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A Conversation With Booked & Printed Columnist Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo began penning AHMM’s Booked & Printed column in our March/April 2019 issue. Readers may recognize her name from our masthead; she previously served as the magazine’s assistant editor. Laurel is the author of The First Impulse (Anvil, 2017) and the upcoming The Heartbreak of Corazon Tigubio (HarperTeen, 2021). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, World Literature Today, and the Mekong Review, and she is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had the opportunity to ask Laurel some questions about her work, reviewing, literary citizenship, and more.

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo. Photo courtesy of the author.

Jackie Sherbow: The First Impulse is a work of nonfiction about the lives and unsolved murders of film journalists Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing this book and what you learned during the process?

Laurel Fantauzzo: In 2010 I went to Metro Manila, my mother’s birth country, on a Fulbright scholarship. I started meeting young artists, filmmakers, writers, NGO workers and activists. They were haunted by the sudden murders of their friends, Alexis and Nika, and the case remained unsolved. I identified with Alexis; a mixed-race young man of the Philippines, who chose to stay there, and with Nika, who went to the country because she loved him. They were both young writers too—film journalists.

Because the case was unsolved—and three suspects remain at large to this day—I realized it would be a book humanizing both the victims, and the country in which they died. So much of true crime lionizes the perpetrators, the killers—the victims are often props left behind. My book spends more time on the reverberations of loss, and the presence of the victims that remains, while placing the crime in context with the social, postcolonial pain of the country.

Considering the epidemic of homicide in the Philippines now, I’ve been told the book was prescient. I do wish that were not so.

JS: How do mysteries and crime fiction fit into the general literary tradition and sociopolitical/cultural landscape?

LF: I had an advisor, the writer Patricia Foster, tell me this: a crime is like a Rorschach test for a society. A reader will witness it and perceive any number of elements. Humans are drawn to questions of wrongdoing, to questions of injustice, to the puzzles of incompleteness. That’s my theory, anyway, as to the role of mysteries and crime fiction.

In America in particular, violence and killers hold a lot of power in the larger imagination, often for entertainment. It’s a trend about which I have many reservations.

JS: Your reviews include nonfiction, children’s books, novelty books, and other works in addition to traditional crime novels. How do you source books for review?

LF: I follow my curiosity, and I also keep an eye out for any trends that seem to address some larger societal question or anxiety. I did a column on the anxieties of social media in novels, for example. I’m deliberately eclectic.

More practically, I look at social media and industry magazines to see what’s coming up. I also like to find anything that may have flown under the radar. I don’t look at any other reviews of a book before writing mine.

I’m less likely to review literary heavyweights that may approach household names; I like pointing out emerging writers, or writers who’ve worked for a long time without much recognition.

JS: What type of literary citizenship in a community do you believe book reviews serve?

LF: It’s healthy to think out loud about books; to join in conversation about them, to express our praise and reservations and questions about books. It’s also healthy to point out works that may have gone unnoticed, if not for some public discussion of it in a magazine like AHMM.

JS: What do you look for in a book to review?

LF: I have no prescriptive rubric! I do like writers who spend time developing every character; for whom no character is a device, but a fully realized person, even if just for a page. I also like to see a context illuminated, be that of a place, an era, or some other kind of larger background.

Because I’m also in academia with a full-time teaching load, and writing books of my own and completing a PhD, I typically read the first two pages of a review copy to decide if it’s for me. If I’m a little curious, I’ll read the whole first chapter. If I’m still compelled after that chapter, I’ll likely review the book. The method has worked for me so far.

JS: For you, what constitutes a complete review of a book?

LF: The reader should know what the book is about, have some context for what the author is attempting to portray, and the reviewer’s opinion as to whether that attempt succeeded or not.

JS: What should any publisher know when sending a book to your attention?

LF: True crime books that spend a majority of time attending to the perpetrators, not the victims, are likely not for me. I do like unique voices, and narrators we may never have met before.

JS: What type of books do you personally enjoy to read/what are you reading right now that won’t make it into the Booked and Printed column?

