“Documents”: A Mystery That Came Out of the Archives by Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim is the author of works such as Above Sugar Hill and Noir. Her short stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, New York Stories and New Contrast. She was a visiting associate at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and here she discusses the research and source materials for her revealing and unique story “Documents” in the current issue of the magazine.

I was up to my elbows in archival material when I found the note, handwritten on a scrap of paper:

There’s a little surprise carefully concealed in a Click’s carrier bag in the fridge for little Ekraam (who speaks so well on the phone) who could be forgiven for not being circumcised before he knew the way to heaven (so long as you don’t mention the word Palestine). So…. Es mein kindt. Forward the people’s struggle (on chicken bones and gefilte fish)!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the note, wondering who it was written by, who it was left for, what their story was.

The archives belonged to the University of Cape Town library’s special collections. I was visiting from the US, having pitched my project as “research for a collection of unconventional war stories.” Almost ten years after the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, when it was spring in the Southern hemisphere and autumn back home, I was trying to solve a mystery of my own. How had the white minority government stayed in power for so long? What was the apparatus that they’d used to divide, rule, and remove people from their homes?

The answer was in those archives—in the legal documents, political pamphlets, and handwritten letters in those boxes. In 2003, much of the material was still uncatalogued, so when I opened each box and examined the documents on the long tables in the whispery special collections room, I didn’t always know what I would find.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I photocopied some of those documents, and the copies are spread before me again now: a notice informing a property owner that their town had been declared a “a White area” and as they were not white, they would have to sell their property and “settle in their own area”; a pamphlet from an activist advising residents of “mixed race areas” of what to do when police came calling to harass residents; a notice of appeal to authorities who had undervalued the home of a family forced to leave an area that had been “declared White.”

The minutiae of apartheid, the documents used to control people’s lives, fascinated me. Every American of my generation (who came of age in the 1980s) knew about whites only areas, the shanty towns where black South Africans were forced to live, the banning of anti-apartheid political activists and the brutality of the pro-apartheid police. But the depth of that brutality, the reach of the apartheid government’s control, became clearer to me when I looked at official documents—in the decrees and the laws that dictated the movements of people’s day-to-day lives.

I was also riveted by the documents from the anti-apartheid activists and one group of documents in particular seemed so familiar to me—I kept imagining the person who they’d belonged to. There were letters to universities in Britain from an activist who had to flee South Africa, budgets worked out in sterling and in rand, notes from meetings to encourage disinvestment in apartheid South Africa. And then, in the margin of a page of notes, an aside written in bubbly ornate lettering: “This is a wonderful pen!”

It was easy to wonder who the activist was, who his family was. The note about the treat in the fridge (in a carrier bag from a discount drugstore chain) had to be from a mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law was clearly Jewish. The child was not named Ekraam, but his name made it clear that some of the family members would have been designated white in apartheid South Africa and others non-white, which in and of itself would have been illegal during that time. I wanted to tell the story of the imaginary family by incorporating some of the documents from the archives as well as through a fictional set of notes and letters.

After I’d written the first draft of “Documents,” I found out more about the person whose papers had inspired the story. His story, and the story of his family, was not the story I told in “Documents.” I was happy to find out that he and his family were well, though. He hadn’t even realised his papers from the 1980s were in the archives, but he graciously gave permission to use to segments that are verbatim.

From the pages of “Documents” by Linda Mannheim in the July/August 2018 issue of AHMM.

I love that Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in guidelines for writers, asks “only that a story be about a crime (or the threat or fear of one).” The most compelling mysteries, to me, are ones where the crime is carried out by the state or other official bodies and the protagonist has to break laws to cope with that crime. I’m a sucker for the kind of Noir tales where a private eye confronts crooked cops. I’m interested in 1970s muckrakers uncovering city corruption. And South Africa in the 1980s too, was a place where individuals had to use subterfuge to survive a brutal and corrupt system.

Nearly all of the stories that I pitched as “unconventional war stories” when I went to South Africa turned out to be mysteries in the end. Nearly all were about people who became fugitives or victims when the law turned against them. Nearly all had to break those laws to challenge injustice.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Masterminds

“Observing Venus on a Trip to Mars” by Mark Thielman

Every year in conjunction with The Wolfe Pack, AHMM presents the Black Orchid Novella Award to a work of fiction best exemplifying the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The winner this year (and in 2015) is Mark Thielman, a Texas criminal-law magistrate.  Here he talks about his BONA-winning tale, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which you can read in the current July/August 2018 issue. We have more tales by Mark coming up in forthcoming issues.

