Susan Oleksiw on “Variable Winds”

Susan Oleksiw is an author, photographer, and publisher. Here she writes about her story “Variable Winds,” AHMM‘s October cover story. She also writes about sailing in Come About for Murder: A Mellingham Mystery (2016). Her most recent book is When Krishna Calls: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2016).

I’m used to strangers asking me where I get my ideas, and most of the time I have no clue where they come from. But not so for “Variable Winds,” in the October issue of AHMM.

A few years ago I came across a book about the Vendee Globe. Since I live on the ocean and grew up sailing with my family, I was curious about an event I’d never heard of. I had full sympathy for the person who came up with the title, Godforsaken Sea, and looked forward to an exciting read. Derek Lundy, the author, recreates the passage of the boats in the Vendee Globe, 1996-97, an international endurance sailing race.

I learned to sail in a Penguin, a class of boat less used in teaching kids today than the Turnabout, a more stable boat for learning to maneuver on the water. I found them both dangerously prone to threatening to keel over, but perhaps that was more my skill as a skipper than a design flaw. I met the original designer of the Turnabout, Mr. Turner, when he owned a summer resort hotel in our area, and he was determined to improve on everything that floated. I went on to sail in other small boats, and then mostly as crew in the family 210, a twenty-nine-foot boat meant mostly for racing. This class has also fallen out of favor on the East Coast, but I have fond memories of sailing along and seeing a whale surface to starboard or dropping anchor in a cove to enjoy a swim or eat lunch. But I also remember a tug pulling a garbage scow that seemed to think we were merely a bit of flotsam to be run over. I remember the challenges of sailing before instant weather reports, but all my experiences paled in comparison to those faced by the skippers in the Vendee Globe.

In this race, sailors set out from northwest France, sail to the South Atlantic Ocean, and circle the Antarctic in single-person sailboats. Yes, they are sailing solo. Sixteen vessels set out in the given year (not all returned), to sail through the worst oceans and weather on the planet. They are tracked, thanks to modern technology, but are truly on their own. The stories of seamanship and survival and personal courage are more than stunning; they are jaw-droppingly unbelievable at times.

As I read I recalled, now with some embarrassment, the times we went sailing and were caught in squalls and prayed lightning didn’t find us, got separated from other boats on a daylong sail, watched a wind burst tear a sail or split a mast. My moments of fleeting terror were less than nothing compared to the stories in Lindy’s book. But as I finished his tale I could see a young woman, an accomplished and confident sailor, setting out for a day on the water, only to discover two sorts of danger, one that nature throws at us, and another that comes from the treachery of human beings. Everything that happens to the Lady Mistral in my story happened to us in our 210, but, thankfully, not all at once.

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Con Lehane on “Stella by Starlight”

Con Lehane is the author of the Brian McNulty series of mystery novels, as well as this year’s Murder at the 42nd Street Library, which received a starred review from Kirkus. Here he talks about the inspiration behind his story “Stella by Starlight,” which appears in the current issue of AHMM.

“Stella by Starlight,” my story in the October 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is my first mystery short story. I’ve published a few mystery novels—the latest is Murder at the 42nd Street Library—and in the past I wrote a half-dozen or more short stories that were published in small literary magazines. I’m not altogether sure where “Stella” came from. But I do know, once I began writing it, I intended it to be a mystery story that I would send to AHMM.

I wrote the first couple of scenes during a class on story writing I was teaching at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. As I often do, I assigned an exercise and then did the exercise along with the workshop participants. Most of the time, I do the exercise and just put it away; sometimes I read it to the class; this time, I put it away, and later it became a story.

Mostly, I don’t know where my stories come from, so I make a guess that it’s from my unconscious. For this one, there were a couple of ingredients swimming around in the old unconscious. One piece was my realizing, one day as I passed through that part of Manhattan below Houston Street, that the Bowery, long famous as New York’s skid row, had become gentrified. I wondered where the winos had gone (actually, I still wonder).

Another piece was a memory I had of a skid row bar that had moved uptown to my neighborhood in Milwaukee when I was in college. It was the victim of some sort of urban renewal that had wiped out Milwaukee’s skid row. The bar—Lenny’s Tap: Beer! Wine! Open 6:00 a.m!—brought along its winos who lived upstairs from the bar in single occupancy rooms. I went there often enough to recognize the humanity of its clientele who began lining up a little before 6:00 each morning.

Beyond this, there were two more pieces. One was the image that opens the story of a blizzard in the city and “one of the coldest winds the city had ever encountered.” The second is more complex and more central to the story.

