Category Archives: Criminal Masterminds

“Something Old, Something New . . .” by John H. Dirckx

 

John H. Dirckx is the author of Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma (Aspen Press) and short fiction in AHMM, EQMM, and Woman’s World as well as nonfiction in the medical field. Today he talks about handling clues in mystery fiction, and in particular his short story “Go for the Juggler,” the latest in the series featuring Detective Sergeant Dollinger and Lieutenant Auburn, from the current issue of AHMM.

A detective story needs a crook, a crime, a sleuth, and one or more clues that enable the sleuth to pin the crime on the crook. Not all clues in mystery fiction, however, point to the identity of the criminal. Some merely help to establish a chronology of events, provide background details, or exonerate suspects. Others are blatant red herrings, designed to bewilder or mislead the detective for a while and, perhaps for a while longer, the reader.

But somewhere in every story there must be at least one piece of evidence that unerringly incriminates the guilty person by a rigorous and intellectually satisfying application of Aristotelian logic, thus ensuring a fitting sentence in a court of law. (Often overlooked or ignored in classic mysteries of the Golden Age was the difference between a damning clue, such as the ineluctable bloody thumbprint, and a mere hint or suggestion, such as the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.)

Whence does the mystery writer garner clues that meet the requirements of both plausibility and evidential value? Often they turn up in the ongoing series of occurrences, mostly banal, that weave the fabric of daily life: the broken shoestring, the misread headline, the book put back on the wrong shelf in a moment of distraction.

In “Go for the Juggler,” Detective Auburn tumbles to the killer’s trick of insulating a car battery terminal with a plastic cap because he had once made the mistake of wiring up a new battery without removing the protective cap placed on the negative terminal by the manufacturer. That idea occurred to me because I once made the same mistake myself.

Auburn finds a cache of gold and jewelry by observing that the discoloration on the underside of a kitchen cabinet caused by rising heat doesn’t match the present location of the electric toaster. Over the years I’ve noticed several such discolorations while sprawled on various kitchen floors installing or repairing appliances.

Clues mustn’t be too conspicuous or too transparent—otherwise there is little or no mystery. The word kieselguhr has had an intriguing and exotic ring to my ears from the first time I heard it in a chemistry lecture decades ago. Kieselguhr may not be in your working vocabulary, but you can find out more about it than you could possibly want to know with a simple Internet search.

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried . . .” Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade never heard of surveillance cameras, but they’re ubiquitous today, and they pop up often enough in crime fiction. In this story, taped video footage enables the detectives to identify the “juggler.”

“Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” In the construction of the modern detective story, convention permits an occasional nod to the venerable past of the genre. For the piece of evidence that clinches the guilt of the killer in “Go for the Juggler,” I fell back on that hoary cliché, fingerprints found on articles used in the commission of the crime. Who says tradition isn’t what it used to be?

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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“De-Mystified” by Randall DeWitt

Randall DeWitt  is the author of an upcoming flash-fiction collection, Blunt Flash Trauma, which will also include stories by Sharon Daynard, Ruth M. McCarty, and Kathy Chencharik. He is a three-time winner of AHMM’s Mysterious Photograph contest; one of these winning stories, “The Cable Job,” went on to win the 2012 Derringer Award for Best Flash Story. Here he talks about the experience of writing flash fiction and entering the contest.

When the latest edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrives, the first thing I do is turn to “The Story that Won” to see who authored the prevailing 250-words for the latest Mysterious Photograph contest. I read the story, and then scan the honorable mentions for names that I know. I remember what it was like to see my name on that list and the feeling of accomplishment when the winning story was mine. If my stories and name can appear on that page, anyone with a fertile imagination and half-decent writing skills can too.

