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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The Great Catamaran Jacking and Other Happy Accidents by Robert Mangeot

One late May, I commandeered a thirty-foot catamaran in the fjords somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Did it need to be done? Of course not. Consider, though, that I’d gotten into the aquavit and been awake wandering nightless Norway for a week. Also, I’d only hopped behind the helm to snap a selfie. The catamaran dashboard had an indecipherable NASA feel to it, and the captain remote-controlled our cruise from his fore deck perch. Had I turned pirate, I couldn’t have sounded the horn, let alone explain myself to the authorities.

Really, I was fascinated with Norway. The stark mountain landscape, the shimmering water, the old kingdom vibe with its reindeer throws and easy welcome. Oslo felt like winter was nearing over. In Tromsø, 1,900 kilometers north at the 69th parallel, there’s Viking rugged yet. Winter refused to relent, constant sun be damned. Trees hadn’t dared risk leaves yet. Chill and drizzle settle over me—into me, despite my rookie layering attempt.

Tromsø is not a big town. We’d soon covered the museums and breweries and the centre city. We’d watched the seal feeding and taken the funicular to atop Fjellheisen. As for rugged, we’d done a midnight bonfire out on a part-beach, part-tundra. The mildly intrepid adventurer in me felt it now. It was time to experience the fjords. We hired a split-charter of that mighty catamaran.

Back to aquavit. Here and there, we were picking up its history and varieties. Norwegian aquavit isn’t what I’d recalled of the Swedish stuff. Norway’s version is brown from oak. It bristles with caraway. A particular blend known as linie—“line”—isn’t considered finished until its barrels travel not once but twice over the equator. A cultural gem, and it came about as such things do: from spectacular failure.

What was happened was, these Norwegian guys in their fjords were making potato moonshine. Potatoes weren’t first choice so much as the barrens didn’t offer much else ingredient-wise. Up there most anything that warms the core goes down fine enough. So these guys made a whole lot of potato moonshine, more even than required to steel against brutal cold. Being a seafaring bunch, these Norwegians thought ports south might want more hair on their chests. First, the aquavit got spiced with caraway and anise to dent the lamp oil taste. Next, the blend went into sherry casks, and the casks got loaded onto ships, and off they headed to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia.

Those ports south valued their stomach lining. That, plus aquavit stood no chance with tropical palates used to rum. Back to Norway the barrels went. Once home, the Norwegian guys opened those barrels up for warmth and consolation. This ocean-aged, twice-crossed aquavit tasted like herbal magic. It’s in the wave action, apparently, a constant stir. Fast forward two centuries, and linie aquavit is now a whole thing. You can find it at swank restaurants. I’ve scored a bottle at a Nashville wine shop.

Norway, the Arctic Circle, the equator, a distiller’s craft and devotion, what it means to cross life’s great lines. That afternoon on the catamaran, fresh off some aquavit myself, I gazed at those fjords and wondered who would cross such lines and why. This idea borne of booze and sleep deprivation eventually became a story about lines drawn and crossed. By good fortune, that story landed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That’s how it happens sometimes: great things from happy accidents. But, as that story explores, to keep crossing a line is no accident at all.

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When TV Lost its Innocence by Robert Lopresti

It is a popular cliché that the 1950’s in America were an innocent time and the 1960’s were something else.  You can find plenty of speculation about who caused this shift.  (The Beatles?  Lee Harvey Oswald?  Jack Ruby?)

Like many cliches this one gets a little fuzzy when you examine the details.  For example, I am sure there are lots of people who find the idea that the fifties were innocent quite bizarre.  (I think of African-Americans who lived in the south then, for instance.)

One of the many examples offered of our country shedding its naivete was the first great scandal of the television industry.  I refer to the quiz show debacle of 1958-1959. 

Back then we were scraping by with only three TV networks and most people received fewer than half a dozen channels.  Nonetheless there were almost two dozen quiz or game shows on the air, mostly in prime time.

These programs ranged from You Bet Your Life where the questions were trivial and the prizes small, but the attraction was watching Groucho Marx joking with the contestants, to shows like The $64,000 Question where big-brained people could theoretically earn big bucks by answering tough questions.           

