Category Archives: Criminal Masterminds

“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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Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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The Making of “The Making of Velveteen Dream” by Chris Muessig

Author, editor, and instructor Chris Muessig’s fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories; he is also a contributor to AHMM and EQMM. Here he talks about the background to his unique and compelling story from the July/August 2017 issue, “The Making of Velveteen Dream.”

Both my sons, Travis and Jeff, pitched their way up from Little League diamonds to college baseball scholarships.  Jeff had the added good fortune of being picked in the 20th round of the 2001 Major League draft but “retired” from pro baseball in 2008 after two decades of involvement in the sport—a time span associated with career servicemen and police officers, not a 26-year-old.

High-level competition put a lot of wear and tear on those bodies—in Jeff’s case necessitating Tommy John surgery and several knee and shoulder operations.  Along with the physical damage came extreme frustration as each setback seemed to occur when he was about to break through to the next level. Recovering from these repeated injuries required a work ethic, mental toughness, and level of patience that he did not inherit from me. Although my wife and I shared plenty of excitement with him, we were also privy to the long stretches of painful rehab. Those are among the closely personal makings of the story.

Meanwhile, there is a funny amateur indie out there that was put together a dozen years ago by a trio of Jeff’s Stockton teammates.  Dream Revolver, the creation of Ben Winslow, Eddie Cornejo, and Jed Morris (they lend their names to some of the fictional teams in the imaginary Pacific Valley League), began as a day-in-the-life video spoof. Hours of footage later, the project had snowballed (not the most apt metaphor for the San Joaquin Valley) into a surrealistic feature in which every member of the team got to appear on screen and which may very well have been key in reversing what began as a lackluster season.

I recall briefly contemplating a novelization of the film, but found myself too busy trying to sell shorter fiction to well-known mystery magazines.  The makings, however, kept simmering on the back burner, until three years ago when I resolved to revive the “dream” in the guise of a crime story and pitched it (no pun intended) to Jeff to get his help in developing background and motivation.

As we went back and forth, I aimed for exposition-lite while slipping in as much detail about minor league life as the story’s confines allowed.  I think most of it was relevant, the rest revelatory. And since I was fashioning a crime story, I had to juxtapose the exhilaration of playing and contending at that level with other less positive issues that open the door to corruption and violence.

Firstly, there are so many empty hours to fill “at home” and during the long and uncomfortable “away” trips on cramped buses and in distant motels—the proverbial idle hands. Players have to contend with a guaranteed half-year’s separation from family and friends, not to mention the pressures, demands, uncertainties, and illusive lucre of a sport in which only a small fraction make it to the Show, and not all of them under innocent circumstances. For many players, only the supporting fabric of their communal living keeps their careers above water, no matter what their talent. So what happens if they don’t fit in?

On the brighter side, the Stockton Ports roster for 2005 lists the names of more than a dozen players who eventually stepped onto major league ball fields.  Perhaps the movie magic had something to do with that high success rate. Eddie and Jed remain active in baseball as successful college coaches, Benny is still making action-filled films of men in uniform (Navy and Marine Corps), and Jeff has become part of another special team, albeit law enforcement—which just goes to show how persistent some dreams can be.

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Robert Mangeot on “Let It Burn”

Robert Mangeot talks about his story “Let It Burn,” from the magazine’s current issue, on his blog. Check it out here!

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Jeff Cohen on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl”

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker series, the Asperger’s Mystery series (as coauthored by E.J. Copperman), and three other series under the Copperman byline. He also pens the Double Feature series about Elliot Freed, to which his tale in the current AHMM belongs. Here, he talks about how that story came to be.

It was time.

I’d written three novels featuring Elliot Freed, a one-time novelist who was now running a one-screen movie theater that he dubbed Comedy Tonight. Elliot showed only comedies; one classic, one contemporary every night. But Elliot’s run had ended (the publisher’s decision) and he’d gone into retirement in my head.

Except that he didn’t. I kept thinking about the character years after the last book (A Night at the Operation) was published. How had he coped with his sort-of newfound financial security? How was he getting along with Sharon, his ex-wife, who was now carrying his child?

That was the thing—the baby. Readers would send emails asking about the baby. Was it a boy or a girl? (I’d always answer, “yes.”) Did Elliot and Sharon remarry? (I thought I’d made that one clear in the last book—no.) Was that all there was to say about the gang at Comedy Tonight?

Enough questions and enough random thoughts in my head led to my AHMM story, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!” I wanted to revisit Elliot and his entourage (his parents, his theater staff, Sharon) and see how they were doing. I wanted to answer the question and most of all I wanted to write in Elliot’s voice again.

Elliot is my favorite of my characters (sorry, Alison, Samuel, Kay, Rachel and others; I love you too) because he’s a comic hero—he fights back with humor. Writing for him is like writing for Groucho Marx. I wanted to see if I could get back in that groove.

Whether or not I did is up to you. But I’m pretty happy with where things ended up. Maybe in a few years I’ll miss Elliot enough again.

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker and Double Feature (Elliot Freed) mysteries and co-author with E.J. Copperman of the Asperger’s Mystery series. As Copperman, he writes the Haunted Guesthouse, Mysterious Detective and Agent to the Paws series. That sounds like a lot of work. He may have to lie down now.

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Kevin Egan on bare•bones e-zine

Kevin Egan talks here with bare•bones e-zine about his novels A Shattered Circle and Midnight, which stemmed from short stories in AHMM, and the process of stemming the stories into novels.

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“Spinning Gold from Family Hay” by Nancy Pauline Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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