Responsibility (September 2016)

As social creatures, we live enmeshed in a network of responsibilities to others, be they family members, friends, or colleagues. These are bonds that crime, as many of this month’s stories attest, can severely strain. The duties of friendship press against moral boundaries for two life-long buddies in Brian Cox’s “The Frozen Fiske.” An assignment to escort a WWII hero around Detroit presents an ethical dilemma for the tough-talking vice cops The Four Horsemen in Loren D. Estleman’s “Playing the Ace.” Another kind of ethical quandary faces a psychiatrist evaluating a murder suspect in Wendy Leeds’ “First, Dig Two Graves.” A young spy poses as a bookkeeper in a postwar Austrian TB sanitarium in Eve Fisher’s “Miss West’s First Case.” And two cops probe a deadly mugging in a gentrifying Glasgow in Russel D. McLean’s atmospheric “Tout.”

We also feature two bookish mysteries this month. A Louisa May Alcott aficionado is pulled into a deadly race to locate one of the author’s manuscripts in Marianne Wilski Strong’s “Louisa and the Silver Buckle.” And our Mystery Classic reacquaints readers with the gaslight era master thief Godahl, created by Frederick Irving Anderson and introduced here by Joseph Goodrich.

As you can see, we take seriously our responsibility to deliver an issue of great reads.

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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Creating Bad Girls of Mystery by Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith is the author of the Detective Ariel Lawrence mysteries, among other tales. Her story in the July/August 2016 issue, “Beauty Shop of Horror,” revolves around a heroine connected to that series. Here, the author talks about character development and inspiration.

From an amateur sleuth to a trained police detective, the heroines who drive my stories defy stereotypes of race, gender, and age to buck authority and fight for justice.

When I first began writing mysteries, I knew I wanted to showcase fierce, fiery, and fearless women who succeed against the odds. I call them my “Bad Girls,” and to create them I did three things:

1) Drew from the lives of real women I admire.

My strong mom and six aunts are models for some of my characters. In my short story “Beauty Shop of Horror,” featured in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine July/August issue, Vera Ames is a 54-year-old, designer shoe wearing, beauty salon owner/cosmetics entrepreneur. Opinionated and wise, Vera is like a human truth serum. People tend to confess their inner most secrets to her. My mom had this gift, and one of my aunts was a hair stylist whose salon chair served as a psychiatrist’s couch.

2) Gave protagonists family/friends who hand them situations many of us can identify with.

Chicago Police Detective Ariel Lawrence has appeared in several stories. She can take down criminals and out maneuver police brass, but sometimes her skills are no match for her three interfering sisters.

3) Used short stories for a character test run.

Short stories allow me to build a protagonist’s persona and see if she’s engaging enough to carry a series. This has been especially helpful as I tackle a historical mystery. My protagonist Eve Dawson, a jazz entertainer, solves murders in between gigs with her husband in 1930s Chicago. Her story appears in the Speed City Sisters in Crime anthology Decades of Dirt.

This approach, I hope, has helped create characters who readers want to spend time with, who feel like real people—right down to their love for family and designer shoes.

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A Legacy of Crime (July/August 2016)

Over the past sixty years, it has regularly been our pleasure to welcome new voices, writers either new to our pages or making their publishing debut. This double issue continues that legacy. Congratulations, then, to two authors appearing in print for the first time: Jason Half with “The Widow Cleans House,” and Mark Thielman with his Black Orchid Novella Award–winning “A Meter of Murder.” And welcome to three authors new to AHMM: Alan Orloff, author of “The Last Loose End;” Andrea Smith, who introduces to our readers her intrepid beauty salon proprietor Vera Ames in “Beauty Shop of Horror;” and James Nolan, who brings us a tale set in Mexico in “Shortcut to Gringo Hill.”

As it happens, the notion of legacy plays an important role in several of this issue’s tales. Our cover story, Eve Fisher’s “Great Expectations,” examines a family’s handling of a small inheritance. Attorney David Crockett, in Evan Lewis’s “Mr. Crockett and the Indians,” carries with him a rather uncomfortable legacy—the crotchety voice of his ancestor Davy. Kevin Egan’s “The Heist,” set in the New York State Supreme Court building in Manhattan, involves the cultural legacy of a Hungarian émigré. And a legacy of Mob violence drives the latest installment of Janice Law’s series featuring Madame Selina and her young helper Nip.