I love killing people in ships from the age of sail.

The setting provides a natural locked room. The killer must be onboard somewhere. The location allows for the sleuth to exercise his/her full powers of ratiocination. (I didn’t know that word until the Trace Evidence blog promoting the July/August edition of AHMM used it to describe my character. Now, I feel educated and obligated.)

Exotic words I don’t get to use in my everyday life—part of the fun of writing a sea yarn: I get to exercise my inner Patrick O’Brian.

The Black Orchid Novella Award is a partnership between the Wolfe Pack, the official Nero Wolfe Society, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine honoring the novellas of Rex Stout. I have been fortunate to twice win the award. The challenge is to write a story which celebrates the components of the Rex Stout canon without being derivative.

I found my story this time in Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1769 to observe Venus crossing the sun. In modern terms, the voyage seems the equivalent of traveling to Mars. Both trips would take about an equal length of time and have the common goal of hitting a tiny point of land in a vastness of void. A principal difference, however, was that the technology for determining longitude, how far a ship had travelled east or west, was still being developed in 1769. The captain, a man who had the intellectual wherewithal and confidence to steer a ship to a pinprick of land, presented an authentic Wolfe-like character.

Somewhere on my shelves is a dusty edition of Alistair MacLean’s biography of Captain Cook. Captain Cook’s journals from his voyage may be read online. His observations are readily available. Drawings of the HM Bark Endeavour can also be found through the Internet. I hoped to give the story the proper nautical feel through the details obtained by study.

The 1769 voyage of the Endeavour was a joint project of the British Navy and the Royal Society. The scientists, being gentlemen, were not berthed with the sailors, but rather shared the Captain’s space. Joseph Banks, the chief scientist, was a gentleman, unlike Cook, a man born to working class roots who rose through the ranks. Banks, younger than Cook, with his own unique skill set, housed with the Captain. He seemed a natural fit for Archie.

The Endeavour’s odyssey had an additional mission. The plan remained a secret until the ship had set sail. The Navy wanted Cook to search for a hypothetical southern continent, a land mass to offset those of the northern hemisphere. Geographers postulated that such a land was necessary to keep the earth from wobbling in its rotation. Captain Cook also tested foods to avoid scurvy, a plague of long ocean voyages. Secret missions with a culinary angle, reminiscent of Mr. Wolfe and his chef, Fritz. A natural pairing of strong individuals living together. Each bit of research heightened my enthusiasm that I had found an ideal setting in which to recast a Wolfe tale.

The voyage of the Endeavour was a naval expedition. Yet its purpose was not victory in battle but rather a search for truth and discovery. The existence of the great southern continent, the dimensions of the galaxy, and an effective tool for combatting scurvy were all undertakings on Captain Cook’s expedition. This search for truth provides an excellent backdrop for a whodunit. I merely added a body.

And, it allowed me to use cool words like fo’cs’le and bowsprit.

1 Comment

Filed under Criminal Masterminds

“Pulling Off a Heist Story” by Rebecca Cantrell

USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell is the author of the Joe Tesla thrillers and the Hannah Vogel mysteries, among several other series. Her work has won the Thriller, Macavity, and Bruce Alexander awards. Here she talks about “Homework,”  her story in the current July/August issue of AHMM.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine requested a piece about writing heist stories, presumably because I have one in this month’s magazine. Or maybe they’ve discovered my plans for Fort Knox.  I’m going to play it straight and pretend it’s about writing. No spoilers. So, here’s the skinny.

A good heist takes planning. Everyone needs to know their role. Character expertise is crucial. The execution needs to be solid. And a little misdirection doesn’t hurt either. Those are the elements of a heist, and a short story isn’t so different.

First, I had to figure out what to steal.  The story started with a writing prompt from my teenaged son. The first line had to be “Flames licked the ceiling.” Max is a fantastic writer, and I wanted to have fun with his prompt,  to write about flames and licking and ceilings and not have a fire.

So, it started with the dog, Flames, and her owner, Ada. I followed Flames along, as surprised as she was by how things unfolded. If the story had been a real heist, I’d say that by the end of the first draft I knew what I wanted to steal.

Now I knew the crime, but like a good heist, this story took some planning.  In the second draft I tightened up the action and descriptions. I made sure every character in the caper was properly trained. Training wasn’t enough though because characters are more than their training. Everyone had secrets, too.  I wanted the reader to sense that all wasn’t quite well, but still be surprised at the ending. I slipped in shiny little nuggets of misdirection for the reader, for the characters, even for the dog as the heist was executed.

