“Spinning Gold from Family Hay” by Nancy Pauline Simpson

Nancy Pauline Simpson is the author of B.O.Q. and Tunnel Vision (an updated edition of which is now available electronically from all e-book retailers). Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “Rough-Hewn Retribution” (from the March/April issue), and the development of the story’s characters, Miss Halzetine Polk and Deputy Sheriff Stickley.

All families come equipped with stories and a lot of those stories include a mystery. Whether those stories get passed on depends more on the number of raconteurs a family produces than the number of babies. In the case of my family, a particular spot in central Alabama and the time popularly known as “The Downton Abbey” era produced a glut of raconteurs. In England, that era represented the lull before the storm of World War I. In the Southern United States, it was the lull between storms, one of which was still rumbling in a lot of people’s living memory. Under seemingly still waters ran a class system based on race. The peculiar interdependency of Blacks and Whites generated family stories that can lead a writer in fictional directions that just wouldn’t be credible in another setting.

One of my family’s stories was the jumping-off point for “Rough-Hewn Retribution.” (Other stories served the same purpose for two earlier AHMM stories with the same setting.) I’d heard the basics—a hotel porter reporting his suspicions about a traveling salesman to his employer, leading to extreme consequences—multiple times. Three generations from the original version, I have no way of knowing what, if any, of it was true. But, since anybody who could verify any part of the story is long dead by now, I felt free to let my imagination fill in the plot details.

The characters of Deputy Sheriff Stickley and county nurse Hazeltine Polk evolved from family members, but their occupations did not. I chose those occupations in order to bring Stickley and Polk into contact with people and situations my real-life kin—especially the respectable female ones—might have been shielded from. Stickley may be uncomfortable allowing Miss Polk to examine a male corpse’s genitalia, but—because she has been trained as a nurse—he defers to her superior knowledge of human anatomy and stifles his squeamishness. He admires the county nurse’s level-headedness almost as much as he admires her auburn hair. And he has his own professional ambitions. Those ambitions naturally mesh with his personal goal of winning Miss Polk’s affection. He hopes she’ll appreciate that the doggedness, integrity and powers-of-observation that make for a good investigator also make for a good husband.

I wanted to make their compatibility—and chemistry—clear. I also wanted to show contrasts. Both are intelligent, but Stickley has had little formal education. His appreciation for art and literature is instinctive, not taught. Stickley’s fractured grammar is distinct from Polk’s more refined English. Miss Polk would never correct his grammar, of course, and not just because it would be ill-bred to do so. Women are assumed to be more particular about such niceties as grammar. In an attractive, sober man, character and good sense can compensate for a few rough edges. In any case, cleverness disguised as folksy simplicity has a long history of its own. When Stickley refers to “the Oracle of Delphinium,” is it a verbal blunder or is he just pulling his own leg? The reader understands from his context that he knows perfectly well what an oracle is.

For me, the most interesting element of a mystery plot is the motive. When the crime involves violence, that motive should be a doozy. The “why?” of crime is more compelling to me than the “how?” In the case of the criminal psychopath, there is no rational “why.” I am relieved when forensic science stops a serial killer in his bloody tracks, of course. But the criminal who responds to emotions everyone has experienced is more intriguing. When Stickley asks the retiring sheriff how he could have committed such a grisly act years earlier, the reader knows that the answer comes from a sane man.

The crime may be poorly-thought-out. It may cost the criminal as much as it costs the victim. But I like the reader to share the feelings that motivated the crime, if not the decision to follow-through. We may argue about which motive pushes Hamlet over the edge (and Hamlet is, after all, a mystery), but the audience empathizes with all of them. “Rough-Hewn Retribution” is no
Hamlet, but there are plenty of motives to pick from. And, maybe, a few of them will rouse a little empathy.

