Category Archives: Criminal Masterminds

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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“Writing with an Eye on the Supernatural” by Cheryl Skupa

Kansas-based author and English instructor Cheryl Skupa writes book reviews (Among Worlds) and poetry (Phoenix, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English). Here she talks about writing with the supernatural in mind and about crafting her debut short story publication, “Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” (from our current March/April 2019 issue).

I always perk up when I hear local folklore and superstitions, especially when told with relish by someone connected, however distantly (perhaps nebulously) to the people and places in the story. These little snippets of local history and tragedy have the deliciousness of gossip. Ghostly tales have the power to transform even the drabbest places on earth into something magical—and creepy!

“Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” was born out of local stories and my penchant for driving out of my way, sometimes down gravel roads to visit small-town courthouses, little cemeteries, and old churches. The courthouse in my rural county and those in surrounding areas provided plenty of atmosphere—old clanking radiators, broom closets which were once jail rooms, fainting couches, shadows, dust, and the knowledge that many anguished people had passed through these halls over the years. Intensely personal tragedies and triumphs have been absorbed into the old ornate woodwork with the smell of the furniture polish.

The cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, was, of course, based on me. Who knew that all those hours working my way through college, pushing my cleaning cart down halls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting would somehow find its way into my writing? My least-favorite college job became the best writing fodder—but then, writers use everything; they are composters of experience! Thank you, fiction and AHMM, for sanctifying those lonely, boring experiences!

The only drawback of writing about ghosts was that humankind has been telling these stories since the beginning. For me as a writer to veer off into fresh territory, I needed to understand what was happening to my cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, as she experienced the visions of the white woman and her stained dress. That took some thought and time. I scoured the local small-town newspapers, especially the sections which recalled local events in history. I reread the account of my small town’s informal historian (a local school teacher.) I tried to recall old stories my grandma had told me, and cursed the gaps in my memory.

In the end, I did what writers do—told the story that I most loved to read. Ghost stories always remind us, not only of past sins, but also that death may not be the end, that insignificant people, places, and actions matter, and that tragedy, however devastating, may become immortal in the retelling!

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“Anatomy of a Short Story” by Mark Milstein

Mark Milstein is a Michigan author and restaurant owner. He is currently working on a historical whodunit, but here he tells us about writing his story “A Curious Transaction” from the current March/April 2019 issue of AHMM.”

Is there a story in that?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, as I suspect many writers do. You can wait for inspiration to strike, out of the blue, like the proverbial bolt of lightning. But I prefer to hunt it down aggressively, armed only with a mug of steaming coffee, a pair of earbuds, a mouse, and, increasingly, the tips of my thumbs. Two of my favorite silos of inspiration are NPR and The Drudge Report. Yeah, I know: strange bedfellows indeed.

I hit the Goebbels-esque clickbait on Drudge shamelessly, like a hungry smallmouth bass slamming a topwater plug. “Muslim Takeover of America,” it proclaimed. I was redirected to a story about Hamtramck, Michigan, where the tension between the growing population of Muslim immigrants and the Polish citizens who have long occupied the city was on the rise. The Poles were concerned, understandably, that their way of life was changing forever, disappearing. There was a lot of anger over a loudspeaker that called Muslims to prayer at a local mosque five times a day, justified by the largely symbolic argument that it was drowning out church bells from nearby, predominantly Catholic churches. There was even—gasp—a Muslim majority on the city council. I asked myself if this wasn’t appropriate for a representative democracy.

I also asked if there was a short story in all this. Turns out there was—it was the birth of “A Curious Transaction,” which appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I knew right away I didn’t want the focus to be on the ethnic tension in the city. It is there, of course, lurking just behind the scenes. But I wanted to focus instead on how very different people, of all ethnicities and creeds, can work together, complement each other, and even thrive. And, oh yeah, since the story was intended for the illustrious AHMM, and wasn’t dark and twisty and sleep-depriving, it would need to be one heckuva mystery. Perhaps a new and original Pakistani sleuth who solves complex crimes by asking three simple questions? It was a tall order for a short story; I was pleased and a bit surprised to pull it off without straying into novella territory.

