Category Archives: How’d That Happen

Josh Pachter on “Pisan Zapra”

Writer, editor, and translator Josh Pachter’s Mahboob Chaudri stories can be found collected in The Tree of Life. He is a regular contributor to EQMM’s Passport to Crime department as a translator, and he has been publishing fiction since 1968. Here he writes about how he came to write his story “Pisan Zapra,” which is featured in the November 2016 issue of AHMM.

For Christmas of 2014, my in-laws gave me a fascinating little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (10 Speed Press, 2014). As I leafed through it the next morning, I chuckled to find gezellig, which is my favorite untranslatable Dutch word, and came to a dead stop four pages later at pisan zapra, which is listed as a Malay noun meaning “the time needed to eat a banana.”

Now that’s a title for a short story, I thought, and it seemed obvious that the story it was a title for would be set in Malaysia, and would unfold over a period of no more than a couple of minutes—the amount of time needed to eat a banana.

I did some basic research and discovered that there is disagreement as to whether or not the expression is legitimate Malay. Some sources say yes, while others—including numerous native speakers of Malay—say they’ve never heard it.

As I continued poking around the Internet, I stumbled across some fascinating information about a vengeful vampiric spirit known as the pontianak. In Malay folklore, the pontianak are said to be the ghosts of women who died in pregnancy, generally depicted as pale-skinned beauties with long hair, dressed all in white. A pontianak usually announces its presence through the cries of a baby; if the cry is soft, it means that the spirit is close. Although it lives in the trunk of the pokok pisang—the banana tree—its presence is sometimes accompanied by the fragrance of the plumeria flower, followed afterward by a terrible stench. The pontianak identify their prey, I learned, by sniffing out clothes left outdoors to dry. (For this reason, some Malays refuse to leave any article of clothing outside their residences overnight.) A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. If you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head, and, when the pontianak goes after a man, it may rip out the poor slob’s sex organs with its hands.

So, pisan zapra and the pontianak. Who could ask for anything more? This turned out to be one of those stories that pretty much writes itself—or perhaps it was a vengeful Malay spirit that guided my fingers on the keyboard. . . .

In any case, I wrote the story and submitted it to Linda Landrigan, and I am absolutely delighted that she selected it for inclusion in AHMM in this 60th-anniversary year. Although I’ve been publishing in EQMM pretty regularly since my first appearance in its pages in 1968, this is my first appearance in Hitchcock’s since 1986—half the magazine’s life (and almost half my life) ago. It’s great to be back!

Now I hope you’ll excuse me while I go eat a banana and make sure I get the laundry off the line before nightfall. . . .

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Susan Oleksiw on “Variable Winds”

Susan Oleksiw is an author, photographer, and publisher. Here she writes about her story “Variable Winds,” AHMM‘s October cover story. She also writes about sailing in Come About for Murder: A Mellingham Mystery (2016). Her most recent book is When Krishna Calls: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2016).

I’m used to strangers asking me where I get my ideas, and most of the time I have no clue where they come from. But not so for “Variable Winds,” in the October issue of AHMM.

A few years ago I came across a book about the Vendee Globe. Since I live on the ocean and grew up sailing with my family, I was curious about an event I’d never heard of. I had full sympathy for the person who came up with the title, Godforsaken Sea, and looked forward to an exciting read. Derek Lundy, the author, recreates the passage of the boats in the Vendee Globe, 1996-97, an international endurance sailing race.

I learned to sail in a Penguin, a class of boat less used in teaching kids today than the Turnabout, a more stable boat for learning to maneuver on the water. I found them both dangerously prone to threatening to keel over, but perhaps that was more my skill as a skipper than a design flaw. I met the original designer of the Turnabout, Mr. Turner, when he owned a summer resort hotel in our area, and he was determined to improve on everything that floated. I went on to sail in other small boats, and then mostly as crew in the family 210, a twenty-nine-foot boat meant mostly for racing. This class has also fallen out of favor on the East Coast, but I have fond memories of sailing along and seeing a whale surface to starboard or dropping anchor in a cove to enjoy a swim or eat lunch. But I also remember a tug pulling a garbage scow that seemed to think we were merely a bit of flotsam to be run over. I remember the challenges of sailing before instant weather reports, but all my experiences paled in comparison to those faced by the skippers in the Vendee Globe.

