Remembering Angela Zeman

Linda Landrigan, Angela Zeman, and Barry Zeman, April 2018. Photo by Ché Ryback.

It is with great sadness that AHMM notes the passing this past week of Angela Zeman. To me, Angela was Mystery Royalty: glamorous and generous, she added sparkle to our annual parties. She was also a good friend to me.

Angela’s first published short story, “The Witch and the Fishmonger’s Wife,” appeared in AHMM in 1993; she would publish five stories with us featuring Mrs. Risk, and then an acclaimed novel, “The Witch and the Borscht Pearl,” in 2001. More recently, she inaugurated a series of historical mysteries in 2013 with “The First Tale of Roxanne,” set in ancient Rome. That story is distinguished by the sensitive characterization of a woman under duress – you almost don’t notice the deft plotting that moves it right along. After reading it, I knew I wanted more of Roxanne. “The Second Tale of Roxanne” appeared just a few months ago in our September / October 2019 issue, and we are now in the process of recording it for our podcast.

Our hearts go out to Angela’s family and friends.—Linda Landrigan

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A Game of Categories by Robert Lopresti

Retired librarian Robert Lopresti is the author of When Women Didn’t Count, Greenfellas, and several short-story collections featuring private eye Leopold Longshanks (aka “Shanks”). His work appears in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and in the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2016 anthology. He also blogs at SleuthSayers and Little Big Crimes. Here he talks about his story “Shanks Saves the World” from the current May/June 2020 issue of AHMM.

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I am a librarian, so when I moved to the city where I now live, it was natural that one of my first expeditions was to the public library. And I got quite a shock.

Oh, it was (and is) a terrific, busy, well-stocked library. But there was something I was not expecting.

The fiction section was one big collection, A-Z by author. There was no separate place for mysteries, science fiction, or other genres. Hammett, Heinlein, and Hemingway were all cheek by jowl, as the saying goes. To search for your favorite genre you would have to hunt for labels on the sides of the books.

All very egalitarian, I guess, but not what I was used to. In bookstores and most libraries, they divide the books into categories to make the browser’s life easier. And in specialized mystery bookstores (may their tribe increase) you usually find lots of subgenres: Cozy, Espionage, Hardboiled, Sherlock Holmes, Thriller, and so on.

Which I find pretty helpful. But—and I’m finally approaching my point—those categories aren’t always rigid.

Take John Le Carre’s novels about master spy, George Smiley. Obviously they belong on the Espionage shelf, correct? But in A Murder of Quality, Smiley solves a killing at a boarding school, without a spy in sight. Clearly he is acting as an Amateur Sleuth there.

And how about Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain? It gets shelved as a Private Eye novel, but his P.I.s are gallivanting through the mountains of Eastern Europe. Doesn’t that make it a Thriller?

Dick Francis’s books usually feature a hero battling a known bad guy, which I would categorize as a Suspense novel. I wonder how many of his fans noticed that Hot Money is a whodunit in which the suspects are all members of an extended wealthy family. Sounds like a Cozy to me!

All this has been on my mind because the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine features “Shanks Saves The World.” This is my tenth appearance in those sacred pages with this particular hero. Leopold Longshanks is a mystery writer who only wants to work on his novels but is reluctantly forced by fate (which is to say, me) to solve crimes. In other words: he is an Amateur Sleuth.

However, in this new story, Shanks is trying to raise funds to restore a Depression-era theatre in his city. To collect a big donation from a wealthy ex-music promoter, he has to track down some musicians the man feels he ripped off.

Which means that while Shanks is not working for a paycheck, he definitely has a financial motive this time.

And now let us go the guidelines for the Shamus Awards, which are presented each year by the Private Eye Writers of America:

Eligible works must feature as a main character a person PAID for investigative work but NOT employed for that work by a unit of government. These include traditionally licensed private investigators; lawyers and reporters who do their own investigations; and others who function as hired private agents. These do NOT include law enforcement officers, other government employees or amateur, uncompensated sleuths.

And so it seems that in this one case, since Shanks is hoping to be compensated, he has slipped over into the (unlicensed) Private Eye category. Not that I have cleared a space on my mantel for a Shamus Award, but I do think it’s interesting.

And only after I started writing this piece did I recognize another connection. In April, the Mysterious Press published The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, edited by Josh Pachter, a collection of parodies, pastiches, and homages featuring Rex Stout’s great characters.