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“Multi-Tasking” by Dale Berry

 

Dale W. Berry is a commercial artist and designer, graphic novelist (see the Tales of the Moonlight Cutter series), and the founder of Myriad Publications. In December 2015, AHMM published his “Not A Creature Was Stirring,” the first graphic short story ever to appear in the magazine, and in the current issue (March/April), we published a second, his suspenseful “Dead Air.” Here he talks about that story, and how graphic storytelling and the mystery genre work together.

Sometimes I think the process of creating graphic short stories—of telling a tale visually on the page as well as in written words—is like having to do the same thing every writer does, but times two.

You imagine the plot and characters, maybe a certain sequence or relationship, and then conjure the words to describe them. You live and breathe and compose them into existence. Difficult enough, even in the best of situations. But then, somewhat ridiculously, you must do it all again, in sketches and thumbnails, in pencils and inks, and graphics and print production.

In the end, though, it’s worth it. Because that fusion of words and pictures, laid out in sequence like movies on paper, connects in the reader’s mind differently than words alone. And that’s always been the real magic of “comics.” They can float a global corporate film franchise, sure, but they’ll also take you into your most private space. There’s really no great, cosmic backstory necessary.

For me, that’s why creating them in the mystery genre makes sense, especially in short form. Graphic storytelling can capture a moment. Arranging and re-arranging that sequence of little pictures evokes mood, atmosphere and motivation. It allows you to examine an intimate human drama, building and dissecting conflict and suspense, beat by beat. You go deeper.

And the mystery genre does the same thing.

The two forms were made for each other. If I’m wrong, then Alfred Hitchcock never storyboarded the shower scene from Psycho.

For “Dead Air”, in the latest issue of AHMM, I drew (pardon the pun) on my 25+ years as a radio disc jockey to tell the kind of intimate story that mysteries and comics both do well: the isolated protagonist is confronted with a potential life-or-death puzzle, and must solve it while the clock is ticking.

It’s a classic set-up. It’s also classic live radio . . . you can ask any disc jockey. God forbid you let “dead air” happen, even as somewhere out there a listener is connecting with you in an immediate and intimate way.

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Strength of Character (March/April 2017)

Crime is character building, at least in crime fiction, because it is characters, their dark psychologies and questionable motivations, that drive compelling stories—as the tales in this issue amply demonstrate.

What compels a model prisoner, in Tony Richards’s “Magpie Man,” to burst out of jail just before he is to be lawfully released? What motivates a desperate woman, in Dale Berry’s graphic story “Dead Air,” to strike up a conversation with a radio DJ? Why does a detective, in Wayne J. Gardiner’s “Bygones,” return home for the funeral of his high-school adversary?

Interpersonal entanglements complicate Charles John Harper’s police procedural “The Echoes.” A man seeking invisibility is driven from the dangerous shadows in Bob Tippee’s “Underground Above Ground.” Susan Oleksiw’s “How Do You Know What You Want” is a poignant story of a teen in foster care and the woman who tries to connect with her, and Martin Limón’s P.I. Il Yong pursues a case that takes him to the remote reaches of the Himalayas, where survival may depend on the uncertain kindness of othes, in “hominid.”

Social institutions and conventions are questioned in Alan E. Foulds’ “Razor’s Edge” when a reporter revisits a long-ago cold case, and in Mitch Alderman’s “Bleak Future” when P.I. Bubba Simms looks into extortion among central Florida’s genteel society. An old injustice gets a fresh look in “Rough-Hewn Retribution,” Nancy Pauline Simpson’s historical set in the early twentieth century South. A homicide detective and suspect match wits in the interview room in Chris Knopf’s “A Little Cariñoso.” And a land dispute is complicated—and deadly—in Gilbert M. Stack’s British historical whodunit “Greed.”

Watch out, these complicated characters will steal your attention—and perhaps your sympathy.

