Joseph Goodrich on his Proustian Sleuth

The use of historical figures in mystery fiction goes back at least as far as Lillian de la Torre’s 1940s series of stories featuring the 18th century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson—an ante facto Nero Wolfe if ever there was one—and his stalwart biographer, James Boswell. John Dickson Carr made notable use of Edgar Allan Poe in his 1950 tale “The Gentleman from Paris.” The practice really took flight, however, in the wake of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), which paired Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in a quest to cure the former’s cocaine addiction and stop the world from plunging into war. (You’ll be happy to hear both goals were achieved.)

Meyer’s novel, the literary Helen that launched a thousand pastiches and ignited a new era of Holmesian fandom, sparked land-office business in the fictional use of real-life people. In Solution’s wake everyone from Niccolo Machiavelli to John F. Kennedy has been given a badge or a magnifying glass and embroiled in murderous intrigue.

Writers turn up frequently as detectives; Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Tey, and Conan Doyle, among others, have been dragooned into crime-solving. In my own work I’ve used real-life scribes Fred Dannay and Dashiell Hammett in “The Ten-Cent Murder,” a short story that appeared in EQMM several years ago. More recently, the French novelist Marcel Proust appears in two stories for AHMM as well as my novel The Paris Manuscript, which will be published by Perfect Crime Books in April.

            Why are writers such popular choices for gumshoe activity?

I attribute it to the deep connection between writing and sleuthing. Both Scrivener and Investigator are obsessed, each in their own way, with means, motive, and opportunity. Both examine – and seek to understand – the less savory parts of the soul. Both hunger for resolution, the satisfactory conclusion of a story or a case. Intuition plays a key role in both activities, as does hard work and that ineffable thing called talent.

The Proust I’ve conjured up elaborates on this matter. When asked how a certain deduction was arrived at, he likens it to how a writer chooses one word over another, and adds:

It’s a question of inclination and sensibility. My book, for instance. At one point I needed to describe the branches of a hawthorn tree. Odilon drove me to the countryside. He broke off several branches and held them up to the car window. My asthma stopped me from getting out of the car, from rolling down the window to touch the leaves and savor their smell. I had to content myself by feeding upon what I could see. But what I can see is never enough. Asthma has deprived me of the free and unlimited use of my senses. I must augment with imagination what I cannot touch, what I cannot smell, what I cannot taste or feel for fear of that infernal tightening of the lungs. I must extrapolate. I am predisposed to the art of detection by illness . . . I am compelled to seek what is hidden . . . The artist searches for what is hidden in himself and, therefore, what is hidden in others.”

Utilizing Dannay, Hammett, and Proust in works of fiction is a way of paying tribute to them, their achievements, and their worlds. Manhattan and Paris in the earlier part of the twentieth century are seductive sirens whose songs draw me ever closer, ever deeper into their lore. It’s a form of literary time travel that, as the Ink Spots once sang, “will have to do until the real thing comes along.”

Given my interests, drafting Proust into the ranks of crimefighters was a natural development—and a challenge. Could this epitome of High Modernism be turned into a detective? A daunting task, to be sure, but Proust had been transformed into a character in a book long before I gave it a try.

That book is Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s masterwork, often referred to these days as In Search of Lost Time. I’ll stick with the former title because it’s the one I encountered first, in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation.

“Marcel” is the narrator and central figure in Proust’s multi-volume, million-word novel. The correspondence between the Marcel of the book and Marcel the man who wrote it is not  “Marcel” is an only child, whereas Proust had a younger brother; “Marcel” is obsessed with a beautiful young woman named Albertine, but Proust pined for young men, most notably Alfred Agostinelli, a feckless young man who occasionally served as his chauffeur and not-very-effective secretary. Many other differences exist between the author’s life and the book he distilled from it. Remembrance is the record of a sensibility, not an autobiography.

I’ve read Remembrance twice over the years and, if I live long enough, may read it again. I’ve also perused countless biographies and studies that inform various speculations and conclusions of mine about Proust included in the stories and novel. I make no claim to be a literary critic but I am a passionate reader, a Proustian proselytizer, ready to grab your lapels and tell you exactly why you should read Remembrance.

“The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a classic Monty Python sketch, gets great comic mileage out of attempts to condense the thousands of pages of Proust into a handful of sentences. The French literary critic Gérard Genette actually did the job in three words:  “Marcel devient écrivain (Marcel becomes a writer).” That’s the heart of Proust’s sprawling, encyclopedic book.