Eventually it was discovered that many of the games were fixed.  Most people assume that this was done by giving the winners questions and answers in advance.  And that certainly happened.

But there were more subtle ways to cheat.  Let’s assume that Jane and Mary apply to be contestants.  During the preliminary interviews Jane reveals that she is enthusiastic gardener, while Mary boasts of her baking skills. 

Do you see how the producers can choose the likely winner by simply deciding whether to ask about marigolds or about macaroons?  And yet everyone involved could swear on a stack of TV Guides that not a single question or answer had been revealed.  There were other tricks, of course.

In the spring of 1958 rumors began to fly around that the games were rigged.  The wheels began to fall off in earnest in May when a stand-by contestant on Dotto snuck a peek at a notebook owned by another competitor (the aptly named Marie Winn) and found the answers she had been fed in advance. Eventually this resulted in a grand jury and even congressional hearings.  

As you have probably guessed, there is what Ellery Queen would have called a criminous connection here.  My novella in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, “Please Pass the Loot,” is set in November, 1958, just as panicky networks began to kick shows off the air and everyone involved started to play an exciting new game called cover-your-line-of-retreat. The hero of my tale is Delgardo, a Beat poet who supplements his income by solving crimes.  He tries to help an old friend who has won big on a quiz show and now fears he will be dragged into the scandal.  Not surprisingly, a murder occurs.

And that killing is very important to my story because perhaps the oddest part of the whole mishigas is that nothing that happened in the scandal was illegal.  Seriously: at the time there were no laws or FCC regulations forbidding what the networks, producers, or contestants did.

That did not stop outraged authorities from seeking a way to punish them, of course.  Prosecutors called participants before grand juries and asked embarrassing questions about the shows under oath.  If they were caught lying they could then be punished for perjury.  As Delgardo says in my story: “It’s build your own felony.”

In spite of this, no one went to prison.  Judges decided that the damaged reputations were enough punishment. 

And speaking of damage, how much harm did this scandal do to America’s reputation and innocence?  Probably less than you think.

Public opinion pollsters found that most of the country was pretty blasé about the whole thing.  (It turns out quiz show fandom was mostly a northeastern U.S. phenomenon anyway.) Some respondents said they had always suspected the shows were rigged.  Others just wished they had had a chance to compete when the cheating was going on.

Maybe such cynicism was merely twenty-twenty hindsight.  Or perhaps the great American public wasn’t as innocent as the pundits liked to think.

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Bret Jones on Crime, Oklahoma-Style

Reared in the heart of Oklahoma on a farm and ranch, I got acquainted with what is termed as “ag crime” early in life. Stories of stolen cattle and other livestock ran rampant as a word of warning to protect property. Thieving is still thieving no matter what is stolen. Who needs the string of pearls, ancient manuscript, or gold medallion of ancient origin when you could have ready cash from stolen stock?

It didn’t stop there, either. When meth became the drug of choice for manufacturers, anhydrous ammonia, which farmers use to prep the soil for planting, started to be stolen. Using empty propane bottles for grills, they raid day or night and fill up. On one such run, my sister saw them and gave chase. What she would have done if she caught them no one knows.

Crime connected to agriculture costs ranchers and farmers in the millions each year. Being a rabid mystery reader, I wondered why this didn’t get into any storylines. Lacking the glamor, I suppose, of the aforementioned pearls, etc., these types of crimes don’t even make the headlines. It inspired me to write detective stories with this as the backdrop.

In addition, I discovered that the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation employs a group of agents known as “ag rangers” that focus directly on ag-related crime. Another piece fell into place for my wayward, put upon detective, Vince Gibson. Character-wise inspired by Jim Rockford, a pinch of Lovejoy, and a smidge of my loud-mouthed farming family, Vince is blue collar to the bone.

Occasionally aided by his Baptist girlfriend (Free Will, by the way), Vince takes work wherever he can get it. Prenups? Sure, why not. Track down a supposed malingerer? Of course. Investigate a farmer’s hay bales getting vandalized? Only if his girlfriend twists his arm, which she does frequently. But is there something more going on than just vandalized alfalfa? Bet on it . . .


Bret Jones

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