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“Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” by S. J. Rozan

Novelist and short-story writer S. J. Rozan is the award-winning author of Ghost Hero and co-author of of Blood of the LambShe writes the P.I. Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, and the related series featuring Lydia’s mother. Here she talks about that series, including her story “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

Lydia Chin’s mother, Chin Yong-Yun (her name means “always in motion”) is the dark horse favorite of many of the readers of my Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Lydia has her partisans, and so does Bill, but Chin Yong-Yun seems to appear on everybody’s list. Including mine.

I created her when I started out because although Bill Smith is the archetypal loner private eye, a character who continues to interest me deeply, his partner Lydia Chin comes from the opposite end of the spectrum: friends, community, abounding family. I was intrigued with how a character with many attachments would operate within the context of the private eye. I soon found out.

Lydia has four older brothers; their father’s passed on, though that doesn’t stop their mother from invoking his wishes in order to put pressure on the Chin children if she feels she needs to. (She’ll be doing that to Lydia in my upcoming novel, Paper Son.) I used her as an important, but not central, character in the series in a number of books. Then I was invited, in 2010, to contribute a story to an anthology called Damn Near Dead 2. All the detectives had to be at least sixty years old.

Now, Mrs. Chin doesn’t approve of Lydia’s profession, nor of her partner, and she’s never hesitated to say so. But she’s a smart woman. Over the years, sewing and cooking, she’s listened to Lydia talk about her work even while sniffing in disdain. And being a snoop and a gossip, she’s sort of a natural at it.

So, I concluded, if a case came along that Chin Yong-Yun would rather Lydia didn’t get mixed up in, for whatever reason, she might be tempted to take it herself.

That was what happened in “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case,” which I wrote for that anthology; and I had such a good time working in her voice that I’ve since written three more, “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” being the most recent.

The cases Chin Yong-Yun takes on have involved crime, but so far not murder. In solving them she also finds the answer to some other problem that has been irritating her or someone close to her. She quietly revels in her own cleverness (to point it out would be unseemly) while delivering moral lessons to all involved.

Where does she come from? Is she based on any Chinese mothers I know?

You don’t have to be Chinese. Chin Yong-Yun is every ethnic mother any of us ever had. Any mother who left her home to find a better life for her children, but frets that in becoming Americans they’re losing the virtues of their culture. Most of the things she does (re-washing the dishes, for example, because she can’t tell from looking at them if Lydia’s washed them yet—though they’re in the dish drainer) are things mothers of my friends have done, as told to me by their children. Not my own mother; I didn’t use stories I or my sibs have about her because I didn’t want her to recognize herself. That fact notwithstanding, my mother, may she rest in peace, used to come to my book signings and tell anyone who’d listen that she was not the model for Lydia’s mother. Well, if Lydia had written a book . . . I rest my case.

Chin Yong-Yun is still a new voice for me, and one I enjoy hearing. I’m hoping readers enjoy it too, and I hope I can come up with things for her to do for a long time to come.

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Jay Carey on “We Are Trapped at the Morgue”

Jay Carey is the author of The Crossley Baby and It’s a Crime among other notable novels. She writes the Detective Eureka Kilburn short-story series. Here she talks about her story “We Are Trapped at the Morgue” from the January/February 2017 issue.

I read mysteries because I love explanations. I am happy when order is restored. Now that the world I knew as a child seems to be in danger, this feeling is all the more precious to me.

What I am trying to do in my Eureka Kilburn mysteries is capture that sense of danger and also at least a fleeting sense of resolution. To heighten the danger, I have spun forward a few decades to the future.

This was a difficult choice for me. Although I admire some works of science fiction (especially Millennium by John Varley), I think most of it is silly. So I don’t like to emphasize the futuristic parts of the Eureka Kilburn stories.

That said, it really is fun to imagine what could happen. Eureka is a police detective in what is left of Sarasota, Florida, after sea levels have risen and most people have left the state. A good deal of the southern part of the state is underwater. Resources are minimal. What are people going to eat? How are they going to get around?

In “We Are Trapped at the Morgue,” bottle bombs are being found all over town. That struck me as an interesting way to make mischief with limited materials. To make one you need only some chemical cleaner, some tin foil, and a plastic soda bottle with a top. These things would be easy to find in the many abandoned houses.