LF: I read a lot of longform nonfiction, either in book form or on literary or journalistic websites. I enjoy lightly speculative literary fiction, young adult fiction, and graphic novels. I also reread favorite novels from my childhood and adolescence. I necessarily read academic books about mixed race, trauma and recovery, the Philippines, and Asian-America.

JS: Tell us about what else you’re working on right now.

LF: I’m completing a young adult novel for HarperCollins, The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio. It’s set in Los Angeles and Manila, Philippines, and while it’s not a crime novel, I think it takes some taboo risks.

Thank you, Laurel! You can read Laurel’s book-review column in every issue of AHMM—and keep an eye out for her upcoming novel The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio from HarperTeen in winter 2021.

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“There Are Killers Inside Me” by Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin, LCSW, is a three-time Derringer and Agatha Award nominee and the author of the Bruce Kohler mysteries among other series. She is the editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 as well as Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, which releases today from Level Best Books. The theme of the anthology is crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Here she talks about the motivations of women killers in mystery fiction.

I don’t like violent men. I’ve never had a soft spot for Hannibal Lecter. I read Silence of the Lambs only because it was the only reading matter available in a hotel room one night. I slept very badly, and I’ve been wishing ever since that I could unread it. Chewing off a prison guard’s skin so he could hide beneath it to escape? Yuck. I don’t care how the movie managed that scene. I’ve never seen it, and I never will.

But I write murder mysteries, so I do write about murder. And of course I read about murder. I even talk about interesting ways to kill at the dinner table. Most mystery writers do. I wrote my first murder mysteries—never published, thank goodness—in the 1970s. My model was the traditional detective story. My protagonists were amateur sleuths. Mysteries were mysteries. There was a crime, an investigation, and a solution. The investigator was the star, the one who figured out whodunit.

When I started writing fiction again many years later, the genre had changed. Crime fiction now consisted of mystery and thrillers—different breeds— in a variety of subgenres, from cozies to hard-boiled. What I wanted to write didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I called it over easy and slightly crispy around the edges.

My first series was a New York murder mystery with a male amateur sleuth—the protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. I was less interested in the mechanics of the murder than in developing Bruce’s voice, his growth in recovery, and his relationships with his friends. In the first short story, I didn’t even give the murderer a motive. The story ended at the moment when Bruce figured out whodunit. In the first novel, the killer was basically nuts. In the second short story, the three suspects had all had one-night stands with the victim. The motive for the guilty one was plausible, but tenuous.

When I wrote the second novel, something happened. I meant the killer to be a literary agent. I made him deeply irritating. It was fun. But as I wrote, I realized I had a better candidate. And as I wrote her final confrontation with Bruce, she found her voice. This is the moment that writers live for, when the character starts to speak for herself, regardless of what the author planned.

I had several possible motivations worked out for what she had done. She mentioned none of them. She had killed in a state of rage, killed again to cover her tracks, and was ready to kill Bruce if he tried to stop her from getting away. But behind the rage was a profound sense of hurt and betrayal. Readers can empathize with the pain of a woman who’s been betrayed. Even though justice must be done, the killer who arouses compassion is more authentic, more fully developed. The story itself is more authentic, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

The next step in my own evolution was to make my protagonist the murderer, to put the killer, not the detective, in the center of the frame. I didn’t plan this. It welled up out of that mysterious source that has been called “inspiration,” “the unconscious,” “the muse,” “a higher power,” and “a still, small voice.” Short stories were the perfect format in which to explore this, once I realized it was happening, since they take two weeks rather than two years to write.

My first such protagonist was a femme fatale, a character I probably wouldn’t write now. She was predatory by nature. In her defense, I’ll add that the story had elements of urban fantasy. She wasn’t a human woman, and she was culling the human herd of contemptibly predatory men. That first time, I kept my distance from my killer protagonist, writing the story in third person from the victims’ points of view.

But if I wanted to keep writing stories other than detective stories, I needed to reach into the minds and hearts of killers and write from their point of view. I soon realized that “killer” or “murderer” was so broad a term as to be meaningless. I had no desire to create men who kill, and not only psychopaths who do it again and again. There are already too many murderous guys out there, in real life and in fiction. I’m not interested, no, not even if the murders are so justifiable that they’d cast Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, or Morgan Freeman in the movie.

