Kevin Egan on Shaping “The Harbinger”

Fifteen of my sixteen stories that have appeared in AHMM are set in the New York state court system, and nine of these feature Foxx, a court officer who is assigned to Manhattan Supreme Court and who doubles as an undercover agent for the Inspector General. Having worked in that same courthouse for over 30 years, I have drawn ideas for these stories from various sources. A story may be suggested by a character (real or imagined), a case I may have encountered (with the names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty), or some weird internal design feature within the hexagonally shaped building.

For “The Harbinger,” my inspiration was an instructional pamphlet with an intriguing title: “The Sovereign Citizen Movement and Its Impact on New York State Courts.”

The pamphlet was written in 2013 to instruct judges on how to handle the disruptive tactics of an organized group of pro se litigants. (Pro se is the Latin term for someone who represents himself or herself in court.) It briefly described the Sovereign Citizen ideology and its core belief that no legitimate form of government exists above the county level. Since the federal and state governments are, by definition, illegitimate, Sovereign Citizens firmly believe they are not subject to federal and state laws or to the jurisdiction of federal or state courts. Therefore, suing or prosecuting a Sovereign Citizen in state court is problematic at best.

I came across the pamphlet in 2018 and immediately saw the possibility of a story. I had experience with pro se litigants as a law clerk. Most of them either could not afford a lawyer or wanted to pursue a case no lawyer would touch. They may have been ignorant of the law or misguided in their legal tactics, but they usually were respectful of the court and the judges. The Sovereign Citizens described in the pamphlet were a different breed of pro se litigants. Their sophisticated tactics included voluminous paper filings, absurd discovery demands, exhaustively redundant oral arguments, and personal lawsuits filed against the judges presiding over their cases.

Tactics like these could bring a relatively small, rural courthouse to a standstill. I wanted to explore how these tactics would affect the busiest trial courthouse in the country. But the idea of injecting a Sovereign Citizen into the New York County Courthouse merely created a circumstance, not a story plot. And so, after several false starts trying to tease a workable story out of the pamphlet, I needed to ask myself some questions.  

            —What would the Inspector General ask Foxx to do?

            —How would Foxx handle this assignment?

            —What would Foxx think of the person he is asked to pursue?

            The answers to these questions helped shape “The Harbinger.”

Robert;Young, a man ostensibly employing all the legal tactics of the Sovereign Citizens, is defending himself in a routine case involving a credit card default. (According to the pamphlet, Sovereign Citizens use punctuation marks in between their names.) The Inspector General instructs Foxx to befriend Young and learn whether he is an advance representative (i.e., a harbinger) of a group intending to move their anti-government operations downstate. Foxx, posing as a pro se litigant himself, engages Young in conversation while the two men pass long hours waiting outside the courtroom for the judge to rule on their cases.

Foxx quickly sees that Young does not resemble the stereotypical pro se litigant. First, he seems almost too comfortable in the courthouse setting. Second, although Young peppers his conversation with anti-government rhetoric, Foxx detects as an underlying personal animosity toward the judge, whose name is Thomas Dalton. That evening, Foxx reports his suspicion to the Inspector General. The next morning, Young is found stabbed to death in a courthouse lavatory.

Foxx’s investigation reveals that Young had been living as a squatter in the disused courthouse library while awaiting the judge’s ruling. Among Young’s meager possessions are newspaper articles about a scandal that occurred in the 1990s and involved a high-profile law firm filing hundreds of fraudulent personal injury claims against the City. All of the lawyers in the firm were prosecuted, even those who denied any knowledge of the scheme. Several, including the innocent lawyer who later became Robert;Young, went to prison. Meanwhile, Thomas Dalton, the lawyer who masterminded the scheme, not only avoided prison but also went on to become a judge. Though Young may have joined the anti-government group while in prison, his presence in the New York County Courthouse was unrelated to any of the group’s intentions. He was simply a guy with a vendetta—revenge against the man who ruined his career and his reputation. Unfortunately, that plan did not work out so well.


Kevin Egan, a retired state court employee, is the author of 38 short stories, including 16 that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He is also the author of eight novels, including the noir-ish legal thriller Midnight, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013. Visit his website at http://www.kjeganfiction.com

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Writing Yourself Into Corners by Christopher Latragna

In his book “Which Lie Did I Tell?”, William Goldman interviews fellow screenwriters about the craft of writing. He talks about when you get into a spot and you don’t know what happens next, and the Farrelly brothers’ answer surprised me:

Peter Farrelly: You said once you were in a spot where you didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Bobby Farrelly: Well, that’s we do. We write ourselves into a corner purposely-

Peter: Because we think if we can go into a corner where there’s no way out, and then we take a week . . . and we find a reasonable way out without making it absurd, then nobody in the audience is going to sit there and get it within a minute and get ahead of us.

Goldman theorized that they could work out of corners because there were two of them, and was hesitant to recommend this to the solo writer. He says he can’t work this way, because “there’s only me, trapped helpless in my pit, no way out.”

I agree with Goldman. And the Farrelly brothers.

Writing into corners isn’t a great plan. It’s time consuming. If you hope to keep up any kind of pace (and sanity), then “taking a week” or however long it takes seems soul-crushing. You lose momentum. And being “trapped” and “helpless” is unpleasant.

When a dead-end happens, maybe it’s best to set the piece aside and start something else.

