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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Guises and Disguises (March/April 2020)

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

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Warm Wishes from AHMM!

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

Happy holidays from all of us.

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A Conversation With Booked & Printed Columnist Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

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

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo. Photo courtesy of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“There Are Killers Inside Me” by Elizabeth Zelvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Conversation with The Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 1

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the first half of our conversation; the second half will appear tomorrow at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN, the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Allison Escoto. Photo courtesy of The Center for Fiction.

Jackie Sherbow: You’ve had your hands full—literally and metaphorically—during the Center’s move to Brooklyn. What can you share about what the move has meant for the library and for your role there?

Allison Escoto: The Center for Fiction was previously known as the Mercantile Library of New York, an organization that had been in existence since 1820 and has had various homes throughout NYC in the ensuing years. Our building at 17 East 47th Street had been its home since the 1930s so you can imagine how much had been accumulated in that building, especially the library! I came onboard as the Head Librarian right before we moved out so I didn’t really get too much time to spend with the collection but now that we are settling in, I am really getting to know the collection. My vision in the coming years is to continue to add to the amazing titles we have collected over the years and to really take my time getting to know the great fiction that has been decades in the making.

JS: What was the relocation’s timeline, and what can you tell us about the new building?

AE: Our relocation from East 47th Street has been in the works for at least ten years, from the sale of our old location, to the design and planning of this new one. The new building is incredible! There are so many beautiful aspects to the design but my favorite part is of course, the library, which occupies all three levels. There can be little wrong with books everywhere!

JS: You joined the Center’s staff at a transitional moment in its history. How has it been for you to have such an intimate start to your time there?

AE: The unique thing about an organization that has been around for centuries is that even though it evolves and changes with the time, you can always sense the past all around you. I’ve been so lucky to see both the traditional and well-loved building with all its history and memories as well as to witness this exciting phase in an impressive new place. It has been great!

JS: What are you looking forward to now that the move is over?

AE: I am very much looking forward to meeting and greeting new members and program attendees. I’ve witnessed firsthand just how much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making this Center a literary gathering place to celebrate fiction and I think welcoming people here is going to be great. I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on the collection!

One corner of the Center’s extensive mystery/detective/suspense fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: The Center for Fiction is the only organization in the U.S. devoted solely to the art of fiction. What is it like to work with a collection having a singular (yet vast) focus?

AE: As a lifelong and voracious reader, working with an entirely fiction collection has been a dream come true. In my previous jobs in a variety of libraries, fiction was my consistent favorite and to be able to focus on it here has been enlightening. I get to talk about, think about, and work around fiction all day!

JS: What can you tell us about the library’s award-winning mystery and detective- fiction collection?

AE: The mystery and suspense collection is the recipient of a Raven Award and it is a part of the collection we are very proud to have. Our in-depth collection is housed in the cellar of our new space, with over 16,000 titles of mystery and suspense, including rare titles and full runs of many mystery writers including Cyril Hare and Mary Roberts Rinehart as well as extensive collections from the golden age of detective fiction authors such as John Rhode and Ellery Queen. Our contemporary mystery and suspense is growing right along with us as a Center as well with the most dynamic and exciting new mystery fiction.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How often do you acquire new (or new to the collection) works of mystery?

AE: I order new books every month and throughout the year, I always have my eyes and ears open for brand new publications to add to our collection.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

AH: Why do you think the mystery genre came to play such a big role in the library’s collection and the Center’s focus?

AE: From the inception of the Mercantile Library in the 19th Century, it was clear to the founders that their members wanted to read for entertainment and enjoyment, along with education. This organization has been collecting fiction and what they called “the best imaginative works” for the members and a huge part of that ended up being mysteries and suspense novels. The tradition was carried through the years and over time we amassed a great collection of the genre.

The conversation continues tomorrow, 8/28/19, at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

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Franz Margitza on “Eulalia” and Writing in the Gothic Tradition

Franz Margitza is a Detroit native and director of research for a Cleveland TV station. Here he talks about his debut short story—”Eulalia,” from our current March/April 2019 issue—and about the appeal, attributes, and modern context of Gothic romance literature.

We were in a coffee shop when I mentioned that the issue would be released soon. She looked at me and warmly smiled, before raising her brow—baiting me to continue.