The last story in the book is by me, a crime story which looks at the inhabitants of Mr. Wolfe’s famous brownstone from the viewpoint of grumpy neighbors.

Which means that in the same month that I published a Private Eye story starring my Amateur Sleuth, I also slipped an Amateur Sleuth story into a book about Private Eyes. And so the great circle of life is maintained, I guess.

Come to think of it, maybe my public library is actually onto something.

 

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TRAPPED!! (May/June 2020)

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Getting trapped is a primal fear, and our modern world offers no reprieve. Daily we’re caught in traffic jams, shut up in elevators, chained to a desk, and for some, nabbed by the police. Nor are we free of psychological traps: abusive relationships, obsessions and compulsions, and cycles of revenge. Fiction is one way to work through your fears, and this issue of AHMM offers some thrilling stories of entrapment and escape—our means of ensnaring you in our pages.

In our cover story by Joslyn Chase, a young woman must leave her Yorkshire home to work at her uncle’s Whitechapel pub, “The Wolf and Lamb,” during the terror wrought by Jack the Ripper. Joseph Walker describes the desperate journey of a woman escaping an abusive marriage in “Etta at the End of the World.” Three characters revisit the heady days of college—and the jealousies that festered for thirty-five years—in Elizabeth Zelvin’s “Reunion.” A private jet on the way to a corporate retreat is the setting for Ken Brosky’s locked-room story, “Airless Confinement.” In 1920s New York City, a shoeshine gets caught up in another man’s betting scheme in “Probable Cause” by John G. Wimer.

Meanwhile, real estate and revenge motivate the characters of Sarah Weinman’s “Limited Liability,” and Janice Law’s prim widow takes justice into her own hands years after the death of her husband in “The Client.” Bob Tippee’s executive draws on his own character failings for drastic ends in “A Bias for Action,” while Officer Grant Tripp’s brother falls under suspicion for a string of robberies in Eve Fisher’s “Brother’s Keeper.” And the perpipatetic Buck and Wiley return in Parker Littlewood’s “Buck Solves the Case,” while two girls find the body of a drowned bank robber in Michael Bracken’s “Sleepy River.”

This issue also offers whodunits featuring distinctive PIs. Jeff Cohen’s Samuel Hoenig finds that his experience of being on the autism spectrum gives him an edge in parsing the cryptic statements of a young man awaiting trial for murder in “The Question of the Befuddled Judge.” Mark Thielman’s handsome PI—known as the Spud Stud for his side work as a special assistant in potato promotion—solves the murder of a natural foods store manager in “The Case of the Cereal Killer.” The mystery writer Shanks is called to locate old associates of a wealthy music producer on the eve of his death in Rob Lopresti’s “Shanks Saves the World.”

Finally, we are delighted to introduce a new feature, knowing that our readers often take a keen interest in the realities behind the fiction: former police detective Lee Lofland will offer in each issue insights into the working lives and daily realities of those involved in law enforcement.

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Three Uses of Suspense in “Night Train for Berlin” by William Burton McCormick

William Burton McCormick is a five-time Derringer Award finalist and a Hawthornden Fellow. He is the author of the novel Lenin’s Harem and short fiction appearing in a variety of outlets. Here he talks about suspense in his cover story from our current March/April 2020 issue, “Night Train for Berlin.”

My Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “Night Train for Berlin” is a thriller set on a train bound for Berlin on the eve of World War II. In style it owes much to Alan Furst, the late, great Philip Kerr, and most of all Alistair MacLean. I’ve always had a love of European thrillers set during or just before that war. I read The Guns of Navarone and its sequel Force Ten from Navarone when I was eleven years old, absorbing every word. Those novels became templates for my embryonic writing as a preteen, and though my literary palette has expanded considerably, they still hold sway over me today. I may stray into other genres and styles, but when I get too far off the path, I always return to MacLean’s lean, muscular prose and his tales of determined men facing great dangers and making impossible choices.

That said, we’re not going to talk much about MacLean (or Kerr or Furst) today. Their influence is obvious to anyone perusing my story. Instead, I will illustrate three suspense techniques within the story made for different purposes and effect. To make my points universal (and not spoil “Night Train” for those who haven’t read it) I will cite examples from very well-known sources that have nothing to do with Alistair MacLean or the Second World War: the novel Jaws, and the film adaptions of From Russia with Love and Psycho.