In this race, sailors set out from northwest France, sail to the South Atlantic Ocean, and circle the Antarctic in single-person sailboats. Yes, they are sailing solo. Sixteen vessels set out in the given year (not all returned), to sail through the worst oceans and weather on the planet. They are tracked, thanks to modern technology, but are truly on their own. The stories of seamanship and survival and personal courage are more than stunning; they are jaw-droppingly unbelievable at times.

As I read I recalled, now with some embarrassment, the times we went sailing and were caught in squalls and prayed lightning didn’t find us, got separated from other boats on a daylong sail, watched a wind burst tear a sail or split a mast. My moments of fleeting terror were less than nothing compared to the stories in Lindy’s book. But as I finished his tale I could see a young woman, an accomplished and confident sailor, setting out for a day on the water, only to discover two sorts of danger, one that nature throws at us, and another that comes from the treachery of human beings. Everything that happens to the Lady Mistral in my story happened to us in our 210, but, thankfully, not all at once.

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Con Lehane on “Stella by Starlight”

Con Lehane is the author of the Brian McNulty series of mystery novels, as well as this year’s Murder at the 42nd Street Library, which received a starred review from Kirkus. Here he talks about the inspiration behind his story “Stella by Starlight,” which appears in the current issue of AHMM.

“Stella by Starlight,” my story in the October 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is my first mystery short story. I’ve published a few mystery novels—the latest is Murder at the 42nd Street Library—and in the past I wrote a half-dozen or more short stories that were published in small literary magazines. I’m not altogether sure where “Stella” came from. But I do know, once I began writing it, I intended it to be a mystery story that I would send to AHMM.

I wrote the first couple of scenes during a class on story writing I was teaching at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. As I often do, I assigned an exercise and then did the exercise along with the workshop participants. Most of the time, I do the exercise and just put it away; sometimes I read it to the class; this time, I put it away, and later it became a story.

Mostly, I don’t know where my stories come from, so I make a guess that it’s from my unconscious. For this one, there were a couple of ingredients swimming around in the old unconscious. One piece was my realizing, one day as I passed through that part of Manhattan below Houston Street, that the Bowery, long famous as New York’s skid row, had become gentrified. I wondered where the winos had gone (actually, I still wonder).

Another piece was a memory I had of a skid row bar that had moved uptown to my neighborhood in Milwaukee when I was in college. It was the victim of some sort of urban renewal that had wiped out Milwaukee’s skid row. The bar—Lenny’s Tap: Beer! Wine! Open 6:00 a.m!—brought along its winos who lived upstairs from the bar in single occupancy rooms. I went there often enough to recognize the humanity of its clientele who began lining up a little before 6:00 each morning.

Beyond this, there were two more pieces. One was the image that opens the story of a blizzard in the city and “one of the coldest winds the city had ever encountered.” The second is more complex and more central to the story.

Most of the fiction I write begins with what Henry James termed “the germ of an idea.” This germ might be a phrase you hear, an incident you witness, a bit of a story you overhear. Important for Henry James was that you not overhear the whole story or know the context of the incident, only a catch a piece of it so your imagination can fill in the rest.

The germ of an idea for “Stella By Starlight,” came from a snatch of conversation. I’d been to the funeral of a man with whom I tended bar many years before. We’d been good friends when we worked together and for a few years afterward. We lost touch for a good while, and caught up with one another again a couple of years before he died of a heart attack. After his wake, I’d gone for a drink with a group of people—a half-dozen former cocktail waitresses (the title for women who served drinks back in the day) and a couple of bartenders from the airport lounge where we’d all worked together. They’d all stayed in the area and kept in touch with one another. I’d moved on and hadn’t seen any of them for better than thirty years.

When I’d worked at the airport lounge, the cocktail waitresses were in their early twenties and gorgeous. It was that kind of bar, in an airport, with mostly businessmen stopping for a drink before or between planes, where the waitresses wore uniforms modeled on stewardess outfits, featuring very short shorts. These young women weren’t working for the summer to help with their college costs. As young as they were, they were journeymen waitresses, for whom this would be a lifetime occupation. Many of them, single mothers or wives to good timing men, had, despite their youth, charm, and beauty, already started out on hard roads that were to become harder with the years.

I don’t remember much of the conversation that night after the wake. It was largely people sharing memories that were tinged with regret. One of the women, wildly attractive at the time we worked together and by the time of this conversation showing the ravages of a difficult life, was describing one misadventure or another in her life, when she said, “He asked about my ex-husband. I didn’t know who he was talking about. I’ve been married five times.”