Most of the fiction I write begins with what Henry James termed “the germ of an idea.” This germ might be a phrase you hear, an incident you witness, a bit of a story you overhear. Important for Henry James was that you not overhear the whole story or know the context of the incident, only a catch a piece of it so your imagination can fill in the rest.

The germ of an idea for “Stella By Starlight,” came from a snatch of conversation. I’d been to the funeral of a man with whom I tended bar many years before. We’d been good friends when we worked together and for a few years afterward. We lost touch for a good while, and caught up with one another again a couple of years before he died of a heart attack. After his wake, I’d gone for a drink with a group of people—a half-dozen former cocktail waitresses (the title for women who served drinks back in the day) and a couple of bartenders from the airport lounge where we’d all worked together. They’d all stayed in the area and kept in touch with one another. I’d moved on and hadn’t seen any of them for better than thirty years.

When I’d worked at the airport lounge, the cocktail waitresses were in their early twenties and gorgeous. It was that kind of bar, in an airport, with mostly businessmen stopping for a drink before or between planes, where the waitresses wore uniforms modeled on stewardess outfits, featuring very short shorts. These young women weren’t working for the summer to help with their college costs. As young as they were, they were journeymen waitresses, for whom this would be a lifetime occupation. Many of them, single mothers or wives to good timing men, had, despite their youth, charm, and beauty, already started out on hard roads that were to become harder with the years.

I don’t remember much of the conversation that night after the wake. It was largely people sharing memories that were tinged with regret. One of the women, wildly attractive at the time we worked together and by the time of this conversation showing the ravages of a difficult life, was describing one misadventure or another in her life, when she said, “He asked about my ex-husband. I didn’t know who he was talking about. I’ve been married five times.”

So this snippet of conversation, the germ of an idea for the story, caught up with a bunch of other images and memories in my unconscious and set the story in motion.

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Trouble in Heels (October 2016)

History is being made this fall with the first major-party female candidate for president of the United States, and in keeping with this moment of girl power, several of the stories in our October issue highlight women exhibiting their strength of character in a variety of ways. Strong, resourceful women strut their stuff in Susan Oleksiw’s “Variable Winds,” Janice Law’s “Votes for Women,” and Gilbert M. Stack’s “Pandora’s Bluff.” Women challenged by circumstances, bad choices, or malevolent men feature in “Breakfast with Strange” by Martin Limón, “The Book of Judges” by Kevin Egan, “Close Scrutiny” by Elaine Menge, and “Stella by Starlight” by Con Lehane.

In addition, two master storytellers, Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, collaborate this month on “The Crack of Doom,” while William Burton McCormick chronicles “The Last Walk of Filips Finks.”

Whether damsels in distress or femme fatales or smart cookies, women of mystery always make for reading pleasure!

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Welcome to Glasgow by Russel D. McLean

Novelist, short-story writer, editor, reviewer, and author of the J McNee series Russel D. McLean’s upcoming novel is And When I Die, to be released this year from Contraband Books. Here he discusses setting and his story “Tout” from the September issue of AHMM.

My first story for AHMM, back in 2004 (I was twenty-four at the time!) was set in Dundee and featured a detective by the name of Sam Bryson. I liked Sam then, and I still like him now. He was a hardboiled kinda guy, with a few problems, a supportive partner and a best friend who had more than a few of his own demons. His stomping ground was the city of Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland. I’d been living there since I went to uni, and was getting to know the place well.

One Sam story led to another. And another. A few more. Sam was meant to get his own book, too, but I was persuaded to “reboot” the character by my then agent. I handed Sam’s offices to an even more tragic and dour PI by the name of J McNee (we never did find out what the J stood for), although Sam himself has made a few more appearances in the pages of AHMM since then (notably last year’s “The Water’s Edge”).

But you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

In 2014 I moved to Glasgow for personal reasons (my girlfriend and our cats were there, so it made sense) and began writing full time soon after. The more I explored the city, the more I realised there was something here that made it very different to Dundee, and a place I wanted to explore through my writing. I began work on a novel—And When I Die—set in the city. But I wanted to flex my literary muscles a little first. A short story seemed the ideal way to try and feel my way around this new city, to get a hint of the ways it operated that were distinct from what I knew so well in Dundee.

I also wanted to create some new characters, too. Another PI would have been lazy. And since I like a challenge, I figured that, for this particular short, I’d have a stab at something I’d always been scared of: a procedural.