So, kick back with a cup of joe, and safely self-isolate as I warble on about suspense.

1. The Suspense of Uncertainty

Look at the technique used in Peter Benchley’s’ Jaws, one of the most suspenseful books ever written. Benchley, in a short initial passage, depicts a shark swimming. The shark is large and hungry. Little more is revealed. The scene is third person omniscient point of view. Only the reader knows of the shark. At this point there are no other characters. Then a break. Not a chapter break, but a scene break. Has any time passed? Are we at a different location? We are not told. The new passage shows swimmers playing in the beach’s water. They are having a good time, like you or I might on any seashore. It triggers our collective memories. We’ve all done this.

Is that shark from the previous passage stalking these people? Is it about to attack? Is it even here? Unlike the swimming characters, the readers know a hungry predator exists somewhere, that a threat could be present. But unlike Benchley, playing us like a violin, we don’t know the outcome. We squirm waiting for something to happen. Some chapters it does, sometimes it doesn’t, so each scene brings new doubts. Uncertainty is the key. If Benchley had told us the shark was right under someone’s foot, mouth agape, there would be momentary excitement on the page. Potential violence. Gore. But it would also end the tension.

But this is worse. Much worse. Uncertainty extends the anxiety. We fear the shark is here, about to bite. Yet, we don’t know, and we are absolutely helpless to warn the swimmers.

Get out. Get out of the water, you say to them as you turn the page. But they can’t hear you. Not in time.

Suspense.

In “Night Train for Berlin”, our main character is Eduard Möller, a German-born communist being taken from his home in the Soviet Union back to Berlin to face execution by the Nazis for treason. He is supposed to be exchanged for another prisoner, an exiled Russian aristocrat named Polzin that the NKVD (the forerunners of the KGB and creators of the Gulag) want to get their hands on. But Polzin has disappeared, killing his Gestapo guard and hiding himself among the passengers on the train. The Gestapo and the NKVD, in an uncomfortable alliance, search the train for Polzin, dragging poor Möller along as they investigate.

The key to suspense early in this story is uncertainty. Consider the number of questions posed at the outset, each generating a degree of tension:

  1. Is Polzin still on the train? If so, where? Which identity is he hiding under?
  2. Does Polzin have accomplices?
  3. What will the communist Möller do when they find Polzin? Side with his ideological enemy (an aristocrat) or the evil men who will execute him (The Gestapo)?
  4. How long can the uneasy alliance between the Gestapo and NKVD last? What will happen if it breaks?
  5. How can Möller possibly survive?

You’ll have to read the story to answer those questions, (just like how you’ll have to read Jaws to find out where that shark is) but for now, moving on . . .

2. Proximity, Certainty and Suspense

Paradoxically, knowing exactly where the threat is can also generate tremendous suspense. The film From Russia With Love features the most suspenseful extended sequence in any Bond picture. For one of the few times in the Bond franchise, we the audience are wise to a threat Bond isn’t. That threat is assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), who has boarded the Orient Express to kill Bond (Sean Connery) and steal a decoding device in his possession. Grant murders Bond’s MI6 contact, Captain Nash, and takes Nash’s place. Bond, thinking Grant is Nash, makes plans with the assassin, dines with him, then—oh, oh—takes him into his cabin. A killer we’ve seen dispatching people for the first hour of the movie is right before us, about to strike. Unlike the shark in Jaws, there is no uncertainty; we see him creeping up to his target. Powerless to warn James, we watch for clues that Bond has caught onto Grant. Yet, we are constantly thwarted. Even when James catches Grant drugging Bond’s Russian lady friend, the assassin has a viable excuse. The tension builds until it ends in one of the greatest fights on a train ever filmed. But the twenty-seven minutes of perfectly executed suspense before the fight are even better. The combat is the release.

Without going into detail, I will say that in “Night Train,” Möller identifies Polzin before the NKVD or Gestapo does. Moved by their mutual humanity, rather than political differences, Möller decides not to reveal Polzin to his hunters. Möller also deduces whether or not Polzin has accomplices. With those strands of tension released, a newer, stronger one emerges. Möller now has effectively become a surrogate for the reader, aware of Polzin’s predicament, able to describe it for us, but because of his own situation, unable to intervene. Like the audience watching Red Grant move in on Bond, Möller is powerless to do anything as the NKVD and the Gestapo, by their own terrible methods, get closer to getting their man.

