“Up in the Air”—A Cautionary Tale by Amanda Witt

Amanda Witt is the author of The Red Series of dystopian novels. Her stories can be found in the Mystery Writers of American anthologies Odd Partners (April 2019), Life Is Short and Then You Die (September 2019), and A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (by Ana Rainwater). Here she talks about her AHMM debut, “Up in the Air” from the current March/April 2019 issue.

Funny thing about this story: I got scolded.

“Up in the Air” began as many short stories do. I saw a call for submissions, wrote something that fit the criteria, and sent it off. In return I heard nothing. As all writers know, this happens.

Then I got the following email [identifying information has been removed]:

The deadline was January 31st at 11:59 p.m. The judges have already finished reading and the final decisions are being made in the next 2-3 weeks.

Sorry, but you’re just too late to be considered. You would have been too late on February 1st, let alone March 8th.

Ouch.

But I’m one of those oldest-child, authority-respecting types. Any latent rebellion comes out in alter-ego characters, and never, ever in the real world. I check the details. I follow instructions. I wear my seatbelt, pay bills on time, and clean up after my dog on walks in the park. So hadn’t I sent the story in well before the deadline?

I checked, and indeed I had. And—like a good detective—I found proof.

Loath to argue, but wishing to retain a reputation for professionalism in even such a minor matter as this, I sent a brief reply:

I sent this in on January 27 (as you can see in the email beneath your own).

There was no disputing it, thanks to the “include the original email in your reply” function.

A flurry of explanations, excuses, blame, and apologies (of a sort) followed:

I don’t know what to tell you. It just arrived today. We posted on the website the day after we closed that all submissions had been acknowledged, and if you didn’t receive an acknowledgment, to contact us.

I have NO idea how this mail snafu happened. I received a lot of entries, and this one literally just popped up this morning. Totally bizarre.

After a bit of cordial back-and-forth, we parted ways amicably, and I sent “Up in the Air” somewhere else—namely to AHMM, whose editors have been (and surely always will be!) unfailingly gracious.

So “Up in the Air,” a cautionary tale about marriage (or about cell phones, police officers, small children, or prescription drugs—take your pick!) brings with it a couple of cautions for writers of stories and writers of emails.

Writers of stories: Check back on the submission website after the deadline passes. And, whether a statement about acknowledgment is posted or not, if you submit a story and you don’t get a “story received” message, consider pinging the editor. “Lost in cyberspace” actually does happen.

Writers of emails: Even if someone clearly appears to be in the wrong, be kind. The world will be a better place for it. And besides, life can be confusing. You might turn out to be the one who is mistaken—for real-life stories, like fictional ones, have a habit of taking unexpected twists.

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“‘Shiva’s Eye’ and Other Doctor Watson Adventures” by James Tipton

California writer James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008) and the upcoming collection Adventures Without Sherlock. You can find his short stories and poetry in Nostos and Blue Unicorn. His first tale in AHMM to feature Dr. Watson was “The Vampire of Edinburgh” (September/October 2017), and here he talks about that character, the series, and his story in the current issue, “Shiva’s Eye”—just in time for belated celebrations of Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. (Editor’s note: The phrase “twenty-five hundred strong” at the top of page 86 of the current issue of AHMM, the fifth page of “Shiva’s Eye,” was misprinted as “twenty-five thousand strong.” We regret the error.)

Doctor John H. Watson is one of the great overshadowed characters of literature (for others, see Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Nausikaa in The Odyssey; there are many). Sherlock Holmes is not being ironic when, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he says, “I’m lost without my Boswell.” He would not only have been lost to current recognition and to posterity, but in his own self-absorption and ego. In this blog, however, I’m not writing about Holmes, but about his companion, who, in the story “Shiva’s Eye,” encounters mysteries long before he ever encountered his famous friend. Moreover, we must admit it’s because of Doctor Watson’s writing that his friend became famous.