On the other hand, when I do find myself in a corner, I take solace thinking there are people—famous, successful screenwriting brothers—who do this on purpose.

And I realize, if I can work it out, I may just come up with something really clever. Or at least something the reader can’t anticipate.

I write a series of detective stories featuring a riverboat gambler from the 1950s named Henry. I never plan on it, but his stories get complicated. They seem to always have two or three plot twists too many. I love a twisty plot but in Henry’s world of murderers, gamblers and con artists, the complexity can get confusing. Which is not entertaining.

It has been become so common that I now have go-to remedies I rely on to guide me back to land:

1. Walking.

There’s something about taking the steady pace of a walk that can help. I also talk to myself a lot, so I make sure to wear ear buds so people think I’m on the phone.

2. Find one solution for two problems.

For whatever reason, I usually find that if I can’t quite figure out, say, a character’s motive for murder, then there’s usually a complementary problem I’m ignoring. This seems to work a lot. I’m not sure why but I am sure I don’t want to question it.

3. Take away the complexity.

Here’s where talking to yourself really helps. Complex plots often tangle because, by the virtue of writing a mystery, you’re writing the events backwards – from crime to motive. By saying what happened in order, in plain terms, and reminding yourself constantly why people are doing what they’re doing—you can at least untangle things.

4. The last resort: Rewrite.

Sometimes the problem doesn’t have a solution, and you have to back up and start over. It’s unpleasant, but if you do throw out what you’ve written and find yourself somehow relieved—you know you did the right thing.

And if you take solace in anything, just know that when William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for the big screen, they couldn’t figure out who murdered the Sternwood chauffeur. So they called Chandler. He didn’t know either.

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A Writer’s Tears by James A. Hearn

TWO LIFE-CHANGING PHONE CALLS . . .

“When the Dams Break” is my first solo sale to AHMM, but it’s not my first story to appear in my favorite mystery magazine.  Last year, my friend Michael Bracken and I had the good fortune to see our collaboration, a football-themed short story called “Blindsided,” in the Sept/Oct issue of AHMM.

That sale was especially significant for me, the realization of a lifelong dream to walk into an actual bookstore, take something off the shelf with my name on it, and pay for it.  To be honest, I shed a tear the day Michael called me and said “Blindsided” had been bought; I teared up again in the Barnes & Noble parking lot, several copies in hand to share with family and friends.

If that had been all “Blindsided” gave to me, it would’ve been enough.  But on January 19, 2022, Michael once again called with news that would change my life.  I was working, so I let it go to voicemail.  “Holy mother of God,” Michael said when I finally listened to the message.  He was stoked about something, and I had to play it twice to absorb the incredible news: “Blindsided” was a 2022 Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee for Best Short Story.

Wow.  When Michael Bracken calls, pick up the damn phone!

THE EDGAR AWARDS

Last April, my wife and I attended the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in New York City.  Dawn and I did the usual touristy things, but one of the highlights was my visit to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, where I drank too much champagne and insisted that Mr. Penzler sign my copy of the new MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home.  He was a gracious host and accommodated me, but he asked me not to call him Mr. Penzler.  I said, “Yes, sir,” and he poured me another glass of champagne.

At the Edgar Awards banquet, we were seated at the AHMM table with editor, Linda Landrigan; two Dell Magazines employees, Abby Browning and Chris Begley; Brendan DuBois; Michael Bracken and his wife, Temple; and fellow nominee, R.T. Lawton and his wife, Kiti.  During the ceremony, I tried to track the number of Edgar statuettes on the table behind the podium.  Was there an extra award for two short story winners—Michael and me—while accounting for the remaining categories?  But I was too far away to see clearly.

When R.T.’s name was called for his excellent story, “The Road to Hana,” a cheer went up from our table.  He gave a model acceptance speech—gracious, insightful, and witty.  (I must admit, R.T.’s speech made me curious enough to try a bottle of Crown Royal’s Vanilla Whisky, his drink of choice when a story is sold.  I find I still prefer my favorite Irish whiskey, the appropriately named Writers’ Tears.)

Though “Blindsided” didn’t win, I returned home with new friends and good memories.  As Michael said in that second life-changing phone call, being an Edgar nominee is an achievement in and of itself.

“WHEN THE DAMS BREAK”

My second sale to AHMM was inspired by my wife, Dawn.  (She’s my best friend, first reader, and inspiration for life in general.)  Dawn, an interior designer, told me about one of her clients who was building a lakeside home.  In the middle of construction, the client learned that state authorities had decided to drain four Texas lakes, including hers, due to concerns with aging dams.  Cue the lawyers.

Originally constructed in the 1920s and ’30s, these dams were only supposed to last for 75 years or so.  Two other Texas lakes, Wood and Dunlap, have already been drained following floodgate failures on their dams.  Flooding is nothing new for Texas, but perhaps climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of these floods.

The state’s early history is rife with stories of catastrophic floods leading to loss of life, livestock, and property, particularly along the Brazos.  In the early twentieth century, the state began constructing dams along many rivers.  The theory is that these flood control reservoirs would absorb rising water levels and prevent disasters.  Today, these dams are being tested by Mother Nature, and efforts are underway to strengthen or replace the aging infrastructure of these lakes before tragedy strikes.

As for my story, I immediately began wondering what secrets might be uncovered when a lake was drained, and what a person might do to keep those secrets.  “When the Dams Break” was born—now I just had to write it.