Then Möller has an eleventh-hour idea that may save them all (but that would be telling . . .)

3. Suspense as a Tool of Characterization and Reader Empathy

Suspense can be a useful tool for generating empathy with characters we might normally dislike or even feel repugnance towards. In Psycho, Hitchcock uses this technique with the character of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) directly after the infamous shower scene. Up to this point in the film, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has been our protagonist. But poor Marion (spoilers if you’ve been self-isolating in a room since 1960) has just been butchered by Norman’s “Mother.” After the killing, we see dutiful son Norman clean up the crime scene for his maniac ma and place Marion’s body in the trunk of her car. He pushes the car into a bog behind the Bates Motel. Then a suspenseful (and amazing) thing happens. Halfway into sinking under the bog water, the car stops submerging, the white roof and hood still clearly visible in the night. And to our shock, we, the audience, are nervous about this. The car’s refusal to sink creates an unexpected tension. Will the murder be discovered? Will Norman be caught? What will Norman do now if the Ford refuses to submerge? Then, we feel palpable relief when the car suddenly starts to sink again, and after discharging a few air bubbles, drops below the water out of sight. Hitchcock has done something brilliant here. He’s managed to switch protagonists (no easy feat) and our emotions have gone along with it. We may intellectually want Norman and Mother to get caught, but emotionally and narratively we are now involved in “their” plight and coverup. We are attached to a character we never thought we would be by this deft act of suspense. And Hitchcock cements this emotional involvement throughout the rest of the second act as people coming looking for Marion: first a detective, and then her sister and boyfriend. Norman lies to them all, and we are in on his lies, gripped by the tension, picking up on every mistake, wondering, as Norman does, if the newcomers noticed his flubs, and if these intruders will bother his mad old mother in the Gothic house on the hill. Norman is now our central character. After that sinking car, we are emotionally locked into the plight of a man we believe (at this point) to be an accomplice to our original protagonist’s murder.

And it sets up the shocking revelations of the third act brilliantly.

In my story, I use suspense to make the characters of Möller and Polzin more sympathetic. It was always going to be difficult to have my audience emotionally engage with both of them. Depending on readers’ knowledge of history and where they rest in the political spectrum, they may find either a communist or an aristocrat a very unattractive character. To address this, I use suspense, as Hitchcock did, to create an emotional connection. Both Möller and Polzin are placed in jeopardy and fighting brutal regimes for survival. This by its nature is humanizing and sympathetic and builds reader empathy. It doesn’t hurt that their opponents are the pitiless NKVD and the insidious Gestapo, but that alone wouldn’t be quite enough. Möller’s decision to not reveal the identity of Polzin, his political opposite, is redemptive (if redemption is even necessary) and it completes a modest character arc. At the denouncement, that decision is repaid. Indeed, I feel it gives a nice moral underpinning to the tale. At least, I hope it does.

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“Kickass Women of the Bible” by Kenneth Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia is the author of 23 Shades of Black, The Fifth Servant, and Red House, and is the editor of Jewish Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. Here he discusses the inspiration behind his story “Bride of Torches” in the current issue of AHMM.

The biblical Book of Judges depicts a semilawless era before ancient Israel was united under a strong monarchy, an unstable period defined by vivid flashes of extreme violence, when rugged tribal chieftains were the principal source of strength and authority (think of Samson and his downfall).

The cycle of violence includes mass mutilations, an apparent human sacrifice, and an idolatrous warrior named Abimelech who commits mass fratricide, killing seventy of his brothers in a single day, in order to become king, then commits a horrific war crime—burning alive one thousand men and women who had sought refuge in a tunnel. But they are avenged when Abimelech besieges the town of Thebez and an unnamed woman drops a millstone from the ramparts onto his head and cracks open his skull. He orders his attendant to kill him with a dagger so that no one will say that a woman killed him. (Judges 9:53-55).

Gustave Doré: The Death of Abimelech

When I first set out to read the Bible in its entirety more than thirty years ago, I went with a traditional Hebrew Bible in English translation. No explanatory notes. Just the Hebrew text on the right-hand pages with a clunky King James Version-style translation on the facing pages.