How and why he might have become a detective is the heart of mine.

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Writing Moonlight in Our Eyes by Stephen Ross

My parents bought a piano when I was nine. A year later, I started piano lessons. The piano sat in the living room, and I could see the TV while I played. I often used to turn off the TV’s sound and play along with the pictures, improvising to suit the scene/mood (I have fond memories of “scoring” Columbo reruns). I learned later that piano players in the silent cinema era did a similar thing.

From a young age, I became hooked on movies and movie music.

When I was in my teens, my record collection was 90% original soundtrack albums, and most weekends, I’d take a train into the city and catch a movie. I even made movies—short silent films shot on Super 8 millimeter film stock, roping in my school friends to act. For a long time, I wanted to be a movie director. When I started writing scripts for my short films (because sound, and thus dialog, had become an option), I got hooked on writing. My first two scripts were crime thrillers. 

Excerpt from the movie The Splash, 1980

Before I’d left high school, writing and music had established themselves as my life’s twin interests.

Cut to: Many years later.

I’ve written over thirty short stories in the last decade and a half. A handful of the characters I’ve written about have been musicians of some stripe or another, most often piano players. About five years ago, I thought about writing about a film composer. That was the first step in writing Moonlight in Our Eyes.

I once considered entering the field of film composition myself. I was signed briefly in the late 1980s to Chappell/Warner Bros. as a songwriter. I have soundtrack credits for a handful of short films, a TV documentary, and live theatre. I once scored a theatre production of Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room. The director said, let’s score this three-act play with incidental music. Let’s blur the boundaries between live theatre and cinema. I’m pleased to report the experiment was a success.

Makeshift recording studio for writing/recording music for Veronica’s Room, 1989 (courtesy of the author)

So, I had a character, “David Camden,” and I’d given him some shading. He’s an elderly film composer in Hollywood in the early 1960s. An old school film composer approaching the end of his days. 

But, a character in a setting is not a plot.

I decided to make David Camden an Englishman for a bit of character conflict; an alien living in an alien world (not that I used that detail much in the final story). And I added a song. I liked the idea that he had written music for countless films, but it was one song from an early picture that had stuck in the public’s mind. And he would be grumpy about that. I imagined that the song, “Moonlight in our Eyes,” written by him for a film in the 1950s, had entered the pantheon as a “standard.” The type of song everyone would have a go at, from Dean Martin to Herb Albert, Tiny Tim, and the Everly Brothers. The song’s title, naturally, would be the story’s title.

Bits of information were slowly assembling around the nucleus (the main character), but critical mass (a plot) still hadn’t been arrived at.

And then my mother fell to dementia. 

Her fall took about three years. She passed away about a month before Covid-19 became the thing that changed all our lives. I won’t dwell on her passing, except to say I learned an awful lot about dementia in that time, and I would not wish that illness on anyone.

My mother once asked me, after I had sold my second short story, where do you get your ideas? I can’t remember my answer. My answer with “Moonlight” would have been “from her.” 

It occurred to me one afternoon: What if David Camden had dementia? Memory loss is a primary symptom of dementia, and what if “a brother” turned up on his doorstep to visit, and Camden didn’t remember ever having a brother?

That simple conflict was the key conceit to the story. It led quickly to a plot, and I wrote the first draft in about two weeks.

And then I sat on that draft for three months.

Was it right to use the pain and suffering I’d witnessed as a plot device?

Write what you know, they say, but should you?

My mother would have said, “Use it.” She was not faint of heart. And I reminded myself that “Moonlight” was not about her in any shape or form. “Moonlight” is not a study of dementia; the illness is simply one thread in the story’s fabric. It’s a crime mystery written to entertain: A Hollywood film composer near the end of his life is confronted with his secret past in London.

To say any more than that would be a spoiler.

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The Great Catamaran Jacking and Other Happy Accidents by Robert Mangeot

One late May, I commandeered a thirty-foot catamaran in the fjords somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Did it need to be done? Of course not. Consider, though, that I’d gotten into the aquavit and been awake wandering nightless Norway for a week. Also, I’d only hopped behind the helm to snap a selfie. The catamaran dashboard had an indecipherable NASA feel to it, and the captain remote-controlled our cruise from his fore deck perch. Had I turned pirate, I couldn’t have sounded the horn, let alone explain myself to the authorities.