The fictional setting, a quick-service restaurant named Burgie’s, was a no-brainer, as I happen to own an establishment in Northern Michigan just like it. What better way to inject authenticity without wasting precious time on research? Every one of my employees, even the high-schoolers who can’t see past their smartphones, would instantly recognize their workplace, which is an integral part of the plot. While the old writer’s adage “Write about what you know” isn’t set in stone, it’s a good highway to take when you can get away with it.

The protagonist, Saalim Sayyid, a devout Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, is the general manager at Burgie’s, working toward a college degree in criminal justice. He has convinced the Polish owner of the restaurant, Mr. Micolajczak—whose name was chosen, I guiltily confess, as the most likely entry in an online group of Polish surnames to frustrate a reader attempting to pronounce it—to begin serving Halal food, which has significantly increased the customer base, and hence the sales. Saalim is also a burgeoning detective, and this story chronicles his first case (hint: not his last), which he must solve in order to prevent his incarceration and deportation.

Whoa, how can the son of a Russian Jewish father and a Swedish Lutheran mother write about the immigration experience of a Pakistani Muslim? Is that even allowed? Well, of course it is. Great writers (no implication intended) have for centuries brought every conceivable character in the universe to life, no matter the ethnic, cultural and ideological chasm between author and character. This they accomplish by avoiding stereotypes at all costs, doing an appropriate amount of research, and, most importantly, making their characters believable and intrinsically human (even the Vulcan Mr. Spock is essentially human at his core). Saalim is brilliant, confident, calm, kind, responsible and eternally optimistic. He also, like most people in the world—Agatha Christie wasn’t translated into every conceivable language for nothing—relishes a good mystery, and has a particular affinity for Hercule Poirot, whom he is able to emulate at the conclusion of the story.

I don’t believe it is possible to be even an average writer without being a voracious reader. Sadly, I find that many young people I know today aren’t passionate readers. There are many reasons for this, but I am grateful that my parents encouraged me to read at a very young age. They didn’t define or limit the subject matter, instead encouraging me to read whatever brought me joy. This included the latest issue of AHMM on my father’s nightstand, right next to the Playboy, which I of course, as a discerning young lad of ten years, avoided like the plague.

I literally grew up with AHMM; we were both Eisenhower babies, born in 1955. The magazine, a lifelong friend, has brought me a lifetime of joy. My favorite author was Jack Ritchie. I would scan the table of contents and jump to his stories first; they never failed to bring me joy. He was a master of dialog, and spinning a tale implicitly, between the lines. He was incredibly witty, with a wonderful, macabre sense of humor. Attempting to emulate him, an impossible exercise, fostered in me a passion for writing. I wouldn’t be appearing as a guest author on this blog today without Jack Ritchie and AHMM. I am deeply honored, beyond mere words, to appear in AHMM and as a guest author on Trace Evidence. I wish to express my warmest appreciation to Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow for helping to make my dreams come true, and I sincerely hope that all of you can someday know how that feels.

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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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“Write What You Don’t Know” by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson’s first short story appeared in EQMM in January 2018. Here he talks about his story “The Cook Off” from the current issue and his approach to writing in settings he both knows and doesn’t.

Right now I’m trying to write a mystery story set in Las Vegas. My only problem is I’ve only been to Las Vegas once. I stayed overnight in a Motel 6 on a cross-country move—me, my wife, two cats, and a U-Haul. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of time to do Vegas. I remember my wife emptying a jar full of quarters into a slot machine. That was about the extent of our Vegas adventure. But lately I’ve gotten this idea for a story set there, so I found myself facing the dilemma of “write what you know” when I don’t know much at all.

In his book How to Not Write Bad, Ben Yagoda takes on the old adage of “write what you know.” Yagoda says writers too often interpret “write what you know” to mean “write what you already know.” But what would that look like? A lot stories with writers as protagonists? A murder mystery involving paper cuts, query letters, and rejections? No, of course not. “Write what you know,” Yagoda argues, should mean that if we “read, research, investigate, and learn,” we can write beyond our immediate personal experience, and ultimately we will be writing what we know.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because as I try to write mystery stories, I find myself attracted to characters and situations that come from both what I know and what I don’t know. My story “The Cook Off” is just such an example. I started out with what I already knew. The tiny American village not far from the Iron Curtain border that split Germany for forty years—that was home to me as a young teenager when my father was stationed near the spa town of Bad Kissingen. The gymnasium full of soldiers where my story culminates—that was a kind of home for me too—I spent many hours there trying to become a basketball player and not succeeding. The late 70s GIs who inhabit this gym in the story—in their Pumas and tube socks—they are inspired by the real GIs I met in all my sweat and hopeless effort.