“Shiva’s Eye” can be read as a prequel to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Watson tells us in the beginning of his narration of the first Holmes novella, A Study in Scarlet, that the Afghan campaign in which he participated brought him “nothing but misfortune and disaster . . . I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder [in later stories we also find he was wounded in the leg] by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” After he had “rallied” at the base hospital at Peshawar, he “was struck down by enteric fever [typhoid], that curse of our Indian possessions.” The battle of Maiwand was a major and unexpected defeat for the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war. Watson tells us that his “nerves are shaken,” and when he meets Holmes, the detective’s first words to him are, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “Shiva’s Eye” sees this campaign, its disastrous outcome, and its seeming supernatural mysteries unfold through Watson’s eyes.

I am grateful to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for giving a chance for these Doctor Watson adventures to come out to the world. AHMM published “The Vampire of Edinburgh” in September/October of 2017, and now is set to publish two more of them after “Shiva’s Eye.”

These stories come from a collection of fourteen that I’m working on to be called Adventures Without Sherlock. There have been countless spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes in print and in film, but none that I know of which only features Dr. Watson, without the help of his illustrious friend. I’ve endeavored to stay true to the narrative voice of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but mine develop the doctor’s character much further, covering the range of Watson’s adult life: from a failed romance in the Highlands that resurfaces in the gold country of California (the latter refers to an unpublished play by Doyle in which Watson ventures to the Wild West); to his participation in the Afghan campaign; to his years with Holmes when he was on his own—either on holiday or shortly after his first wife’s death, and then Holmes’s presumed death; to his later years when he visits Ireland on the verge of Civil War; or a trip to Berlin in 1933, when, in his eighties, while being honored by his German publisher, he encounters the beginning of the Nazi terror. We also see Doctor Watson giving a nod to his friend, or perhaps in silent competition with him; for instance, in an early story we find that Watson hunted a demon cat on the craggy fells of the Lake District long before Holmes stalked a hell-hound on the misty moors of Devonshire. A post-World War I story even features Conan Doyle, who, as Watson’s editor and friend, asks the doctor to join him on a search for fairies.

So in these stories Watson finally gets his due. Through his presentational immediacy and objective but deeply personal involvement, we feel the presence of a brave, compassionate, and highly moral man. Traditionally, these qualities have been applied to his protagonist, but we must remember that Sherlock Holmes is filtered through the perspective and the values of Doctor Watson. Once we are familiar with Watson as a narrator, we cannot help but think of him, unlike Holmes, as a very human and most likable human being—as that rare thing among writers: a genial personality.

Doctor Watson is well overdue to be the hero of his own series. As readers of the Holmes stories, we are aware of the doctor’s keen sense of observation, his fine ear for dialogue, and his pacing to give a sense of suspense and adventure (the last being a quality for which Holmes chided him). We are also aware of Watson’s self-effacing habit of always putting himself in the background; the stories are not about him. In my stories, although Watson is still loath to talk too much about his personal life, we can’t help but see his character more: his self-reflections, doubts, epiphanies, his dedicated persistence in arriving at truth—and we see him growing in his abilities as a detective. In “Shiva’s Eye” we also see him go where the cold reason of Holmes would never venture: into the possibility that there is more to life than the rational mind can understand.

With any and all readers keeping in mind that they are following the adventures of Doctor Watson, not of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore may be exposed not to singular analytical reasoning from effects to causes but to a dogged, quotidian effort to get at the truth (or in “Shiva’s Eye” assistance from an unexpected source), I offer these stories to whomever may have a few quiet minutes to spend with the good doctor.

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Happy New Year from AHMM!

As 2018 draws to a close, we reflect on a year of mystery and mayhem and offer our most heartfelt thanks to our readers, authors, and friends. Here’s to 2019!

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Wrap Up a Mystery (January/February 2019)

It’s that time of the year, a season observed by many with an exchange of gifts. We hope you’ll consider this issue a neatly wrapped package of criminous cadeaux. Variety is always welcome in a bestowal of presents, and so this issue offers a range of delights from the humorous to the spooky; from the past to the present; from the poignant to the puzzling.

Among them: the seasonally-appropriate “Blue Christmas,” in which Melissa Yi’s doctor/sleuth Hope Sze is sitting down to a festive holiday dinner with coworkers when two people suddenly become deathly ill. “The Case of the Truculent Avocado” by Mark Thielman, in which a P.I. supplements his sporadic income with a part-time job dressing up as a potato. Shelly Dickson Carr’s clever tale “The Beacon Hill Suicide,” showcasing historic Boston. What to do about a slobbering dog is the question for a “cleaner” in Zandra Renwick’s “Dead Man’s Dog.” And “A Six-Pipe Problem” by proceduralist master John H. Dirckx.