Since the pandemic, I’ve been working from home exclusively.  While I’ve enjoyed being with my other best friend and writing partner, a Labrador retriever named George, working from home was initially problematic for creativity.  At the end of the work week, I couldn’t sit in the same room, at the same desk, and write fiction.  The dining room became “my office” and the breakfast room—just twenty steps away—became my writing room.

On weekends, I move my laptop and George’s bed to the breakfast room, put on my writing music (usually a digital “mix tape” of my favorite film scores), pour a few drinks (iced coffee for mornings, ginger whiskeys at night), and write short stories.  In this way, I’m able to separate my work and writing areas.

I eventually sold “When the Dams Break” to AHMM.  On August 16th of this year, the day the Sept/Oct issue hits the shelves, people in the Barnes & Noble parking lot might wonder to see a crying guy with a big stack of magazines.  If they ask what’s wrong, I’ll just tell them, “These are a writer’s tears . . . of joy.”

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Finding Inspiration in Gardens of Stone by J.M. Taylor

My neighbors are quiet. I mean, really quiet.

Just outside my window, the numberless dead sleep peacefully (one hopes) in one of several cemeteries that are grouped near my home. My quiet neighbors include e. e. cummings (his name rendered in all caps on the simple marker), Eugene O’Neill (whose previous home, by morbid coincidence, was also my college dorm room), and Anne Sexton. With so many literary neighbors, is it any wonder I turned to writing?

I live in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, which was once the far frontier of the city, hence the collection of burial grounds. I often walk our dog in St. Michael’s, which was founded in 1905 for the Italian community of Boston. True to its first residents, many of whom came here as stone masons, the cemetery boasts ornately carved memorials, some with statues of the deceased, others with dramatic biblical scenes. Some have early photographs attached to them, while hand-tinted portraits collect dust inside family vaults. I like to practice reading the Italian inscriptions (thank goodness only Rosie ever gets to hear that!) and try to imagine who some of these people were. I’ve found war heroes, children, and even one woman who literally spanned centuries, born in 1900, and passing in 2000.

We started walking there because it was convenient and peaceful (and of course, dog-friendly!). Only later did my uncle Angelo, the family’s historian, tell me that I have a lot of relatives buried here. The possibility never occurred to me, since that side of my family was from East Boston, across the harbor and the rest of the city from here. It must have been an extraordinary trip back in the early twentieth century, to organize a funeral at such a distance. It turns out that, in addition to several aunts and cousins I had never heard of, my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents are here. Once, in another morbid accident, I literally stumbled on the marker of an uncle that Angelo hadn’t told me of, Rocco, who died of the flu in 1918.

Seven years after Rocco’s passing changed the family’s future, my grandfather watched on helplessly as his brother Angelo drowned in Boston Harbor. That would have been my uncle’s older brother—my great-grandmother was pregnant with him when this occurred, and the name got recycled (in fact, my uncle was the third to carry the name). Today, that uncle lies in an unmarked grave in a shady corner of St. Michael’s.

Cruelly, my grampa’s aunt accused him of murder. To his dying day, he carried that guilt and it’s a story that still hangs over my family. With his permission, I took the story and turned it into a fictional murder scene in my first novel, Night of the Furies.  I like to believe, in some strange way, that “putting it in the book,” as he was always telling me to do with family stories, helped ease his mind.

It was on one of my dog walks that I noticed the name Florence Uglietta. At first, to our ears, that name might sound both old fashioned and, well, ugly. But as I tried to sound out her name, I imagined it would sound more like “yulietta,” perhaps even related to “Juliet.” I began to think it was beautiful. I imagined that it meant “Flower of July,” though none of my research supports that. Another stone nearby carries the name “Solari,” and that, along with the woman who spanned the centuries, became the seed for “Florence Uglietta Solari: A Full Life in 19 Fragments.”

Once I had my main character, I wondered what that “full life” would have been. What does a 100 year old woman know? How many secrets would she take to her grave? More immediately, what would she accumulate in all that time? If it was anything like the papers I’ve gathered in only half that time, it would be a lot. And despite her pretty name, Florence didn’t strike me as a particularly organized person, hence the jumbled documents some poor soul would find among her effects. Her story came to me as I sifted through those scattered pages as presented in the story.

Since then, my uncle himself has passed into part of the family’s history, though he his not here among our other relatives. As Rosie and I continue our exploration, we’ve found clues to many other tales hidden in the names and dates and hopeful prayers inscribed on the stones here and the other nearby burial grounds.

Who knows what I’ll dig up next?


J. M. Taylor has published more than two dozen short stories, appearing in such mags as Thuglit, Tough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat. “Florence Uglietta” is his first to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel, Night of the Furies was published by New Pulp Press, and Genretarium has just released his second, Dark Heat, which PW calls an “impressive noirish tale.” Both of them are set in or near Boston, and are retellings of ancient Greek myths. He lives in JP with his wife and son, and when he’s not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name. You can read more at jmtaylorcrimewriter.com and follow him on Twitter at @taylorjm7.

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Janice Law on “The Fitz”

For much of my writing career, serial killers have been a feature of the mystery/thriller genre. Many authors and audiences seem to enjoy these human predators on the hunt; this writer? Not so much, and that is odd, given that for many years I lived with one or more enthusiastic, indiscriminate, and crafty serial killers.

