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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bret.jones.142

Twitter: Bret Jones@BretJones1

Website: spiritwalker8.wix.com/bretjones

Instagram: bret904

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Let’s Pretend by Merrilee Robson

Merrilee Robson (left) and her sister, Lorraine, visiting with Jane Austen at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England (photo courtesy of the author)

Writers are often asked about how they create their stories.

For me, occasionally, the story comes like a bolt from the blue. A character springs to mind—standing in a foggy city street or in the wings of a theatre, ready for action—and the story almost writes itself.

Most of the time, though, the process is more circuitous. I have a glimmer of an idea. Maybe a situation. Or a character. I ponder it, asking myself, “What if?”

In many ways, it’s like kids playing.

“Let’s pretend,” we’d say, and suddenly we’d be princesses or pirates. We might find ourselves in a sword fight or serving the mud in the backyard as chocolate ice cream at a tea party.

For me, “Tired of Bath,” my first story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, started on a trip to England and a visit to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried.

It’s not a modest gravesite. The cathedral is an imposing building, holding the graves of Saxon kings and church dignitaries.

But the gravestone itself does not mention that she is a writer. She is described as “youngest daughter of the late Rev George Austen,” and the tribute is simply a loving one from her family:

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Some years later her family added a wall plaque which does mention that she was “known to many by her writings.” But, when we visited, there was also a large banner marking her grave.

And I couldn’t help thinking, “What would she have thought of this?”

She no doubt would have been delighted that people were still reading and loving her books. But what would a woman who lived a quiet life devoted to her writing and family have thought of all the fanfare, of her picture on the ten-pound note?

The question came to mind a few years later, when my sister and I, on a tour of English gardens, spent an afternoon in Bath.

Of course, we had to visit the Jane Austen Centre, a very entertaining and informative museum of Jane Austen’s time in Bath.

Merrilee Robson being “ever more impressed by Jane Austen’s writing after discovering how hard it is to write with a quill pen.” (photo courtesy of the author)

But, again, I had to wonder. Would she have liked her name emblazoned on a building on a street where she had lived? I could imagine how amazed she would be to hear about a festival celebrating her life and work. And what would she think about her stories being brought to life in film.

Would she enjoy the many homages to her work, from Bridget Jones to zombies, or would they make her angry?

And that’s what I got to explore in this story, set in Bath and involving a stolen manuscript.

Of course, there’s always research to be done for a short story, from reading Jane Austen letters to checking maps.

But the fun part is always the “what if?” The “let’s pretend!”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Cinematic Approach to Writing by Christopher Latragna

“There’s a man at the craps table that concerns me.”

“Anyone at a craps table concerns me.”

“This one isn’t playing craps.”

“Ah. What’s he doing?”

“Sizing up the joint.”


I have no idea if I’ll use that bit of dialogue. I like it, but does it fit anywhere? In five lines, I get a sense of story, character, setting—even conflict.

But can I use it?

This is how I piece together my Henry stories.

Henry is my guy—my series detective. Henry is a poker player who regularly plays on the Duchess, a fictional riverboat that sails along the Mississippi by St. Louis in the 1950s. He’ll make his fourth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the May/June issue.

I know the crime world of 1950s St. Louis I’ve created. It may have little resemblance to the actual era but I’ve walked its sidewalks with Henry and his con artist friend, Ivy. I’ve taken rides with Vincent, the youthful-looking cabbie. I’ve sat in on poker games aboard the Duchess.

I have a map on my wall of downtown St. Louis from 1955 provided by the Shell Company for visitors to the area when they had a headquarters there. I routinely check the map for Henry’s movements about town.

Because of this, I can riff on dialogue and plot and see what happens. Eventually a plot evolves from these mini-scenes and the real work begins.


“There’s nothing sadder than a bunch of lonely gamblers on Christmas.”

“Brother, I ain’t sad.”

“How’s that?”

“Look around—I ain’t lonely.”


I wrote that two years ago and it has yet to make its way into a story. It resides in a file filled with similar standalone passages, waiting to be chosen.

My love of movies sneaks out here. I write these partial scenes as if I were scripting a movie trailer for my story. Ideas start to come out of the dialogue, and then plots, and sometimes even a finished piece.

My latest Henry story coalesced around the idea—what if there was a bar in downtown St. Louis that served as a haven for the less wholesome elements of St. Louis? And what if Henry was trapped in this bar by a mob boss for reasons he couldn’t work out?

Here’s one bit of dialogue that compelled me, between Henry and his friend Ivy:


“What goes into this code of yours?”

“I won’t lay it all out, but one of the items is that if a fool falls into a tiger pit and doesn’t know where he is, the tiger should let him know.”

