Category Archives: Criminal Masterminds

“Observing Venus on a Trip to Mars” by Mark Thielman

Every year in conjunction with The Wolfe Pack, AHMM presents the Black Orchid Novella Award to a work of fiction best exemplifying the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The winner this year (and in 2015) is Mark Thielman, a Texas criminal-law magistrate.  Here he talks about his BONA-winning tale, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which you can read in the current July/August 2018 issue. We have more tales by Mark coming up in forthcoming issues.

I love killing people in ships from the age of sail.

The setting provides a natural locked room. The killer must be onboard somewhere. The location allows for the sleuth to exercise his/her full powers of ratiocination. (I didn’t know that word until the Trace Evidence blog promoting the July/August edition of AHMM used it to describe my character. Now, I feel educated and obligated.)

Exotic words I don’t get to use in my everyday life—part of the fun of writing a sea yarn: I get to exercise my inner Patrick O’Brian.

The Black Orchid Novella Award is a partnership between the Wolfe Pack, the official Nero Wolfe Society, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine honoring the novellas of Rex Stout. I have been fortunate to twice win the award. The challenge is to write a story which celebrates the components of the Rex Stout canon without being derivative.

I found my story this time in Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1769 to observe Venus crossing the sun. In modern terms, the voyage seems the equivalent of traveling to Mars. Both trips would take about an equal length of time and have the common goal of hitting a tiny point of land in a vastness of void. A principal difference, however, was that the technology for determining longitude, how far a ship had travelled east or west, was still being developed in 1769. The captain, a man who had the intellectual wherewithal and confidence to steer a ship to a pinprick of land, presented an authentic Wolfe-like character.

Somewhere on my shelves is a dusty edition of Alistair MacLean’s biography of Captain Cook. Captain Cook’s journals from his voyage may be read online. His observations are readily available. Drawings of the HM Bark Endeavour can also be found through the Internet. I hoped to give the story the proper nautical feel through the details obtained by study.

The 1769 voyage of the Endeavour was a joint project of the British Navy and the Royal Society. The scientists, being gentlemen, were not berthed with the sailors, but rather shared the Captain’s space. Joseph Banks, the chief scientist, was a gentleman, unlike Cook, a man born to working class roots who rose through the ranks. Banks, younger than Cook, with his own unique skill set, housed with the Captain. He seemed a natural fit for Archie.

The Endeavour’s odyssey had an additional mission. The plan remained a secret until the ship had set sail. The Navy wanted Cook to search for a hypothetical southern continent, a land mass to offset those of the northern hemisphere. Geographers postulated that such a land was necessary to keep the earth from wobbling in its rotation. Captain Cook also tested foods to avoid scurvy, a plague of long ocean voyages. Secret missions with a culinary angle, reminiscent of Mr. Wolfe and his chef, Fritz. A natural pairing of strong individuals living together. Each bit of research heightened my enthusiasm that I had found an ideal setting in which to recast a Wolfe tale.

The voyage of the Endeavour was a naval expedition. Yet its purpose was not victory in battle but rather a search for truth and discovery. The existence of the great southern continent, the dimensions of the galaxy, and an effective tool for combatting scurvy were all undertakings on Captain Cook’s expedition. This search for truth provides an excellent backdrop for a whodunit. I merely added a body.

And, it allowed me to use cool words like fo’cs’le and bowsprit.

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“Pulling Off a Heist Story” by Rebecca Cantrell

USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell is the author of the Joe Tesla thrillers and the Hannah Vogel mysteries, among several other series. Her work has won the Thriller, Macavity, and Bruce Alexander awards. Here she talks about “Homework,”  her story in the current July/August issue of AHMM.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine requested a piece about writing heist stories, presumably because I have one in this month’s magazine. Or maybe they’ve discovered my plans for Fort Knox.  I’m going to play it straight and pretend it’s about writing. No spoilers. So, here’s the skinny.