As a person, you live life in one direction, today gives way to tomorrow. But that’s not true for a writer. As a writer, you can go back and forth in a story like a crazy person with a time machine, changing the future and the past. Nobody knows if it took one draft or twenty. This is handy in writing, and I imagine it would be useful in pulling of a heist, too. Luckily, writers have some advantages over thieves. They get one chance.

The last thing to arrive was the title.  I wanted a title that didn’t make sense until the very last line. It slipped into my head like that ring slipped on Ada’s finger. Then, hopefully, the meaning of the title and the aftermath of the heist became clear. Or maybe you’re just left with a dog and a handful of . . . pumpkin pie.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Masterminds

Thomas Pluck on Crime Fiction

Last week, the Dell mystery fiction editors were proud to be featured in short interviews over at SleuthSayers. Today, we have the pleasure and honor of welcoming a SleuthSayer to Trace Evidence. New Jersey author Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the short-story collection Life During Wartime—among other titles. He was also the editor of Protectors 2: Heroes, which was nominated for an Anthony Award.

For growing up in a family that always had one leg outside the law, it took me a long time to fully embrace crime fiction. My first entry was Miss Marple, perhaps surprising for a writer often pegged as noir. I was raised by my grandmother since I was six, so I felt comfortable around a table of old ladies at tea. And as a kid, I didn’t know how crooked we were.

The house I grew up in was a marker for a gambling debt, filled every Sunday with bikers, truck drivers, disgraced cops, managers of mob-owned bars, and cocktail waitresses. I didn’t find anyone like my family in the books we read in school, but I did find them in crime fiction. My mom and I traded authors like baseball cards. Have you read this one yet? You’ve got to read this. . . .

Crime fiction is a diverse carnival, from the gritty carnies operating rickety rides to the wholesome side where bakers peddle tasty treats, where murder is more shocking but no less likely. Marks come from the farm or the inner city, all have a place here. When I browse the mystery section or flip through AHMM or EQMM to hear the sweet rasp of the pages, I may find myself in the suburbs of ancient Rome, in a gilded drawing room with a locked door, or in a rough spot in a country where I can’t speak the language but I know the music, because the human heart is the same wherever you go.

And that’s why the kid who grew up next to a Superfund site and managed to snag a degree in English Lit writes crime fiction, and is proud to be part of the carnival of crime.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Masterminds

“On the Edge: A Writer’s Take on Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock” by Paul D. Marks

Paul D. Marks is the Shamus Award winning author of White Heat. His story “Windward” is currently nominated for the Shamus and and Macavity Awards, and he is the coeditor of the Anthony-nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining SeaHe is a former Hollywood scrip doctor, and his film-industry experience as well as his role as a writer of novels and stories of the thriller and noir persuasion are at play in this post, which he put together for us on the occasion of Vertigo‘s sixtieth anniversary this year. Read on to hear about the history and symbolism of the film, the traits and tools that have come to be known as “Hitchockian,” and how they relate to crime fiction (and vice versa).

Recently, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo played in theaters in honor of its sixtieth anniversary. Many people think it’s Hitchcock’s masterpiece, including me, though there are some dissenters who find it less than stellar. When Vertigo came out in 1958 it wasn’t a huge success. In fact, it bombed, both with the critics and at the box office. But in 1998 The American Film Institute named Vertigo one of America’s 100 best movies. I like a lot of Hitchcock’s movies. I love many of them. And though I always say that Vertigo and The Lady Vanishes are my two favorites, Vertigo is by far the superior film, the culmination of his art. Watching it again reminded me of what a terrific movie it is and why Hitchcock is the master of suspense.

So when Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, asked me to write a piece about it I jumped at the chance. Linda asked what I see and love about the movie, and wondered what things writers might glean vis a vis Hitchcock and our writing. To that end, I’ve expanded the scope of this piece to talk both about Vertigo and Hitchcock in general and how his techniques can help us as mystery/thriller writers.

The term “Hitchcockian” was invented to describe certain qualities that he exemplified. He may not have invented all of them, but he certainly made them his own. Things like innocent people being accused or caught up in a series of events they don’t really understand, but have to figure a way out of. Average, normal people getting thrust into those situations, feeling a sense of vertigo (no Hitchcock pun intended) until they can get their bearings and get back to some semblance of their normal lives.

There is, of course, a different “syntax” for films and prose. Movies are a visual medium, they appeal to the senses, while novels and stories are more of an intellectual exercise and appeal to the imagination. Screenplays are blueprints, whereas novels/stories are the finished products. Movies mostly don’t contain interior thoughts or monologues, though on occasion they do have voice over narratives. And if you’ve ever seen a screenplay, descriptions are brief and to the point: a beach is a beach and described with a “slugline,” like this: EXT. BEACH – DAY (SUNSET). And the description of that beach is sparse. The sunset isn’t described in flowery terms of glorious purples and pinks and surging waves . . . unless you’re writing “50 Shades of the Beach.”

But in terms of narrative, there is a lot in common between movies and prose. So first, let’s talk a bit about Vertigo and then how Hitchcock’s techniques can be applied to prose writing.

Vertigo

Possible spoilers ahead.

On the surface, Vertigo is the story of former San Francisco cop (detective) John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), who suffered a traumatic event that led to his retirement from the force, as well as causing his acrophobia and vertigo. Later, Scottie is approached by old friend Gavin Elster to follow Elster’s stunning wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). He claims Madeleine is acting strange and wants Scottie to keep an eye on her, find out what she’s doing and protect her from something bad happening. Scottie takes the gig and, in the process, he not only falls in love with Madeleine, he becomes fanatically obsessed with her.

Put simply, Vertigo is a story about obsession. Of course, it’s also about many other things. But Scottie is obsessed with Madeleine. Later, he’s obsessed with Judy (also Kim Novak). Madeleine is obsessed with the past and with Carlotta Valdez, a distant relative. The film is obsessed with life and death, love and obsession, if that’s not redundant.

Scottie’s obsession drives the film. He’s the Everyman that we can all relate to on one level or another. Vulnerable and flawed, but virtuous at the same time. He falls into a trap and spirals down from there.

So what makes Vertigo Hitchcock’s masterpiece? It’s not just one thing, but a coalescing of all the elements of the film so that it becomes the culmination of his art. The plot is very complicated on one level, but also very simple in terms of mysteries and thrillers. In fact, Hitchcock said of it, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” But then it’s not so simple because Scottie’s obsession takes it to a deeper level of meaning.

On top of the plot and story, two separate things, and the characters, you have the visual style of the movie, rich colors, great cinematography and tracking shots. Beautiful images, like in a dream. The music comes into play bringing a haunting, intense quality to the film.

The film is rich with symbolism and motifs that add to the layers of intrigue. Hitchcock uses the symbol of a spiral in many places. The opening credits begin with an extreme close up of a woman’s face and then zooms into her eyes where we first see the spiral symbol. The spiral staircase of the mission. The spiral swirl of the hairstyle worn by Carlotta Valdez in the portrait and Kim Novak’s copycat style of hair pulled into a swirl. The rings of a redwood tree. The round bouquet of flowers that Carlotta/Madeleine holds. All of this reinforces the sense of vertigo, both physical and symbolic.

He also uses colors to convey ideas. The colors of red and green—one symbolizing life, reality. The other death, the unreal, fantasy. Another thing is the use of mirrors. We don’t know if what we’re seeing is the real person or a mirror image until the camera pulls back.

There’s always something more to understand. Something you might not quite understand the first time you see the movie but you’ll discover the next time. There are layers to everything.

On the negative side, some people complain about Kim Novak not being the best actress for the part. I would have probably been one of them a few years ago but I’ve learned to appreciate her more over time. I’ve come to admire the way she’s able to morph from being the cool object of Scottie’s obsession to an ordinary, almost plain woman, who is now desperate to keep Scottie.

The main screenwriter, Samuel A. Taylor, said Hitchcock wasn’t happy with Novak’s performance. But Taylor had just the opposite view and was perfectly satisfied with her because, “If we’d had a brilliant and famous actress who’d created two roles, it might not have been as good. I am completely satisfied with her performance–because she seemed so completely naïve–and therefore it was right. There was a quality about the girl, but no self-conscious art, and it worked well.” (from “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” by Donald Spoto.)

Another thing some people complain about is the long, silent sequence in which Scottie follows Madeleine. I think it’s because they have short attention spans and want more “action”. But it builds the sense of danger and suspense as we wonder what Madeleine is doing and what’s going to happen. It’s lyrical and we watch Scottie as his fascination with Madeleine begins and grows.

So, that said, what can writers learn from cinema’s master of suspense? Might as well start at ground level:

The MacGuffin

One of the first things one thinks of in regard to Alfred Hitchcock is the MacGuffin. And, while it sounds like something you might be able to order for a snap breakfast at McDonald’s it isn’t. . . . What the MacGuffin in a story is doesn’t really matter. It’s simply a device to get the plot moving. It’s the people/characters and how they react to the MacGuffin that matter. But an interesting MacGuffin and what people will do as a result of it makes for an interesting story.

In Rope, Hitchcock’s Nietzschien exploration inspired by Loeb and Leopold, the MacGuffin is the dead boy’s body in the trunk—the trunk that Brandon and Phillip are serving dinner off of. It’s also the rope used to murder the victim and tie a stack of books together.

In Strangers on a Train, tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) must retrieve the MacGuffin, his cigarette lighter, that’s fallen into Bruno’s (Robert Walker’s) hands and that would implicate him in murder.

In Psycho it’s the money Janet Leigh stole, thus forcing her to make a getaway and ultimately land at the Bates Motel, all the while unaware of approaching danger.

On the surface the MacGuffin in North by Northwest is spies and microfilm, but the story is really about Cary Grant, an innocent victim caught up in a deadly game, trying to clear his name and extricate himself from the sticky wicket in which he finds himself.

Vertigo is more complicated; there’s more than one MacGuffin: Scottie’s vertigo, and the “idea” of Carlotta Valdes (she really is unimportant in terms of us knowing much about her but supposedly Madeleine is “possessed” by her or thinks she is). Or is Madeleine the MacGuffin—the elusive dream woman that Scottie pursues and tries to possess, even to the point of trying to resurrect her from the dead by reshaping Judy into Madeleine?

Hitchcock said this of the MacGuffin in François Truffaut’s interview with him:

The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

So, you need something to kickstart the plot, jam it motion, get the characters moving. The MacGuffin is that thing, but what it is isn’t necessarily the most important element.

Entertain

Hitchcock never forgot the real reason people go to see movies—to be entertained and have fun. To step outside of their ordinary lives and experience something thrilling and exciting, but still go back to the safety of their homes. Writers can learn from this too. We need to keep in mind what our readers want. What will entertain and thrill them. They might want to be scared out of their wits, nervous, uptight, but also know that (in most cases) the hero will get out alive in the end. We should try to give our readers an entertaining experience.

Close-ups intensify emotion

As mentioned, film is a visual medium and the drama of a close-up or an interesting angle can make a huge impact on a movie audience. Hitchcock used close-ups as a way to evoke emotion or startle the audience into feeling what the character is feeling. In the opening of Vertigo, Scottie, the SFPD detective, and a uniformed cop chase a bad guy across San Francisco rooftops, with the city and bridge in the background. Scottie slips, grabs onto a rain gutter, and hangs on for dear life. We see the terror in his face, in his eyes, the panic as he looks to the ground. The camera zooms out from his point of view to give us a sense of his fear. How he feels, his sense of “vertigo.” This sets up the whole film—Scottie’s character, his flaws, and his vertigo, which come into play later.

But what can writers learn from this? The close up in a movie is somewhat the equivalent of going inside a character’s head—which movies don’t often do. Sometimes in prose it’s a quiet moment where we learn something personal about a character. These things can draw a reader in and make them empathize with a character. It’s also similar to what I call the Quiet Scene where characters reveal more intimate details and maybe some backstory about themselves.

Dialogue and Reaction Shots

Hitchcock knew that people don’t always say what they mean. Hitch believed you could have people talking about one thing while really saying something else. Writers can use this by infusing their dialogue with subtext. It adds intrigue to a scene if characters are talking about the weather, but the reader might know that one of the characters is worried about the rain washing away the dirt covering the body they just hid behind the garden shed.

In Vertigo Gavin tells Scottie how he misses the old San Francisco and a time when men had all the power and freedom. A little foreshadowing and subtext. But also in Vertigo, there is very little conversation. Scottie and Madeleine or Scottie and Judy don’t talk a lot, and when they do talk the dialogue is meaningful. But the intense emotions aren’t expressed in dialogue but mostly in visual close-ups. As writers it’s tempting to have our characters express all their emotions through dialogue “I’m sad,” “I’m angry!” etc. Use dialogue along with actions to convey emotions instead of just relying on dialogue alone.

Working in film, one of the things I learned is that reaction shots can determine how the audience interprets a scene. For example if you have a scene of someone slipping on a banana peel and cut to the crowd or an individual laughing the audience will have a much different take on what happened than if you cut to those same people concerned and distressed. In prose writing we can do this by seeing how others, or even the narrator, react to certain actions by various characters.