With “The Fitz” I gave them their due and created my one and only serial killer plot. It is also one of my few stories with a clear and definite origin. Normally, stories are one of the gifts of the gods, mysterious ideas that appear out of the Muse’s good pleasure or the deep subconscious. Not so “The Fitz,” although it was a long time between the first glimmer of an idea and the finished manuscript.

I can credit the first little inspiration to a black, tuxedo, short-hair cat, Marcel, our son’s once stray pet in Chicago. Marcel was a hunter par excellence, and such was his reputation that periodically Jamie would drive him down to an Irish pub that featured the EPL (English Premier League soccer) on the bar television. While Jamie and the publican had breakfast, Marcel would sweep the basement, periodically emerging to display another little rodent corpse. I used to joke that they should offer an organic pest control service.

This appealing idea, however, refused to take immediate literary form. Besides my usual difficulty coming up with a sound plot, I suspect I needed just the right cat. Marcel was for real mice; what I needed was a literary feline, and I eventually found him at our vet’s, a familiar locale during the many years we had cats. Outdoor country cats need a bevy of shots, they need stitching up after fights with other cats, raccoons and possums and carnivores unknown, they pick up parasites and worms and require routine maintenance.

Our vet genuinely loved animals. She had horses in the pasture outside, photos of her dogs on the walls, a budgie in a cage high above the floor, and a flock of cats, all loose, curious, and active, roaming the waiting area. One of those was Oreo, a black and white domestic long hair with blue eyes, an insolent stare and a lordly manner. I admired him enough to do a little sketch of him for a greeting card, and, in the fullness of time, he acquired a new name, The Fitz, and a complete personality: smart, lazy, pleasure loving and friendly. He was perfect for an organic pest control outfit.

All he needed was a plot. And some useful humans and a venue. These came in reverse order. 2 K Organic Pest Control came with two cash-strapped college friends, who rightly, I think, saw a plushy suburb as the ideal market. The area suggested a plot about money, that useful root of all evil and generator of plot ideas and nefarious schemes. And there it was: “The Fitz” with not one but several serial killers as promised. 

 Digital drawing of the animal that was the prototype for The Fitz; by Janice Law; used with permission of the author

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Janice Law’s The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator’s Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations, are available from Apple Books.

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Confined to a Cell(phone) by Michael Mallory

Have you ever wondered why so much of today’s popular entertainment is retro? Why are so many television programs, for instance, set anywhere from the Victorian age to the 1980s? It could simply be a trend which, like all trends, will eventually end. Or there could be something more deliberate at work. My belief is that writers in all media are harkening back to earlier times because it is far easier to write stories set in a world where cellphones do not exist.

One of the staples of crime fiction is person-in-jeopardy, either through being chased, or through being kidnapped, or simply hiding out to keep the bad guys from finding them. Traditionally they are on their own, with no way to summon help. Today, however, all anyone has to do is whip out their smartphone and call for help─end of story. There are, of course, a few benefits to digital phonery in modern crime stories: detectives no longer have to follow footprints because they can triangulate phone locations to find a suspect; and no one has to wait for a crime photographer to show up because anyone with cellphone is a cinematographer. But in my view the drawbacks outweigh the advantages.

Today in addition to figuring out the means, the motive, and the opportunity in a crime tale, writers now have to divine ways to explain why the victim doesn’t simply pull out his or her phone, call 911, and say, “Hey, I’m in a car trunk, come get me.” There are three low-hanging rationalizations for not doing this: 1) The cell phone was lost or stolen; 2) Its battery ran down; and 3) It cannot get service at this location. While I have been forced to use all three, I believe they should not become cliché’s of the 21st century. After deploying Option 2 one time I actually heard from a reader who noticed my detective’s tendency to forget to charge up his phone, and who recommended a particular brand of cellphone chargers for car so he’d never be caught phoneless again. Never mind that the character’s forgetfulness was a character trait, the reader felt even a fictional person who didn’t have phone access was as unrealistic as werewolves.

As a result I spend a fair amount of time working on ways to get rid of cellphones in my stories.  In my most recent story for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine titled “Iguana Don,” which appears in the July/August 2022 issue, my protagonist has been kidnapped and is being held in the basement of a house from which there is no apparent means of escape. I was nearly finished with the first draft when the obvious suddenly dawned on me: my guy could simply pull out Mr. Smarty and call for help. After pondering the problem, I opted for the no-service rationale, but disguised it by having my protag first think about the embarrassment the revelation of his predicament would bring, particularly since he has failed to fully comprehend the extent of danger he was in. Only upon realizing his life may depend on his calling out for help does he try and find out he can’t get service. The one time he really needs his phone, it fails him. I actually enjoyed casting the cellphone as part of the problem and not the solution.

The most creative explanation I ever dredged up from Lake Desperation was to have a character relinquish his phone before going into a Hollywood movie preview (as anyone who has ever attended a pre-release screening knows is mandatory), only to be abducted by bad guys before he could retrieve it. At present, I’m toying with the idea of having a protagonist fail to produce a cellphone because his dog ate it.

While some may disagree, I believe the days of writing any kind of crime, mystery, or thriller story without first worrying about how to deal with cellphones is history.

Unless, of course, one goes historical.

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Crime Writing and Other Deliberate Acts by Pat Black

“Crime writer” wasn’t a specific goal for me, but it doesn’t feel like an accident, either.