A good heist takes planning. Everyone needs to know their role. Character expertise is crucial. The execution needs to be solid. And a little misdirection doesn’t hurt either. Those are the elements of a heist, and a short story isn’t so different.

First, I had to figure out what to steal.  The story started with a writing prompt from my teenaged son. The first line had to be “Flames licked the ceiling.” Max is a fantastic writer, and I wanted to have fun with his prompt,  to write about flames and licking and ceilings and not have a fire.

So, it started with the dog, Flames, and her owner, Ada. I followed Flames along, as surprised as she was by how things unfolded. If the story had been a real heist, I’d say that by the end of the first draft I knew what I wanted to steal.

Now I knew the crime, but like a good heist, this story took some planning.  In the second draft I tightened up the action and descriptions. I made sure every character in the caper was properly trained. Training wasn’t enough though because characters are more than their training. Everyone had secrets, too.  I wanted the reader to sense that all wasn’t quite well, but still be surprised at the ending. I slipped in shiny little nuggets of misdirection for the reader, for the characters, even for the dog as the heist was executed.

As a person, you live life in one direction, today gives way to tomorrow. But that’s not true for a writer. As a writer, you can go back and forth in a story like a crazy person with a time machine, changing the future and the past. Nobody knows if it took one draft or twenty. This is handy in writing, and I imagine it would be useful in pulling of a heist, too. Luckily, writers have some advantages over thieves. They get one chance.

The last thing to arrive was the title.  I wanted a title that didn’t make sense until the very last line. It slipped into my head like that ring slipped on Ada’s finger. Then, hopefully, the meaning of the title and the aftermath of the heist became clear. Or maybe you’re just left with a dog and a handful of . . . pumpkin pie.

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Thomas Pluck on Crime Fiction

Last week, the Dell mystery fiction editors were proud to be featured in short interviews over at SleuthSayers. Today, we have the pleasure and honor of welcoming a SleuthSayer to Trace Evidence. New Jersey author Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the short-story collection Life During Wartime—among other titles. He was also the editor of Protectors 2: Heroes, which was nominated for an Anthony Award.

For growing up in a family that always had one leg outside the law, it took me a long time to fully embrace crime fiction. My first entry was Miss Marple, perhaps surprising for a writer often pegged as noir. I was raised by my grandmother since I was six, so I felt comfortable around a table of old ladies at tea. And as a kid, I didn’t know how crooked we were.

The house I grew up in was a marker for a gambling debt, filled every Sunday with bikers, truck drivers, disgraced cops, managers of mob-owned bars, and cocktail waitresses. I didn’t find anyone like my family in the books we read in school, but I did find them in crime fiction. My mom and I traded authors like baseball cards. Have you read this one yet? You’ve got to read this. . . .

Crime fiction is a diverse carnival, from the gritty carnies operating rickety rides to the wholesome side where bakers peddle tasty treats, where murder is more shocking but no less likely. Marks come from the farm or the inner city, all have a place here. When I browse the mystery section or flip through AHMM or EQMM to hear the sweet rasp of the pages, I may find myself in the suburbs of ancient Rome, in a gilded drawing room with a locked door, or in a rough spot in a country where I can’t speak the language but I know the music, because the human heart is the same wherever you go.

And that’s why the kid who grew up next to a Superfund site and managed to snag a degree in English Lit writes crime fiction, and is proud to be part of the carnival of crime.

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In Conversation with Puzzle Editor Mark Lagasse

With our current issue, we are excited to welcome to our pages a new puzzle series: Mixed-Up Anagrams by Mark Lagasse. Mark is a longtime colleague at Dell Magazines and friend to the mystery-fiction titles. Here, we talk with Mark about mysteries, puzzles, and his career—and even get a tip for solving anagrams.

AHMM: Have you always been a fan of word puzzles?