As a past winner of the contest, I have a secret I’d like to share with you—I don’t consider myself a writer. I base this conclusion on years of marriage to a mystery writer who is much more talented and by having read the stories of many of her friends in the writing community. I get jealous just thinking about how they can masterfully fill page after page describing something as simple as a sneeze if they wanted to. Me? My version would read Achoo! and that would pretty much be it. But in the world of flash fiction, my shortcoming might be my biggest asset. I don’t have to tamp down the urge to paint a Rembrandt to illustrate my story because I don’t possess that kind of a brush. Low word counts are my friend. And if the result is a picture worthy of hanging in Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, and people want to look at it, I’ve done my job. I’m happy.

Everything begins with the Mysterious Photograph itself of course and the search for an answer to why? Why is this picture integral to the story? I try not to overthink it. If there’s a title to the picture, I consider those words too just like everyone else. And there it is, the phrase that probably dooms most submissions—like everyone else.

Not every story has to end in a gruesome murder. I’ve written dark submissions but in my experience it’s the light-hearted ones I’ve sent in that have won. So sometimes I concoct new ways to attempt, pull off or stop a robbery. Other times I test the judges with a caper that borders on the absurd. Whatever I come up with, it has to be out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to incorporate something that everyone may relate to. I think that sort of connection with the reader helps sell the story. In my winning entries, one had a familiar tempting smell. In another, it was dealing with the cable company. In my last, it was the annoying habits of a co-worker.

Finally, I’m sure it doesn’t have to be said but the ending has to be satisfying. I often prefer to add a small twist as long as it plays fair with the reader and makes sense. If it’s written well enough, who knows?

If all goes well, I’ll see you in “The Story that Won.”

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.

I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)

Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)

Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”

The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.

Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.

Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.

One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.

So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.

With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.

Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.

And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.

I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.

  • The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
  • Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
  • I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
  • The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
  • The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
  • Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
  • The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
  • A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
  • Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford

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“Making Choices and Bridging Gaps: Writing Historical Fiction” by Anna Castle

 

Anna Castle writes two historical series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mysteries. She has a BA in Classics, MS in Computer Science, and PhD in Linguistics, and has worked a variety of careers (including in waitressing, in software engineering, as an assistant professor, and as an archivist). Here she talks about writing historical fiction and her story “For Want of a Book” from the current issue.

This post was prompted by Linda Landrigan’s question about the way I spelled the name of an historical figure in my short story, “For Want of a Book,” set in the late Elizabethan period. The character in question is the well-known Sir Walter Raleigh, who evidently spelled his name “Ralegh” more often than not. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days; a standard English orthography took centuries to achieve, not beginning in earnest until long after Raleigh’s death. Historians these days write “Ralegh,” so I did too, in my first Francis Bacon mystery novel. Linda’s question made me revisit that issue and decide to go the other way. Readers of fiction don’t care that much about trends in historiography. Next time someone asks that question, I’ll probably flip back again—which, come to think of it, is the most historically accurate response of all!

Writing historical fiction is full of such minor leaps. The historical record is rarely complete enough for the full quotidian texture of a short story, much less a novel. I’m a bona fide Elizabethan history nerd with an excellent university library at my disposal, but even so, I make something up with each new person or place. My goal is to make my inventions blend invisibly into the documented realities.

Walking through my story in this month’s issue supplies an array of examples. I invented Francis Bacon’s desire to re-read Lucretius’s De rerum natura. No list of Bacon’s books exists, alas. He must have had an extensive library, but it apparently disappeared onto the shelves of his friends upon his death. It’s impossible that he wasn’t fully familiar with Lucretius, however, like every other well-educated man in England.

I know how bookshops smelled, thanks to works like James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.) But I have to invent the layout of the shop, which nobody bothered to describe. I also assume they shipped books and paper in barrels; they used barrels for everything in those days. Plus I like the word—it sounds round.

Happily, titles and authors of books of all kinds are preserved for all time in many places. I snag the ones that catch my eye as I’m reading history books and keep them in a list. I like to know what my characters are reading. And once I have a title, I can often find the document itself, either at Google Books or Early Modern Books Online. Yes, it’s a distraction, but I’m curious, and sometimes it’s fun to deploy a quote to give readers a taste of the real McCoy.