Really, I was fascinated with Norway. The stark mountain landscape, the shimmering water, the old kingdom vibe with its reindeer throws and easy welcome. Oslo felt like winter was nearing over. In Tromsø, 1,900 kilometers north at the 69th parallel, there’s Viking rugged yet. Winter refused to relent, constant sun be damned. Trees hadn’t dared risk leaves yet. Chill and drizzle settle over me—into me, despite my rookie layering attempt.

Tromsø is not a big town. We’d soon covered the museums and breweries and the centre city. We’d watched the seal feeding and taken the funicular to atop Fjellheisen. As for rugged, we’d done a midnight bonfire out on a part-beach, part-tundra. The mildly intrepid adventurer in me felt it now. It was time to experience the fjords. We hired a split-charter of that mighty catamaran.

Back to aquavit. Here and there, we were picking up its history and varieties. Norwegian aquavit isn’t what I’d recalled of the Swedish stuff. Norway’s version is brown from oak. It bristles with caraway. A particular blend known as linie—“line”—isn’t considered finished until its barrels travel not once but twice over the equator. A cultural gem, and it came about as such things do: from spectacular failure.

What was happened was, these Norwegian guys in their fjords were making potato moonshine. Potatoes weren’t first choice so much as the barrens didn’t offer much else ingredient-wise. Up there most anything that warms the core goes down fine enough. So these guys made a whole lot of potato moonshine, more even than required to steel against brutal cold. Being a seafaring bunch, these Norwegians thought ports south might want more hair on their chests. First, the aquavit got spiced with caraway and anise to dent the lamp oil taste. Next, the blend went into sherry casks, and the casks got loaded onto ships, and off they headed to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia.

Those ports south valued their stomach lining. That, plus aquavit stood no chance with tropical palates used to rum. Back to Norway the barrels went. Once home, the Norwegian guys opened those barrels up for warmth and consolation. This ocean-aged, twice-crossed aquavit tasted like herbal magic. It’s in the wave action, apparently, a constant stir. Fast forward two centuries, and linie aquavit is now a whole thing. You can find it at swank restaurants. I’ve scored a bottle at a Nashville wine shop.

Norway, the Arctic Circle, the equator, a distiller’s craft and devotion, what it means to cross life’s great lines. That afternoon on the catamaran, fresh off some aquavit myself, I gazed at those fjords and wondered who would cross such lines and why. This idea borne of booze and sleep deprivation eventually became a story about lines drawn and crossed. By good fortune, that story landed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That’s how it happens sometimes: great things from happy accidents. But, as that story explores, to keep crossing a line is no accident at all.


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When TV Lost its Innocence by Robert Lopresti

It is a popular cliché that the 1950’s in America were an innocent time and the 1960’s were something else.  You can find plenty of speculation about who caused this shift.  (The Beatles?  Lee Harvey Oswald?  Jack Ruby?)

Like many cliches this one gets a little fuzzy when you examine the details.  For example, I am sure there are lots of people who find the idea that the fifties were innocent quite bizarre.  (I think of African-Americans who lived in the south then, for instance.)

One of the many examples offered of our country shedding its naivete was the first great scandal of the television industry.  I refer to the quiz show debacle of 1958-1959. 

Back then we were scraping by with only three TV networks and most people received fewer than half a dozen channels.  Nonetheless there were almost two dozen quiz or game shows on the air, mostly in prime time.

These programs ranged from You Bet Your Life where the questions were trivial and the prizes small, but the attraction was watching Groucho Marx joking with the contestants, to shows like The $64,000 Question where big-brained people could theoretically earn big bucks by answering tough questions.           

Eventually it was discovered that many of the games were fixed.  Most people assume that this was done by giving the winners questions and answers in advance.  And that certainly happened.

But there were more subtle ways to cheat.  Let’s assume that Jane and Mary apply to be contestants.  During the preliminary interviews Jane reveals that she is enthusiastic gardener, while Mary boasts of her baking skills. 

Do you see how the producers can choose the likely winner by simply deciding whether to ask about marigolds or about macaroons?  And yet everyone involved could swear on a stack of TV Guides that not a single question or answer had been revealed.  There were other tricks, of course.

In the spring of 1958 rumors began to fly around that the games were rigged.  The wheels began to fall off in earnest in May when a stand-by contestant on Dotto snuck a peek at a notebook owned by another competitor (the aptly named Marie Winn) and found the answers she had been fed in advance. Eventually this resulted in a grand jury and even congressional hearings.  