The King James Bible (KJV) is a towering achievement, and countless terms and phrases in its majestic language have entered our language. But sometimes its poetic qualities can present an obstacle to understanding the plain meaning of the text. One of my favorite examples comes when Sarah tells Abraham to cast her handmaid Hagar, and Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, into the wilderness. Abraham is torn, and asks God for advice. In the KJV, God replies:

Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. (Gen. 21:12)

Hearken unto her voice. Beautiful poetry, even Shakespearean in style. But what does it mean in today’s English? The Jewish Publication Society’s (JPS) modern translation is as follows:

Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.

Do as she says. A bit stronger than hearken unto her voice, isn’t it? And this is God speaking. Our media-savvy Bible-thumping moralists never seem to quote that one: Do what your wife says.

So the language of the KJV can obscure meaning, and I’m willing to admit that on my first read-through, my sometimes rudimentary following of an unfamiliar narrative meant that the sudden depictions of violence seemed to leap at me from out of nowhere.

Like the assassination of King Eglon of Moab, whom we are told is “very fat,” with its startlingly specific detail:

And Ehud took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into the king’s belly; and the haft went in after the blade, and the fat closed upon the blade so that he could not draw the weapon out, and the filth came out. (Judges 3:21-22)

The Hebrew is unclear, but the filth came out most likely means the king, upon receiving a mortal wound, loses control of his bowels and craps himself. Yeah, that’s in the Bible.

Then there’s an especially disturbing scene where a mob of men rape and abuse an unnamed woman all night long, leaving her for dead. When her husband finds her unresponsive the next morning, he heads home and cuts her body up into twelve parts and sends a part to each of the twelve tribal territories of Israel as a sign that “an outrageous act of depravity has been committed in Israel” (JPS, Judges 20:6). This leads to a devastating intertribal war that brings more rape, death and destruction.

But the violent event that stood out the most to me was the story of Jael (Ya’el in Hebrew), who kills a powerful warrior named Sisera by nailing his head to the ground with a mallet and tent peg. Needless to say, I did not see that coming.

Gustave Doré: Ya’el and Sisera

The whole incident is described in five short verses (Judges 4:17-21), then repeated with a bit more detail in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It’s worth noting that Bible scholars believe that The Song of Deborah and the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) are among the oldest passages in the Bible, possibly dating from around 1000 BCE or even earlier.

Gustave Doré: The Song of Deborah

So who was this Ya’el? The text identifies her as the wife of Hever the Kenite, not as an Israelite, and we’re told that there was friendship between her husband and Sisera’s commander, King Yabin of Hatzor. So why does she do what she does? The Bible offers no explanation. In short, she has no motive.

Until now . . .

From that day, more than thirty years ago, I was determined to flesh out the story of Ya’el, but it wasn’t until recently, after doing extensive biblical and archeological research for my current novel-in-progress, that I finally had the background knowledge to expand on this brief biblical vignette.

As part of my research for a novel based on the story of one of the strongest women in the Bible, I re-read the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament) along with a shelf-load of books of commentary ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Artscroll Mesorah series to a collection of essays by group of feminist rabbis.

One particularly provocative observation I learned from all this research is that the stereotypical biblical descriptions of women as the source of all that is evil and dirty (see: the Whore of Babylon) are almost entirely in the (ahem) New Testament. Women may not have much of a voice in the Old Testament, but when they do speak up, their demands are heard.

Do as she says.

Mount Tabor, scene of a decisive battle in Judges 4. (Image: © BiblePlaces.com)

I’ve always been attracted to strong female characters, and there are some mighty strong women in the Bible. (Deborah is depicted as being a stronger leader than a warrior named Barak, who appears to be her husband, until he assumes command of an army of ten thousand and charges down Mount Tabor in Judges 4.)  And I’m thrilled to have had the privilege of dramatizing this striking incident from a lawless era when there was no king over Israel and some kickass women had to take matters into their own hands.

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How I Came to Write “The Care of Widows and Orphans” by Steven Torres

Derringer Award winner Steven Torres was born in the Bronx, NY, and spent some of his childhood in Puerto Rico. He is the author of The Concrete Maze and the Precinct Puerto Rico series. Here he shares the personal story behind his tale “The Care of Widows and Orphans,” which appears in the current March/April 2020 issue of AHMM.

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The story is a love story. The lovers are a woman and the man whose death made her a widow. How did I develop them?

My mother’s name is Carmen, like the female protagonist of the story, so there is that.