I can look at the images from Pietro Aretino’s Sixteen Postures, still shockingly explicit, on my screen while Bacon and his bookseller turn the pages in the shop. I can snag images from the Grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes for my blog, thanks to the British Museum. But again, I don’t know what the interior of a mercer’s shop really looked like. I know they sold all sorts of luxury items, so I invent a few for show.

From “the grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes.” The British Museum.

I do know where to put an upscale shop—in Thomas Gresham’s beautiful new Royal Exchange. I can look at a drawing of that important building made in the mid-seventeenth century on Wikipedia. How cool is that! I can pick a place to put my shop, upstairs on the corner, away from the whores and above the dust. I adore location-hunting in the past.

The Royal Exchange. Wikipedia.

I can chart a course from Gray’s Inn on the western fringe of the metropolis to St. Paul’s and from there to Billingsgate and back with perfect factuality, thanks to Adrian Proctor and Robert Taylor’s indispensable A to Z of Elizabethan London (Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent, 1979.)

Edward de Vere, 1575. Wikipedia.

Thanks to that resource, I know where Edward de Vere lived, some of the time. I have to invent the interior, but not the earl’s atrocious character, thanks to Alan Nelson’s biography, Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( Liverpool University Press, 2003.) Many of the earl’s letters were preserved. They’ve been transcribed and annotated, thanks in some part to the Oxford Authorship Society, a group of people who believe Edward de Vere wrote many of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. And now we’ve arrived at an interpretation requiring far greater leaps over historical gaps than I would ever dare to make.

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“Plotting a Dark and Twisty” by Jane K. Cleland

AHMM readers will be familiar with Jane K. Cleland‘s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, both at novel and short-story length. Jane also writes about business communications, and her book Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot won the 2017 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Here she talks about suspenseful storytelling in a darker vein and her tale “Night Flight to Bali” from the September/October 2017 issue.

“Night Flight to Bali” is unlike anything I’ve written before. My long-running Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series falls firmly into the traditional mystery genre. Cozies are firmly within my bailiwick, yet I want to write darker.

Darkness in storytelling derives from longing. Who longs for what and what are they willing to do to get it? It’s all about a deeply felt yearning that can’t be denied: This is true about all crime fiction, of course, but in dark and twisty crime fiction, the longing is closer to the surface.

“Night Flight to Bali” tells the story of Sabrina and Sam, a couple in love, a couple determined to be free. Sabrina will do anything to marry her soulmate, Sam. Sam will do anything to get rich. Sabrina longs for love, to belong to a man; Sam longs for independence, for the freedom that only money can buy. Since Sam doesn’t want anything Sabrina has to offer except money, her efforts to satisfy her longing are doomed to fail.

In plotting “Night Flight to Bali,” I aimed to introduce a plot twist every few hundred words or so. I use the phrase “plot twist” as an umbrella term, by the way, summarizing three specific plotting techniques, which I refer to as TRDs. (I wrote about TRDs in my Agatha-Award winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot.) The three TRDs are:

  • plot Twists, something that takes your story sidewise
  • plot Reversals, something that takes your story in the opposite direction
  • moments of heightened Danger, something that adds urgency and dread to the story

I set out to use a variety of TRDs, the more the better, weaving them in every few hundred words or so. By showcasing Sabrina and Sam’s longings, my goal was to create a story that, because it was so twisty, got readers thinking about the unexpected and essentially fluid nature of authenticity—in art and in love.

One of the stand-out moments of my career was when Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, emailed me that she was going to publish “Night Flight to Bali,” She wrote: “Love it! So dark and twisty.” I shouted “Yes!” to my computer monitor, then did a happy dance around the room.

I hope you enjoy the story, my first effort at writing raw.

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“Plans and Revisions” by Steve Liskow

Steve Liskow is the author of three mystery series, and his latest book is Hit Somebody. In 2016 he became the Black Orchid Novella Award‘s first repeat winner. You can read his winning story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” in the current July/August 2017 issue. Here, he talks about the evolution of this story, his previous winner, and the Woody Guthrie series.