Less is more in terms of violence

Writers love to write graphic descriptions, but sometimes it’s too much. Hitchcock knew how to pull back from a scene and only show a hint of violence. And that hint would carry more weight than showing all the gory details. Think of the classic shower scene from Psycho and how that’s still shocking even though we don’t see a single sliced tendon or Janet Leigh actually getting stabbed. So the lesson for writers is—sometimes less is more. Think about a small slice of violence instead of showing us every gory detail. Let the reader’s imagination take them there. One of the things Hitchcock said about suspense is, “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.”

I had written the previous paragraph before I watched David Baldacci on In Depth on Book TV. And he pretty much said the same thing, so a little moral support for this position. He said: “I like to leave it to the imagination. The scariest scene I have ever seen in film is the shower scene from Psycho and there is no violence. It’s all in your imagination. You let the mind go and you are good.”

And think about what I said above about reaction shots. The way other characters react to something can be as powerful, or more so, than showing explicit details.

In Vertigo there’s very little actual violence. We see Elster’s wife fall from the tower and the cop falling at the head of the movie. But nothing is very graphic. Still, we know how traumatic it is by what happens to Scottie, how he reacts and how devastated he is.

The Unseen Story

Another thing that strikes me about Vertigo is the “unseen” story. I won’t give away any spoilers but we mostly see the movie through the eyes of Scottie and his perception of reality, but later the curtain is pulled back and we see everything that happened that he didn’t initially see. Sometimes I find myself trying to write a short story and I realize I’m trying to write about everything both in front of and behind the curtain. A good book or story doesn’t always reveal everything at the start or may reveal one person’s truth and not another’s.

In Vertigo the first half of the movie is from Scottie’s perspective and then we meet Judy and see her perspective and it gives us a totally different story from what Scottie’s POV told us. This is one way to build suspense in a novel—the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. That builds suspense as the reader watches and worries about what will happen to the protagonist.

Sometimes the story is in what we don’t see and what we don’t know.

Past is Present

In many of Hitchcock’s movies the past influences the present. Scottie is afraid of heights because of an accident that’s left him acrophobic and paralyzed by fear. And we know his fear of heights is foreshadowing and will come into play later. The past is always with us. It influences the present. Madeleine becomes obsessed with the story of Carlotta Valdez and seems to be possessed by her. Carlotta’s story also mirrors Madeleine’s and Judy’s stories. She is a kept woman who has no freedom or power and this gives us an insight into the three different women portrayed in the story: Midge, Madeleine, and Judy. As writers we can use the past to foreshadow and give depth to our stories. What happened in our characters’ pasts that has made them choose certain paths? As the saying goes, Past is Prologue (which just happens to be the name of a story of mine to appear in a future issue of AHMM).

The Twist Ending

Hitchcock was also a master of the twist ending. Again, I think of Vertigo, or The Lady Vanishes, another great story. Both have terrific twists. The story is going in one direction and the reader is caught off-guard when things go in a totally opposite direction from where they thought they were going. I think the lesson for writers is obvious—try to not be predictable, look for ways to surprise readers, but still be believable and have events grow out of the story. Don’t pull rabbits out of a hat or bring in a deus ex machina to solve your problems. Set up the solution early on with hints, foreshadowing, etc.

Suspense: The Bomb Under the Table

Hopefully I’ve kept you in suspense waiting till the end to write about this topic. Hitchcock said if you have two people sitting, talking across a table, then boom, a bomb goes off, you’re scared for a few seconds. But if you have those two people talking and the camera reveals a bomb under the table and you cut back and forth to the bomb, you build suspense and the audience (or in our case the reader) is on the edge of their seat the whole time. They’re scared and nervous for a much longer time, plus they’re rooting for your characters, almost like the cliché of kids shouting at the screen to the cowboy to beware of the baddie behind the door. Try to do that, to build suspense in that way, but with prose. To keep it simmering and lingering until it finally explodes and you get the maximum bang for your buck. A lot of filmmakers and crime/mystery writers have used that technique. But Hitchcock was the master.

Now, in a movie it’s easy to cut back and forth between the bomb under the table and the people sitting there talking. In a story or book you can do this by switching characters so we see the same scene from different characters’ points of views, something like what happens in the film Rashomon. Generally you’d do this at a chapter or section break like in Robert Crais’ The Promise, where one chapter or section might focus on PI Elvis Cole, another on LAPD K-9 officer Scott James, another on bad guy Mr. Rollins, etc., and we see the same action unfolding from all of their points of views. And from each we glean a new or different piece of information.