As you have probably guessed, there is what Ellery Queen would have called a criminous connection here.  My novella in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, “Please Pass the Loot,” is set in November, 1958, just as panicky networks began to kick shows off the air and everyone involved started to play an exciting new game called cover-your-line-of-retreat. The hero of my tale is Delgardo, a Beat poet who supplements his income by solving crimes.  He tries to help an old friend who has won big on a quiz show and now fears he will be dragged into the scandal.  Not surprisingly, a murder occurs.

And that killing is very important to my story because perhaps the oddest part of the whole mishigas is that nothing that happened in the scandal was illegal.  Seriously: at the time there were no laws or FCC regulations forbidding what the networks, producers, or contestants did.

That did not stop outraged authorities from seeking a way to punish them, of course.  Prosecutors called participants before grand juries and asked embarrassing questions about the shows under oath.  If they were caught lying they could then be punished for perjury.  As Delgardo says in my story: “It’s build your own felony.”

In spite of this, no one went to prison.  Judges decided that the damaged reputations were enough punishment. 

And speaking of damage, how much harm did this scandal do to America’s reputation and innocence?  Probably less than you think.

Public opinion pollsters found that most of the country was pretty blasé about the whole thing.  (It turns out quiz show fandom was mostly a northeastern U.S. phenomenon anyway.) Some respondents said they had always suspected the shows were rigged.  Others just wished they had had a chance to compete when the cheating was going on.

Maybe such cynicism was merely twenty-twenty hindsight.  Or perhaps the great American public wasn’t as innocent as the pundits liked to think.

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Bret Jones on Crime, Oklahoma-Style

Reared in the heart of Oklahoma on a farm and ranch, I got acquainted with what is termed as “ag crime” early in life. Stories of stolen cattle and other livestock ran rampant as a word of warning to protect property. Thieving is still thieving no matter what is stolen. Who needs the string of pearls, ancient manuscript, or gold medallion of ancient origin when you could have ready cash from stolen stock?

It didn’t stop there, either. When meth became the drug of choice for manufacturers, anhydrous ammonia, which farmers use to prep the soil for planting, started to be stolen. Using empty propane bottles for grills, they raid day or night and fill up. On one such run, my sister saw them and gave chase. What she would have done if she caught them no one knows.

Crime connected to agriculture costs ranchers and farmers in the millions each year. Being a rabid mystery reader, I wondered why this didn’t get into any storylines. Lacking the glamor, I suppose, of the aforementioned pearls, etc., these types of crimes don’t even make the headlines. It inspired me to write detective stories with this as the backdrop.

In addition, I discovered that the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation employs a group of agents known as “ag rangers” that focus directly on ag-related crime. Another piece fell into place for my wayward, put upon detective, Vince Gibson. Character-wise inspired by Jim Rockford, a pinch of Lovejoy, and a smidge of my loud-mouthed farming family, Vince is blue collar to the bone.

Occasionally aided by his Baptist girlfriend (Free Will, by the way), Vince takes work wherever he can get it. Prenups? Sure, why not. Track down a supposed malingerer? Of course. Investigate a farmer’s hay bales getting vandalized? Only if his girlfriend twists his arm, which she does frequently. But is there something more going on than just vandalized alfalfa? Bet on it . . .

Bret Jones


Twitter: Bret Jones@BretJones1


Instagram: bret904

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Let’s Pretend by Merrilee Robson

Merrilee Robson (left) and her sister, Lorraine, visiting with Jane Austen at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England (photo courtesy of the author)

Writers are often asked about how they create their stories.

For me, occasionally, the story comes like a bolt from the blue. A character springs to mind—standing in a foggy city street or in the wings of a theatre, ready for action—and the story almost writes itself.

Most of the time, though, the process is more circuitous. I have a glimmer of an idea. Maybe a situation. Or a character. I ponder it, asking myself, “What if?”

In many ways, it’s like kids playing.

“Let’s pretend,” we’d say, and suddenly we’d be princesses or pirates. We might find ourselves in a sword fight or serving the mud in the backyard as chocolate ice cream at a tea party.

For me, “Tired of Bath,” my first story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, started on a trip to England and a visit to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried.

It’s not a modest gravesite. The cathedral is an imposing building, holding the graves of Saxon kings and church dignitaries.