Around 1990, my mother and I went to visit the place she had first called home back in the 1940s. The place was beautiful—lush and green as you’d expect in the tropics. A stream about five feet wide ran through the place. But that was the only running water. And there wasn’t any electricity. Or phone lines. Or a paved road. Not when my mom lived there and not when I visited more than forty years later.

My mother’s family had been something between renters and squatters on that land. Apparently, the family had been on that land so long they’d acquired rights, and besides, the owner liked them and needed my grandfather’s help maintaining the land. The family was dirt poor and hardworking. My grandparents paid their way through life by making charcoal, by making moonshine; my grandfather picked coffee when that was in season and cut sugarcane when that was in season. My grandmother sewed borders onto ladies’ handkerchiefs for women she would probably have considered impossibly refined.

I say all this because it’s the only way I can think of to explain how the “Carmen” character in my story developed. She developed in real life long before she was on paper, and I have no doubt that women like her can be found in all times and places.

As for the deceased husband, he’s based on my grandfather, whose name was Francisco. My grandfather died at the age of twenty-nine from what my grandmother believes was colon cancer. Of course, they didn’t have the money for a doctor’s visit. I never knew him, but I knew about him. He wooed my grandmother by telling her how beautiful her eyes were, how beautiful she was, and how he loved her smiles and even the dark moods of her face. He told her he would give her the moon and the stars if it were ever in his power. It never was. They worked hard for the little they had, and they were happy together.

My grandmother is in her nineties now and has trouble remembering many things, but oh, does she brighten if you ask her of him. Then the seventy years that have passed since his death vanish, and he becomes once again the man who loved her.

You might ask how any of this suggests the story I ultimately wrote. Hard to say. A bit of good luck, if I’m honest. So much of the story was written for me by others long before I was born. The wonder is why I didn’t write it earlier, and why I didn’t do something more grand with the materials I was given.

 

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Guises and Disguises (March/April 2020)

Sometimes exposing the truth involves donning a disguise. But subterfuge and misdirection add spice to crime stories, and our current March/April 2020 issue is chock full of reversals and surprises. In “Night Train for Berlin” by William Burton McCormick, individuals at opposite ends of the political spectrum are equally threatened by two brutal regimes. In these pages you’ll find sleuths in the guise of an eighteenth century shipmate in Joan Druett’s “The Botanist” or a retired chemistry professor in Jim Fusilli’s “Albert January and His First Love.” An actor gets a job as an investigator at a plant where employees claim they’ve seen a ghost in Catherine Dilts’s “Industrial Gold,” while an aging actor is at the mercy of is his caretakers in Tom Savage’s “Best Performance.” Sheriff Ray is once again outsmarted by mystery writer Jennifer Parker in John M. Floyd’s Mississippi-set “Quarterback Sneak.” Martin Limón brings back his Army investigators in Korea in “Chow Hall.” A sheriff in the Australian outback goes to extraordinary lengths to protect a neighbor in “Something Off” by Michael Caleb Tasker. A parolee trying to get her life back together has the bad fortune to be the first on the scene of a crime in “The DQ Rules” by Chuck Greaves. A troupe of traveling ironmongers in Biblical times is caught in the fighting between the Kanaanites and the Israelites in Kenneth Wishnia’s “Bride of Torches.” Sheriff Gonzalo, in a small village in central mountains of Puerto Rico, comes to the aid of a woman whose neighbor is trying to take her land in Steven Torres’s “The Care of Widows and Orphans.” A hapless attorney is forced to represent a family running an illegal pearl operation in Robert Mangeot’s humorous tale “Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders.” Hiring a hitman comes with an onerous contract in Larry Light’s “Scroll Down.” A precocious teen is the subject of bullies in Rachel Howzell Hall’s poignant story, “Little Thing.” These tales turn crime inside out in the guise of well-wrought fiction.

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Warm Wishes from AHMM!

Star-shaped Christmas lights attached to a light pole near a Wall Street street sign

Happy holidays from all of us.

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A Conversation With Booked & Printed Columnist Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo began penning AHMM’s Booked & Printed column in our March/April 2019 issue. Readers may recognize her name from our masthead; she previously served as the magazine’s assistant editor. Laurel is the author of The First Impulse (Anvil, 2017) and the upcoming The Heartbreak of Corazon Tigubio (HarperTeen, 2021). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, World Literature Today, and the Mekong Review, and she is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had the opportunity to ask Laurel some questions about her work, reviewing, literary citizenship, and more.