But women, ah, women have plenty of reasons to kill that I can get behind with no problem. They may be victims, survivors, avengers. They may kill to protect those they love, including their children. They may simply have had enough—of being belittled, ridiculed, abused, or merely giving and giving without appreciation or reward. Thinking of “A Work in Progress,” my most recent story in AHMM, and other standalones, I’d say that every time a woman chooses death—for herself or someone else—it’s because on some level she has had enough.

When I selected crime stories for my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories, abuse figured in the submissions along with murder. Many of the protagonists were children, some of whom had experienced abuse from a very early age. Imagine how powerless a little girl feels when she is abused by a trusted adult. Remember that for every action—no one’s repealed Newton’s third law of motion, have they?—there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Consider the intensity of the powerlessness such a child feels. If the reaction, once she grows up, is to kill—as the author who’s writing her into being, I say, Go for it!

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A Conversation with The Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 1

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the first half of our conversation; the second half will appear tomorrow at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN, the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Allison Escoto. Photo courtesy of The Center for Fiction.

Jackie Sherbow: You’ve had your hands full—literally and metaphorically—during the Center’s move to Brooklyn. What can you share about what the move has meant for the library and for your role there?

Allison Escoto: The Center for Fiction was previously known as the Mercantile Library of New York, an organization that had been in existence since 1820 and has had various homes throughout NYC in the ensuing years. Our building at 17 East 47th Street had been its home since the 1930s so you can imagine how much had been accumulated in that building, especially the library! I came onboard as the Head Librarian right before we moved out so I didn’t really get too much time to spend with the collection but now that we are settling in, I am really getting to know the collection. My vision in the coming years is to continue to add to the amazing titles we have collected over the years and to really take my time getting to know the great fiction that has been decades in the making.

JS: What was the relocation’s timeline, and what can you tell us about the new building?

AE: Our relocation from East 47th Street has been in the works for at least ten years, from the sale of our old location, to the design and planning of this new one. The new building is incredible! There are so many beautiful aspects to the design but my favorite part is of course, the library, which occupies all three levels. There can be little wrong with books everywhere!

JS: You joined the Center’s staff at a transitional moment in its history. How has it been for you to have such an intimate start to your time there?

AE: The unique thing about an organization that has been around for centuries is that even though it evolves and changes with the time, you can always sense the past all around you. I’ve been so lucky to see both the traditional and well-loved building with all its history and memories as well as to witness this exciting phase in an impressive new place. It has been great!

JS: What are you looking forward to now that the move is over?

AE: I am very much looking forward to meeting and greeting new members and program attendees. I’ve witnessed firsthand just how much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making this Center a literary gathering place to celebrate fiction and I think welcoming people here is going to be great. I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on the collection!

One corner of the Center’s extensive mystery/detective/suspense fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: The Center for Fiction is the only organization in the U.S. devoted solely to the art of fiction. What is it like to work with a collection having a singular (yet vast) focus?

AE: As a lifelong and voracious reader, working with an entirely fiction collection has been a dream come true. In my previous jobs in a variety of libraries, fiction was my consistent favorite and to be able to focus on it here has been enlightening. I get to talk about, think about, and work around fiction all day!

JS: What can you tell us about the library’s award-winning mystery and detective- fiction collection?

AE: The mystery and suspense collection is the recipient of a Raven Award and it is a part of the collection we are very proud to have. Our in-depth collection is housed in the cellar of our new space, with over 16,000 titles of mystery and suspense, including rare titles and full runs of many mystery writers including Cyril Hare and Mary Roberts Rinehart as well as extensive collections from the golden age of detective fiction authors such as John Rhode and Ellery Queen. Our contemporary mystery and suspense is growing right along with us as a Center as well with the most dynamic and exciting new mystery fiction.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How often do you acquire new (or new to the collection) works of mystery?

AE: I order new books every month and throughout the year, I always have my eyes and ears open for brand new publications to add to our collection.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

AH: Why do you think the mystery genre came to play such a big role in the library’s collection and the Center’s focus?