Henry looked about the bar. ‘Tiger pit” seemed about right. He counted eight regulars, in pairs or solo, drinking and talking and looking like the hooligans they were.

I’ll close with one more dialogue scene that comes after the passage at the beginning of this essay. It may end up in a story someday:

“This guy—is he looking at the walls or the people?”

“The people.”

“Does he look at his watch?”

“He does. A lot.”

“I see. What time is it?”

“Ten to midnight.”

“Then I suspect we’ve got ten minutes to figure out what’s what.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Outrage: War Women and “Death Floor” by Martin Limón

Outrage, more often than not, motivates me to write a story.

In my latest novel, War Women (Soho Press, November 2021) the focus of my ire was (and still is) the sexual abuse of women in the military.  This was poignantly brought to national attention by the rape and murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, a young female soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.  After she disappeared under suspicious circumstances, the army investigated but failed to find her.  Instead, they started carrying her as AWOL (absent without leave).

Her understandably distraught family waged a vigorous protest and with the help of other concerned citizens and movie star Salma Hayek, they attracted widespread news coverage.  Civilian police forces adjacent to Fort Hood and the FBI joined in the search.  Tragically, her hammer-bludgeoned and dismembered remains were eventually found buried outside the base. Before the authorities could arrest him, the soldier thought to have committed the murder put a bullet through his head.

Guillén’s family members testified that before her death she had complained about the sexual harassment she was experiencing on base.  Contrary to her mother’s advice, she refused to make a formal complaint to the army; apparently worried about the negative repercussions.  From my own experience, I can verify that she had reason to worry.

In the mid-80s, I was stationed on Camp Red Cloud in the Republic of Korea.  A small base, it housed the headquarters of what had once been known as I Corps, the command center of all the infantry divisions arrayed along the Korean DMZ.  One day, unsolicited, a senior sergeant approached me and asked if I had heard about a formal complaint made by a young female soldier against her superior NCO.  I hadn’t.  He explained that the accused NCO had a wife back in the States but he had taken off his wedding ring and presented himself to the young female subordinate as being single.  After they formed an intimate relationship, she discovered that he was in fact married and made a formal complaint to the base commander.

The reaction was swift and vicious.  As the senior sergeant told me, “We NCOs have to stick together.”  She became an outcast on base, subject to all sorts of extra work details and vile verbal abuse.  All because she told the truth.

I would not take part in this harassment.  Later, when I encountered her, she was nervous and seemed on the verge of breakdown. I tried to speak to her and explain that I didn’t agree with what was happening and if she needed help, I stood by ready to assist.  Understandably, she didn’t believe me.  She walked away and refused to talk to me, believing, I suppose, that I was just trying to take further advantage of her.  I wasn’t.

Specialist Guillén, many thousands of miles away and many decades later, understood the same thing this young woman in the 80s had.  When soldiers close ranks against you, their hatred can become unbearable, especially given the close quarters military life demands.  Guillén tried to handle the sexual harassment on her own and the worst happened.  If the military was more open to actually dealing with these problems, she might not have been afraid to seek help and possibly she would be alive today.

For the short story “Death Floor” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mar/Apr 2022), the outrage is based on a different issue:  the brutal exploitation of workers around the world.  Due to various investment entanglements, American celebrities are often caught up in these scandals; including child labor in Southeast Asia and even accusations of slavery in the case of the massive subjugation of the minority Uighur population in Xinjiang, China.  I decided to take a closer and more personal look at this phenomenon (albeit fictional) in “Death Floor” and have my two long-standing protagonists, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, take a whack at this hidden, yet widespread, injustice.

However, after 30 years of writing (including 15 novels and umpteen short stories), my mind needs at least two plotlines progressing simultaneously before my subconscious can conjure up a story.  So, in addition to worker abuse, I needed something else.  I came up with gambling addiction, police corruption, the sexual exploitation of poverty stricken women, and the plight of half-American orphans throughout Asia.  A grim stew, indeed.  The saving grace is that I assigned my heroes the mission of righting a wrong and they go about the job with an iron determination.  In line with the rules of suspense, I pushed myself to make each obstacle they encountered more difficult than the previous one and I tried to come up with clever ways to overcome those obstacles.  In short, I didn’t want the reader to have a chance to breathe or, worse yet, put the story down.  Like a fighter throwing one punch after another, allowing his opponent no time to do anything other than duck and hold on.

At least that was my goal.  In real life, however, one doesn’t always succeed at everything you set out to do.  But I tried.  Like justices on the Supreme Court, the readers of “Death Floor” will be the final judges of whether or not the story worked. I hope you will bang the gavel, call the court to order, and read (and hopefully enjoy) “Death Floor.”  I’ll be waiting breathlessly for your verdict.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized