“The Poet Laureate of Dagus Mines” and Other Happy Accidents by Dennis McFadden

A funny thing happened on my way to publishing a best-selling crime novel: My agent said it stunk.

Well, not in so many words. But that was the message that came through. The way he all but held his nose when he talked about it with me was one clue, and, sadly, that wasn’t the only one. (I’m good at picking up on clues. I write mysteries.) His refusal to even consider sending it around was another, as was the unceremonious way he dumped me less than a year later. (To unceremonious I might add rude and unprofessional, considering he was not working out of his garage—I don’t think—but, rather, was an agent with an established and venerable New York City literary agency.)

[Sidebar: I know you’re curious as to how an agent in an established and venerable agency rudely and unprofessionally dumps his client. He quit answering my emails is how. That was it. The old silent treatment. No explanations, no I’m-sorry-buts, no letting me down gently. Just the silence that follows after you drop your email down an empty well. After about a year or so, I finally took the hint (I’m better at picking up clues than hints).]

So there I was, with no agent, and a spanking new crime novel.

Well, I figured I’d show him. What did he know? Here I was, an established crime writer, having had a goodly number of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and in The Best American Mystery Story series. Not to mention national literary journals galore. I waited a couple of months to let it settle, worked on other things, cleared my mind. Then I got out the novel, dusted it off, and dived back in.

That’s when another funny thing happened. I found myself agreeing with my agent. My ex-agent. The book actually did kind of stink a little. I might have stopped answering my emails too.

Maybe I could have salvaged it. Maybe I could have made it . . . if not best-selling, then at least publishable. But it would have taken a lot of work, and I’m getting old. Old enough to avoid buying ripe bananas. Too old to be diving back into lengthy projects.

In desperate times such as those, you tend to remember the words of your grandmother. Or, if not your own grandmother, the words of some grandmother somewhere. Now, I know a lot of grandmothers tend to speak in cliches such as waste not, want not, or when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or when the going gets tough, the tough get going, or use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. That sort of thing.

Not my grandmother. What my grandmother once told me was, Denny, when you write a novel that’s not very good, and you’re not inclined to invest the time and effort to try and make it better, you should see if you can’t at least glean a good short story or two out of it.

Well, not in so many words. But that was the message that came through.

To make a long story short, I made a long story short.

As a matter of fact, I made a long story two shorts. I put on my gleaning hat and sat down and picked out a couple of plot lines, a few good scenes, some dialogue and characters, and carefully excised them from the novel that stunk, harvesting two short stories that apparently did not. One was already published, and the other is “The Poet Laureate of Dagus Mines,” included in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Don’t miss it. You’ll enjoy it more than you would a bad crime novel.

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Who is This Person? by Susan Oleksiw

Whenever I’m asked the standard questions for writers such as “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Do you write by hand or on a computer?” I tend to give standard answers. These aren’t all that imaginative or accurate. “Everywhere you look there’s a story,” or “I saw a woman on the subway and thought she looked like someone who worked in the back of” fill in the blank. I can’t use any of the usual replies for Ginny Means, however, the main character in my short story in the November/December 2022 issue of AHMM. I’m not sure where she came from.

Family stories play a role in our lives by teaching us how the adults in our world behave, what they believe in and would work or fight for, but often the story carries another lesson, one that may be unintended but is far more potent. Those were the kinds of stories my father told. When he reminisced about the farm where my brothers and I were born, I scarfed up his stories about the other farmers, their quirks and histories. One in particular stayed with me.

This was a hair-raising tale about a Swedish farmer, someone he admired immensely, who had one nearly fatal flaw. That incident rattled around in my head for years until its usefulness became clear. I wrote “How Do You Know What You Want?” for the AHMM March/April 2017 issue with an unnamed walk-on character because I needed a social worker in child welfare to deliver a foster child to a farm family. I didn’t think to name her at the outset but remember distinctly describing her outfit because though she made more money than most of her foster parents (and it wasn’t a lot), she knew a social worker shouldn’t dress like it. Ginny Means, finally named, appeared to do the job, and I didn’t expect to see her again.

Opening the door to the peculiar, sometimes heart-breaking stories I was privy to in that job as a social worker in child welfare had unexpected consequences. Clients—both foster parents and foster children—I had long forgotten about tumbled into my brain, and their histories transformed into stories far more complex than anything they’d ever lived through. The second story in what was verging on a series came in the November/December 2019 issue. “Just Another Runaway” zeroed in on one of the recurring issues with foster teens—the boys who run away and are never found. Some join the army, glad to have regular work hours, square meals, and clear boundaries for their lives, while others set out to find birth parents or a single friend who moved away.

Young women were also prone to the same questions as the teenage boys—what were they going to do in their lives as adults? One girl in my caseload was determined to join the church as a nun, to the skepticism of those around her who didn’t believe she had a calling. That’s the inspiration for “The Deacon’s Mistake.”

The Ginny Means stories aren’t about any of the individual foster children or families I knew, but rather about the issues their lives raise for the rest of us. I don’t have the answers, but I continue to poke and prod a system that hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years. Over the decades we’ve developed new terms, new best-practices, new agencies, but the problems remain the same, expressions of intractable human nature that continue to defy our best solutions.

Now that Ginny Means has moved into my imagination, I want to know more about her. To that end I’ve put her in a novel, or at least a first draft. She’s turning out to be different from what I expected, and I’m enjoying discovering who she is.

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Finding Trouble in “Elvis Duty” by Matthew Wilson

The first mystery story I published was “Burg’s Hobby Case” in the Department of First Stories, over at Alfred Hitchcock’s sister publication, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It features Hans Burg, an aging German detective haunted by his war memories. I had set the story in 1977 in the spa town of Bad Kissingen. I was a kid in Bad Kissingen in 1977, brought there by my father’s work as a soldier in the U.S. Army, so I knew it through a kid’s eyes, and it was fun to imagine an intriguing, grown-up suspense story taking place at that time and in that place.

I was so fond of Burg, that I decided to write a few more stories with him as my lead. But instead of setting them all in the 1970s, something I had seen done by Martin Limón with his Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea, I decided I wanted to move Burg around a bit, to imagine him at different moments his career, and I decided on the time frame of 1945-1989. I find these years particularly interesting in the history of modern Germany, from the moment the war ended and the Third Reich crumbled, through the years of two Germanys, to the night the Berlin Wall fell (or as the historian Mary Elise Sarotte suggests, accidentally opened).

In my notebook, I started jotting down ideas, and these came out as sentence fragments: A Cadillac joyride in Bad Kissingen. Honor among pickpockets. A Bad Kissingen war widow and her suitors. A defector takes a spa. Ideas like these often go nowhere. They are only momentary flights of imagination. Sometimes I take one of these ideas and write a few paragraphs, not a story at all, but more like a rough treatment of a story, often with a beginning, some trouble in the middle, but no specific ending. And then somehow, I’m not really sure how other than stubborn persistence, a whole story comes out. This is the case with my current story, “Elvis Duty.”

I started it with just this little fragment: Elvis comes to Bad Kissingen. I liked the idea because now, instead of the aging detective approaching retirement, Burg is in the middle of his career. It’s 1959 and the biggest pop star on the planet has made his way to Germany, and he happens to wind up in Burg’s spa town. Elvis in Germany has always intrigued me because of the family legend of my parents meeting him in the Munich Hauptbahnhof a few days after their wedding. My mother would say Elvis looked like other GIs except for the diamond rings on his fingers, and my father would say Elvis complimented his jacket. They were both boys from the South and they had similar tastes in style. This was a story I’d found thrilling as a child but grew skeptical of in adulthood. How many people exaggerate their brushes with the very famous? It was an idea I came to use to open the story, as you will see in the first paragraph. Later, I lost my skepticism after reading Peter Guralnuik’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. I was able to confirm that Elvis had, in fact, traveled to Munich on a three day pass around the same date as my parent’s wedding. So I thought, if my parents could meet Private Presley, so could Hans Burg.

Still, I needed a plot. That came to me from another story from my parents, and another book. When I was three years old, my mother left me and my two brothers in the care of a neighbor so she could travel to Hawaii to spend a week with my father, who had been granted R&R from his duty in Vietnam. All I can remember is crying for a week. But I’ve seen the pictures of them in their swimsuits on the beach in Waikiki, my mother with her fair skin, my father with arms and neck burned by the tropical sun of Southeast Asia. In my mother’s recollection, my father was jumpy at the sound of slamming doors. The banging must have echoed the explosions in a war he was only a few hours removed from, and to which he would soon return. My mother also remembered the pills. She said my father popped them in his mouth regularly, and when she asked about them, he said, “It’s just medicine.” She let it go at that, but she was suspicious.

Later, I read about the “pep pills” distributed to soldiers during my father’s war. In “The Drugs That Built a Super Soldier” (The Atlantic, April 18, 2016), Lukasz Kamienski describes how the Vietnam War became known as the “first pharmacological war.” But I discovered that was not quite accurate after reading Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Ohler writes of the pervasive use of amphetamines in the German military, particularly during their rapid invasions of Poland and France. Because the German attacks relied so heavily on up-tempo movement of forces, there was no time to rest, so a systematic use of amphetamines allowed combatants to “go on working for thirty-six to fifty hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue.” The GIs in Germany in the 1950s were most likely introduced to similar “pep pills.” Indeed, Guralnuik notes of Elvis that “with the pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr, he was so full of energy he never had to slow down.”

With Hans Burg a veteran of that German army of the Blitzkrieg, and with Elvis’s army of 1959 almost certainly dabbling in similar pharmaceuticals, I could see some trouble, and from that trouble, I could see my plot. Now, I just needed an ending, which I will leave for you to discover when you read “Elvis Duty” in this month’s Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

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Plumbing Your Past for Fun and Profit by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

As a person who came to mystery publication somewhat late in life—past fifty for both my first novel and first short story—my mantra by default occasionally feels closer to “write what you lived” than “write what you know.”

Before landing my first full-time journalism job, I moved around a lot, both as a single man and later with my wife. I learned Gaelic in a village on Ireland’s west coast, volunteered on a South Dakota Indian reservation, and attended graduate school and later taught English as a Second Language in Providence, Rhode Island. Each experience transformed me in its own way, engraining in me lessons of success and failure that guide me to this day.

Yet not just years but decades passed before I finally started writing about those eras, inspired by my budding mystery career and the simple march of time. In the spring of 2017, I used the annual New England Crime Bake call for stories to summon up a tale of the mid-1980s Providence that I remembered. Mining my memory banks, I spun a story—“The Murderous Type,” anthologized later that year—involving mobsters, illicit love and Brown University (not necessarily in that order).

Later that year, my wife and I flew to Spain to celebrate the wedding of our oldest daughter to her Barcelona husband. Returning to Europe for the first time since 1984, recollections of my year in Ireland flooded back. By the time our flight home touched down, I had outlined in my head a story—“The Path I Took,” published in 2020—of a young linguistics scholar from Ohio whose early 1980s sojourn in a Gaelic-speaking village takes a dark turn when he discovers a murder victim tied to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

At that point, I realized I was two-thirds into a trilogy of sorts, a trio of unlinked stories based on experiences from my early twenties. I knew the last entry would involve South Dakota, and that it would be the hardest to write. Volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was life-changing to say the least, as my wife and I found ourselves thrust into a world vastly different from anything we’d known before—socially, economically, racially, and geographically. We departed after two years buoyed by the adventure but also questioning our role as white volunteers trying to “help” people who never asked for our assistance in the first place.

With these concerns in mind, I set out to draft what became “Ignatius Rum-and-Cola,” appearing in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I stuck with my lived experience, setting the story on a fictional Jesuit mission similar to the one we called home for two years. I made the conscious decision to feature a tribal policeman, but just as consciously chose to tell the story through the eyes and experiences of the mission superintendent—a white Jesuit priest—and the white mission volunteers. I did this not to elevate him or the volunteers in my story to any sort of superior status, but to honestly portray my own time on Pine Ridge, and to avoid as much as possible any hint of cultural appropriation.

So what did I learn from writing this personal trilogy?

Writing about one’s past is liberating, but it’s not a free pass to storytelling. Just as I do when writing contemporary stories, I did research and consulted experts along the way, from a retired Providence cop, to an Irish language specialist, to my wife and fellow reservation volunteer, to make sure I had my facts right after thirty-odd years.

One’s lived experience is the framework for a story set in the past, but it’s only half the picture. All three of my stories added the flight of fancy of a murder mystery to what were otherwise interesting but highly personal experiences—read: possibly boring without the discovery of a body.

As a writer, give yourself time. Lots and lots of it. I tell novice authors to brace themselves for playing the long game, encouraging them that success will come but it could be years in the making. Or decades, in my case. But I can say with confidence: it’s worth the wait.

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Inspired by a Soggy Shoe by Floyd Sullivan

One daughter turned forty years old, another thirty. Two milestone birthdays.

Let’s get together for a celebratory weekend in the Finger Lakes! What a great idea!

(Family fun on Keuka Lake. Photo by Jeanne Sullivan Meissner)

So we traveled to Keuka Lake, New York, from Brooklyn and Peekskill and Chicago and Trumansburg on Cayuga Lake and had a wonderful time frolicking in the water and the sun for a few days. My wife and I, four adult kids with spouses, six grandkids, and a family friend. But all good times end eventually. For our daughter Anne Lise, who lived on a neighboring lake, the end meant cleaning up the rented house she had found for us, and returning the keys to the real estate company. We all offered to help, but she insisted that we get started on our drives of four hours back to Brooklyn and ten hours to Chicago.

A couple of days after arriving home I received an email from Anne Lise with a photo attached. The message read, “Pops! Your next Rick Peters story! ‘Dead Man’s Shoe.'” The picture showed a lone athletic shoe on a pier. “Found this in the lake as we were cleaning up.”

I loved the title, but wondered how a single black Merrell shoe could translate into a Rick Peters story. Peters is the first person protagonist featured in most of my crime fiction, including “The Beano” (AHMM, Sept/Oct 2021) and other short stories, and one (so far) novel. He is a commercial photographer with a portfolio that includes images of everything from nudes for a men’s magazine to a guitar once owned by Eric Clapton (see “The Beano”). Taking another look at the picture, I wondered what the shoe could possibly have to do with a photographer.

Maybe I should create a new hero, or antihero, because if it’s Rick Peters’ shoe that would mean he was the dead man in the title and I would be saying goodbye to my favorite protagonist!

The thought of creating a new Rick Peters made me dizzy just then, so once again I brought the image up on my cell phone to ponder other possibilities. The connection hit me like a high inside fast ball. 

Picture . . . photographer.

Photograph . . . photographer.

Rick Peters . . . photographer.

Rick Peters took the photograph of the shoe! It wasn’t his shoe and foot at all!


So what? A single athletic shoe on a pier on a lake. Why would he take such a picture, especially since he normally works in the controlled lighting environment of a commercial studio? Quick cell phone captures are not his style at all. They make him nervous.

Then the picture wasn’t taken with a cell phone. Peters took it with a professional digital SLR camera.

The question arose in my somewhat addled mind, why was Peters in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York in the first place? He works at a studio in Chicago. The answer to that question came to me when I asked myself, why were we on Keuka Lake that weekend?

For fun! A brief vacation!

Peters would be in Upstate New York for the same reason—to get away from it all for a week or so. Peace and quiet in a beautiful, dare I say picturesque, part of the country, far away from the big city and its crowds and noise and . . . crime?

Okay, there has to be a crime. But it’s just a shoe on a pier. How to turn a simple shoe into a dead man’s shoe, that was the question.

Maybe this: I’ll put a man’s foot in the shoe. A dead man’s foot.

But was that realistic? An athletic shoe washing up on a lake shore with a severed foot still inside? I googled “feet in shoes washing up” and immediately this sentence appeared at the top of my cell phone’s display: “Since 2007, nearly two dozen human feet have been found in sneakers unattached to bodies . . .”

It was possible. There was precedent. My photographer protagonist Rick Peters could be hired to take a picture of a shoe still holding a disembodied foot; hired by the local, small town police because they needed a professional to take high resolution photographs of the evidence of a potential crime, at the possible scene of that potential crime.

I had the initiating action for “Dead Man’s Shoe,” and a location. Luckily we visited our daughter and her husband in the Finger Lakes on a regular basis which made adding descriptive location details a more reliable task than depending on my memory or photographs.

Next, I needed characters. I had a foot in a soggy shoe, but the victim himself needed to be fleshed out, so to speak. And who would be the perp? Or perhaps perps? And what would his (her? their?) motive be? The solutions to those problems came as I worked on the first draft of the story.

After several more drafts, frequent proofing, and final minor revisions, I was ready to submit. Soon after I sent in the manuscript Editor Linda Landrigan sent me the happy email informing me that AHMM would like to acquire “Dead Man’s Shoe.”

Thanks for the inspiration, Anne Lise! Now, please send me more story ideas. Your first was hugely successful. Keep ’em coming!

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Steve Hockenmith on Life in the Slow Lane






That’s part of the reason I haven’t had a new book out in a few years. (The other reason: These days, I’ve found, editors respond even more slowly than I write.)

It took me a year to write my first novel, Holmes on the Range. Now, with twenty books under my bulging belt, I’ve gotten a little faster.

A novel the same length? About 85,000 words? Requiring lots of research and outlining? At my new, comparatively blistering rate, I could probably crank it out in . . . oh, let’s say eleven months, three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes. Give or take a minute.

I know I should write faster. How am I going to become the new James Patterson at this rate? That guy puts out three new books in the time it takes me to eat a Tootsie Pop. (In fairness, I eat Tootsie Pops slowly, too. I’m not one of those lunatics who cheat and bite it after three licks.)

Yet despite knowing that I need to develop the proverbial need for speed, I’m boldly going in reverse: I’ve embarked on my slowest, most drawn-out book project yet. Eleven months, three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours and some-odd minutes? Ha! That would be writing at warp speed compared to this. I don’t think I’m going to finish this book in less than a decade.

Which isn’t to say you’ll have to wait that long to read it. A chapter appeared in AHMM two years ago under the title “The Last Noel.” Another appeared in AHMM last year as “Do Not Open Till Christmas.” And now a third—“The Grown-Ups Table”—is appearing in the magazine, as well.

All three take place in River City, Indiana, in the days leading up to the same Christmas. And I guess it’s one messed-up Christmas, because I’ve written another crime story about it, as well. Hopefully it’ll pop up in AHMM one of these days . . . followed by a fifth River City Christmas story and a sixth and a seventh . . .

Ten should do the trick. Or maybe a dozen. That would have me finishing the book, at the earliest, in 2032.

Maybe by then we’ll all have holographic wreaths and sentient A.I. trees that decorate themselves. I leave it to someone writing for Asimov’s or Analog to explore that. Me—I’ll be writing about Christmas crime for Alfred Hitchcock . . . for a very long time.

Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range mysteries, the Tarot Mystery series and a variety of other novels and collections. You can learn more about him (and how he’s managed to write so much despite being sooooooooo slow) at stevehockensmith.com.


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Yes, But Why? by Marcelle Dubé

I recently moved to Alberta after 35 years in the Yukon. I love the Yukon—its wilderness and wildlife, the calibre of people it attracts, its artistic soul . . . The Yukon is in my blood and I would never have left it.

Except . . .

Except. That’s the thing, isn’t it? The why of someone’s actions. I’m an avid reader of crime reporting but news stories inevitably leave me frustrated. They almost never address the motivation behind the crime. And that, more than anything, is what I want to know.

Why did the real estate agent risk their career by facilitating fraud when it was so easy to get caught?

Why did the gang member shoot three innocent people before finally hitting their target? What was so vital about killing that one person that they were willing to kill innocents?

Why did the father choose to kill his children instead of walking away? Mental illness? To hurt his wife?

These questions baffle me, especially with the benefit of hindsight (“Yes, but why didn’t you do this instead?”). That’s why motivation is so important in my writing.

I have always thought of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, though in the last few years, I’ve written more and more short fiction. Long or short, the question always remains the same: Why? What motivates my characters to do the things they do?

In The Shoeless Kid, the first of my Mendenhall Mysteries, brand new Chief Kate Williams finds herself wondering why an old homeless man would brave the police department to report a monster abducting a child if there wasn’t a kernel of truth in it. What she can’t admit—even to herself until much later—is that the case reminds her too much of an event early in her career where her lack of action led to a boy’s death.