But the gravestone itself does not mention that she is a writer. She is described as “youngest daughter of the late Rev George Austen,” and the tribute is simply a loving one from her family:

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Some years later her family added a wall plaque which does mention that she was “known to many by her writings.” But, when we visited, there was also a large banner marking her grave.

And I couldn’t help thinking, “What would she have thought of this?”

She no doubt would have been delighted that people were still reading and loving her books. But what would a woman who lived a quiet life devoted to her writing and family have thought of all the fanfare, of her picture on the ten-pound note?

The question came to mind a few years later, when my sister and I, on a tour of English gardens, spent an afternoon in Bath.

Of course, we had to visit the Jane Austen Centre, a very entertaining and informative museum of Jane Austen’s time in Bath.

Merrilee Robson being “ever more impressed by Jane Austen’s writing after discovering how hard it is to write with a quill pen.” (photo courtesy of the author)

But, again, I had to wonder. Would she have liked her name emblazoned on a building on a street where she had lived? I could imagine how amazed she would be to hear about a festival celebrating her life and work. And what would she think about her stories being brought to life in film.

Would she enjoy the many homages to her work, from Bridget Jones to zombies, or would they make her angry?

And that’s what I got to explore in this story, set in Bath and involving a stolen manuscript.

Of course, there’s always research to be done for a short story, from reading Jane Austen letters to checking maps.

But the fun part is always the “what if?” The “let’s pretend!”

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A Cinematic Approach to Writing by Christopher Latragna

“There’s a man at the craps table that concerns me.”

“Anyone at a craps table concerns me.”

“This one isn’t playing craps.”

“Ah. What’s he doing?”

“Sizing up the joint.”

I have no idea if I’ll use that bit of dialogue. I like it, but does it fit anywhere? In five lines, I get a sense of story, character, setting—even conflict.

But can I use it?

This is how I piece together my Henry stories.

Henry is my guy—my series detective. Henry is a poker player who regularly plays on the Duchess, a fictional riverboat that sails along the Mississippi by St. Louis in the 1950s. He’ll make his fourth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the May/June issue.

I know the crime world of 1950s St. Louis I’ve created. It may have little resemblance to the actual era but I’ve walked its sidewalks with Henry and his con artist friend, Ivy. I’ve taken rides with Vincent, the youthful-looking cabbie. I’ve sat in on poker games aboard the Duchess.

I have a map on my wall of downtown St. Louis from 1955 provided by the Shell Company for visitors to the area when they had a headquarters there. I routinely check the map for Henry’s movements about town.

Because of this, I can riff on dialogue and plot and see what happens. Eventually a plot evolves from these mini-scenes and the real work begins.

“There’s nothing sadder than a bunch of lonely gamblers on Christmas.”

“Brother, I ain’t sad.”

“How’s that?”

“Look around—I ain’t lonely.”

I wrote that two years ago and it has yet to make its way into a story. It resides in a file filled with similar standalone passages, waiting to be chosen.

My love of movies sneaks out here. I write these partial scenes as if I were scripting a movie trailer for my story. Ideas start to come out of the dialogue, and then plots, and sometimes even a finished piece.

My latest Henry story coalesced around the idea—what if there was a bar in downtown St. Louis that served as a haven for the less wholesome elements of St. Louis? And what if Henry was trapped in this bar by a mob boss for reasons he couldn’t work out?

Here’s one bit of dialogue that compelled me, between Henry and his friend Ivy:

“What goes into this code of yours?”

“I won’t lay it all out, but one of the items is that if a fool falls into a tiger pit and doesn’t know where he is, the tiger should let him know.”

Henry looked about the bar. ‘Tiger pit” seemed about right. He counted eight regulars, in pairs or solo, drinking and talking and looking like the hooligans they were.

I’ll close with one more dialogue scene that comes after the passage at the beginning of this essay. It may end up in a story someday:

“This guy—is he looking at the walls or the people?”

“The people.”

“Does he look at his watch?”

“He does. A lot.”

“I see. What time is it?”

“Ten to midnight.”

“Then I suspect we’ve got ten minutes to figure out what’s what.”

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Outrage: War Women and “Death Floor” by Martin Limón

Outrage, more often than not, motivates me to write a story.

In my latest novel, War Women (Soho Press, November 2021) the focus of my ire was (and still is) the sexual abuse of women in the military.  This was poignantly brought to national attention by the rape and murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, a young female soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.  After she disappeared under suspicious circumstances, the army investigated but failed to find her.  Instead, they started carrying her as AWOL (absent without leave).