The key is that when I am writing these stories I am subtracting from the world as we know it rather than adding to it. No flying cars for me! That means Eureka has to be shrewd in making do with very little in crisis situations – which might not be much fun to experience in real life, but is very satisfying to write about. You can make up all sorts of tricks.

I hope that this near-future world is frighteningly recognizable.

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How I Came to Write “The Hawaii Murder Case” by Terence Faherty

 

Terence Faherty is the author of The Quiet Woman as well as the Owen Keane and Scott Elliott mystery series. His recent short-story collection Tales of the Star Republic is available from Gisbourne Press. Here he talks about the inspiration behind and the writing of his story “The Hawaii Murder Case” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

My wife and I enjoy traveling, and I thought it would be fun to write a new short story for each place we visited. Instead of forcing a whodunit format on each locale, I decided to let the setting suggest the proper story to tell. For example, St. Simons Island, where we stayed in a creaking old carriage house, seemed like a good place for a ghost story. When we visited Scotland, we encountered the life and legend of Mary Queen of Scots everywhere we went, so I came up with a suspense story that used the famous queen.

But I was hoping for more inspiration than just what type of story to write. Years ago, I came across a writer’s block remedy. It consisted of a deck of cards that would randomly generate certain basics of a story, like setting, protagonist, and problem. Trying to weave together those random elements was supposed to stimulate creativity. I never used the card system, but it occurred to me that I could let our trips serve the same role. I began traveling with my notebook at the ready, so I could jot down random elements that I would later weave together in a story. I’m happy to report that the system worked. And it not only served as a creativity stimulus, it made each story a scrapbook of that particular vacation.

“The Hawaii Murder Case,” as the title reveals, was inspired by our vacation on Kawai. I came back with the following story elements. 1) During the trip, I was reading a Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case. 2) While we were standing at the edge of a remote waterfall, a branch the size of a suburban tree fell from the forest canopy and narrowly missed us. 3) To access the beach nearest our condo, we had to go up and down a long, steep stairway that was out of sight of anyone not on the stairway itself. 4) On the beach, we observed a May/December couple who barely spoke to one another. 5) Our condo building contained three units, all of which were owned by the same person and decorated identically.

From those major elements, and a dozen minor ones, I came up the story of a vacationer who is conked on the head by a falling tree branch and begins to take on the characteristics of the fictional detective he’s been reading about. There follows a sudden death, of course. I made it a comic mystery—told by the “famous” detective’s harried wife—because the crazy premise pointed that way and because I enjoy writing funny stories. They’re a nice break from the grim stuff. You can check out the results in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February double issue. And if you’re ever facing writer’s block, try the random detail remedy. I recommend trying it in Hawaii.

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On the 10th Anniversary of the Black Orchid Novella Award

Linda Landrigan, Steve Liskow, Jane K. Cleland, December 3, 2016

Linda Landrigan, Steve Liskow, Jane K. Cleland, December 3, 2016

Earlier this month, as is usual for the evening of the first Saturday in December (chosen to coincide with Rex Stout’s December 1st birthday), we attended The Wolfe Pack’s Black Orchid Banquet. Among the night’s features are toasts (one of which associate editor Jackie Sherbow gave) and the presentation of the Black Orchid Novella Award, given by our editor Linda Landrigan in conjunction with BONA awards chair Jane K. Cleland. This year’s winner is a BONA first, as Steve Liskow garnered his second win—this time for his story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” which will appear in the July/August 2017 issue. The occasion was also special because it marks the award’s tenth year. We asked the BONA winners from years past to share their memories, and we’re sharing some of them with you here.

I loved spending time in New York City for the banquet. I was born in Manhattan and my parents moved to Long Island when I was a child. My grandfather was a NYC cab driver. . . . It was especially fun . . . during the holiday season, so being in the city for the banquet at that time was especially meaningful for me. I got to visit old haunts and even met up with Santa Claus in Macy’s.