What I didn’t know much about was Grafenwöhr, the training area where accidents could kill men rehearsing for war. But I had heard about it, from the same young GIs I shared that gym with, and from my father, who would disappear from our family for weeks at a time to go to Graf, as everyone called it. What I already knew about Graf was that it was cold and miserable, that every GI griped about it, and that when it was a man’s turn to go, he dreaded it. Who could blame him—Bad Kissingen was a resort, and the beer was good. I think it was this not knowing much about Graf that made me want to write about it. I had also heard about a strange thing called a “cook off” from my father, and of a man killed by one. A dangerous place no one wanted to be and an unusual way to die—it sounded like a good mystery story to me.

Since Graf was mostly outside of what I already knew, I did what Ben Yagoda suggests—read, research, investigate, learn. There are a lot of ways to start such research. First person accounts are always the best place to start, and I had my father. I also wanted to know more about armored cavalry units, live fire exercises, training accidents, the history of Grafenwöhr, and that thing called a “cook off.”

Tom Clancy wrote a series of military reference books, and his Armored Cav edition taught me much. From this book, I learned what an armored cavalry unit actually does (the dangerous job of reconnaissance, often behind enemy lines), and what a live fire exercise is like (with all of its noise and destruction, there are also plenty of safety precautions and stationary plywood targets).

I learned much about Graf through a deep graze of the web. Back in 1910 the Kaiser requisitioned eighty-three square miles of Bavaria near the town of Grafenwöhr to train a military that would fight the next two world wars, only to see it all carpet bombed and then re-requisitioned by a new tenant, the U.S. Army. Graf became the home especially for what was called Reforger, an enormous annual exercise meant to simulate a NATO response to a Soviet invasion. I also learned that Graf, with all of its tanks and guns and bombs, had been the setting for more than a few fatal training accidents. The most tragic occurred in 1960, when a 200 pound artillery shell overshot its target and killed 15 men billeted in tents. All of this was good background for Graf, but part of me also wanted to sense the place, and although I could not feel the cold or smell the fumes, I could at least see the place. Absent a time machine, I would have to rely on other means, mostly photos and videos collected from books and web sources. Here is one of my favorites. Yes, that’s Elvis Presley in Grafenwöhr. It’s cold and you can tell—he’s got his field jacket on, and his Elvis hair is hiding under the standard issue cold weather MQ1 pile cap.

The “cook off” was another investigation. I had heard my father’s story of a man accidently killed when a belt-fed .50 caliber kept firing even after the gunner took his finger off the trigger. This is due to the intense heat in the firing chamber, which literally cooks any remaining rounds unless the gunner clears the belt from the chamber. A cook off is not uncommon, although a fatal one is.

In my search for background on Daley Barracks, the American garrison adjacent to Bad Kissingen, I often visited Eaglehorse, a site dedicated to the history of the armored cavalry unit stationed at Daley Barracks for many years. There is a lot to look at on the site, with a great collection of photos and first-person accounts going far back. And here is the story memorializing a man killed by a cook off, the same soldier my father had told me of. I can tell because the date is perfect for when we lived there in the late 1970s. I printed this memorial out and sent it to my father, who is close to eighty now. For years, I have often wondered how much of my father’s army stories were factual and how much were more akin to legend. When he received the printout, we had a good talk on the phone, and he said, “Yes, that was the man I told you about. It was a cook off, and it was a shame because it should have never happened.” After we hung up, I felt the sensation of traveling in a circle. I had come back to a story my father mentioned years before, a story I already knew.

This is one of the joys I get from writing—uncovering real mysteries of places and people and times both close to me, and also quite remote. It is a bit of detective work I like to do on the way to imagining a story of detection. What I already know and what I come to know—I hope it all adds up into a good piece of mystery fiction.