Mark Lagasse: One of my earliest memories is of me emceeing the boxed home versions of TV game shows (with my sisters as contestants) before I was four years old. A little later, I solved my first crossword in a newspaper and I was hooked. There’s never been a day in my life since when I didn’t solve some kind of puzzle or play a game.

AH: What about mysteries?

ML: I adore mysteries and have read thousands.

AH: If you can pick, what’s your favorite mystery work or author?

ML: There’s no doubt: Rex Stout. The relationship that developed over 40 years between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin was complicated, nuanced, funny, and, most importantly, real; these two can easily stand among the most brilliantly defined characters of all fiction. Now, some people find Stout’s plots shaky and his suspects inadequately differentiated. Still, most readers can’t deny that they are chiefly enjoying the novels and novellas for Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and of course, Wolfe’s brownstone (a character in itself).

I’m also a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Josephine Tey, Stuart Kaminsky, and Lawrence Block. In terms of crime fiction, Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain reign supreme.

AH: How did you get started constructing and editing puzzles professionally?

ML: I’d been constructing all kinds of puzzles for my own (and friends’) amusement since I was five. Naturally, I bought and devoured hundreds of puzzle magazines published by both Dell and Penny Press. After a BS in management, an MBA, and a couple of years in consulting and banking (all probably misguided), in 1987 I finally wised up and applied to Dell Puzzle Magazines for an assistant-editor job. My résumé was accompanied by a puzzle I made that argued why I would be a good hire; it must have worked because I got the position and have been at Dell for nearly 31 years, today as a Senior Executive Editor.

AH: And your favorite type of puzzle to work? What about your favorite to construct or edit—is it the same?

ML: Dell Puzzle Magazines features hundreds of different variety puzzles, so picking a favorite is tough. I will say I love to solve crosswords, specialty Sudoku, anagram-based material, and Anacrostics. And as corny as it might sound, I’ve never encountered a puzzle I didn’t like to construct.

AH: How do you think the two genres or forms of mystery and puzzles connect?

ML: As Lorenz Hart wrote, “If you asked me, I could write a book” on this subject, as the genres overlap a lot. To be brief, I believe that mysteries and puzzles require both the left and right sides of our brain. We must rationally, deductively, even coldly unravel problems that are presented in a highly artistic, entertaining medium. Furthermore, life doesn’t always provide straightforward solutions or satisfying conclusions; mysteries and puzzles (if done correctly) do. Deriving fun and a sense of accomplishment from mere thinking are rare treats nowadays!

AH: Can you offer a tip for solving anagram puzzles?

ML: Some folks haul out their Scrabble sets and rearrange the tiles to gain a foothold, and others jot the given letters in the margin and scramble them there. It’s key to take into account what exactly you’re forming. For names of characters, for example, a J may lead you to JOHN, JAMES, JACK, JANE, etc. In the November-December 2018 issue, when the answers to Scrambled Grafton will be titles of Kinsey Millhone books, it will be very helpful to realize that each entry will contain IS FOR.

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“Stagecoach Mary” by Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. She was the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction (for Death al Dente and Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure). The fifth book in her Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles, is out this week from Midnight Ink. Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “All God’s Sparrows” from the current issue of AHMM.

In “All God’s Sparrow’s” (AHMM May/Jume 2018), we meet Mary Fields, a historical figure also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832, Mary worked after the Civil War as a domestic servant in Ohio, where she met Ursuline Sister Amadeus Dunne.

In 1884, Amadeus—by then the Mother Superior—took a small group of nuns to St. Labre, in Montana Territory, to start a school. The next year, the Jesuits asked her to start a school serving Blackfeet Indian girls and white settlers’ daughters at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

In 1885, Amadeus became ill with pneumonia, and Mary traveled west to nurse her. Amadeus recovered, and Mary remained to work at the Mission. Legend says she created more than a bit of trouble, and eventually, the bishop forced Amadeus to fire her. Amadeus helped her get the postal delivery route in Cascade, leading to the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” Later, she became postmistress, the second woman and first black woman in the country to do so. She was known for her love of baseball, children, and flowers. Mary Fields died in Great Falls, Montana in 1914.