So this snippet of conversation, the germ of an idea for the story, caught up with a bunch of other images and memories in my unconscious and set the story in motion.

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Welcome to Glasgow by Russel D. McLean

Novelist, short-story writer, editor, reviewer, and author of the J McNee series Russel D. McLean’s upcoming novel is And When I Die, to be released this year from Contraband Books. Here he discusses setting and his story “Tout” from the September issue of AHMM.

My first story for AHMM, back in 2004 (I was twenty-four at the time!) was set in Dundee and featured a detective by the name of Sam Bryson. I liked Sam then, and I still like him now. He was a hardboiled kinda guy, with a few problems, a supportive partner and a best friend who had more than a few of his own demons. His stomping ground was the city of Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland. I’d been living there since I went to uni, and was getting to know the place well.

One Sam story led to another. And another. A few more. Sam was meant to get his own book, too, but I was persuaded to “reboot” the character by my then agent. I handed Sam’s offices to an even more tragic and dour PI by the name of J McNee (we never did find out what the J stood for), although Sam himself has made a few more appearances in the pages of AHMM since then (notably last year’s “The Water’s Edge”).

But you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

In 2014 I moved to Glasgow for personal reasons (my girlfriend and our cats were there, so it made sense) and began writing full time soon after. The more I explored the city, the more I realised there was something here that made it very different to Dundee, and a place I wanted to explore through my writing. I began work on a novel—And When I Die—set in the city. But I wanted to flex my literary muscles a little first. A short story seemed the ideal way to try and feel my way around this new city, to get a hint of the ways it operated that were distinct from what I knew so well in Dundee.

I also wanted to create some new characters, too. Another PI would have been lazy. And since I like a challenge, I figured that, for this particular short, I’d have a stab at something I’d always been scared of: a procedural.

The story itself—concerning the death of a man who was selling fake tickets for the Commonwealth Games—seemed an obvious choice. At the time of writing the story, we were in the midst of preparation for this major event (that went off without a hitch in 2014), and it seemed to me like an obvious hook.

Any time you have a major event, someone, somewhere will want to try and take advantage. A ticket tout seemed an obvious place to start. I already had a fictional gangland in mind to explore in And When I Die, and so I connected the tout tangentially to one of a pair of warring gang bosses. The two cops—Stringer and White—never made it into the book, but I have a feeling that this isn’t the last time that we’ll see them in action. I enjoyed writing them too much; these sparring coppers whose mutual respect is unstated and yet obvious.

I’m proud of “Tout” for a lot of reasons, and I’m glad Linda and the team at AHMM like it, too. I hope the readers of the magazine get a kick out of it—the new detectives and location, especially.

But even though I write about crime and the darker side of the Scottish urban experience, the one thing I’ve found with the real life Glasgow is that it’s an incredibly welcoming city. I’ve been here for three years now, I’m very proud to call it my new home. I hope that as my fictional exploration of it continues, I’ll continue to find new surprises, unexpected nuances and hidden secrets around every corner. The deeper I delved into the city after writing Tout, the more fascinating things I discovered to explore in my new novel. But this isn’t the end. No, I have a feeling there’s plenty of intrigue left in this place. And I hope that readers will enjoy discovering it alongside me.

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On “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” by Marianne Wilski Strong

Lecturer and writer Marianne Wilski Strong is the author of over forty published short stories. Here she talks about “Louisa and the Silver Buckle,” from the September 2016 issue of AHMM, the first in a new series.

My inspiration for “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” began in a small bookstore in Massachusetts where I found a treasure. I was scanning the bookshelves in the back of the store when my eye caught a title that arrested my attention: The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott. Within a minute, I had marched up to the register, paid, and left with my treasure. I delayed my visit to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, took the shortcut back to my hotel and settled in to read.

