her focus down not just to the comparison of images but even to the etymology and connotations of the words themselves. She rejects the easy purchase of images carelessly mashed together in favor of, as she puts it, “the full value of comparison.” And whether you agree with her about the specific examples she quotes, I think writing—communicating effectively, whether through flat prose or lyrical poetry, or something in between—requires that we bring an intention to our choices in words and syntax. A metaphor may be wonderful because its startling dissonance surprises the reader, but the writer needs to be aware of just how the words are working together.
Evan Lewis’s stories featuring the ghost of Davy Crockett and his descendant David Crockett are distinguished by the lively verbal jousting of the principals, though when the two can simmer down, they make a great pair of sleuths, as demonstrated in “Mr. Crockett and the Longrifle” in our May issue. Here, however, we’re delighted to offer Mr. Lewis’s reflections on a very different kind of mystery writing.
Pulp fiction came into my life when I was eleven years old, and I was never the same again. It happened at the neighborhood Rexall Drug store, and came in a series of paperbacks starring Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze.
The writing spoke to me. It was direct, conversational, and loaded with personality and humor. The author was not only having fun, he was being paid to be a smart-aleck. I wanted to be a professional smart-aleck too.
Years later I learned that Doc Savage was a pulp hero, that most of his adventures were written by Lester Dent, and that the style I so admired was considered hardboiled. My search for more such stuff led to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and their less-famous contemporaries. At the time, very little of that stuff was in print, so I went to the source, hunting down the pulps themselves.
The more I read, the more I realized that my favorites were the guys having the most fun. They were the smartest of the smart-alecks, experimenting with the language and injecting plenty of personality and humor into their writing. I found their style infectious, and if my own stories are a little wacked-out, it’s mostly their fault.
The guiltiest parties follow.
DASHIELL HAMMETT is revered by fans and critics for The Maltese Falcon, and I think it’s a fine novel, but the stories that really grab me feature The Continental Op. The Op began as a nearly invisible narrator and evolved into a supreme smart-aleck, reaching his peak in the novel Red Harvest (originally published as four novelettes in Black Mask).
FREDERICK NEBEL graced Black Mask with a long-running series featuring police Captain Steve MacBride and his reporter pal, Kennedy of the Free Press. Nebel’s prose is hard as nails, and his two lead characters share a friendship that brings out their wise-cracking best. Thanks to Altus Press, Nebel’s best work is back in print, including a four-volume set reprinting the complete MacBride & Kennedy series. (I was honored to write the Introduction, which also appears on the Black Mask Magazine website.)
RICHARD SALE was another guy whose best work was in the pulps. Sale’s most popular character was Daffy Dill, a smart-mouthed but literary-minded reporter who appeared in more than sixty novelettes. You’ll find one apiece in the anthologies The Hardboiled Dicks, Hardboiled Dames and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. As a public service, I’ve posted five more Daffy adventures on my blog.
NORBERT DAVIS had a tremendous talent for humor, but rarely turned it loose in the pulps. You’ll find it, though, in the three novels and two novelettes featuring Doan and Carstairs. Doan is a harmless-looking but deadly dangerous detective, and Carstairs is his high-minded Great Dane. The absolute best of the series is the novel Sally’s in the Alley, which is exceedingly easy to come by.
CLEVE F. ADAMS is the forgotten man of hardboiled fiction. He wrote well over a hundred pulp stories (some sources say more than three hundred) and authored more than a dozen novels. The typical Adams hero thinks he’s a heel and strives to act like one, but down deep he’s a good and honorable guy. This inner struggle produces a humor that’s unique in detective fiction. And for even more comic relief, he usually has a dimwitted sidekick. All of Adams’ books are worth seeking out, but I particularly recommend Sabotage and The Private Eye.
JONATHAN LATIMER did not write for the pulps, but his five novels starring hard-drinking detective Bill Crane followed the Black Mask tradition. All five are wonderfully wacky, but my favorite is The Lady in the Morgue. That book gives Crane not one but two smart-mouthed sidekicks, and their book-long bender results in some hilarious three-way repartee.
I like to think there’s a little Continental Op and a little Daffy Dill in my narration. A little MacBride & Kennedy and a little Doan & Carstairs in my relationships. A little Adams and little Latimer nibbling at my sanity. And always, a lot of Lester Dent in my attitude.
With all that pulp fiction bouncing around in my skull, it’s not surprising my two lead characters, Tennessee State Representative David Crockett in AHMM and Skyler Hobbs in EQMM, are both borderline crazy. One believes his inner voice belongs to a dead ancestor, and the other thinks he’s the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Both allow me to embrace my pulp dreams, to laugh at life, and to unleash my inner smart-aleck.