Her understandably distraught family waged a vigorous protest and with the help of other concerned citizens and movie star Salma Hayek, they attracted widespread news coverage.  Civilian police forces adjacent to Fort Hood and the FBI joined in the search.  Tragically, her hammer-bludgeoned and dismembered remains were eventually found buried outside the base. Before the authorities could arrest him, the soldier thought to have committed the murder put a bullet through his head.

Guillén’s family members testified that before her death she had complained about the sexual harassment she was experiencing on base.  Contrary to her mother’s advice, she refused to make a formal complaint to the army; apparently worried about the negative repercussions.  From my own experience, I can verify that she had reason to worry.

In the mid-80s, I was stationed on Camp Red Cloud in the Republic of Korea.  A small base, it housed the headquarters of what had once been known as I Corps, the command center of all the infantry divisions arrayed along the Korean DMZ.  One day, unsolicited, a senior sergeant approached me and asked if I had heard about a formal complaint made by a young female soldier against her superior NCO.  I hadn’t.  He explained that the accused NCO had a wife back in the States but he had taken off his wedding ring and presented himself to the young female subordinate as being single.  After they formed an intimate relationship, she discovered that he was in fact married and made a formal complaint to the base commander.

The reaction was swift and vicious.  As the senior sergeant told me, “We NCOs have to stick together.”  She became an outcast on base, subject to all sorts of extra work details and vile verbal abuse.  All because she told the truth.

I would not take part in this harassment.  Later, when I encountered her, she was nervous and seemed on the verge of breakdown. I tried to speak to her and explain that I didn’t agree with what was happening and if she needed help, I stood by ready to assist.  Understandably, she didn’t believe me.  She walked away and refused to talk to me, believing, I suppose, that I was just trying to take further advantage of her.  I wasn’t.

Specialist Guillén, many thousands of miles away and many decades later, understood the same thing this young woman in the 80s had.  When soldiers close ranks against you, their hatred can become unbearable, especially given the close quarters military life demands.  Guillén tried to handle the sexual harassment on her own and the worst happened.  If the military was more open to actually dealing with these problems, she might not have been afraid to seek help and possibly she would be alive today.

For the short story “Death Floor” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mar/Apr 2022), the outrage is based on a different issue:  the brutal exploitation of workers around the world.  Due to various investment entanglements, American celebrities are often caught up in these scandals; including child labor in Southeast Asia and even accusations of slavery in the case of the massive subjugation of the minority Uighur population in Xinjiang, China.  I decided to take a closer and more personal look at this phenomenon (albeit fictional) in “Death Floor” and have my two long-standing protagonists, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, take a whack at this hidden, yet widespread, injustice.

However, after 30 years of writing (including 15 novels and umpteen short stories), my mind needs at least two plotlines progressing simultaneously before my subconscious can conjure up a story.  So, in addition to worker abuse, I needed something else.  I came up with gambling addiction, police corruption, the sexual exploitation of poverty stricken women, and the plight of half-American orphans throughout Asia.  A grim stew, indeed.  The saving grace is that I assigned my heroes the mission of righting a wrong and they go about the job with an iron determination.  In line with the rules of suspense, I pushed myself to make each obstacle they encountered more difficult than the previous one and I tried to come up with clever ways to overcome those obstacles.  In short, I didn’t want the reader to have a chance to breathe or, worse yet, put the story down.  Like a fighter throwing one punch after another, allowing his opponent no time to do anything other than duck and hold on.

At least that was my goal.  In real life, however, one doesn’t always succeed at everything you set out to do.  But I tried.  Like justices on the Supreme Court, the readers of “Death Floor” will be the final judges of whether or not the story worked. I hope you will bang the gavel, call the court to order, and read (and hopefully enjoy) “Death Floor.”  I’ll be waiting breathlessly for your verdict.

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Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and the Theater of the Absurd by Michael A. Black

Although I spent quite a few summers during my youth visiting my grandparents in Florida, I was never actually down there during a hurricane. My grandfather often told me stories about the “mean season,” and I became fascinated by the tales of these powerful storms. We didn’t have hurricanes in Illinois, but there were a lot of tornadoes to worry about in the spring and summer.