Even if my fiction does not have elements that people would specify in a crime storyvictims, suspects, law enforcement—someone usually commits a crime, or at least thinks about doing so.

The lusory element of mystery stories drew me in as a child. It’s a wee game, at heart. Crime stories have problems which can be solved. Logic plays the leading role. Brute force can come into the picture, but it isn’t necessarily how characters find the answer, and it certainly won’t help them—or you—follow the clues.

Scooby Doo provided an early flickering. I rarely paid attention to the clues, preferring to leave the hard work to Velma, like the rest of the gang. I was entranced by the monsters. 

But Scooby Doo wasn’t just a monster of the week show—there was a mystery to solve, and the person attempting to hoodwink those pesky kids beneath the mask was always a common criminal seeking to profit from their masquerade.

Then came Cam Jansen And The Mystery Of The UFO, by David A Adler. Fifth grader Cam and her photographic memory are better known in the United States and Canada than in the UK, but this book made its way across the Atlantic and into my hands thanks to a school book club.

A child of the eighties, I was a firm believer in visitors from other worlds thanks to Close Encounters and those wonderfully batty Arthur C Clarke shows. So, I was probably drawn in by the sparkly lights in the sky on the front cover, rather than the idea of a child detective being on the case. But it is a mystery story—Cam relies on her eidetic ability, which allows the reader to focus on observation of the details and learn the truth of the weird lights in the sky. No magic wands or button-pressing, here; just logic, and by extension, the truth. More than 30 years after I read this book, I learned that David A Adler was a maths teacher.

Holmes was a gateway—I suppose that’s true for just about everyone. Upon re-reading them in adulthood, I noticed surprisingly few of Conan Doyle’s stories deal with perpetrators being brought to justice—by that I mean, handed over to Lestrade and the boys at Scotland Yard. Holmes finds the solution, but he doesn’t always follow the letter of the law. Some of the criminals even walk away scot-free, having tweaked a latent sense of natural justice, and even romance, in the master detective. All the same, there’s no doubting his methods, or his conclusions.

The thrill I felt at the age of 10 upon being given a hardback edition of the complete short stories from the Strand Magazine remains with me to this day. The same volume remains on my bookshelf, a treasured possession. The binding, the faux deerstalker-weave dust jacket, the illustrations by Sidney Paget, even the typeface—these are the stuff of magic to me. Holmes was and remains important for reasons that have nothing to do with magic, though—quite the opposite. Holmes was all about observation, evidence, logic and, ultimately, truth. Holmes paid attention to the hard facts and provable elements. The master detective’s deductive powers are well known, but I’d argue they are mislabelled. Holmes didn’t guess—he knew. His reasoning wasn’t speculative.

And, delightfully, there was a Hound, after all. 

Another enormous influence was Agatha Christie. Again, no huge shocks or last-minute twists for anyone, here. This is where the puzzle element turns into drama—the element that sets great crime writing apart from the puzzle pages in the papers. My epiphany came when the BBC screened the Peter Ustinov Poirot mysteries one Christmas, again when I was 10 or 11. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun were games you could play along at home. Would your suspicions match up with Poirot’s conclusions? Then there was that irresistible staging, where all the suspects are set out in front of you, with their motives and darkest secrets exposed. Literally, this is murder as a parlour game.

One of my favourite stories of this kind was PD James’ first Adam Dalgleish mystery, Cover Her Face. With all his suspects lined up in the parlour of a country house, the cool detective calmly talks us through his conclusions. Once the murderer is exposed, we are given to understand that they are the only person who could possibly have strangled poor Sally Jupp. No sleight of hand, no absurdities in the twist—all you had to do was pay attention.

I always enjoyed the “Loch Ness Monster” element in other genres. By this I mean, most series had a “Loch Ness Monster” episode when I was growing up—Stingray, Doctor Who, The Saint, any number of children’s shows such as Danger Mouse . . . they all had a Nessie episode. (As the 1980s wore on, lots of shows had “UFO/alien” episodes, too—most notably Dynasty . . . but that’s by-the-by.)

The same is true for “Whodunnit” episodes in otherwise unrelated genres. I have a childhood memory of Dallas, and Who Shot JR? This is formula that we see repeated in soap operas to this day. It was borrowed for one of the most popular comics of the time in the UK, Roy Of The Rovers, with its own attempted-murder storyline. I can remember the striking front cover image of the act itself – the great football hero Roy, stricken, with the flaming pistol in the foreground, the assailant entirely unseen.

Doctor Who had some great mystery episodes, such as The Robots of Death and Terror Of The Vervoids—I first encountered these through the Target novelisations, rather than the on-screen adventures.  

To take a more recent example, it’s an often-unremarked peculiarity of the first three Harry Potter books that they are mystery stories dressed up in wizards’ robes. There are central conundrums, suspects, clues and final revelations, with villains unmasked, whether Named or Those Who Cannot Be Named. 

To more adult fare, now. A special tip of the hat—though he wouldn’t be seen dead in such things – must go to Chief Inspector Jim Taggart. We all know Rebus; not all of us know Taggart, but the west coast sleuth is just as much a part of the Tartan Noir firmament.

Taggart was made in Scotland; so was I. There are a lot of Scots of my generation who feel a bit protective towards Taggart, though it’s been in hiatus for more than a decade. It survived the passing of the actor Mark McManus, who played the memorably gruff little hard case Glasgow detective, focusing on his colleagues at Maryhill CID after his death while retaining the title. I still play “location spotting” whenever Taggart pops up on Freeview channels. I feel nostalgic about it, now.