In The A’lle Murders, the first in the A’lle Mystery series, Constance becomes the first A’lle investigator for Lower Canada. Her motivation for becoming one is to bring a regular pay cheque home to her family, but deep down, she wants to chip away at the discrimination she and all A’lle on Earth face, especially in Lower Canada.

Short story, novella or novel, the motivation for each character has to make sense. Don’t give me a character who does something just for the heck of it (or because the author needs the character to do it). The character may not know why he or she is doing it, or other characters in the story may not know, but the reader has to know. At least, eventually.

In Identity Withheld, my most recent standalone novel, all Cleo wants is to keep her parents safe from whatever has been chasing them all her life—even if it means lying to the police. Her motivation is crystal clear and drives all of her actions.

In “The Mittens,” my story in AHMM, Estelle Martin is the retired commanding officer for the Yukon RCMP. She’s based on a boss I once had, a woman close to six feet tall who strode through life like a Valkyrie. I wanted to be her when I grew up. But Estelle—Stella to everyone else—is unlike my former boss in that she is jaded, impatient and intolerant of stupidity. And she absolutely does NOT want to have anything to do with police work anymore. That part of her life is done.

So why does she get involved in the murder? It all has to do with the mittens.

As for me moving to Alberta, what could possibly have motivated me to leave my beloved Yukon? Well, it turns out Alberta is where they grow the grandchildren.

Best motivation of all.


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Tom Larsen on His Ever-Expanding Influences

I’ve always loved reading but my introduction to crime fiction didn’t come until I was in college—the same time I discovered The Blues. I bought my first Muddy Waters album at a used-records store in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and my first Raymond Chandler work—a short story anthology entitled The Red Wind—in a nearby used-bookstore. Just as I was hooked by the sound of Muddy’s voice growling the opening lines of “Blind Man Blues” I read this passage in the bookstore and I knew that I had to buy the book:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Chandler led me to Hammett of course, and then McBain and the MacDonalds—John D. and Ross. Through the years I’ve read—and attempted to write—every kind of story imaginable, but I always seem to come back to crime fiction, specifically those in the Noir genre.

I think Netflix more than anything is responsible for piquing my interest in foreign authors. I’ve always loved British mysteries and at one point I stumbled upon a short-lived BBC series based on Ian Rankin’s John Rebus character. I’ve since read all the Rebus novels, and I’m currently awaiting the October release of “A Heart Full of Headstones”—Book # 24 in the series.

When I used to read Stephen King—I still think he’s a great writer, but I only have room in my head for so many 700-word novels—it wasn’t for the horror aspect but because of the characters and the sense of place. The same thing goes for Rankin. In all his Rebus novels, Edinburgh Scotland is as much a character as Rebus himself. Chandler’s L.A, McBain’s New York—I know he didn’t call it NYC, but c’mon—and the Russia of Martin Cruz Smith led me to Stieg Larrson’s Sweden and Jo Nesbø’s Norway.

As far as movies and series, I’ve now become a fan of Australian, Polish, German, and even Icelandic mysteries.

I am a huge fan of the Akashic Books series of Noir anthologies from around the world. Since I lived in Ecuador from 2014 to 2020, I particularly enjoy the South American anthologies. I even pitched an Ecuador Noir anthology to Akashic but alas, it was not to be.

I was able to create a series of my own featuring Wilson Salinas, an Ecuadorian P.I. I based the character—very loosely—on the Ecuadorian taxi driver who picked us up at our hotel in Guayaquil and took us on the four-hour drive through the Andes Mountains to our new home in Cuenca. Wilson’s exploits led me to the creation of another character. Capitán Ernesto Guillén of Ecuador’s policía nacional is a corrupt cop, but also an excellent detective.

Stories featuring these two characters have been published in AHMM, Mystery Tribune, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Throughout these stories I’ve tried my best to give readers a sense of the beauty as well as the darkness and complexity of life in this wonderful country.