“We live most of our lives in Plan B.” Was that a bumper sticker, a button, or a tee shirt? I don’t remember, but I agree with the claim.

In fall 2003, I wrote the first draft of a PI novel that went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. I sent it out with the PI named Rob Daniels, Eric Morley, and at least one other name I no longer remember. In 2013, I finally self-published it as Blood On the Tracks.

In late 2004, after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference, I wrote “Stranglehold,” a short story installment in what I saw as a series set in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was almost 7000 words, too long for most magazines, and the others rejected it. I showed it to a fellow writer who said he had trouble keeping track of so many characters in the first three pages. I needed all those people, so I shelved the story and turned to other projects.

In fall 2006, a friend suggested I write a romance novel. Ghost Writers in the Sky became a romantic mystery spoof set in Connecticut with deliberately over-the-top characters, including a PI named Zach Barnes. Between 2007 and 2009, I sent it to nearly seventy agents and publishers with underwhelming success.

Late in 2008, I learned that the Wolfe Pack, named in honor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, sought entries for the Black Orchid Novella Award. Stout’s work influenced both my prose and my tone, so I wondered if I could expand “Stranglehold” to 15,000 words and introduce the large cast more slowly.

Plan B, indeed. Over the next week, I added 9000 words and realized that nothing felt like padding. The story was a novella waiting to be recognized. By then, the Barnes novel was dead in the water, but I liked the character’s name. I gave it to my Detroit rock ‘n’ roll wannabe and sent the new and improved (I hoped) “Stranglehold” to the contest early in 2009.

A few months later, I learned of a new local publisher looking for Connecticut mysteries and sent the Zach Barnes novel out to them, too…with the same protagonist. My wife convinced me to change the title, to Who Wrote the Book of Death? This has to be about Plan C, right?

Six months later, Jane Cleland called to tell me “Stranglehold” had won—twenty-four hours after Mainly Murder Press offered me a contract for Who Wrote . . . ?. Now Zach Barnes had two cases, one in Detroit and the other in Connecticut, a tough commute.

I still saw the Connecticut novel as a stand-alone and thought the Detroit story had legs, so I decided to keep Zach in Detroit and re-name the Connecticut shamus. Years before, at that Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt gave me a piece of advice that resonated now:

Beware of changing the name of a character because it will change the rhythm of every sentence in your story that names him or her. Ah, the joys of computer technology. I did a global edit and changed “Barnes” to “Nines.” Same rhythm, same consonant sounds. “Zach/Zachary” became “Greg/Gregory” and there we were.

I thought.

A few reviewers wanted to read more about “Greg” and his beautiful girlfriend. Some readers went to my website and told me they thought Greg Nines was a dumb name. By then I’d also noticed that Spell-check went spastic every time I used “Nines” as the singular subject of a sentence. Hmmm.

Eighteen months later, I parted company with that publisher and re-edited the book. The Detroit series was still generating huge waves of ennui, so I changed the PI’s name back to Zach Barnes . . . in Connecticut. Zach now appears in five books. In 2013, when I self-pubbed Blood On the Tracks, the first in the Detroit series, the PI formerly known as Zach needed a new name. My high school classmate, session musician Susie (Kaine) Woodman, inspired the character of Megan Traine, so I still wanted him to be musical.

After bouncing ideas off my wife (much better at names and titles than I am), my equally brilliant webmistress (ditto), and my cover designer, we came up with Elwood Christopher Guthrie, who goes by Chris. Naturally, everyone else calls him “Woody.” Woody’s fourth adventure, Before You Accuse Me, will arrive in December or January.

“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” is a sequel to “Stranglehold.” I actually planned the story as a novel, but didn’t find any of the possible subplots intriguing enough to bear writing, so it ended up as another novella—this time shrinking to size. If you read both stories in Alfred Hitchcock, you noticed the name change. Now you know why.

Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .

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