In Vertigo we have two “bombs.” The first is Madeleine—we don’t know what she will do. Is she going to kill herself? Then in the second half Scottie becomes the bomb. Will his obsession destroy him? Also in the second half the audience now knows something that Scottie doesn’t and that makes us more tense as we wonder when and if he will discover the truth.

Hitchcock’s relationship to writers

With Hitchcock it’s sort of a symbiotic relationship. While, as writers, we may be influenced by him on a conscious or subconscious level—he would like that, us being influenced subconsciously—many of his movies were based on books, Vertigo and Strangers on a Train, were based on novels, and Rear Window was based on a short story by prolific writer Cornell Woolrich. So while we draw inspiration from him, he drew inspiration from us.

And though Hitchcock didn’t often get screen credit for writing, he was very hands-on in terms of working with his writers. I knew Ernest Lehman a little—the writer of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest—and he verified that. Hitchcock planned everything meticulously, working out stories and characters well ahead of time, well ahead of the screenplay stage, and often even before a writer was brought on board. He’s famously noted for his detailed storyboarding of every scene and often every shot in a scene.

One writer who definitely comes to mind as being heavily influenced by Hitchcock isn’t a prose writer but a screenwriter and director, Brian de Palma. Many of his works, such as Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double, are very obviously influenced by Hitchcock—some people would say too much. I’m not one of them.

As for prose writers, many of Harlan Coben’s stand-alone novels such as Tell No One and Stay Close are very Hitchcockian but with a modern sensibility. I would put Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in the influenced-by-Hitchcock class. And Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, with its tale of revenge and payback, and a terrific twist ending, is definitely a contemporary child of Hitchcock. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, with the hapless drunk caught up in something she doesn’t quite understand is also a Hitchcock descendant. And, of course, A.J. Finn’s Woman in the Window, which is basically Hitchcock’s Rear Window meets The Girl on the Train.

But even writers who may not seem directly influenced by Hitchcock, such as Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, or Michael Connelly, are probably subliminally influenced by him and most have heard of the MacGuffin and the suspense techniques he pioneered.

Hitchcock is in us as crime writers and informs all of our work by osmosis if not directly. And if you haven’t seen Vertigo or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out and see if it inspires you and your writing.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lights! Camera! Murder! (July/August 2018)

With its silver screen vibe, July/August is our Summer Blockbuster issue. These mystery stories share important traits with the movies: the tales are vivid and visceral; clever writers direct the reader’s focus; and the narratives manipulate perceptions to build drama and suspense.

A young, naive scriptwriter’s desperation to break into the movies leads him to put his trust in a criminally minded mentor in Kevin Egan’s “The Movie Lover.” The Hollywood set of a gangster picture is also the venue for an act of revenge in Robert S. Levinson’s “Nine Years Later.” The success of a jewelry heist depends on the performance of its “stars” in Rebecca Cantrell’s caper “Homework.” And a poker player, a grifter, and a mobster play their parts to fix—and unfix—a boxing match in Christopher Latragna’s “A Lousy Little Grand.”

Comic book super heroes offer models of strength and action for a young boy who is the target of a murderer’s ire in “Safe” by Meredith Frazier. The theft of a rare medieval manuscript comes with unexpected costs in Robert Mangeot’s “Book of Hours.” How valuable are an artist’s napkin sketches? That’s a question that comes with a story in Albert Ashforth’s “A Tragedy Averted.” Linda Mannheim tells a story of a couple’s struggle during South Africa’s apartheid through letters and other “Documents.” A newspaper reporter in Victorian London who extorts money from wealthy men charged with an “unnatural crime” gets a lesson in humility and humiliation in Eric Rutter’s “Hateful in the Eyes of God.”

Eve Fisher returns to her fictional Laskin, South Dakota, where a young man slips from aspiring suitor to stalker in “Blue Moon.” David Edgerley Gates examines a fateful armed bank robbery where one of the hostages is the mother of the responding officer in “I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take.” Josh Pachter also takes on an armed robbery, this one set in a restaurant where a married couple are matching wits over dinner, in “Not My Circus.”

We’re pleased to present our 11th annual Black Orchid Novella Award winner: Mark Thielman’s “The Black Drop of Venus” features Captain James Cook playing the ratiocinative sleuth on board HMS Endeavour.