One of my favorite pastimes of late is to discover new authors in the genre—at least new to me. Over the past year I’ve discovered some fine authors who let you travel the world without leaving home: Caimh McDonnell—Ireland, Renee Pawlish—Denver, and Lee Goldberg—L.A. If you haven’t read anything by these authors, you owe it to yourself to check them out.

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Characters are People, Too by Sharon Hunt

What I have found most interesting to me as a writer is how my characters become real people, to me.  This is especially true of the characters in my fictional town of Ellisville, Ontario.

When I began the Ellisville Stories—of which there are currently four, featuring Detectives John Turner, Bruce MacDonald and Francie Jenkins, with a fifth one in the works—the first person to introduce himself was John Turner, the senior detective on the town’s police force.  He came to me almost fully formed, although bits and pieces of his character were still to be discovered, as the stories progressed.

He said he was “Turner” (although others called him by his first name). I realized that I would call him Turner, not only because that was how he introduced himself but, also, because he is an old-fashioned man in some ways and wouldn’t appreciate people he doesn’t yet know well—including his creator— calling him by his first name. (I grew up with a grandmother who didn’t appreciate familiarity from strangers, so I understood this immediately). Nor would he want me—or anyone—to call him “Mr. Turner” because that was his father, an abusive man who had made Turner’s childhood and his mother’s life a misery.  He would hate that association.  So, Turner it was and Turner it remains.

Bruce MacDonald, on the other hand, was just Bruce, from the beginning. Although he has as complicated a backstory as his best friend, John, he doesn’t mind if stranger or friend alike calls him Bruce.  I have to follow a character’s lead in such things.

I also have to follow a character’s lead when he or she exposes an unsavory side that I didn’t see coming (this is especially true in my story “A Stranger in The House”, in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine).  I didn’t see the unsavory side of Francie Jenkins, who worked alongside Turner and Bruce for many years, until it appeared in this story.

It was as much a shock to me as it was to Turner, who had quickly advised that Francie Jenkins was the best detective he had ever worked with, as well as a good friend. He trusted her implicitly. Bruce, who for a short time had been in a personal relationship with her, also thought he knew her well. Both men were shaken when Francie turned out to be a stranger to them. So was I.

Originally, I hadn’t intended to give her such a prominent role in these stories, as I wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Turner and Bruce, partners at work and friends for decades.  I was interested in discovering what a longstanding friendship between two men, carrying burdens of childhood trauma, broken relationships and the deaths of people they loved, might look like.   

Then, Francie stepped up and said, “Here I am and I’m not going to take a back seat,” and she quickly came to the fore.  I liked her.

When she went over “to the dark side” or, more truthfully, returned to it, I kept trying to figure out a way to lure her back into the light, but by the end of “A Stranger in the House,” I admitted defeat and let her be who she was.  To have dismissed that, in hopes of forcing her to be the character I first imagined her to be, would have been to be untrue to her and to the story; still, I mourned Francie, not only because I loved her intelligence and wit but also because of what she first represented to me, a character who believes that things will work out well, in the end. Turner and Bruce were always leery of such as that. 

Eventually, though, a character, like a person, shows you their true nature and things work out as they will. I am looking forward, though, to seeing how things work out with these three people in the next Ellisville story.

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The Tales We Tell by Michael Nethercott

In thinking back, perhaps it was that story my mother once read aloud, the one which lurks now just beyond the grasp of remembrance. All I can tell you is that it had something to do with a deep woodland, wandering children, and shadowy mystic creatures—elves? gnomes? fairies?—and that it touched something in me that has never fully left. Like a wispy mist drifting on the far edge of a town.

Or, more concretely, it could have been that film The Magic Sword, an early sixties, low budget affair (which somehow managed to land Basil Rathbone) about a group of knights on a far-flung, danger-laden quest. That movie with its armor-clad band of brothers and seven curses/obstacles deeply struck a chord in my six-year-old self.

Or it could even have been the thousand-and-one tales overheard from the horde of uncles and aunts in my sprawling Irish-American family. They were tales of a lost land, old customs, rebel grandparents, and, of course, ghosts. Many, many ghosts. True ghosts, it was claimed, ones “seen with my own eyes.”