Many years later, when I was a cop in the southern suburb of Chicago, I was working when one of those tornados touched down. “Touched down” proved to be an accurate description. I was in the station putting my squad in the computer when the dispatch center advised that a funnel cloud had been reported in the area. Suddenly, the emergency sirens began to wail. I glanced out the window and what had been a sunny sky had been replaced by an ominous darkness with tinges of strange green and red colors. Moments later the wind smacked into the building with a resounding slap. The view through the windows now looked like the glass porthole of an active washing machine

The power went out, and the emergency generator kicked in. As the lights flickered back to florescence, I hurried to the rear door and looked through the small window. The radio crackled with calls of emergencies—trees down, people trapped in cars, power outages, accidents . . . I made my way outside, expecting to get drenched, but instead found the wind and the rain had vanished. The blue sky was back and dark sky was retreating southward. It seemed over, except for the radio calls that kept being broadcast. I jumped into my squad car, activated my emergency lights, and began proceeding toward the nearest reported emergency. But the streets were impassable. Fallen trees were everywhere. I tried to find ways around them, attempting to get to the people purportedly trapped inside their vehicles. Strangely, some of the streets were completely untouched. On others, cars were overturned, trees were down, and buildings and houses were in ruins.

I told the dispatch center to have the station call the night shift in early and requested assistance from neighboring agencies, the county, and the state police while I continued my search for the injured survivors, hoping there wouldn’t be too many fatalities. All the while, I kept receiving radio calls from my squad on what they were finding. After a couple of hectic hours, we managed to get things under control. The fire department was conducting a house to house search in some of the devastated areas. One thing that struck me was the episodic pattern of damage. As I said, some areas were unharmed, while others nearby looked like they’d been flattened by an enormous sledgehammer. Much later, when we reviewed the dash-cam video from my squad car, it became apparent that the term “touched down” was grimly appropriate. Imagine a huge, powerful fist hovering above, smashing downward and then randomly moving to another spot, blocks away, before smashing down again. I never forgot the speed with which the tornado moved or the randomness of the strikes.

Years later I was watching the news reports of a hurricane working its way toward the eastern coast of Florida and it brought back those unpleasant memories. At least they have some warning, I reasoned. The tornado had come out of nowhere, like rocket attack. But I knew the thought of sitting and waiting for the storm to arrive would bring an equally eerie feeling. Those thoughts put me in the shoes of those first responders down there who were placing themselves in harm’s way. That’s one thing about being a cop or a firefighter—you never know when danger is going to engulf you, but you’ve got to confront it just the same.

I wanted to capture that suddenness, but also the foreboding sense of an approaching indomitable foe, and I got the idea for “Waiting for Godot.” I remembered reading the play in college and being exposed to the theater of the absurd. In my story, “Godot” is a child’s mispronunciation of “Gordon,” the name given to the approaching hurricane. In tribute to the bravery I’d witnessed countless times on the part of all the first responders I’d stood beside when our backs were against the wall, I wanted the protagonist to be one of them. In this story, he’s a fireman/paramedic. Naturally, I put some coppers in there, too, as well as a slew of bad guys. But it’s the slow approaching hurricane that’s the ultimate foe. Hurricanes often spawn accompanying tornadoes, like an evil giant sending forth his minions to wreak more unexpected havoc. As I said, I had to toss in some man-made human conflict, too, with an assortment of good guys and bad guys.

And then there’s the matter of communication.

My Spanish teacher in college was a Cuban and he labored incessantly to help me master what I could of his native language. I put his teachings to good advantage. I can remember numerous emergencies, as well as arrests, where I was able to communicate in Spanish to both victims and offenders. Imagine the terror of being injured in a traffic accident or some dire situation and not being able to tell the first responders what was wrong. I wanted to put this into my story as well.

And so I did.

I hope you enjoy “Waiting For Godot.” It’s my fourth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I am honored and excited to be in this prestigious publication.

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Remembering Ron Goulart

We’re saddened to note the passing of our long-time friend, supporter, and contributor Ron Goulart, who died January 14 at age 89.

Author of more than a hundred books in his 70-year career, Ron’s history with AHMM dates from the early 60s with his story “Lost Tiger,” and he was a beloved contributor through the ensuing decades. A prolific author of novels and short stories, he was also a knowledgeable and dedicated fan of popular culture in many of its guises, including television, pulp fiction, comic books, and more, and he produced illuminating reference works on such topics. His fiction was constantly informed by and engaged with these interests.