But when I was a kid, Taggart was a thing of curious terror for me. I vividly recall one episode about an axe murderer where a severed head is retrieved from a drain. This was shown in the trailer. I was horrified . . . and you’d better believe I watched the rest.

Taggart had some delightfully wicked plots, many of them from the pen of Glenn Chandler, but its chief attribute was that violence and murder were not, in fact, the stuff of parlour games and delighted applause following Poirot’s pompous perorations. This world was grim, it was ugly, it was scary, and it could come to you out of the blue. I remember an episode where a man dies horribly after being shot in the throat with a crossbow bolt. Another killer makes his victim into black pudding, for consumption at breakfast tables across the land. Less gorily but no less frightening was an episode where a woman is tormented by someone who wants her death to look like suicide. I’ll never forget my fear on her behalf as the gas flooded her front room. That could happen to anyone, I thought. 

And I can never un-see that head being dredged up from the drain, with its single open eye.

And no, I shouldn’t have been watching it at that age. But the sense of realism, and the awful aftermath of violence, augmented by the show making full use of architecture, faces and voices that I knew well, made its mark. 

Through it all, there’s a sense of justice. Most of us don’t like to see bad people getting away with bad behaviour. In this, crime writing is wish fulfilment.

The genre frequently messes with this idea, of course. Alfred Hitchcock (I discovered embarrassingly late in life that he was raised a catholic) had a lifelong fear of being accused of something he didn’t do, and this is apparent in many of his movies. But there’s a twist to come—in his films, there is often a sense of complicity with perpetrators.

Guy in Strangers On A Train doesn’t want anything to do with Bruno or his homicidal scheme, but there’s no doubting that his carriage companion has taken care of a big problem in the form of his estranged wife. This is even pointed out for us by the character played by Hitchcock’s daughter Pat – the kid sister with no filter, saying what we’re all thinking. And in the fairground stalking scene, whose motives are we focused on? Not the victim’s, but those of her killer.

For Hitchcock, the apotheosis of this notion is Norman Bates, cleaning up in the wake of his mother’s depredations. It’s curious that this queasy sympathy for Bates remains with us on fresh viewings, even knowing his deadly secret. Norman might be guilty, but he is blameless.

This brings me to Columbo. Who doesn’t like Columbo? Some hands will inevitably go up in the auditorium, but not many. The show’s winning gimmick isn’t the scruffy player in the title—wilier than a great big wile of Wile E. Coyotes, as he is. It’s the fact that, for the viewer, there is no mystery. You know whodunnit, from the opening moments.

All that’s required is that the lieutenant uncovers the truth, gradually exposing the suspect’s lies. We are fascinated by the guest star killer’s reaction as the pressure is applied, often after Peter Falk’s character has shuffled off-stage. Picture Patrick McGoohan’s bug-eyed expression. Picture William Shatner, sweating heavily in seventies leisurewear.

This places us in the Hitchcock Complicity Zone. How would we act, if that little beige doggie with the kind brown eyes seized our coat-tails and never let go? Would we stick to our story? Could we bluff it out? Or more likely… would we make a mistake?

That’s an important element in the crime writer’s internal world—the idea that crime is a result of real people and real mistakes. Whether it’s triggered by economic necessity, a desire for revenge, a physiological aberration in the brain or some unknowable, unfathomable element of personality, we must put ourselves in the shoes of not only the detective, but the criminal.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we have the victims. Whether you are directly showing them suffering thanks to criminals, or whether they are a body on a slab, I feel we must, as writers and as people, empathise with the luckless—ground zero in our crime stories.

Val McDermid argued this point very well—in focusing on victims, there is an element of sympathy that creeps in, even in the grisliest crime stories. This is important, even vital, for the very heartbeat of humanity – and it’s true even in tales with a basic slasher element. We suffer dread on the victim’s behalf as they wander into the basement to check out that strange sound, with the entire universe howling for them not to.

As crime writers, we have a responsibility to represent victims and their feelings as faithfully as we can. In the case of murder, we should show a full life, as rich and as detailed and as flawed as everyone else’s. If we fail in this, then we fail in the depiction of that life being crudely interrupted. If we do that, we’ve broken contract somewhere.

Perhaps the most affecting example of this in a modern novel is in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train. We’ve spent an entire novel getting to know the victim, both as an observed quantity and as a first-person voice. When the circumstances of poor, damaged Megan’s death are revealed to us as part of the book’s ultimate revelation, it forms the true climax, rather than the exposure of the criminal. Her last moments are devastating. As they should be.

It seems a crime if we fail to put ourselves in the victims’ shoes. If bringing the victim’s face into sharp focus makes us feel uncomfortable or sad or horrified or sick, then good. It shows we’re human. We don’t want the bad thing to happen. And if it does, we need people to put it right.       

Enter the detective.

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The Road to Waipi’o by Albert Tucher

In the summer of 2000 I was suddenly single and looking for something different to do. I signed up on a whim for a fiction writing class at the Union County College in Cranford NJ. It was in this class that I wrote my first story about my series character, a very hardboiled sex worker named Diana Andrews. As of now Diana has appeared in more than a hundred short stories and the novella The Same Mistake Twice.