The story itself—concerning the death of a man who was selling fake tickets for the Commonwealth Games—seemed an obvious choice. At the time of writing the story, we were in the midst of preparation for this major event (that went off without a hitch in 2014), and it seemed to me like an obvious hook.

Any time you have a major event, someone, somewhere will want to try and take advantage. A ticket tout seemed an obvious place to start. I already had a fictional gangland in mind to explore in And When I Die, and so I connected the tout tangentially to one of a pair of warring gang bosses. The two cops—Stringer and White—never made it into the book, but I have a feeling that this isn’t the last time that we’ll see them in action. I enjoyed writing them too much; these sparring coppers whose mutual respect is unstated and yet obvious.

I’m proud of “Tout” for a lot of reasons, and I’m glad Linda and the team at AHMM like it, too. I hope the readers of the magazine get a kick out of it—the new detectives and location, especially.

But even though I write about crime and the darker side of the Scottish urban experience, the one thing I’ve found with the real life Glasgow is that it’s an incredibly welcoming city. I’ve been here for three years now, I’m very proud to call it my new home. I hope that as my fictional exploration of it continues, I’ll continue to find new surprises, unexpected nuances and hidden secrets around every corner. The deeper I delved into the city after writing Tout, the more fascinating things I discovered to explore in my new novel. But this isn’t the end. No, I have a feeling there’s plenty of intrigue left in this place. And I hope that readers will enjoy discovering it alongside me.

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Don’t Miss “Dirty Bop to Blighty” by Diana Deverell

The Norwegian American will be serializing Diana Deverell‘s “Dirty Bop to Blighty,” from the the September 2010 issue of AHMM. Check it out here. A new story by Diana Deverell will appear in our November 2016 issue.

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On “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” by Marianne Wilski Strong

Lecturer and writer Marianne Wilski Strong is the author of over forty published short stories. Here she talks about “Louisa and the Silver Buckle,” from the September 2016 issue of AHMM, the first in a new series.

My inspiration for “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” began in a small bookstore in Massachusetts where I found a treasure. I was scanning the bookshelves in the back of the store when my eye caught a title that arrested my attention: The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott. Within a minute, I had marched up to the register, paid, and left with my treasure. I delayed my visit to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, took the shortcut back to my hotel and settled in to read.

I had, of course, read Little Women years ago, loved it, and like most young girls read it several times, always imagining myself to be Jo. But I had never read Alcott’s short stories. Now I began reading. Within a few days I finished the last of the stories and began hungering for more. Not able to find another edition, I reread my favorites: “Betrayed by a Buckle;” “Ariel: A Legend of the Lighthouse;” “Lost in a Pyramid.” The inspiration for my stories began to take hold in my brain. I would write stories in which the key character would solve mysteries by referring to Alcott’s gothic tales. But I wasn’t sure yet how to handle what I wanted to write. What setting should I use: Concord, where Alcott had lived for many years? I had visited Concord several times, touring the homes of Alcott and her fellow writers: Emerson and Hawthorne. But I knew Concord only as a tourist, not as a resident. In what time period should I set my stories: in the early or mid nineteenth century when Alcott had lived? That wouldn’t work because I wanted my main character to be an avid reader of Alcott’s stories and to have all of them on hand when she needed them.

So the inspiration floated around in my mind, only half formed, until I spent a week in Cape May, New Jersey at the house of my stepdaughter and her friend. Cape May, I realized would be the perfect setting for my stories. Cape May had all the ingredients I wanted. First, Louisa May Alcott herself had vacationed in this Victorian seaside resort. The city abounded in Victorian homes if I wanted such a home in my stories. Cape May had a lighthouse, a lovely beach, a bird sanctuary. It was steeped in history. My inspiration now became a full-blown idea and I began the first of my Louisa stories.

My narrator Amanda owns a condo in Cape May as well as several editions of Alcott’s stories. As with my stepdaughter’s house, the narrator’s condo lies not far from the beach, very near the pedestrian shopping street. Most important of all, the condos, Amanda’s and my stepdaughter’s, are surrounded by homes under renovation. One day, walking along a Cape May Street, I watched workers renovating: knocking down walls, ripping out sagging windows, tearing up old floorboards. Who knew what the workers might find as they demolished parts of the house. Since Alcott had vacationed in Cape May, she could well have visited friends and could well have stayed with them overnight in one of the houses now being renovated. The story took off from there. Louisa wrote a short story for a friend and gave it to her. The manuscript had remained hidden for over a hundred years. Now, it is, of course, valuable and a number of people who suspect the existence of such a manuscript and want it at any cost: even murder.

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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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