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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Edgar Award Nominees

Congratulations to our authors R.T. Lawton, Michael Bracken, and James A. Hearn for their Edgar Award nominations. R.T. Lawton’s “The Road to Hana” and Michael Bracken and James A. Hearn’s co-written story “Blindsided” are well deserving of this recognition. 

Congratulations also to our friends and fellow nominees at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—and to all the nominees in all the categories!

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Gregory Fallis on “Red Flag”

Gregory S. Fallis took third place in the 2020 EQMM Readers Award. He is the author of Lightning in the Blood (St. Martin’s) and Dog on Fire (Amazon), as well as non-fiction books on crime and investigation. Here he talks about the tragically timely story “Red Flag,” which will appear in AHMM’s March/April issue (on sale 2/15/21)

How did you come to write this story?

When the good people at AHMM ask you to consider writing a blog post for Trace Evidence, they include a few potential “prompts” to help you find a topic. This is the first and most obvious prompt. It should be easy to answer. But it’s not.

Red Flag is a story about one person’s attempt to prevent a potential mass shooting in Michigan, which has no red flag law. How did I come to write it? There are easily a dozen answers to that question. None of them are complete. All of them are true. I could honestly answer, I wanted to give readers a compelling story that will allow them a few moments away from their daily routine. Just as honestly, I could say, I wanted to earn a few bucks without doing any heavy lifting. Or I could say, I wanted to educate folks about the existence of ‘red flag’ laws. I could even say, One day on a walk I saw a young girl playing with ants on a sidewalk, which is true, although it won’t make any sense unless you’ve read the story. Or I could say, It’s almost inevitable that at some point your local community is going to face a mass shooting event like the one in the story, and you’ll ask yourself, “Why weren’t we able to prevent this?

Sadly, the last answer literally became true. On November 29, 2020 I received an email informing me the story would be published in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Twenty-four hours later, a mass shooting occurred in a Michigan high school. Four students were killed; seven wounded. School officials, other students, and the shooter’s parents were all aware the shooter had emotional issues, had made vague threats, and had access to a gun. A red flag law might have prevented the tragedy. It was the 29th school shooting in 2020.

How did I come to write that story? People write stories for the very same reasons people read them. Readers want to be entertained. They want to feel powerful emotions, they want to be distracted from their mundane lives, they want to be excited, they want to visit worlds unlike their own and vicariously encounter people they’d avoid in real life, they want to think new thoughts and learn new things. Writers want to give readers all of that.

There’s almost no risk involved at all, for writers or readers. The worst thing readers have to face is disappointment in a story. For writers, rejection is usually the worst case. Unless you write about a horrible situation, and it comes true.

How did I come to write that story? I don’t quite know how to answer that question. I’m glad I wrote it, though. And I sort of wish I hadn’t.

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2021 Dell Mystery Magazines Virtual Awards Celebration

We have again this year made our pre-Edgars cocktail party—which honors our year’s award winners and nominees as well as the winner of the EQMM Readers Award—virtual. Please join us in recognizing those honored this year and toasting to those lost. We hope to see you next year in person!

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I Need a Scorecard by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti is the author of Greenfellas and When Women Didn’t Count as well as many award-winning and -nominated short stories. Here he talks about his story from the March/April 2021 issue and a conundrum facing authors and readers.

I am delighted to have “Shanks’s Locked Room” in the March/April issue of my favorite magazine. It marks the eleventh appearance in AHMM of the grouchy crime writer, and that means he stars in one-third of my stories there.

But the situation is a bit more complicated. Some Shanks stories have appeared in other publications. In fact, the story I am working on right now is his twentieth adventure. And by the time you reach a score of stories about the same fellow, things get complicated.

No man is an island entire of itself, as some smarty-pants said a long time ago, and that applies to Shanks. He has accumulated quite a crowd of friends, colleagues, and rivals.

Last year I finally accepted the inevitable and created a character file, listing all the recurring characters and in which stories they appeared. And boy, I wish I had done it sooner.

You see, I have a hobbyhorse when it comes to fiction. Actually, I have a whole stable full, but this one involves character names. It bugs the heck out of me when the main characters in a story or novel are named Don, Dan, Dina, Dave, and Debby. I’m exaggerating, but not by much.  There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, last time I looked, and more than half offer a good supply of names. Why make it harder for the reader to tell the characters apart?

When I write a novel I try to make sure that no important characters share an initial or have read-alike names. (Unless there is a good reason, of course.  When Agatha Christie gave two people similar names you knew damn well there was a clue involved somewhere.) Usually I type the alphabet out on separate lines and fill in the blanks with Albert, Bernstein, Connie, etc.

And I’m not the only one who used that technique. Think of Hill Street Blues. When that classic cop show started, the characters above the rank of patrolman were: Belker, Calletano, Davenport, Esterhaus, Furillo, Goldblume, and Hunter.  I always wondered what happened to the character whose name began with A.

Let’s get back to my Shanks problem.  Remember that?

My “Locked Room” story takes place in an oddly named restaurant, the Crab and Crow, where Shanks is dining with some friends, all of whom have appeared in previous tales.  And that is when I discovered that Meghan and Nick McKenzie had shown up in one story and Fiona Makem appeared in another.  Meghan McKenzie and Makem!  So in the current tale I got everyone on a first-name basis as soon as I could.

My most recent appearance in AHMM,“Shanks Saves The World,” (May/June 2020) started life without Shanks. One element that survived from that early version was a young man  named Connor. He is making his third appearance in the masterpiece I am currently creating, Shanks #20, and it is becoming awkward—because Shanks’s wife is Cora.  Cora and Connor.  How did I let that happen?