Later that year I returned to my favorite place on earth, the Big Island of Hawaii. It was my third visit, and this time I went equipped to hike down into the Waipi’o Valley, a place of such unearthly beauty that it almost makes the rest of the island look drab.

Almost.

Only one route leads to the valley, a road that drops almost a thousand feet in less than a mile. The grade is so steep that two-wheel drive vehicles can’t hold the road surface. Hundreds of feet straight down, the remains of a pickup truck that lost the struggle with gravity reinforce the warnings in the guidebooks.

As I started to walk down, a local woman picked me up in her van and delivered me to the floor of the valley. On the way she warned me that I might find aloha in short supply. The handful of residents of the valley tend not to welcome visitors, and they often feud among themselves. The Hawaii County Police, who are stretched thin over an island the size of Connecticut, usually leave them to it.

I spent a day wandering the valley. I viewed waterfalls dangling from the rim like the coolest, cleanest white garments ever imagined, and I dodged the wild horses that roam where they will. “Dodge” is no exaggeration. One stallion blocked a trail that I planned to take and dared me to keep coming.

I declined.

I soon realized that I needed to send Diana into the valley to confront this intoxicating blend of beauty and menace. And so I began my novel Tentacles, now finished but still unpublished, in which she travels to the Big Island with a client who neglects to mention that some very nasty people are after him.

My research took me all over the island. I learned that the police spend much of their time in a region called Puna. This rainiest part of the Big Island is home to marijuana farmers, meth cookers, fugitives, survivalists, and thieves of every description. Several Puna cases have attracted the attention of true crime authors. Some names to Google are Dana Ireland, Ken and Yvonne Mathison, Brittany Royal, and Boaz Johnson.

Puna is also where the goddess Pele sometimes takes offense at the works of puny humans and obliterates them with her the molten innards of the island. The volcanic eruption of 2018 destroyed some of the locations I have used in my stories.

Some of the characters Diana meets in Tentacles proved to have lives of their own. Detective Errol Coutinho of the Hawaii County Police stars in three novels, The Place Of Refuge, The Hollow Vessel, and Blood Like Rain, which is the most recent book in the series. Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues figures in The Honorary Jersey Girl. And young Officer Jenny Freitas has appeared in AHMM in “J.D.L.R.,” “The Rabbi,” and now “The Conversation Killer.” Lately, Jenny has been running away with the entire series. I’m not sure I could stop her, even if I wanted to.

It seems to me that Pele has given me a choice. I can write historical fiction about my settings as I remember them, or I can return to the Big Island for another visit and see what’s there now.

Take a wild guess.

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Joseph Goodrich on his Proustian Sleuth

The use of historical figures in mystery fiction goes back at least as far as Lillian de la Torre’s 1940s series of stories featuring the 18th century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson—an ante facto Nero Wolfe if ever there was one—and his stalwart biographer, James Boswell. John Dickson Carr made notable use of Edgar Allan Poe in his 1950 tale “The Gentleman from Paris.” The practice really took flight, however, in the wake of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), which paired Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in a quest to cure the former’s cocaine addiction and stop the world from plunging into war. (You’ll be happy to hear both goals were achieved.)

Meyer’s novel, the literary Helen that launched a thousand pastiches and ignited a new era of Holmesian fandom, sparked land-office business in the fictional use of real-life people. In Solution’s wake everyone from Niccolo Machiavelli to John F. Kennedy has been given a badge or a magnifying glass and embroiled in murderous intrigue.

Writers turn up frequently as detectives; Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Tey, and Conan Doyle, among others, have been dragooned into crime-solving. In my own work I’ve used real-life scribes Fred Dannay and Dashiell Hammett in “The Ten-Cent Murder,” a short story that appeared in EQMM several years ago. More recently, the French novelist Marcel Proust appears in two stories for AHMM as well as my novel The Paris Manuscript, which will be published by Perfect Crime Books in April.

            Why are writers such popular choices for gumshoe activity?

I attribute it to the deep connection between writing and sleuthing. Both Scrivener and Investigator are obsessed, each in their own way, with means, motive, and opportunity. Both examine – and seek to understand – the less savory parts of the soul. Both hunger for resolution, the satisfactory conclusion of a story or a case. Intuition plays a key role in both activities, as does hard work and that ineffable thing called talent.

The Proust I’ve conjured up elaborates on this matter. When asked how a certain deduction was arrived at, he likens it to how a writer chooses one word over another, and adds:

It’s a question of inclination and sensibility. My book, for instance. At one point I needed to describe the branches of a hawthorn tree. Odilon drove me to the countryside. He broke off several branches and held them up to the car window. My asthma stopped me from getting out of the car, from rolling down the window to touch the leaves and savor their smell. I had to content myself by feeding upon what I could see. But what I can see is never enough. Asthma has deprived me of the free and unlimited use of my senses. I must augment with imagination what I cannot touch, what I cannot smell, what I cannot taste or feel for fear of that infernal tightening of the lungs. I must extrapolate. I am predisposed to the art of detection by illness . . . I am compelled to seek what is hidden . . . The artist searches for what is hidden in himself and, therefore, what is hidden in others.”

Utilizing Dannay, Hammett, and Proust in works of fiction is a way of paying tribute to them, their achievements, and their worlds. Manhattan and Paris in the earlier part of the twentieth century are seductive sirens whose songs draw me ever closer, ever deeper into their lore. It’s a form of literary time travel that, as the Ink Spots once sang, “will have to do until the real thing comes along.”