I had, of course, read Little Women years ago, loved it, and like most young girls read it several times, always imagining myself to be Jo. But I had never read Alcott’s short stories. Now I began reading. Within a few days I finished the last of the stories and began hungering for more. Not able to find another edition, I reread my favorites: “Betrayed by a Buckle;” “Ariel: A Legend of the Lighthouse;” “Lost in a Pyramid.” The inspiration for my stories began to take hold in my brain. I would write stories in which the key character would solve mysteries by referring to Alcott’s gothic tales. But I wasn’t sure yet how to handle what I wanted to write. What setting should I use: Concord, where Alcott had lived for many years? I had visited Concord several times, touring the homes of Alcott and her fellow writers: Emerson and Hawthorne. But I knew Concord only as a tourist, not as a resident. In what time period should I set my stories: in the early or mid nineteenth century when Alcott had lived? That wouldn’t work because I wanted my main character to be an avid reader of Alcott’s stories and to have all of them on hand when she needed them.

So the inspiration floated around in my mind, only half formed, until I spent a week in Cape May, New Jersey at the house of my stepdaughter and her friend. Cape May, I realized would be the perfect setting for my stories. Cape May had all the ingredients I wanted. First, Louisa May Alcott herself had vacationed in this Victorian seaside resort. The city abounded in Victorian homes if I wanted such a home in my stories. Cape May had a lighthouse, a lovely beach, a bird sanctuary. It was steeped in history. My inspiration now became a full-blown idea and I began the first of my Louisa stories.

My narrator Amanda owns a condo in Cape May as well as several editions of Alcott’s stories. As with my stepdaughter’s house, the narrator’s condo lies not far from the beach, very near the pedestrian shopping street. Most important of all, the condos, Amanda’s and my stepdaughter’s, are surrounded by homes under renovation. One day, walking along a Cape May Street, I watched workers renovating: knocking down walls, ripping out sagging windows, tearing up old floorboards. Who knew what the workers might find as they demolished parts of the house. Since Alcott had vacationed in Cape May, she could well have visited friends and could well have stayed with them overnight in one of the houses now being renovated. The story took off from there. Louisa wrote a short story for a friend and gave it to her. The manuscript had remained hidden for over a hundred years. Now, it is, of course, valuable and a number of people who suspect the existence of such a manuscript and want it at any cost: even murder.

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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Creating Bad Girls of Mystery by Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith is the author of the Detective Ariel Lawrence mysteries, among other tales. Her story in the July/August 2016 issue, “Beauty Shop of Horror,” revolves around a heroine connected to that series. Here, the author talks about character development and inspiration.

From an amateur sleuth to a trained police detective, the heroines who drive my stories defy stereotypes of race, gender, and age to buck authority and fight for justice.

When I first began writing mysteries, I knew I wanted to showcase fierce, fiery, and fearless women who succeed against the odds. I call them my “Bad Girls,” and to create them I did three things:

1) Drew from the lives of real women I admire.

My strong mom and six aunts are models for some of my characters. In my short story “Beauty Shop of Horror,” featured in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine July/August issue, Vera Ames is a 54-year-old, designer shoe wearing, beauty salon owner/cosmetics entrepreneur. Opinionated and wise, Vera is like a human truth serum. People tend to confess their inner most secrets to her. My mom had this gift, and one of my aunts was a hair stylist whose salon chair served as a psychiatrist’s couch.

2) Gave protagonists family/friends who hand them situations many of us can identify with.

Chicago Police Detective Ariel Lawrence has appeared in several stories. She can take down criminals and out maneuver police brass, but sometimes her skills are no match for her three interfering sisters.

3) Used short stories for a character test run.

Short stories allow me to build a protagonist’s persona and see if she’s engaging enough to carry a series. This has been especially helpful as I tackle a historical mystery. My protagonist Eve Dawson, a jazz entertainer, solves murders in between gigs with her husband in 1930s Chicago. Her story appears in the Speed City Sisters in Crime anthology Decades of Dirt.

This approach, I hope, has helped create characters who readers want to spend time with, who feel like real people—right down to their love for family and designer shoes.

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Get a Clue by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti’s character Leopold Longshanks solves a mystery in AHMM for the ninth time in the May issue. Here, the author talks about his relationship with an ever-present aspect of literature from fair-play puzzles to thrillers to whodunits: clues.

When people find out I write mysteries the most common question is: Where do you get your ideas?

Well, that’s never been hard for me.  They’re all around.  And I have no trouble with coming up with plots, characters, or dialog that some editors and readers like.  But here’s what stumps me:

Clues.

I have stories in my file cabinet with concepts I love, terrific conflict and action (or so I think).  But they will probably never be finished, because I don’t (ha ha) have a clue.