The banquet itself was wonderful. Jane Cleland is one of the most fun people I’ve ever met. . . . It was an honor and pleasure to meet Linda Landrigan. She was so welcoming and so great to talk to that it made me a whole lot less nervous about delivering my acceptance speech. . . . I had such a good time and have such warm memories of the banquet. It was a magical experience set in a city I love during a time of year I love and I’ll be forever grateful.—Susan Thibadeau, 2013 winner

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The banquet was a few months after Hurricane Sandy, which led to real difficulty getting in and a smaller-than-average, though very enthusiastic crowd. . . .

In the few months after receiving the BONA I sold stories to two very hard-to-crack markets. Was it a coincidence or did they notice the award? I have no evidence, but I have an opinion.

It was a great honor, especially since AHMM is my favorite magazine, and I have been a fan of Stout and Wolfe since sixth grade—Robert Lopresti, 2012 winner. For more BONA reminiscences, visit Rob Lopresti’s related blog I’m Dreaming of a Black Orchid, Picking More Black Orchids, and Addressing the Red Envelope

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The old saw that being a writer is the most solitary of occupations is completely wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a more social activity, because a writer is nobody without readers, and readers form a community, as this gathering tonight so clearly demonstrates. . . . . Of course [the armchair detective in my novella] Miss Enola is not alone. She has Erica to keep her company, even if she spends most of her time in her own head. Mostly, though, she will never be alone as long as there are people who love to read detective stories. I hope that when “Inner Fire” is published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine this coming summer, you will all have the opportunity to read it. I wrote it for you, and I am deeply and humbly grateful for the honor you have done me in granting me this award. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is one of the brightest highlights of my career as an author of crime fiction.—From the acceptance speech of James Lincoln Warren, 2011 winner

Emily Hockaday, Linda Landrigan, James Lincoln Warren, Jackie Sherbow, 2011

Emily Hockaday, Linda Landrigan, James Lincoln Warren, Jackie Sherbow, 2011

Linda Landrigan, James Lincoln Warren, 2011

Linda Landrigan, James Lincoln Warren, 2011

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I recall:

  • My wife Helen and I making the 4 + hour drive to NYC from Vermont and scurrying across town in time for the banquet’s 6:30 cocktail hour.
  • Realizing early on that Wow, these Wolfe Pack folks are really into their Rex Stout.
  • Taking part in a table-versus-table competition of songwriting with a Nero Wolfe theme. Our table accepted my suggestion of using the tune from the 1950’s Davy Crockett show. As I recall, we acquitted ourselves admirably.
  • Taking the podium to accept my award. For my acceptance speech, I began, I’ve recently committed the complete cannon of Nero Wolfe to memory and will now recite it . . . I then began rattling off the opening passage of the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, (which I had memorized for the occasion). After three or four lines, I stopped and said, You know . . . I realize now, you probably all have memorized his complete works yourselves, so I’m just being redundant. I’ll move on . . . Laughter ensued.
  • Laughter not ensuing when I tried to make some jokes about Stout’s early efforts to name his detective. I suggested that prior to becoming Nero Wolfe, the character was originally called Caligula Bobcat. That joke died in the air, swiftly and soundly.
  • After the banquet, leaving at the same time as Linda. She graciously led Helen and I down the city streets and gave us a tour of the various shop window Christmas displays. A splendid end to a splendid night!—Michael Nethercott, 2008 winner
Linda Landrigan, Michael Nethercott, 2008

Linda Landrigan, Michael Nethercott, 2008

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When I accepted the award, I mentioned how I was mostly a science fiction author. After the banquet was ending, a long-time mystery writer (who got his start in the science fiction pulp magazines in the 1950s) shook my hand, said, “Get the hell out of science fiction!” and walked away. I have taken his advice to heart and haven’t written a science fiction story since then!—John Betancourt, 2007 winner

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