This issue we welcome two new authors, Rebecca Cantrell and Meredith Frazier, as we sadly say goodbye to two of our favorite authors, Robert S. Levinson and Albert Ashforth. Bob Levinson was a movie lover and a fixture in the music industry in Hollywood; he wrote with insight and sympathy about the characters in and around the industry and city. He had a knack for hearing the crazy inner voices that propelled his characters, and conveyed that in his tales. Albert Ashforth, always a quiet, friendly face in New York mystery circles, wrote about US army retired special investigator Alex Klear in stories that captured the complexity of the operative’s mind as well as the world he worked in.

Rebecca Cantrell’s historical novels featuring Hannah Vogel are set in 1930s Germany and have won multiple awards and nominations. She also writes a humorous PI series and a thriller series set in the tunnels of New York City, and she cowrites with James Rollins The Order of the Sanguines series that blends myth and history into a thriller.

Meredith Frazier’s first published story appeared in our sister publication, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

So get ready to fire up the cinema of the mind’s eye. What could be more appropriate for a magazine named after a famous film director?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Conversation with Puzzle Editor Mark Lagasse

With our current issue, we are excited to welcome to our pages a new puzzle series: Mixed-Up Anagrams by Mark Lagasse. Mark is a longtime colleague at Dell Magazines and friend to the mystery-fiction titles. Here, we talk with Mark about mysteries, puzzles, and his career—and even get a tip for solving anagrams.

AHMM: Have you always been a fan of word puzzles?

Mark Lagasse: One of my earliest memories is of me emceeing the boxed home versions of TV game shows (with my sisters as contestants) before I was four years old. A little later, I solved my first crossword in a newspaper and I was hooked. There’s never been a day in my life since when I didn’t solve some kind of puzzle or play a game.

AH: What about mysteries?

ML: I adore mysteries and have read thousands.

AH: If you can pick, what’s your favorite mystery work or author?

ML: There’s no doubt: Rex Stout. The relationship that developed over 40 years between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin was complicated, nuanced, funny, and, most importantly, real; these two can easily stand among the most brilliantly defined characters of all fiction. Now, some people find Stout’s plots shaky and his suspects inadequately differentiated. Still, most readers can’t deny that they are chiefly enjoying the novels and novellas for Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and of course, Wolfe’s brownstone (a character in itself).

I’m also a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Josephine Tey, Stuart Kaminsky, and Lawrence Block. In terms of crime fiction, Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain reign supreme.

AH: How did you get started constructing and editing puzzles professionally?

ML: I’d been constructing all kinds of puzzles for my own (and friends’) amusement since I was five. Naturally, I bought and devoured hundreds of puzzle magazines published by both Dell and Penny Press. After a BS in management, an MBA, and a couple of years in consulting and banking (all probably misguided), in 1987 I finally wised up and applied to Dell Puzzle Magazines for an assistant-editor job. My résumé was accompanied by a puzzle I made that argued why I would be a good hire; it must have worked because I got the position and have been at Dell for nearly 31 years, today as a Senior Executive Editor.

AH: And your favorite type of puzzle to work? What about your favorite to construct or edit—is it the same?

ML: Dell Puzzle Magazines features hundreds of different variety puzzles, so picking a favorite is tough. I will say I love to solve crosswords, specialty Sudoku, anagram-based material, and Anacrostics. And as corny as it might sound, I’ve never encountered a puzzle I didn’t like to construct.

AH: How do you think the two genres or forms of mystery and puzzles connect?

ML: As Lorenz Hart wrote, “If you asked me, I could write a book” on this subject, as the genres overlap a lot. To be brief, I believe that mysteries and puzzles require both the left and right sides of our brain. We must rationally, deductively, even coldly unravel problems that are presented in a highly artistic, entertaining medium. Furthermore, life doesn’t always provide straightforward solutions or satisfying conclusions; mysteries and puzzles (if done correctly) do. Deriving fun and a sense of accomplishment from mere thinking are rare treats nowadays!

AH: Can you offer a tip for solving anagram puzzles?

ML: Some folks haul out their Scrabble sets and rearrange the tiles to gain a foothold, and others jot the given letters in the margin and scramble them there. It’s key to take into account what exactly you’re forming. For names of characters, for example, a J may lead you to JOHN, JAMES, JACK, JANE, etc. In the November-December 2018 issue, when the answers to Scrambled Grafton will be titles of Kinsey Millhone books, it will be very helpful to realize that each entry will contain IS FOR.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Masterminds, How'd That Happen