Not all stories need clues, of course.  People who don’t read mysteries often think they are all like the ones Agatha Christie used to write: fair play tales in which a crime is committed and a detective figures out whodunit using only the evidence available to the reader.  Those are the stories that need clues.

But if you pick up any issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s, or any other mystery magazine or anthology you will probably find that less than half the stories fall into that category these days.

Here’s another example: I just looked in Shanks On Crime, my collection of stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer who reluctantly plays amateur sleuth.  Of the thirteen stories (most of which appeared in Hitchcock’s) only eight could be described as fair-play mysteries—and that is interpreting the term very liberally.  I’m surprised the number is that high.

There are some writers who seem to look at the world through clue-colored spectacles.  Consider the late great Edward D. Hoch (who wrote almost a thousand short stories), or my friend John M. Floyd (a master of the quickie solve-it-yourself puzzle).  I imagine that when they look at a breakfast table, they imagine how scrambled eggs could point out a murderer, or a glass of orange juice might reveal a blackmail scheme.

I wish I could do that.  But I can’t.  So when a rare clue does pop into my head I jump to work building a story around it.

Which brings me to “Shanks Goes Rogue,” the fourteenth story about my hero, which I am delighted to report is in the new May 2016 issue of Hitchcock’s.  This story began when I was reminded of a fact I had heard a hundred times, but some reason on this occasion my brain said—that’s a clue!  So I handed it to Shanks and voila.  I had my 26th appearance in my favorite magazine.

While tinkering with this essay it occurred to me that you don’t actually need a fair-play story to use a clue.  For example, take my new comic crime novel Greenfellas.  It’s not a whodunit at all, but a sort of pilgrim’s progress about a top mobster who decides it’s his responsibility to save the environment.

No crime to solve there (hey, he’s committing most of the ones in the book) but there are traitors in his midst, and my hope is that he spots them before the reader does.  And that requires clues.

And clues are hard.  Or did I say that already?  I hope you enjoy the story.

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The Joys of the Dark Side by Elaine Viets

Every sub-genre has its peculiar satisfactions—a reality recently borne in on Elaine Viets, who launched a new and darker series in our November issue. Here she reflects on some of the opportunities it offered.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine heralded my return to the dark side in November with a hardboiled short story. “Gotta Go” introduced Angela Richman, a death investigator in mythical Chouteau Country, Missouri, stronghold of the over-privileged and the people who serve them.

Death investigators work for the medical examiner’s office. At a suspicious death, DIs are in charge of the body. The police handle the rest of the crime scene.

AHMM brought good luck. As “Gotta Go” was published, I signed a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer for the Angela Richman mysteries. Brain Storm, the first mystery in the new death investigator series, will debut at Thriller Fest this July.

After a decade and a half of writing traditional Dead-End Job mysteries and cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper novels, I was back writing bloody, forensic-heavy mysteries. The death investigator mysteries aren’t too gory—not like Patricia Cornwell “I boiled my dead boyfriend’s head.” This death investigator series is more like the TV show Forensic Files, without the commercials.

I was back home again.

My first series, the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries, were hardboiled. When Random House bought Dell and wiped out that division, I switched to the traditional Dead-End Job mysteries, featuring Helen Hawthorne. The Art of Murder, the fifteenth novel in the series, will be published in May 2016. I also wrote ten cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries.

I love both series, but wanted to write dark mysteries again. But I didn’t want to do another police procedural, or a private eye with a dead wife or a drinking problem. Other writers had done those and done them well.

But death investigators were a profession many readers didn’t know about. Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International agreed. She believes Angela Richman is the only death investigator series.

Last January, I passed the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University. I wanted the training—and the contacts—to make the new series accurate.

I’ll still keep the Dead-End Job mysteries. In fact, I’ll need them. Their light-hearted look at Florida will keep everything from becoming too grim. The sun-splashed craziness of South Florida should counteract the intensity of the death investigator series.

Now I that I’m writing dark again, my writing has changed.

My characters can cuss. Angela Richman’s best friend and colleague is Katie, Chouteau County assistant medical examiner Dr. Katherine Kelly Stern. Pathologists tend to be eccentric, and Katie is based on a real pathologist who’d perfected the art of swearing. Her profanity was a mood indicator. I could tell how angry she was by whether she used “fricking,” “freaking,” or the ultimate F-bomb and how often she employed these and other cuss words. Oddly enough, when she swore, the words didn’t sound offensive. Katie cusses with style and grace in Brain Storm.