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo. Photo courtesy of the author.

Jackie Sherbow: The First Impulse is a work of nonfiction about the lives and unsolved murders of film journalists Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing this book and what you learned during the process?

Laurel Fantauzzo: In 2010 I went to Metro Manila, my mother’s birth country, on a Fulbright scholarship. I started meeting young artists, filmmakers, writers, NGO workers and activists. They were haunted by the sudden murders of their friends, Alexis and Nika, and the case remained unsolved. I identified with Alexis; a mixed-race young man of the Philippines, who chose to stay there, and with Nika, who went to the country because she loved him. They were both young writers too—film journalists.

Because the case was unsolved—and three suspects remain at large to this day—I realized it would be a book humanizing both the victims, and the country in which they died. So much of true crime lionizes the perpetrators, the killers—the victims are often props left behind. My book spends more time on the reverberations of loss, and the presence of the victims that remains, while placing the crime in context with the social, postcolonial pain of the country.

Considering the epidemic of homicide in the Philippines now, I’ve been told the book was prescient. I do wish that were not so.

JS: How do mysteries and crime fiction fit into the general literary tradition and sociopolitical/cultural landscape?

LF: I had an advisor, the writer Patricia Foster, tell me this: a crime is like a Rorschach test for a society. A reader will witness it and perceive any number of elements. Humans are drawn to questions of wrongdoing, to questions of injustice, to the puzzles of incompleteness. That’s my theory, anyway, as to the role of mysteries and crime fiction.

In America in particular, violence and killers hold a lot of power in the larger imagination, often for entertainment. It’s a trend about which I have many reservations.

JS: Your reviews include nonfiction, children’s books, novelty books, and other works in addition to traditional crime novels. How do you source books for review?

LF: I follow my curiosity, and I also keep an eye out for any trends that seem to address some larger societal question or anxiety. I did a column on the anxieties of social media in novels, for example. I’m deliberately eclectic.

More practically, I look at social media and industry magazines to see what’s coming up. I also like to find anything that may have flown under the radar. I don’t look at any other reviews of a book before writing mine.

I’m less likely to review literary heavyweights that may approach household names; I like pointing out emerging writers, or writers who’ve worked for a long time without much recognition.

JS: What type of literary citizenship in a community do you believe book reviews serve?

LF: It’s healthy to think out loud about books; to join in conversation about them, to express our praise and reservations and questions about books. It’s also healthy to point out works that may have gone unnoticed, if not for some public discussion of it in a magazine like AHMM.

JS: What do you look for in a book to review?

LF: I have no prescriptive rubric! I do like writers who spend time developing every character; for whom no character is a device, but a fully realized person, even if just for a page. I also like to see a context illuminated, be that of a place, an era, or some other kind of larger background.

Because I’m also in academia with a full-time teaching load, and writing books of my own and completing a PhD, I typically read the first two pages of a review copy to decide if it’s for me. If I’m a little curious, I’ll read the whole first chapter. If I’m still compelled after that chapter, I’ll likely review the book. The method has worked for me so far.

JS: For you, what constitutes a complete review of a book?

LF: The reader should know what the book is about, have some context for what the author is attempting to portray, and the reviewer’s opinion as to whether that attempt succeeded or not.

JS: What should any publisher know when sending a book to your attention?

LF: True crime books that spend a majority of time attending to the perpetrators, not the victims, are likely not for me. I do like unique voices, and narrators we may never have met before.

JS: What type of books do you personally enjoy to read/what are you reading right now that won’t make it into the Booked and Printed column?

LF: I read a lot of longform nonfiction, either in book form or on literary or journalistic websites. I enjoy lightly speculative literary fiction, young adult fiction, and graphic novels. I also reread favorite novels from my childhood and adolescence. I necessarily read academic books about mixed race, trauma and recovery, the Philippines, and Asian-America.

JS: Tell us about what else you’re working on right now.

LF: I’m completing a young adult novel for HarperCollins, The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio. It’s set in Los Angeles and Manila, Philippines, and while it’s not a crime novel, I think it takes some taboo risks.

Thank you, Laurel! You can read Laurel’s book-review column in every issue of AHMM—and keep an eye out for her upcoming novel The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio from HarperTeen in winter 2021.

