All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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Josh Pachter on “Pisan Zapra”

Writer, editor, and translator Josh Pachter’s Mahboob Chaudri stories can be found collected in The Tree of Life. He is a regular contributor to EQMM’s Passport to Crime department as a translator, and he has been publishing fiction since 1968. Here he writes about how he came to write his story “Pisan Zapra,” which is featured in the November 2016 issue of AHMM.

For Christmas of 2014, my in-laws gave me a fascinating little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (10 Speed Press, 2014). As I leafed through it the next morning, I chuckled to find gezellig, which is my favorite untranslatable Dutch word, and came to a dead stop four pages later at pisan zapra, which is listed as a Malay noun meaning “the time needed to eat a banana.”

Now that’s a title for a short story, I thought, and it seemed obvious that the story it was a title for would be set in Malaysia, and would unfold over a period of no more than a couple of minutes—the amount of time needed to eat a banana.

I did some basic research and discovered that there is disagreement as to whether or not the expression is legitimate Malay. Some sources say yes, while others—including numerous native speakers of Malay—say they’ve never heard it.

As I continued poking around the Internet, I stumbled across some fascinating information about a vengeful vampiric spirit known as the pontianak. In Malay folklore, the pontianak are said to be the ghosts of women who died in pregnancy, generally depicted as pale-skinned beauties with long hair, dressed all in white. A pontianak usually announces its presence through the cries of a baby; if the cry is soft, it means that the spirit is close. Although it lives in the trunk of the pokok pisang—the banana tree—its presence is sometimes accompanied by the fragrance of the plumeria flower, followed afterward by a terrible stench. The pontianak identify their prey, I learned, by sniffing out clothes left outdoors to dry. (For this reason, some Malays refuse to leave any article of clothing outside their residences overnight.) A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. If you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head, and, when the pontianak goes after a man, it may rip out the poor slob’s sex organs with its hands.

So, pisan zapra and the pontianak. Who could ask for anything more? This turned out to be one of those stories that pretty much writes itself—or perhaps it was a vengeful Malay spirit that guided my fingers on the keyboard. . . .

In any case, I wrote the story and submitted it to Linda Landrigan, and I am absolutely delighted that she selected it for inclusion in AHMM in this 60th-anniversary year. Although I’ve been publishing in EQMM pretty regularly since my first appearance in its pages in 1968, this is my first appearance in Hitchcock’s since 1986—half the magazine’s life (and almost half my life) ago. It’s great to be back!

Now I hope you’ll excuse me while I go eat a banana and make sure I get the laundry off the line before nightfall. . . .

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Pay Attention! (November 2016)

Criminals and writers often employ misdirection, as a number of this month’s stories demonstrate. In S. L. Franklin’s “A Precautionary Tale,” private eye R. J. Carr’s client is a victim of such misdirection when his snow shovel is stolen and used in a murder. In Eric Rutter’s spy story “Proof” two veteran spies reconnect following careers spent in lies and misdirection. In Diana Deverell’s “Opening Day, 1954,” a rookie policewoman must evaluate the credibility of a bomb threat received at a busy theme park. And in Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.’s “Death at the Althing,” Thorbjörn is tasked with redirecting the grievances of two bickering elders at the ancient Icelandic proto-parliament known as the Althing.

Meanwhile, David Edgerley Gates’s fixer Mickey Counihan shows that an indirect approach is sometimes more effective in “Stone Soup.” An unhappy wife engages in the most familiar of marital misdirection in “Pisan Zapra” by Josh Pachter. And Randy Davison finds his life in need of any direction in Eve Fisher’s Laskin, South Dakota–set “Iron Chef.”

And now you need no further direction, reader, but to turn the page.

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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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