All kinds of problems can appear when an author doesn’t keep track of their characters. Arthur Conan Doyle clearly christened his narrator Dr John H. Watson, but in one story the good doc’s wife calls him James.

And names are not the only issue. In Rex Stout’s Over My Dead Body, Nero Wolfe tells an FBI agent he was born in the United States.  But fifteen years later in The Black Mountain, he visits his birthplace in Yugoslavia.  Stout fans have struggled for half a century to explain this mystery.  I am pleased to say they can stop worrying about it, because I have discovered the solution.

If you want to hear my explanation, take me to lunch some time.  Maybe at the Crab and Crow?

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The Literary and Real-Life Inspirations Behind “At the Coal Face” by Mark Sadler

U.K.-based author Mark Sadler’s upcoming short fiction will appear in the online journal Collateral. Here, he discusses the influences behind his story in our November/December issue, “At the Coal Face.”

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Death and the Compass”(the ending of which I am about to spoil), Detective Lönnrot investigates a series of murders in an unnamed city. He realizes that there will be a total of four killings and that they will form a rhombus pattern when plotted onto a map. Arriving at the location where he has deduced the final murder will take place, he finds that he has unwittingly delivered himself to the site of his own execution. The murders are part of an intricate revenge scheme, orchestrated by the detective’s arch-nemesis, whose criminal career has been enacted under the splendid moniker–Red Scharlach.

The pair spar verbally for a while. Because this story was published in 1942, prior to the James Bond-era, where a villain would happily reel-off the schematics of the death ray they had pointed at Washington, the tenor of the back and forth between the two men leans more toward the intellectual and the theoretical. Lönnrot informs Red Scharlach: “I know of a Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line. Along this line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.”

He advises his nemesis that, should they meet again in a subsequent incarnation, he would be better off abandoning his four-cornered labyrinth and instead opting for one composed of a single line, where the second murder takes place 8km away from the first, the third 4km away from the second, and so on.

I perhaps had “Death and the Compass” in mind back in 2008, when I wrote the first draft of “At the Coal Face”. The story that can be regarded as an attempt at realizing Lönnrot’s proposed linear labyrinth. As I recall, the original version of the tale was very different to the one that has recently been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A few weeks after I finished writing it, my computer blew up. There were literal flames and it was rather spectacular. I did not take writing very seriously in those days and made no effort to reproduce what had been lost. However, the idea for the story persisted and I would occasionally think about it, and ponder upon whether it would be worthwhile recreating.

Five years ago, something happened to me that made the themes in “At the Coal Face” seem suddenly more personal and pertinent, in a way that made me want to revisit the tale: I had been working for a small regulatory body that was supposed to operate independently under the stewardship of a larger organization. The manager of this organization began to single out my co-workers and make their lives unbearable, until, one by one, they resigned. After they were gone, their roles were restructured and were filled by workers who were more willing to keep their heads down and come to heel. When it dawned on me that I was next in line to be picked off, I stupidly made a stand, not realizing that the employee grievance procedure had been fabricated in a manner that would circle my complaint back around to my tormentor, who would adjudicate on it. Predictably things did not go well. In fact, they went so badly wrong that I ended up sleeping rough on the streets of London.

Three years later, I transcribed the copious notes that I had made during the months leading up to my unceremonious fall onto the cold and unwelcoming pavements of the English capital. I hoped that, by writing everything down in chronological order, I would reveal some alternative course of action I could have taken that would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. Instead I found myself, for the first time, fully aware of how skillfully I and my co-workers had been manipulated. There was nothing any of us could have done to extricate ourselves from the quicksand. The only way that I could have improved my situation would have been to walk away earlier.

In our day to day existence, the notion that we have choices available to us can make bad situations seem bearable, and open our horizons up to all kinds of tantalizing possibilities, some of which are more plausible than others. Conversely, when we are aware that are freedoms are being curtailed, to what we regard is an unacceptable degree, we can feel trapped, despite the absence of any physical bars or locked doors. As I write this, on the evening of the 31st October 2020, England is poised to enter a stringent, four-week period of lockdown, in the hope of curtailing the spread of COIVD-19 in time for Christmas. Already the rumbles of protest of those opposed to the lockdown, have begun to reverberate across the jumbled virtual landscape of Twitter.

There are occasions where we may have less control over our destinies than we realize; where our actions are guided by cultural forces, by the machinations of social media, by advertising, or by the stratagems of public and private organizations. We may fall into the clutches of an adept salesperson, or into the orbit of malignant individual who means to do us harm. Often this manipulation is so pervasive that, even when we become aware of what is happening, it is not always clear what we need to do in order to free ourselves. “At the Coal Face” finds a man in just such a bind, attempting to extricate himself from a downward-spiraling situation, without fully comprehending the limits of his captivity.

If you have read the story, then you may have noted the obvious tonal influence is John le Carré–a master of the spy genre, whose works are steeped in the vernacular of the espionage community, much of which he coined himself and which (in the peculiar way that life imitates art) has subsequently filtered back into the intelligence services and popular culture. Part of what raises his novels above the other contenders in this crowded genre is that when you strip away spy-craft what you are left with are a series of books that dwell with great poignancy upon the foibles and frailties of human beings.

The other influence is the aforementioned Borges. The rooftop island of magic realism buried at heart of the story is an homage to his vision, albeit one that lacks the weighty, layered symbolism that is characteristic of his work.

“At the Coal Face” has emerged into this world and onto the printed page at a crawling pace, punctuated by long snoozes. It has been written, lost in a small electrical fire, rewritten and rewritten again, and again, and again. The story’s final published form reflects a traumatic period in my life, in a manner that renders this incident unrecognizable. I hope that the metamorphosis of my personal woes, into battle of wits between a pair of spies, is as entertaining for you as a reader, as it was therapeutic for me as a writer.

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