I’d long heard of Mary and wanted to write about her, but had no idea what kind of story I could tell. Though literate, she left no written record, although extensive archives at the state historical society and Ursuline Center document the mission and her life.

Writing in Montana 1889: Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood, historian Ken Egan, Jr., notes that racial and ethnic minorities played a greater role in territorial Montana than one might think from the monolithic appearance of the present-day state. The war displaced many people, white and black; the vast lands of the West beckoned.

But as statehood approached, pressures increased. Native peoples were forcibly moved onto reservations. National events, such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, devastated the Chinese community, which had grown up around railroad construction. The lands were harsh, and many early settlers moved on.

Mary stayed. Why? Clearly her bond with Amadeus was strong. But difficult as life here was, I think the West gave her a freedom she lacked in Ohio. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with historical mysteries. Finally, I realized, I’d found a format that would allow me to explore the life and times of this astonishing woman. I hope you enjoy taking the trip back in time with me.

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On “Bothering With the Details” by Dayle A. Dermatis

Dayle A. Dermatis is the author of several novels (including Ghosted, in the Nikki Ashburne series) and over 100 short stories in the mystery, thriller, romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and other genres. She is also a founding member of the Uncollected Anthology project. Here she talks about her story “Bothering With the Details,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Some stories have tenuous beginnings: a phrase, a scrap of dialogue, a what-if, an interesting fact that sends the brain spinning. Other stories have such murky origins that by the end of writing, whatever sparked the story is long lost.

“Bothering With the Details” is not one of those stories.

In 2015 I took an intensive Mystery Writing Workshop run by Edgar- and Shamus-nominated writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I’d taken such writing workshops from her before, so I should have known what I was in for. I knew I’d be writing a story ahead of time, and at least three stories during the week-long workshop, along with novel sketches and technique assignments and more.

Before the workshop, Kris asked for several pieces of information, including one or two things we were proficient at doing. Along with writing, my “day job” is publishing: copyediting, design, etc. Having just finished a copyediting job, I responded to her question with “copyediting.”

As I said, I should have known better. At the workshop, she assigned us to write a crime story in which the thing we were good at was integral to the story. In other words, if you take out that skill, the story doesn’t work.

I found myself faced with writing a crime story in which copyediting was paramount.

Well, hell.

As a copyeditor, I’ve encountered many writers who think they don’t need a copyeditor. (My own mother, for instance, was sure that her first readers would catch everything. When I published her novel, I hired an outside copyeditor . . . who, unsurprisingly, found errors.) Yes, most folks—such as my own husband—can catch typos. But it takes another level of skill to know, say, when to use “a while” versus “awhile,” or the nuances of the n-dash. The difference between “my husband Ken” and “my husband, Ken” speaks to how many husbands I might have.

You get the idea.

So I started with a woman who’d been downsized because the company didn’t think they needed someone who bothered with those details . . . and off I went. I haven’t got the Chicago Manual of Style memorized like Lydia does, but I had a great time researching (one might say bothering with) the details as I wrote the story. Reader, I laughed.

A possibly interesting side note: at the workshop, we were later charged with writing a story using a secondary character from one of our other stories. I chose Brittani, the granddaughter of Lydia, the protagonist in “Bothering With the Details.” Delving into Brittani’s past, I’ve written several stories about her history as a “fixer” at her high school, including ones that are slated to appear in Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine and Fiction River: Dark and Deadly Passions.

Finally, if you’re a writer interested in learning more about the craft of writing mystery, Kristine Kathryn Rusch will be teaching the above-mentioned workshop again in 2019.

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The Origins of Wilson Salinas and “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” by Tom Larsen

Tom Larsen’s fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Big Pond Rumours. One of his stories, cowritten by his grandson, appears in the benefit anthology Friends in Foreign Places. Detective Wilson Salinas is featured in his novel Getting Legal. Here the author talks about his story “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” from the current March/April 2018 issue—his first published mystery story. (Make sure to read the tale first!)