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“‘Coolbrook Twp’ and Other Characters” by Dennis McFadden

Upstate New York writer Dennis McFadden is the writer of the collection Jimtown Road, which won the 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Here he talks about his story in the current issue and writing vivid characters.

My stories all start with character. There’s a very good reason for that: When you’re as lousy at plotting as I am, they almost have to. I’d love to be able to craft a pristine Rubik’s Cube of a tale that leaves readers nodding in admiration at the sleight-of-hand they should have been able to detect along the way, but Agatha I certainly ain’t. Memorable characters are my best hope to connect with a reader.

The smallest seed can blossom into a good character. The characters I come up with originate in different ways, but primarily they fall into one of two categories: those based on real people I’ve known, and those I essentially invent—people I wish I had known? Well, maybe. Except for the psychopaths.

I’m not sure what it says that my most successful stories seem to be based on a character, Terrance Lafferty, who falls into the latter category, a complete product of my imagination. Maybe my real friends and acquaintances are too bland to compete with him? Or maybe this invented guy couldn’t be my real-life friend, because he might be somebody I wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around with in public? Naw—I’d love to go on a pub crawl with him. Of course, I’d have to buy. Lafferty is an Irish rapscallion, an antihero, fond of the horses and allergic to labor, whose fight or flight instinct came minus the fight part, and whose dimple just below his smile seems irresistible to most members of the opposite gender. I like him so much he’s starred in multiple stories, many of which have found fine homes, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories, a couple of times. Colorful—that’s the word. Maybe to achieve real memorability, a character has to be bigger-than-life colorful, more colorful than the real folks we know.

Or maybe not. Jimmy Plotner and Buster Clover (our heroes in “Coolbrook Twp,” who transform before our very eyes into James and Russell) are not bigger-than-life colorful. Maybe everyday, run-of-the-mill colorful, tops. And maybe that’s because they’re based on me and my lifelong best friend.

“Coolbrook Twp,” for those of you who haven’t yet read it (and what are you waiting for?), is constructed of alternating sections set in 1994 and 1954. This much, from the earlier sections, is true: My friend—we’ll stick with his fictional nickname, “Buster”—and I attended a four-room country schoolhouse, we competed climbing the tilting flagpole in the yard, we had a severe teacher much like “Mr. Fenstemaker,” famous for his huge paddle and readiness to use it, and we devised the brilliant scheme of hiding in the playroom cubby hole one afternoon after school so we could have the place all to ourselves. And we peed on the furnace, casting an unholy stench over the rest of the school. Or one of us did. We’ll stick with his fictional nickname too, “Jimmy.” Oh, and the first-ever orgasm “Jimmy” experiences at the top of the flagpole? Yep. True. Can’t make this stuff up. Stranger than fiction and all that.

What didn’t happen? Pretty much all the rest of it. We didn’t get caught, our teachers weren’t carrying on (that we know about), “Mr. Fenstemaker” was not murdered forty years later.

But the bits that did happen were enough to make me want to mine them for a story years later when I started writing fiction. The whole sexual awakening theme was already there, so, to enhance that theme, I invented the teachers’ affair, the boys getting caught, Buster getting a beating, the “Man, are we in for it now,” and there the story sat, contained in 1954, for years. Recently, I brought it out and dusted it off, looked at it with older, fresher eyes. I’d learned by then that a good way to give depth and resonance to a story, to make a story better, is to tell two stories at once; and so the 1994 plotline fell into place—you see, by then too, the mysteries of everyday life, the utter unknowability of exactly what the hell’s going on around us as we live out our years, had become my main preoccupation in story-telling, the underlying theme in nearly all my stuff.

One of the most rewarding things about writing “Coolbrook Twp” was the chance to play with the perspective offered by the distance of time—that wider, wiser perspective, the way lifetimes fall into focus, patterns and destinations become revealed, is one of the nifty things about getting older. (And there aren’t all that many nifty things about it.) Over forty years is a long time for a friendship to endure, and “James” and “Russell” are every bit as grounded in reality as are “Jimmy” and “Buster.” And, then again, maybe the 1994 plotline was motivated in part by the desire to extract a bit of revenge on “Mr. Fenstemaker” for the real-life beatings he inflicted on many a poor boy, “Buster” included.