“What?” I asked.

“Go on—tell me what it’s about.”

“Ah, well, I supposed it’s a Gothic horror story.” I immediately saw the wheels in her head start turning. “Do you know what I mean by—Gothic?”

“Um, yeah—like The Cure,” she said.

“Not quite.”

I understood where she was coming from. To many, the word “gothic” can infer something very different. And soon, I began a very poor attempt at defining the tradition. Dark, decaying, brooding, ghosts, demons, passion, curses, and romance—these were some of the words I wanted to use, but nothing came out correctly. It was a jumbled mess.

And as I sat there, trying to explain the intense romanticism of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or the sullen lament of the protagonist in “The Raven,” I found that I was not making much headway.

“These don’t sound like healthy relationships,” she said.

“They’re not.”

“So how are they romantic?”

It was the mystique that comes with the Gothic tradition that had inspired me to write my story featured in the March/April Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, titled “Eulalia.” The inspiration began with the image of a chamber room, a bedroom in an antiquated abbey. In that room I imagined, was a large stained glass window, and directly below—the crypt of a lost love, entombed to be near the very bed she once shared with the narrator.

What kind of obsession would drive someone to bury their deceased love in the very room in which they slept? Is it a quality of love that would force someone to do so? Or maybe some sort of mental derangement? Then again, is there much of a difference? That can be debated. But I’ve always found the dark brooding Byronic hero to be a champion of romance.

“So what else is different about this kind of story?”

“The words,” I said. “The way it’s written. The style, more or less.”

There is a special quality in the diction used in Gothic literature that spoke to me. A musical quality, with an elaborate description of even the smallest details. The rhythm of the words, the lilting quality that remain with the reader, it’s all a part of the grand scheme. And to be quite honest, it almost felt as if I needed to overwrite—to over describe. To use words that, I must admit, I had to double-check in the dictionary just to be sure I had the correct definition in mind. And I thought back to my days in journalism school, when they took a red pen to every phrase, every word, and every letter that wasn’t essential to telling the most simplistic, concise story possible.

“Kill your babies,” my old professor would say. He was a tall, thin veteran newspaperman. And what he meant by kill your babies—or kill your darlings, as some refer to it—was to take out all the little things you love about your story, that don’t add to the overall message you’re trying to convey. Thereby, anything that is too descriptive, or flowery, must be omitted. As well as anything that sounds too cute, too creative, or too ornate. So, a sentence like “A fierce, turbulent squall brewed far off on the horizon, encroaching upon the barren landscape, like a violent tempest” essentially becomes: “It rained”—more or less, anyway.

Thus, my training was in vast opposition to the tradition of Gothic writing. And it was daunting to attempt to write in such a way. A way that I was taught not to write. However, the rhythm or the pulsing cadence is something I’ve always truly admired. And I tried my best to mimic that sound.

“So, is it really scary? Am I going to lose sleep at night?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s more creepy than scary. And mysterious.”

“Remind me again how it is romantic?”

“Well . . .”

But as I sat there sipping my coffee—I saw her point, and a question arose. Today, does Gothic romance still have its place? Can the Byronic hero still be viewed as heroic? Or is he simply an all-out villain? She followed up her question.

“What makes you think those characters you mentioned are in any way romantic?” she asked.

“The romance isn’t in the happy ending—no one goes off and lives happily ever after. For the most part, very few even actually live at the end of these stories, and some aren’t even alive when the story begins. But the heroes, well—they’ve found their soulmate, and they adhere to that as if it was their religion. The problem is—they’re addicted to love. And yes, as dangerous as that can be, there is also something vulnerable in that. They feel this insatiable need, and yet the universe decides not to comply with their wants. And so, they go on longing, for what could have been.” I let out a long breath, then added—“Y’know?”

There was silence. We both took a sip of our coffee. The sound of the rain was beating against the window of the coffee shop, and we both knew that soon we’d have to brave the nighttime storm that started on our way back to the car. A storm that might be describe as a fierce, turbulent squall . . . (and so on, and so on). Then, she spoke.

“It all sounds depressing.”

“A little.”

“So . . . in other words, it’s just like The Cure.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

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