Body counts. In cozy and traditional mysteries, the murders take place off-stage. Readers aren’t forced to take a blood bath when they read the death investigator mysteries, but they will see crime scenes and forensic procedures. They’ll get a firsthand look at the sights, sounds, even the smells of death.

Real weapons. In cozy mysteries, when Josie Marcus battles killers, she resorts to “domestic violence,” using kitchen tools, gardening equipment, and whatever she can grab for weapons.

Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job mysteries is a little bolder. She’s armed with pepper spray to take down killers, though in Checked Out she did get sprayed with her own weapon.

In Brain Storm, when Angela confronted the killer, she was in an office, surrounded by the standard supplies: waste baskets, chairs, coffee mugs, letter openers. I was prepared to have Angela grab one, when it dawned on me: Wait! This isn’t a cozy.

I can use firepower.

So Angela shot the killer in the head. It felt so good.

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“The Finlay Millions” and the Carr Detective Series by S. L. Franklin

S. L. Franklin, author of the Carr detective series, first appeared in AHMM in the July/August 1999 issue with “Capriccio with Unaccompanied Violin.” Since then he and R. J. Carr have appeared in our pages thirteen more times, most recently in the current issue with “The Finlay Millions,” which he talks about here.

The basic situation for “The Finlay Millions” came to me several years ago—the old house, the death of the reclusive owner, some heirs in the wings including an estranged wife—but converting the situation into an R. J. and Ginny Carr mystery wasn’t as simple as turning open a tap and letting a story run out.

I once heard the jazz musician Patricia Barber explain in an interview that to recast a classic standard song by, say, Rogers and Hart, into an effective jazz performance, she first had to find a way to “break into” the piece. That was my original difficulty in writing “TFM”—discovering a means of cracking this particularly hard nut of an undeveloped set of characters and situations. Those familiar with Carr mysteries will realize that my difficulty was compounded by the fact that the series stories are always told via multiple voices, those of R. J. and Ginny, but often those of other characters as well, so it’s a rare Carr mystery that follows a straight narrative line.

Another problem was—as it always is for me—bringing new characters to life. R. J. and Ginny seem, I hope, well-defined in every story, both in what they do and in how they think and express themselves. Other characters, especially those who narrate, need to be just as well-defined, and when the sometimes kindly but often dilatory muse of detective fiction finally fired my feeble brain cells with images of Bill Finlay—bulky, limping, seventy-three years old, a retired engineer from Syracuse—I had at last both a means to break into the plot outline and a narrative voice and perspective that actually drew me, the author, into the story even as I put Bill’s words down on paper. (Yep—Carr stories: still made by hand.)

Some mystery plots are schematic, others formulaic; some psychological, others ratiocinative. Mine tend instead to be intuitive and organic.

To illustrate what I mean with a rather trite and overblown metaphor: From the kernel of an original, dormant idea grows a story—living, if it succeeds—that is shaped and nurtured by its characters as they come to life and respond to the fictional situations they face. In the case of “The Finlay Millions,” the tale’s outcome is in many ways the product of R.J. and Ginny, the Finlays and Penny Wright, at least as much as it is a result of the tentative original design of the author.

Put in another way, “TFM” is not plot driven but character driven, as—within reason—is every Carr story. The basic premise of the Carr Detective Series, in fact, has always been a what if: What if real people with real human weaknesses and strengths, thoughts and feelings, were suddenly to find themselves in the artificially melodramatic strictures of a mystery plot? How would they behave? How would the action advance?

Ambrose Bierce defined literary realism as the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” He, of course, was a fantasist with a grudge, who had only the works of contemporaries like Theodore Dreiser to gauge by. The Dreiser version of realism, however, largely consisting of a mix of human failing, squalid situations, and cynical fatalism (which mix, incidentally, underpins many a noir mystery story) is not the only realism the mind can conjure. There exists a far different realism of everyday concerns and problems—e.g., Bill Finlay’s physical frailties and objections to his younger brother’s attitude; Penny Wright’s struggles to relocate her aged and ailing father—and this realism is what I have attempted to establish as the hidden though underlying scenario of all the Carr stories.

A final note. Anyone who has made it through to the end of this ramble and still wants to know more about the Carr Detective Series, especially about R.J. and Ginny, can satisfy his or her arcane tastes at www.carrdetective.com. No charge and worth every cent.

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