And “Jimmy”? No. He was far too angelic and well-behaved to ever have encountered that fearsome and legendary paddle.

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“Documents”: A Mystery That Came Out of the Archives by Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim is the author of works such as Above Sugar Hill and Noir. Her short stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, New York Stories and New Contrast. She was a visiting associate at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and here she discusses the research and source materials for her revealing and unique story “Documents” in the current issue of the magazine.

I was up to my elbows in archival material when I found the note, handwritten on a scrap of paper:

There’s a little surprise carefully concealed in a Click’s carrier bag in the fridge for little Ekraam (who speaks so well on the phone) who could be forgiven for not being circumcised before he knew the way to heaven (so long as you don’t mention the word Palestine). So…. Es mein kindt. Forward the people’s struggle (on chicken bones and gefilte fish)!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the note, wondering who it was written by, who it was left for, what their story was.

The archives belonged to the University of Cape Town library’s special collections. I was visiting from the US, having pitched my project as “research for a collection of unconventional war stories.” Almost ten years after the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, when it was spring in the Southern hemisphere and autumn back home, I was trying to solve a mystery of my own. How had the white minority government stayed in power for so long? What was the apparatus that they’d used to divide, rule, and remove people from their homes?

The answer was in those archives—in the legal documents, political pamphlets, and handwritten letters in those boxes. In 2003, much of the material was still uncatalogued, so when I opened each box and examined the documents on the long tables in the whispery special collections room, I didn’t always know what I would find.

 

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I photocopied some of those documents, and the copies are spread before me again now: a notice informing a property owner that their town had been declared a “a White area” and as they were not white, they would have to sell their property and “settle in their own area”; a pamphlet from an activist advising residents of “mixed race areas” of what to do when police came calling to harass residents; a notice of appeal to authorities who had undervalued the home of a family forced to leave an area that had been “declared White.”

The minutiae of apartheid, the documents used to control people’s lives, fascinated me. Every American of my generation (who came of age in the 1980s) knew about whites only areas, the shanty towns where black South Africans were forced to live, the banning of anti-apartheid political activists and the brutality of the pro-apartheid police. But the depth of that brutality, the reach of the apartheid government’s control, became clearer to me when I looked at official documents—in the decrees and the laws that dictated the movements of people’s day-to-day lives.

I was also riveted by the documents from the anti-apartheid activists and one group of documents in particular seemed so familiar to me—I kept imagining the person who they’d belonged to. There were letters to universities in Britain from an activist who had to flee South Africa, budgets worked out in sterling and in rand, notes from meetings to encourage disinvestment in apartheid South Africa. And then, in the margin of a page of notes, an aside written in bubbly ornate lettering: “This is a wonderful pen!”

It was easy to wonder who the activist was, who his family was. The note about the treat in the fridge (in a carrier bag from a discount drugstore chain) had to be from a mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law was clearly Jewish. The child was not named Ekraam, but his name made it clear that some of the family members would have been designated white in apartheid South Africa and others non-white, which in and of itself would have been illegal during that time. I wanted to tell the story of the imaginary family by incorporating some of the documents from the archives as well as through a fictional set of notes and letters.

After I’d written the first draft of “Documents,” I found out more about the person whose papers had inspired the story. His story, and the story of his family, was not the story I told in “Documents.” I was happy to find out that he and his family were well, though. He hadn’t even realised his papers from the 1980s were in the archives, but he graciously gave permission to use to segments that are verbatim.

From the pages of “Documents” by Linda Mannheim in the July/August 2018 issue of AHMM.

I love that Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in guidelines for writers, asks “only that a story be about a crime (or the threat or fear of one).” The most compelling mysteries, to me, are ones where the crime is carried out by the state or other official bodies and the protagonist has to break laws to cope with that crime. I’m a sucker for the kind of Noir tales where a private eye confronts crooked cops. I’m interested in 1970s muckrakers uncovering city corruption. And South Africa in the 1980s too, was a place where individuals had to use subterfuge to survive a brutal and corrupt system.

Nearly all of the stories that I pitched as “unconventional war stories” when I went to South Africa turned out to be mysteries in the end. Nearly all were about people who became fugitives or victims when the law turned against them. Nearly all had to break those laws to challenge injustice.

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