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“There Are Killers Inside Me” by Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin, LCSW, is a three-time Derringer and Agatha Award nominee and the author of the Bruce Kohler mysteries among other series. She is the editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 as well as Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, which releases today from Level Best Books. The theme of the anthology is crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Here she talks about the motivations of women killers in mystery fiction.

I don’t like violent men. I’ve never had a soft spot for Hannibal Lecter. I read Silence of the Lambs only because it was the only reading matter available in a hotel room one night. I slept very badly, and I’ve been wishing ever since that I could unread it. Chewing off a prison guard’s skin so he could hide beneath it to escape? Yuck. I don’t care how the movie managed that scene. I’ve never seen it, and I never will.

But I write murder mysteries, so I do write about murder. And of course I read about murder. I even talk about interesting ways to kill at the dinner table. Most mystery writers do. I wrote my first murder mysteries—never published, thank goodness—in the 1970s. My model was the traditional detective story. My protagonists were amateur sleuths. Mysteries were mysteries. There was a crime, an investigation, and a solution. The investigator was the star, the one who figured out whodunit.

When I started writing fiction again many years later, the genre had changed. Crime fiction now consisted of mystery and thrillers—different breeds— in a variety of subgenres, from cozies to hard-boiled. What I wanted to write didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I called it over easy and slightly crispy around the edges.

My first series was a New York murder mystery with a male amateur sleuth—the protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. I was less interested in the mechanics of the murder than in developing Bruce’s voice, his growth in recovery, and his relationships with his friends. In the first short story, I didn’t even give the murderer a motive. The story ended at the moment when Bruce figured out whodunit. In the first novel, the killer was basically nuts. In the second short story, the three suspects had all had one-night stands with the victim. The motive for the guilty one was plausible, but tenuous.

When I wrote the second novel, something happened. I meant the killer to be a literary agent. I made him deeply irritating. It was fun. But as I wrote, I realized I had a better candidate. And as I wrote her final confrontation with Bruce, she found her voice. This is the moment that writers live for, when the character starts to speak for herself, regardless of what the author planned.

I had several possible motivations worked out for what she had done. She mentioned none of them. She had killed in a state of rage, killed again to cover her tracks, and was ready to kill Bruce if he tried to stop her from getting away. But behind the rage was a profound sense of hurt and betrayal. Readers can empathize with the pain of a woman who’s been betrayed. Even though justice must be done, the killer who arouses compassion is more authentic, more fully developed. The story itself is more authentic, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

The next step in my own evolution was to make my protagonist the murderer, to put the killer, not the detective, in the center of the frame. I didn’t plan this. It welled up out of that mysterious source that has been called “inspiration,” “the unconscious,” “the muse,” “a higher power,” and “a still, small voice.” Short stories were the perfect format in which to explore this, once I realized it was happening, since they take two weeks rather than two years to write.

My first such protagonist was a femme fatale, a character I probably wouldn’t write now. She was predatory by nature. In her defense, I’ll add that the story had elements of urban fantasy. She wasn’t a human woman, and she was culling the human herd of contemptibly predatory men. That first time, I kept my distance from my killer protagonist, writing the story in third person from the victims’ points of view.

But if I wanted to keep writing stories other than detective stories, I needed to reach into the minds and hearts of killers and write from their point of view. I soon realized that “killer” or “murderer” was so broad a term as to be meaningless. I had no desire to create men who kill, and not only psychopaths who do it again and again. There are already too many murderous guys out there, in real life and in fiction. I’m not interested, no, not even if the murders are so justifiable that they’d cast Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, or Morgan Freeman in the movie.

But women, ah, women have plenty of reasons to kill that I can get behind with no problem. They may be victims, survivors, avengers. They may kill to protect those they love, including their children. They may simply have had enough—of being belittled, ridiculed, abused, or merely giving and giving without appreciation or reward. Thinking of “A Work in Progress,” my most recent story in AHMM, and other standalones, I’d say that every time a woman chooses death—for herself or someone else—it’s because on some level she has had enough.

When I selected crime stories for my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories, abuse figured in the submissions along with murder. Many of the protagonists were children, some of whom had experienced abuse from a very early age. Imagine how powerless a little girl feels when she is abused by a trusted adult. Remember that for every action—no one’s repealed Newton’s third law of motion, have they?—there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Consider the intensity of the powerlessness such a child feels. If the reaction, once she grows up, is to kill—as the author who’s writing her into being, I say, Go for it!

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“De-Mystified” by Randall DeWitt

Randall DeWitt  is the author of an upcoming flash-fiction collection, Blunt Flash Trauma, which will also include stories by Sharon Daynard, Ruth M. McCarty, and Kathy Chencharik. He is a three-time winner of AHMM’s Mysterious Photograph contest; one of these winning stories, “The Cable Job,” went on to win the 2012 Derringer Award for Best Flash Story. Here he talks about the experience of writing flash fiction and entering the contest.

When the latest edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrives, the first thing I do is turn to “The Story that Won” to see who authored the prevailing 250-words for the latest Mysterious Photograph contest. I read the story, and then scan the honorable mentions for names that I know. I remember what it was like to see my name on that list and the feeling of accomplishment when the winning story was mine. If my stories and name can appear on that page, anyone with a fertile imagination and half-decent writing skills can too.

As a past winner of the contest, I have a secret I’d like to share with you—I don’t consider myself a writer. I base this conclusion on years of marriage to a mystery writer who is much more talented and by having read the stories of many of her friends in the writing community. I get jealous just thinking about how they can masterfully fill page after page describing something as simple as a sneeze if they wanted to. Me? My version would read Achoo! and that would pretty much be it. But in the world of flash fiction, my shortcoming might be my biggest asset. I don’t have to tamp down the urge to paint a Rembrandt to illustrate my story because I don’t possess that kind of a brush. Low word counts are my friend. And if the result is a picture worthy of hanging in Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, and people want to look at it, I’ve done my job. I’m happy.

Everything begins with the Mysterious Photograph itself of course and the search for an answer to why? Why is this picture integral to the story? I try not to overthink it. If there’s a title to the picture, I consider those words too just like everyone else. And there it is, the phrase that probably dooms most submissions—like everyone else.

Not every story has to end in a gruesome murder. I’ve written dark submissions but in my experience it’s the light-hearted ones I’ve sent in that have won. So sometimes I concoct new ways to attempt, pull off or stop a robbery. Other times I test the judges with a caper that borders on the absurd. Whatever I come up with, it has to be out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to incorporate something that everyone may relate to. I think that sort of connection with the reader helps sell the story. In my winning entries, one had a familiar tempting smell. In another, it was dealing with the cable company. In my last, it was the annoying habits of a co-worker.

Finally, I’m sure it doesn’t have to be said but the ending has to be satisfying. I often prefer to add a small twist as long as it plays fair with the reader and makes sense. If it’s written well enough, who knows?

If all goes well, I’ll see you in “The Story that Won.”

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.

I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)

Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)

Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”

The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.

Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.

Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.

One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.

So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.

With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.

Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.

And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.

I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.

  • The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
  • Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
  • I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
  • The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
  • The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
  • Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
  • The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
  • A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
  • Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford

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

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

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Elizabeth Zelvin Visits “The First Two Pages” Blog

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

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Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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Brian Cox’s NYT Crossword Puzzle Constructor Debut

AHMM author and former managing editor (1985-1989) Brian Cox made his debut as a New York Times crossword puzzle constructor Wednesday, July 25. You can read some insights into the puzzle in the Times’ Wordplay column here.

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