Several tales pack a powerful emotional punch. A grieving widower in our cover story, Pamela Blackwood’s “Justice,” hears voices and barking late at night, only later learning the significance of those noises. A new tenant in a Queens apartment house unlocks troubling memories for a lonely neighbor in Devon Shepherd’s “The Woman in Apartment 615.” Another newcomer, in “The Man Across the Hall” by Janice Law, has a destabilizing effect on a young married couple in Miami. And Chicago P.I. Kubiak steps into a family drama when an old colleague from the police force asks him to follow his wife in Steve Lindley’s “A Matter of Trust and Surveillance.”

The uncanny and inexplicable also add zest to our holiday package. A pre-Sherlock Dr. J. H. Watson recounts an episode from his time in Afghanistan, revealing what really happened at the Battle of Kandahar in James Tipton’s “Shiva’s Eye.” And our mystery classic features that master of the ghost story, E. F. Benson, with “The Confession of Charles Linkworth.”

And so, best wishes for the season. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, maybe you’ll find a little murder tucked into your stocking for your guilty pleasure.

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“Filling In the Landscape” by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti is a 2018 Derringer Award winner. His collection Shanks On Crime was recently republished in Japan. His nonfiction book When Women Didn’t Count was recently presented with the Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award. Here he talks about the fictional setting for several of his tales, including “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests” from the current issue of AHMM.

I recently realized I have been working as a sort of regional planner for a piece of nonexistent geography called Brune County.
The first story I wrote about the place was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts” (AHMMMay 2004). It concerned a car accident and the only landscape described was a crossroads and a hill. Not much of a world yet.
The second story, “A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters,” (AHMM, May 2014) showed us at least one house, one wealthy enough to merit an estate sale when the owner died.
And completing the hat trick is “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” appearing now in the November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. This time I take readers on a much more extensive tour, showing them an unnamed town and some hilly farm country that borders the estate of a software billionaire. Each story, of course, is populated with the sort of people I think belong in those locations.
When I wrote the first tale about the place I had no idea that more would follow so I have been cobbling together Brune County a scene at a time. Not the most efficient form of world-making, I admit.
But this is a challenge every writer of fiction faces: Do I write about real places, or make them up?
There are advantages to both approaches, of course. Write about Times Square in New York City and you automatically have an audience of millions of people who know what you are talking about without a single word of description. But if you get a detail wrong those readers will let you hear about it—if they don’t stop reading in disgust. Not long ago I read a novel by a favorite author and was startled when the main character visited British Columbia and drove from Vancouver to Victoria. That’s a good trick, unless he had a floating car.
Of course, you can make up a place entirely, which can be a lot of work. Is it urban, rural, somewhere in between? Is it New England, the deep south, somewhere midwestern? And then there is the problem of consistency. If you are lucky enough to write many books that attract many readers you may need to reread them all before you write the next one, or your readers will complain about gaffes in your fictional geography, just as if you screwed up the location of Times Square.
A lot of writers choose a compromise: take a real place and give it a new name so they can change details to suit. The master of this was Ed McBain who wrote dozens of novels about the 87th Precinct set in a nameless city which resembled, but was not, New York. The key to following his detailed geography is to turn your map 90 degrees to the right. Harlem is at the north end of Manhattan but Diamondback is at the east end of Isola.
My friend Jo Dereske wrote a dozen wonderful mystery novels about a librarian named Miss Zukas. The books take place in Bellhaven, Washington, which doesn’t exist. It bears a striking resemblance to Bellingham, which does. Jo says she did this so she could move a ferry and eliminate a shopping mall she disliked. She has also had many people tell her they used to live in the same apartment house as Miss Zukas, even though in the real world that building doesn’t exist.
My novel Greenfellas is set in a very real New Jersey, the state where I grew up. I wanted to set one scene at Surprise Lake, but it had been so many years since I had been there that I didn’t trust my memory and, just to be on the safe side, gave it a phony name. One reader asked “Why did you rename Surprise Lake? You described it perfectly. “ Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
I am happy to say I have an idea for another story about Brune County. I can’t wait to see more of the place.