I love to read, which is why I love to write. I love to read character-driven stories, so I tend to write character-driven stories. Of course, to do that requires that I develop characters—characters that are interesting, and most of all, believable. Of all the characters that I’ve developed in twenty years of writing, my favorite is Wilson Salinas, the Ecuadorian private investigator who finds himself a murder suspect in “Los Cantantes de Karaoke”—published this month in AHMM.

My wife Debby and I retired January 1, 2014. Within six months we had sold our house and most of our belongings, and began the move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Although we had made two exploratory trips, this was the real thing. No turning back.

We arrived in Guayaquil at midnight on a hot and steamy June night. The next morning we were on our way to our new home in Cuenca, a stunningly beautiful colonial city located at 8,500 feet elevation in the Andes Mountains.

We had contracted with a driver to take us on the four-hour, 120 mile journey to Cuenca. Emilio, a diminutive fellow with a wide friendly face and an engaging manner, met us at the hotel the next morning, and off we went.

From the vast rice and sugar cane fields and banana plantations of the coastal lowlands we ascended into the lush hardwood forest of the west slope of the Andes, through the dry grasslands and jagged peaks of the summit, and on to the east side. Imagine huge valleys, with far-off mountain peaks rising through the fog like islands out of the sea, pristine lakes too high to be affected by toxic runoff, llamas grazing along the side of the road, colorfully dressed woman milking cows in pastures that rose steeply above us.

We saw all of that and more, but the most memorable part of the trip was meeting Emilio, a proud descendant of the Cañari indigenous group. Ten years earlier, Emilio had emigrated to the United States, like tens of thousands of young Ecuatorianos, when Ecuador’s economy was in freefall. When the economy began to turn around and it looked as if the current president might actually serve out two complete terms (a rarity in Ecuador in recent years) Emilio fled the frigid winters of Minneapolis for the temperate climate of his mountain home.

Emilio’s English was as impeccable as our Spanish was limited, and his knowledge of the history, geography, and politics of his country was excellent. Ecuador couldn’t have chosen a better ambassador.

I’m a mystery writer, so while Emilio pointed out interesting sights and explained the politics of his country, my mind of course, wandered. What must it have been like, I thought, to leave the security and tranquility of the only home you’ve ever known, and head to a cold and frightening megalopolis 3,500 miles north? And, what must it have been like to return years later, with all the changes that you, and your former home, have gone through in the interim? Although I didn’t realize it until a few months later, that was the day that Wilson Salinas came into being.

Now, I have to say that Emilio is nothing at all like Wilson. Emilio’s a hard-working entrepreneur, completely dedicated to his family, and while that’s great, it doesn’t make for an interesting character in a mystery. So, I made Wilson an alcoholic, a smart-ass, and essentially a failure at everything he has tried to accomplish. I sent him off to Seattle for fifteen years, and brought him home to Cuenca at the age of 35, broke, disillusioned, and no more comfortable in his childhood home than he had been in his adopted one.

While living in Portland, Oregon, I had created a character with many of the same attributes as Wilson, and at one point I had begun a short story where the P.I. is duped by an old friend into providing an alibi for him as the friend murders his wife and his brother, whom he suspects of having an affair.

The story went nowhere, but a half dozen years later, as I sat at my desk in Cuenca watching the sun come up over the mountains, the idea came back to me, and Wilson fit seamlessly into the role of the hapless private investigator. I took it a step further and had his old friend frame Wilson for the murders, and that was the origin of “Los Cantantes de Karaoke.”

Fun Fact: Wilson’s name was inspired by a local realtor named Edison Salinas. Names such as Wilson and Edison are fairly common first names in Ecuador. Hitler and Stalin, while not nearly as common, are not unheard of.

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