Ron himself penned a wonderful reminiscence of his relationship with AHMM over the years, which was published in our 60th anniversary issue. We offer it here in memory of our friend and colleague:

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2016

Ron Goulart, contributor

Many long years ago, when the world was new and I didn’t walk with a cane, a friend of mine and I decided to conquer Hollywood. We’d start with writing for TV shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, McHale’s Navy, The Jetsons, and Dobie Gillis. Then we’d graduate to motion pictures.

I had moved down from Berkeley to a cozy (make that small) apartment in Westwood, within walking distance of UCLA. I was writing, and sometimes selling, short stories to science fiction magazines and doing a little freelance advertising, mostly radio spots.

One of the other shows we tried to sell to was, as I recall, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Maybe this is what inspired me to try the magazine as a possible market. Our dreams of glory, as far as television was concerned, did not come true. In 1963 I submitted my first yarn, as I called them then, to AHMM via my then agent. The story was “Lost Tiger” and dealt with a missing girl who was her cartoonist father’s inspiration for his very successful comic strip Tiny Tiger. It was a private eye yarn and I was very much under the spell of ’30s and ’40s pulp magazine writers at the time. The lady who was handling my account at the agency sent me a note from the editorial department, and that must have been from Gladys Decker. She liked the story but the dialogue was much too hardboiled, and profane. If I could clean up my act, they’d like to see it again. I did and they bought it and the pages of the December 1963 issue marked my debut.

According to my records, I didn’t sell another story to AHMM until 1966. By then a fellow named Ernie Hutter was editor and the story he bought was “The Tin Ear.” This introduced my private eye John Easy. The magazine, possibly influenced by the Hitchcock television shows, made frequent use of what was called in the 19th century the biter bit approach or later the digging a hole and falling in it yourself approach. I fashioned quite a few of these and Hutter bought several—“The Trouble Was,” “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” “News From Nowhere,” etc. To the September 1971 issue I sold “Orczy Must Go” and that introduced the Adman series. I eventually wrote about a dozen of these. The anonymous Adman never actively participates in any of the murderous activities he talks about but simply listens and observes as a succession of prideful and compulsive characters confide their assorted schemes on how to achieve success, revenge, love, and money.

Eleanor Sullivan became the editor of Ellery Queen in 1970 and for a time also edited the Hitchcock magazine. I’d met her at a Bouchercon early in her career, and she seemed to like me and my work. She bought eight more of the Adman stories. Then in the early eighties, she seemed to lose interest in his career and after a couple of terse rejection notes I suspended chronicling his encounters for a time. A shorter-lived series involved Scrib Merlin, a would-be stand-up comic who was also an adman, but in Manhattan. He had an affinity for being on the scene of dying messages. The initial caper ran in Hitchcock in the November 1981 issue.

Eleanor did use other stuff from me and she purchased “Suspense,” which appeared in the July 1981 issue. This was the only story of mine that Ed Hoch ever bought for his version of the Year’s Best Mystery Stories. He wrote me a note with his offer, claiming that he just couldn’t help himself and that this one was just too good to pass up. I envisioned him tossing and turning for several nights in making his decision to include a Goulart story. He was a nice guy, though.

Cathleen Jordan took over the mag later in 1981. She was a very pleasant editor to work with. She invited me to lunch soon after she began and told me I was one of the regulars she intended to continue to use. I came up with yet another series. The first one in what became a bunch of yarns about a girl who was a part-time model, a cartoonist who drew and produced her own underground comic book, Bertha the Biker, and a compulsive liar was titled “How to Win at Russian Roulette.” Like Scrib, she mellowed and eventually she and the animation cartoonist she was living with married. I was meaning to let Casey and Wes have children, but by the time I got around to it, Casey was possibly too old. That’s the old wheeze about your characters having lives of their own and ignoring their authors. An earlier planned series-that-wasn’t made it through but two yarns. It dealt with an amateur detective who had an exceptional sense of smell. The first one was “Private Nose” in January 1982. The second was “Nose Job” and that ended the run. Too bad, because I had a list of titles for several more—”Follow Your Nose,” “Keep Your Nose Out of My Business,” “Hold Your Nose.” Maybe Cathleen was wise to end it early.

And of course my current Hitchcock editor is a gem, but since she’s going to be reading this I have to be circumspect.

I’ve been concentrating on nonfiction lately and have a new book about the life and work of Alex Raymond just out. But maybe, one fine day. . . .

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