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A Weekend at Crime Bake (by AHMM’s Editor Linda Landrigan)

I’ve just returned from a lovely weekend spent among mystery writers in Woburn, MA, at the New England Crime Bake convention. Sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, the regional convention takes place every Veterans Day weekend.

Among the convention’s highlights were the friendly presences of Walter Mosley, the keynote speaker, and Kate Flora, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. Gayle Lynds, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Hallie Ephron are a few of the luminaries of the genre on hand to teach master classes and share insights on writing, research, and publicity. But it’s the congenial atmosphere that made the mystery convention special. Here, unpublished writers and established authors are equal peers, supporting one another and always striving to hone their craft.

In fact, I got to be a panelist with Kate to discus short stories. There I met up with prolific Stephen Rogers and met Lorraine Nelson, both of whom have published in multiple genres. The panel was rounded out with Kate Flora, who in addition to her fiction and non-fiction writing, co-founded and edited Level Best Books, acclaimed publisher of short story anthologies. AH author Ruth McCarty moderated.

I was also asked to help facilitate a few of the roundtables where authors could read their pitches and query letters and receive constructive feedback before approaching the agents attending the convention. What impressed me were the new ideas and projects in the works and the quality of the writing I heard at my First Page roundtable and the Flashwords finalists readings.

While there, Susan Oleksiw recorded a reading of her story “Variable Winds” from our October 2016 issue for our podcast series.

Many thanks to co-chairs Edith Maxwell and Michele Dorsey and to agent & editor coordinator Ray Daniel for inviting me to the 2018 conference, and kudos to all the volunteers who made this convention a success.

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Terror at the Crossroads Digital Launch Party Recap

Last month saw the launch of a new digital anthology from AHMM and our three sister magazines. Terror at the Crossroads: Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unknown, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble (soon to come on other platforms), launched last week with a digital party on Halloween, led by editors Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow and with the participation of many of the 21 authors included in the anthology. For those of you who may not be on Twitter, and/or for those of you who’d like to reminisce, we wanted to offer a recap of the event here. You can also read more about the anthology at EQMM’s Something Is Going to Happen blog on Wednesday, 11/7.

The editors dressed for the occasion. (L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Emily Hockaday)

The whole day was full of fantastic and terror-tinged content from our authors, who answered Q&As, talked about their work, and more. We found out that among the ranks are plenty of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe fans, as is fitting. We also heard that some of our authors don’t enjoy horror at all! Many were surprised to see their stories framed as such in the magazines and in this anthology. You can read everything over at @ErisPress, but here are some highlights.

Starting the day off right!

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A few authors shared costumed photos with us as you can see in this gallery:

 

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Four of our authors visited us for AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, and we had a great time. Again, you can visit @ErisPress and peruse “Tweets and responses” to read through everything, but here are some choice moments:

Josh Pachter, during his 11:30-11:50 a.m. (EST) session, was asked about how his career as a translator affects his writing process:

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Alec Nevala-Lee, during his 12:00-12:20 p.m. slot, was asked about his discoveries while researching for his new book Astounding:

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Jason Half, during the 12:40-1:00 p.m. frame, talked about “guilty pleasures”:

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And Tara Laskowski, from 1:30-1:50 p.m., answered a question about the differences between horror and terror:

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Some authors even contributed videos discussing or reading from their tales in the anthology, as well as other topics. You can watch those here:

Stephen Ross on “Monsieur Alice Is Absent”

Paddy Kelly on “Lonely Hearts of the Spinward Ring”

Josh Pachter reading from “Pisan Zapra” 

The editors also contributed a few ghosts of Halloweens past in the form of photographs:

 

Finally, it was time to celebrate with cake and some of the Dell and PennyDellPuzzles crew.

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L to R top row: Ché Ryback, Sheila Williams, Martin Worthington, Angela Ferguson, Irene Bruce. Bottom row: Emily Hockaday, Jackie Sherbow

We are grateful for our authors’ and readers’ enthusiastic participation and for the opportunity to bring you this anthology. We hope you enjoy it! And stay tuned here and at @ErisPress for more updates, giveaways, and fun.

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