AE: From the inception of the Mercantile Library in the 19th Century, it was clear to the founders that their members wanted to read for entertainment and enjoyment, along with education. This organization has been collecting fiction and what they called “the best imaginative works” for the members and a huge part of that ended up being mysteries and suspense novels. The tradition was carried through the years and over time we amassed a great collection of the genre.

The conversation continues tomorrow, 8/28/19, at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

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“Up in the Air”—A Cautionary Tale by Amanda Witt

Amanda Witt is the author of The Red Series of dystopian novels. Her stories can be found in the Mystery Writers of American anthologies Odd Partners (April 2019), Life Is Short and Then You Die (September 2019), and A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (by Ana Rainwater). Here she talks about her AHMM debut, “Up in the Air” from the current March/April 2019 issue.

Funny thing about this story: I got scolded.

“Up in the Air” began as many short stories do. I saw a call for submissions, wrote something that fit the criteria, and sent it off. In return I heard nothing. As all writers know, this happens.

Then I got the following email [identifying information has been removed]:

The deadline was January 31st at 11:59 p.m. The judges have already finished reading and the final decisions are being made in the next 2-3 weeks.

Sorry, but you’re just too late to be considered. You would have been too late on February 1st, let alone March 8th.

Ouch.

But I’m one of those oldest-child, authority-respecting types. Any latent rebellion comes out in alter-ego characters, and never, ever in the real world. I check the details. I follow instructions. I wear my seatbelt, pay bills on time, and clean up after my dog on walks in the park. So hadn’t I sent the story in well before the deadline?

I checked, and indeed I had. And—like a good detective—I found proof.

Loath to argue, but wishing to retain a reputation for professionalism in even such a minor matter as this, I sent a brief reply:

I sent this in on January 27 (as you can see in the email beneath your own).

There was no disputing it, thanks to the “include the original email in your reply” function.

A flurry of explanations, excuses, blame, and apologies (of a sort) followed:

I don’t know what to tell you. It just arrived today. We posted on the website the day after we closed that all submissions had been acknowledged, and if you didn’t receive an acknowledgment, to contact us.

I have NO idea how this mail snafu happened. I received a lot of entries, and this one literally just popped up this morning. Totally bizarre.

After a bit of cordial back-and-forth, we parted ways amicably, and I sent “Up in the Air” somewhere else—namely to AHMM, whose editors have been (and surely always will be!) unfailingly gracious.

So “Up in the Air,” a cautionary tale about marriage (or about cell phones, police officers, small children, or prescription drugs—take your pick!) brings with it a couple of cautions for writers of stories and writers of emails.

Writers of stories: Check back on the submission website after the deadline passes. And, whether a statement about acknowledgment is posted or not, if you submit a story and you don’t get a “story received” message, consider pinging the editor. “Lost in cyberspace” actually does happen.

Writers of emails: Even if someone clearly appears to be in the wrong, be kind. The world will be a better place for it. And besides, life can be confusing. You might turn out to be the one who is mistaken—for real-life stories, like fictional ones, have a habit of taking unexpected twists.

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Happy New Year from AHMM!

As 2018 draws to a close, we reflect on a year of mystery and mayhem and offer our most heartfelt thanks to our readers, authors, and friends. Here’s to 2019!

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Wrap Up a Mystery (January/February 2019)

It’s that time of the year, a season observed by many with an exchange of gifts. We hope you’ll consider this issue a neatly wrapped package of criminous cadeaux. Variety is always welcome in a bestowal of presents, and so this issue offers a range of delights from the humorous to the spooky; from the past to the present; from the poignant to the puzzling.

Among them: the seasonally-appropriate “Blue Christmas,” in which Melissa Yi’s doctor/sleuth Hope Sze is sitting down to a festive holiday dinner with coworkers when two people suddenly become deathly ill. “The Case of the Truculent Avocado” by Mark Thielman, in which a P.I. supplements his sporadic income with a part-time job dressing up as a potato. Shelly Dickson Carr’s clever tale “The Beacon Hill Suicide,” showcasing historic Boston. What to do about a slobbering dog is the question for a “cleaner” in Zandra Renwick’s “Dead Man’s Dog.” And “A Six-Pipe Problem” by proceduralist master John H. Dirckx.