Yes, any of those things might have fueled my desire to tell stories (like peat blocks tossed upon a cottage fire). And quite probably all played their part. But one specific memory, which seems almost too idyllic not to be contrived, is an image that I link directly to my life as a teller of stories, as a writer. In my boyhood Connecticut home, just beyond a sliver of a brook, stood a line of pine trees, perhaps a dozen in all, separating our land from the neighbors’. At some point in my adolescence, I took to going out to that lonesome stretch and sitting with a book. No doubt, a few volumes made it out there with me, but my most frequent companion was a brick-red hardcover called The Family Album of Favorite Poems.

As the fairly corny title suggests, this collection, first printed in 1959, was a gathering of chestnuts. The usual suspects were all there, from Shelly to Whitman to Frost, with stopovers at Dickinson and Kipling. The collection wouldn’t pass modern muster, what with its lack of diversity and experimentation, but it served then to enamor me to the written word. The section I chiefly gravitated to was Chapter XII: Story Poems and Ballads. There I first encountered such worthies as The Raven, The Highwayman, Casey at the Bat, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and the epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. All of these offered full tales, with points of departure and arcs and outcomes.

The summons to narrative was compelling—Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere—and, as instructed, I did listen. I not only read those story poems, I memorized several, further strengthening my bond with them. And just to jack up the romance of that lad-among-the-trees imagery, I’d pluck the old brown pine needles from the forest floor and use them as bookmarks. True.

At some point early on, I made the transition from absorbing these tales to wanting to create them. Composition assignments in grammar school paved the way for this; for example, I recall some noble fledgling effort about a spaceship called Pegasus. The first fully realized short story I wrote—with the emphasis on short—came when I was a high school freshman. I don’t think it was assigned, though, just something I felt drawn to do. It was a three part tale, each section from a different character’s viewpoint, and I still remember the title: “Memory of a Storm on the Irish Sea, 1913.” Poetic? Pretentious? Overwrought? To this day, by God, I stand by it. The title was arguably the best thing about the story. That said, my plot of a doomed fisherman did hint at something worthwhile, and I’ve retained enough it that I may actually try to give it new life someday. What I like about that title, I think, is that it could be something I’d currently conjure up for one of my stories. For better or worse, my sensibilities as a writer have shown some consistency over all these years.    

 At its heart, storytelling is, I believe, not an indulgence but a human necessity. On the heels of any joy, tragedy, or absurdity, often comes an urgent need to recount what befell us. It’s not enough for the knight to live through a curse/challenge/merriment, he must share it with his fellows in the mead hall. Speaking of mead, several years back I was chatting with my adult daughter and, for whatever reason, I brought up the fact that she’d never seen her father drunk. Mildly tipsy perhaps, but never inebriated. I added that on those rare times, mostly in my youth, when I had imbibed too much, I was never a particularly moody drunk nor an insulting one nor certainly not a combative one. I would just start telling stories without stopping. On hearing this, my daughter stared at me and, without missing a beat, said, “My God, you’ve been drunk my whole life.” I think that sums up my place as a storyteller pretty well.

Moving from the spoken account to the written one, humanity at large arrived at fiction, which is, at its core, sanctioned lying. Stylized gossip about things that never happened. When writing fiction, I’m sometimes struck by the notion that I can make anything happen to any of my characters at any point in the story. And then, if I did my job well, it will seem to the reader that, of course, that’s exactly what had to happen in the narrative, as if no other trajectory was feasible. That may seem like a terribly basic and obvious observation, but it still fills me at times with a quiet sense of wonder.

In my latest piece in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (Sept/Oct 2022), “Polk, Pitts, and Cadaver,” I’ve fashioned a suspense tale set in the 1930’s vaudeville world. Vaudeville itself, like other stage and screen arts, can be seen itself as a form of storytelling. As I recall, this story came out at a fairly brisk pace, more or less dragging me along in its wake. It seemed to know where it wanted to go. This will be the tenth time I’ve appeared in Hitchcock, which has a particular savor to it. At one point, as a child, my family had a subscription to the magazine. It’s warming to think that that boy, with his story poems and pine needles and aspirations to tell tales, would one day find himself in the very magazine that lay there on the living room coffee table.      

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