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“There Are Killers Inside Me” by Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin, LCSW, is a three-time Derringer and Agatha Award nominee and the author of the Bruce Kohler mysteries among other series. She is the editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 as well as Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, which releases today from Level Best Books. The theme of the anthology is crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Here she talks about the motivations of women killers in mystery fiction.

I don’t like violent men. I’ve never had a soft spot for Hannibal Lecter. I read Silence of the Lambs only because it was the only reading matter available in a hotel room one night. I slept very badly, and I’ve been wishing ever since that I could unread it. Chewing off a prison guard’s skin so he could hide beneath it to escape? Yuck. I don’t care how the movie managed that scene. I’ve never seen it, and I never will.

But I write murder mysteries, so I do write about murder. And of course I read about murder. I even talk about interesting ways to kill at the dinner table. Most mystery writers do. I wrote my first murder mysteries—never published, thank goodness—in the 1970s. My model was the traditional detective story. My protagonists were amateur sleuths. Mysteries were mysteries. There was a crime, an investigation, and a solution. The investigator was the star, the one who figured out whodunit.

When I started writing fiction again many years later, the genre had changed. Crime fiction now consisted of mystery and thrillers—different breeds— in a variety of subgenres, from cozies to hard-boiled. What I wanted to write didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I called it over easy and slightly crispy around the edges.

My first series was a New York murder mystery with a male amateur sleuth—the protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. I was less interested in the mechanics of the murder than in developing Bruce’s voice, his growth in recovery, and his relationships with his friends. In the first short story, I didn’t even give the murderer a motive. The story ended at the moment when Bruce figured out whodunit. In the first novel, the killer was basically nuts. In the second short story, the three suspects had all had one-night stands with the victim. The motive for the guilty one was plausible, but tenuous.

When I wrote the second novel, something happened. I meant the killer to be a literary agent. I made him deeply irritating. It was fun. But as I wrote, I realized I had a better candidate. And as I wrote her final confrontation with Bruce, she found her voice. This is the moment that writers live for, when the character starts to speak for herself, regardless of what the author planned.

I had several possible motivations worked out for what she had done. She mentioned none of them. She had killed in a state of rage, killed again to cover her tracks, and was ready to kill Bruce if he tried to stop her from getting away. But behind the rage was a profound sense of hurt and betrayal. Readers can empathize with the pain of a woman who’s been betrayed. Even though justice must be done, the killer who arouses compassion is more authentic, more fully developed. The story itself is more authentic, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

The next step in my own evolution was to make my protagonist the murderer, to put the killer, not the detective, in the center of the frame. I didn’t plan this. It welled up out of that mysterious source that has been called “inspiration,” “the unconscious,” “the muse,” “a higher power,” and “a still, small voice.” Short stories were the perfect format in which to explore this, once I realized it was happening, since they take two weeks rather than two years to write.

My first such protagonist was a femme fatale, a character I probably wouldn’t write now. She was predatory by nature. In her defense, I’ll add that the story had elements of urban fantasy. She wasn’t a human woman, and she was culling the human herd of contemptibly predatory men. That first time, I kept my distance from my killer protagonist, writing the story in third person from the victims’ points of view.

But if I wanted to keep writing stories other than detective stories, I needed to reach into the minds and hearts of killers and write from their point of view. I soon realized that “killer” or “murderer” was so broad a term as to be meaningless. I had no desire to create men who kill, and not only psychopaths who do it again and again. There are already too many murderous guys out there, in real life and in fiction. I’m not interested, no, not even if the murders are so justifiable that they’d cast Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, or Morgan Freeman in the movie.

But women, ah, women have plenty of reasons to kill that I can get behind with no problem. They may be victims, survivors, avengers. They may kill to protect those they love, including their children. They may simply have had enough—of being belittled, ridiculed, abused, or merely giving and giving without appreciation or reward. Thinking of “A Work in Progress,” my most recent story in AHMM, and other standalones, I’d say that every time a woman chooses death—for herself or someone else—it’s because on some level she has had enough.

When I selected crime stories for my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories, abuse figured in the submissions along with murder. Many of the protagonists were children, some of whom had experienced abuse from a very early age. Imagine how powerless a little girl feels when she is abused by a trusted adult. Remember that for every action—no one’s repealed Newton’s third law of motion, have they?—there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Consider the intensity of the powerlessness such a child feels. If the reaction, once she grows up, is to kill—as the author who’s writing her into being, I say, Go for it!

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