Several tales pack a powerful emotional punch. A grieving widower in our cover story, Pamela Blackwood’s “Justice,” hears voices and barking late at night, only later learning the significance of those noises. A new tenant in a Queens apartment house unlocks troubling memories for a lonely neighbor in Devon Shepherd’s “The Woman in Apartment 615.” Another newcomer, in “The Man Across the Hall” by Janice Law, has a destabilizing effect on a young married couple in Miami. And Chicago P.I. Kubiak steps into a family drama when an old colleague from the police force asks him to follow his wife in Steve Lindley’s “A Matter of Trust and Surveillance.”

The uncanny and inexplicable also add zest to our holiday package. A pre-Sherlock Dr. J. H. Watson recounts an episode from his time in Afghanistan, revealing what really happened at the Battle of Kandahar in James Tipton’s “Shiva’s Eye.” And our mystery classic features that master of the ghost story, E. F. Benson, with “The Confession of Charles Linkworth.”

And so, best wishes for the season. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, maybe you’ll find a little murder tucked into your stocking for your guilty pleasure.

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“Filling In the Landscape” by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti is a 2018 Derringer Award winner. His collection Shanks On Crime was recently republished in Japan. His nonfiction book When Women Didn’t Count was recently presented with the Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award. Here he talks about the fictional setting for several of his tales, including “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests” from the current issue of AHMM.

I recently realized I have been working as a sort of regional planner for a piece of nonexistent geography called Brune County.
The first story I wrote about the place was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts” (AHMMMay 2004). It concerned a car accident and the only landscape described was a crossroads and a hill. Not much of a world yet.
The second story, “A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters,” (AHMM, May 2014) showed us at least one house, one wealthy enough to merit an estate sale when the owner died.
And completing the hat trick is “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” appearing now in the November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. This time I take readers on a much more extensive tour, showing them an unnamed town and some hilly farm country that borders the estate of a software billionaire. Each story, of course, is populated with the sort of people I think belong in those locations.
When I wrote the first tale about the place I had no idea that more would follow so I have been cobbling together Brune County a scene at a time. Not the most efficient form of world-making, I admit.
But this is a challenge every writer of fiction faces: Do I write about real places, or make them up?
There are advantages to both approaches, of course. Write about Times Square in New York City and you automatically have an audience of millions of people who know what you are talking about without a single word of description. But if you get a detail wrong those readers will let you hear about it—if they don’t stop reading in disgust. Not long ago I read a novel by a favorite author and was startled when the main character visited British Columbia and drove from Vancouver to Victoria. That’s a good trick, unless he had a floating car.
Of course, you can make up a place entirely, which can be a lot of work. Is it urban, rural, somewhere in between? Is it New England, the deep south, somewhere midwestern? And then there is the problem of consistency. If you are lucky enough to write many books that attract many readers you may need to reread them all before you write the next one, or your readers will complain about gaffes in your fictional geography, just as if you screwed up the location of Times Square.
A lot of writers choose a compromise: take a real place and give it a new name so they can change details to suit. The master of this was Ed McBain who wrote dozens of novels about the 87th Precinct set in a nameless city which resembled, but was not, New York. The key to following his detailed geography is to turn your map 90 degrees to the right. Harlem is at the north end of Manhattan but Diamondback is at the east end of Isola.
My friend Jo Dereske wrote a dozen wonderful mystery novels about a librarian named Miss Zukas. The books take place in Bellhaven, Washington, which doesn’t exist. It bears a striking resemblance to Bellingham, which does. Jo says she did this so she could move a ferry and eliminate a shopping mall she disliked. She has also had many people tell her they used to live in the same apartment house as Miss Zukas, even though in the real world that building doesn’t exist.
My novel Greenfellas is set in a very real New Jersey, the state where I grew up. I wanted to set one scene at Surprise Lake, but it had been so many years since I had been there that I didn’t trust my memory and, just to be on the safe side, gave it a phony name. One reader asked “Why did you rename Surprise Lake? You described it perfectly. “ Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
I am happy to say I have an idea for another story about Brune County. I can’t wait to see more of the place.

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