Dark Recesses (November/December 2017)

As the days grow short and winter looms, the lengthening evenings offer ample time and reason to brood over the nature of darkness. As the stories in this issue attest, a landscape of shadows offers far too many opportunities for both deception and misperception.

One skilled navigator of the shadows is post-war Manhattan private investigator Memphis Red, who confronts shifting motivations, political alliances, and even identities in L. A. Wilson Jr.’s “Harlem Nocturne.” Meanwhile, a young woman who seeks the shadows, trying to escape the consequences of a one-time lapse in judgment, finds she can’t escape those determined to find her in S. L. Franklin’s “Damsels in Distress.” And the shadow of calamity, in the form of drought, leaves a western town vulnerable to a charismatic, and dangerous, itinerant preacher in Gilbert Stack’s “Pandora’s Hoax.”

The idea of the serial killer casts its own dreadful shadow, as the residents of Laskin, South Dakota find in Eve Fisher’s “Darkness Visible.” The neighbors in Robert S. Levinson’s “The House Across the Street” also know a little something about serial killers—and they’re willing to share. And speaking of neighbors, a suspected witch in Kilgore, Texas beguiles her hapless neighbor in William Dylan Powell’s “The Darkness and the Light.”

Photographer Anita Ray takes up the cause of an American mathematician-turned-nun who is brutally attacked but who refuses to talk to the police in Susan Oleksiw’s “A Slight Deviation from the Mean.” And Tara Laskowski gets into the head of another woman in a brutal situation in her short-short “Hostage.”

To mitigate the darkness a bit, mid-level coworkers wreak their own special brand of havoc in plain sight in Robert Lopresti’s “The Chair Thief,” while R. T. Lawton’s Holiday Burglars return in “Black Friday,” where they must face up to their competition.

Each of B. K. Stevens’s Leah Abrams mysteries take place around a different Jewish holiday, and “Death Under Construction” is set during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.  Leah takes a temp job at a firm that makes luxury doghouses while she works on her academic tome on workplace communications, so she is receptive to the subtle clues when the firm’s manger is killed in the storeroom.

We welcome back to these pages Carol Cail, with her tale of mysterious goings-on and hidden rooms at a seniors’ community in “Ghost Busters.” And we welcome Anna Castle, whose first story for us is “For Want of a Book,” featuring a young Francis Bacon.

This issue also features the second installment of our new feature The Case Files: this time, Steve Hockensmith brings to light some cutting-edge mystery-related podcasts. We’re sure you’ll want to check them out.

So there’s no need to be afraid of the dark when you have such a substantial issue of great stories with which to while away the evenings.

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R. T. Lawton on SleuthSayers about “Black Friday”

You can read R. T. Lawton’s story “Black Friday” in AHMM‘s November/December issue. Then check out his post about the tale on SleuthSayers.

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Art Taylor on SleuthSayers about B.K. Stevens and Anthony Award win

Art Taylor wrote on the SleuthSayers blog about B. K. Stevens’ career and the Anthony Awards ceremony at Bouchercon 2017, where the late author’s story won for Best Novella.

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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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Elizabeth Zelvin Visits “The First Two Pages” Blog

Readers, fans, and friends will be glad to know that B.K. Stevens’s daughter is continuing her The First Two Pages blog, where authors talk about the beginnings of their stories and novels. This fall, the blog will feature contributors from Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best, 2017), the fourth anthology by members of the NY/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Today at the blog, contributor to and editor of the anthology Elizabeth Zelvin talks about the first two pages of her story “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

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Familial Faultlines (September/October 2017)

There are few better sources of drama than the family, as many of the stories in this issue illustrate. If one is well advised to keep friends close and enemies closer, then perhaps one must keep family members closest of all.

A death in the family often provides an occasion for changes—such as for the widow in Charles Todd’s “The Trophy” who seeks solace in the countryside of southern Wales, or the woman in Jane K. Cleland’s “Night Flight to Bali,” who is suddenly freed to cash in a forged painting upon the death of her domineering mother.

Or family ties may throw up walls that are difficult for outsiders to penetrate, such as in the investigation into possible insurance fraud involving a disabled teen and his mother in John Shepphird’s “Electric Boogaloo,” or the tangled relationships revealed by the court transcript of a case of a contested will in Eve Fisher’s “Happy Families.”

But sometimes such ties can be powerful motivators—such as for the Muslim woman who hires Beijing P.I. Il yong to find the Uighur son she’d given up for adoption in Martin Limón’s “The Smuggler of Samarkand”—or sources of support and encouragement, such as Jack Tait finds in his formidable aunts as he tries to prevent a rush to judgment against a black tenant farmer in the Depression-era South in “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered in an Open Field with no Footprints Around,” by Mike Culpepper.

Other stories in this issue feature a perfect storm of disasters for Deputy Hector Moody when his car breaks down in the Gallatin mountain range in David Edgerley Gates’s “Cabin Fever”; the outsized dreams of a mid-level accountant in Max Gersh’s “Self-Portrait”; a copyeditor using her wits to foil an e-mail scammer in Steve Hockensmith’s “i”; a volatile partnership between a writer and an actor in Janice Law’s “The Front Man”; an aging spy recalled to action in Michael Mallory’s “Aramis and the Worm”; Dr. John H. Watson encounters a gentleman with a strange health regimen in “The Vampire of Edinburgh” by James Tipton.

No matter the state of your relations with other relatives, our readers are valued members of the AHMM family.

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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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