Given my interests, drafting Proust into the ranks of crimefighters was a natural development—and a challenge. Could this epitome of High Modernism be turned into a detective? A daunting task, to be sure, but Proust had been transformed into a character in a book long before I gave it a try.

That book is Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s masterwork, often referred to these days as In Search of Lost Time. I’ll stick with the former title because it’s the one I encountered first, in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation.

“Marcel” is the narrator and central figure in Proust’s multi-volume, million-word novel. The correspondence between the Marcel of the book and Marcel the man who wrote it is not  “Marcel” is an only child, whereas Proust had a younger brother; “Marcel” is obsessed with a beautiful young woman named Albertine, but Proust pined for young men, most notably Alfred Agostinelli, a feckless young man who occasionally served as his chauffeur and not-very-effective secretary. Many other differences exist between the author’s life and the book he distilled from it. Remembrance is the record of a sensibility, not an autobiography.

I’ve read Remembrance twice over the years and, if I live long enough, may read it again. I’ve also perused countless biographies and studies that inform various speculations and conclusions of mine about Proust included in the stories and novel. I make no claim to be a literary critic but I am a passionate reader, a Proustian proselytizer, ready to grab your lapels and tell you exactly why you should read Remembrance.

“The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a classic Monty Python sketch, gets great comic mileage out of attempts to condense the thousands of pages of Proust into a handful of sentences. The French literary critic Gérard Genette actually did the job in three words:  “Marcel devient écrivain (Marcel becomes a writer).” That’s the heart of Proust’s sprawling, encyclopedic book.

How and why he might have become a detective is the heart of mine.

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Writing Moonlight in Our Eyes by Stephen Ross

My parents bought a piano when I was nine. A year later, I started piano lessons. The piano sat in the living room, and I could see the TV while I played. I often used to turn off the TV’s sound and play along with the pictures, improvising to suit the scene/mood (I have fond memories of “scoring” Columbo reruns). I learned later that piano players in the silent cinema era did a similar thing.

From a young age, I became hooked on movies and movie music.

When I was in my teens, my record collection was 90% original soundtrack albums, and most weekends, I’d take a train into the city and catch a movie. I even made movies—short silent films shot on Super 8 millimeter film stock, roping in my school friends to act. For a long time, I wanted to be a movie director. When I started writing scripts for my short films (because sound, and thus dialog, had become an option), I got hooked on writing. My first two scripts were crime thrillers. 

Excerpt from the movie The Splash, 1980

Before I’d left high school, writing and music had established themselves as my life’s twin interests.

Cut to: Many years later.

I’ve written over thirty short stories in the last decade and a half. A handful of the characters I’ve written about have been musicians of some stripe or another, most often piano players. About five years ago, I thought about writing about a film composer. That was the first step in writing Moonlight in Our Eyes.

I once considered entering the field of film composition myself. I was signed briefly in the late 1980s to Chappell/Warner Bros. as a songwriter. I have soundtrack credits for a handful of short films, a TV documentary, and live theatre. I once scored a theatre production of Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room. The director said, let’s score this three-act play with incidental music. Let’s blur the boundaries between live theatre and cinema. I’m pleased to report the experiment was a success.

Makeshift recording studio for writing/recording music for Veronica’s Room, 1989 (courtesy of the author)

So, I had a character, “David Camden,” and I’d given him some shading. He’s an elderly film composer in Hollywood in the early 1960s. An old school film composer approaching the end of his days. 

But, a character in a setting is not a plot.

I decided to make David Camden an Englishman for a bit of character conflict; an alien living in an alien world (not that I used that detail much in the final story). And I added a song. I liked the idea that he had written music for countless films, but it was one song from an early picture that had stuck in the public’s mind. And he would be grumpy about that. I imagined that the song, “Moonlight in our Eyes,” written by him for a film in the 1950s, had entered the pantheon as a “standard.” The type of song everyone would have a go at, from Dean Martin to Herb Albert, Tiny Tim, and the Everly Brothers. The song’s title, naturally, would be the story’s title.

Bits of information were slowly assembling around the nucleus (the main character), but critical mass (a plot) still hadn’t been arrived at.

And then my mother fell to dementia. 

Her fall took about three years. She passed away about a month before Covid-19 became the thing that changed all our lives. I won’t dwell on her passing, except to say I learned an awful lot about dementia in that time, and I would not wish that illness on anyone.

My mother once asked me, after I had sold my second short story, where do you get your ideas? I can’t remember my answer. My answer with “Moonlight” would have been “from her.” 

It occurred to me one afternoon: What if David Camden had dementia? Memory loss is a primary symptom of dementia, and what if “a brother” turned up on his doorstep to visit, and Camden didn’t remember ever having a brother?

That simple conflict was the key conceit to the story. It led quickly to a plot, and I wrote the first draft in about two weeks.

And then I sat on that draft for three months.

Was it right to use the pain and suffering I’d witnessed as a plot device?

Write what you know, they say, but should you?

My mother would have said, “Use it.” She was not faint of heart. And I reminded myself that “Moonlight” was not about her in any shape or form. “Moonlight” is not a study of dementia; the illness is simply one thread in the story’s fabric. It’s a crime mystery written to entertain: A Hollywood film composer near the end of his life is confronted with his secret past in London.

To say any more than that would be a spoiler.

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