Regular appearances by favorite writers and characters are another aspect of the AHMM legacy, and this issue features other strong installments in familiar series. John H. Dirckx, a recidivist for nearly forty years, teams Lieutenant Cyrus Auburn and Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger in “Can’t Undo.” R. T. Lawton, whose four different series display an impressive range of tone, setting, and eras, this time brings us “The Great Aul,” a new tale of the Armenian and his young Nogai helper. And Terence Faherty, who first appeared in our pages in 2007, offers “Margo and the Milk Trap,” his latest entry in a WWII–era series featuring radio producer Margo Banning.

Great crime fiction is a legacy our readers need not feud over.

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It Takes a Village (June 2016)

The classic loner private eye notwithstanding, crime and its investigation occur within a social context. This month’s issue includes stories featuring team detective work in Janice Law’s “A Taste of Murder” and Sarah Weinman’s “Death of a Feminist.” Ties of friendship (allegedly) motivate characters in Brendan DuBois’s “A Battlefield Reunion” and Michael Bracken’s “Chase Your Dreams.” Familial obligations and gang ties are at odds in Martin Limón’s “The King of K-Pop.” “Poor Sherm” endures the pressures of family expectations in our Mystery Classic by Ruth Chessman (whose own daughter, Jane K. Cleland, introduces the tale). Finally, love, the greatest of all social engines, drives characters to behave badly in Erica Wright’s first story for AHMM, “Patsy Cline at Harry’s Last Chance Saloon.”

It’s a threatening world outside our editorial offices, but here at

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Get a Clue by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti’s character Leopold Longshanks solves a mystery in AHMM for the ninth time in the May issue. Here, the author talks about his relationship with an ever-present aspect of literature from fair-play puzzles to thrillers to whodunits: clues.

When people find out I write mysteries the most common question is: Where do you get your ideas?

Well, that’s never been hard for me.  They’re all around.  And I have no trouble with coming up with plots, characters, or dialog that some editors and readers like.  But here’s what stumps me:

Clues.

I have stories in my file cabinet with concepts I love, terrific conflict and action (or so I think).  But they will probably never be finished, because I don’t (ha ha) have a clue.

Not all stories need clues, of course.  People who don’t read mysteries often think they are all like the ones Agatha Christie used to write: fair play tales in which a crime is committed and a detective figures out whodunit using only the evidence available to the reader.  Those are the stories that need clues.

But if you pick up any issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s, or any other mystery magazine or anthology you will probably find that less than half the stories fall into that category these days.

Here’s another example: I just looked in Shanks On Crime, my collection of stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer who reluctantly plays amateur sleuth.  Of the thirteen stories (most of which appeared in Hitchcock’s) only eight could be described as fair-play mysteries—and that is interpreting the term very liberally.  I’m surprised the number is that high.

There are some writers who seem to look at the world through clue-colored spectacles.  Consider the late great Edward D. Hoch (who wrote almost a thousand short stories), or my friend John M. Floyd (a master of the quickie solve-it-yourself puzzle).  I imagine that when they look at a breakfast table, they imagine how scrambled eggs could point out a murderer, or a glass of orange juice might reveal a blackmail scheme.

I wish I could do that.  But I can’t.  So when a rare clue does pop into my head I jump to work building a story around it.

Which brings me to “Shanks Goes Rogue,” the fourteenth story about my hero, which I am delighted to report is in the new May 2016 issue of Hitchcock’s.  This story began when I was reminded of a fact I had heard a hundred times, but some reason on this occasion my brain said—that’s a clue!  So I handed it to Shanks and voila.  I had my 26th appearance in my favorite magazine.

While tinkering with this essay it occurred to me that you don’t actually need a fair-play story to use a clue.  For example, take my new comic crime novel Greenfellas.  It’s not a whodunit at all, but a sort of pilgrim’s progress about a top mobster who decides it’s his responsibility to save the environment.

No crime to solve there (hey, he’s committing most of the ones in the book) but there are traitors in his midst, and my hope is that he spots them before the reader does.  And that requires clues.

And clues are hard.  Or did I say that already?  I hope you enjoy the story.

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What Could Go Wrong? (May 2016)

Bad ideas often make for good stories. Advising your friend on her love life? Messing about with volatile chemicals? Sharing details of a wealthy client’s will? What could go wrong?

So many, many things, as the stories in our annual humor issue demonstrate. Before you issue a magical challenge to your longtime romantic rival, or abruptly cancel your Hawaiian vacation for a part in a troubled theater production, or seek to engage in collective bargaining when your profession is burglary, ask yourself, what could go wrong?

Or don’t, because the results will be that much more entertaining for the rest of us.

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