Tag Archives: author

Jay Carey on “We Are Trapped at the Morgue”

Jay Carey is the author of The Crossley Baby and It’s a Crime among other notable novels. She writes the Detective Eureka Kilburn short-story series. Here she talks about her story “We Are Trapped at the Morgue” from the January/February 2017 issue.

I read mysteries because I love explanations. I am happy when order is restored. Now that the world I knew as a child seems to be in danger, this feeling is all the more precious to me.

What I am trying to do in my Eureka Kilburn mysteries is capture that sense of danger and also at least a fleeting sense of resolution. To heighten the danger, I have spun forward a few decades to the future.

This was a difficult choice for me. Although I admire some works of science fiction (especially Millennium by John Varley), I think most of it is silly. So I don’t like to emphasize the futuristic parts of the Eureka Kilburn stories.

That said, it really is fun to imagine what could happen. Eureka is a police detective in what is left of Sarasota, Florida, after sea levels have risen and most people have left the state. A good deal of the southern part of the state is underwater. Resources are minimal. What are people going to eat? How are they going to get around?

In “We Are Trapped at the Morgue,” bottle bombs are being found all over town. That struck me as an interesting way to make mischief with limited materials. To make one you need only some chemical cleaner, some tin foil, and a plastic soda bottle with a top. These things would be easy to find in the many abandoned houses.

The key is that when I am writing these stories I am subtracting from the world as we know it rather than adding to it. No flying cars for me! That means Eureka has to be shrewd in making do with very little in crisis situations – which might not be much fun to experience in real life, but is very satisfying to write about. You can make up all sorts of tricks.

I hope that this near-future world is frighteningly recognizable.

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Con Lehane on “Stella by Starlight”

Con Lehane is the author of the Brian McNulty series of mystery novels, as well as this year’s Murder at the 42nd Street Library, which received a starred review from Kirkus. Here he talks about the inspiration behind his story “Stella by Starlight,” which appears in the current issue of AHMM.

“Stella by Starlight,” my story in the October 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is my first mystery short story. I’ve published a few mystery novels—the latest is Murder at the 42nd Street Library—and in the past I wrote a half-dozen or more short stories that were published in small literary magazines. I’m not altogether sure where “Stella” came from. But I do know, once I began writing it, I intended it to be a mystery story that I would send to AHMM.

I wrote the first couple of scenes during a class on story writing I was teaching at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. As I often do, I assigned an exercise and then did the exercise along with the workshop participants. Most of the time, I do the exercise and just put it away; sometimes I read it to the class; this time, I put it away, and later it became a story.

Mostly, I don’t know where my stories come from, so I make a guess that it’s from my unconscious. For this one, there were a couple of ingredients swimming around in the old unconscious. One piece was my realizing, one day as I passed through that part of Manhattan below Houston Street, that the Bowery, long famous as New York’s skid row, had become gentrified. I wondered where the winos had gone (actually, I still wonder).

Another piece was a memory I had of a skid row bar that had moved uptown to my neighborhood in Milwaukee when I was in college. It was the victim of some sort of urban renewal that had wiped out Milwaukee’s skid row. The bar—Lenny’s Tap: Beer! Wine! Open 6:00 a.m!—brought along its winos who lived upstairs from the bar in single occupancy rooms. I went there often enough to recognize the humanity of its clientele who began lining up a little before 6:00 each morning.

Beyond this, there were two more pieces. One was the image that opens the story of a blizzard in the city and “one of the coldest winds the city had ever encountered.” The second is more complex and more central to the story.

Most of the fiction I write begins with what Henry James termed “the germ of an idea.” This germ might be a phrase you hear, an incident you witness, a bit of a story you overhear. Important for Henry James was that you not overhear the whole story or know the context of the incident, only a catch a piece of it so your imagination can fill in the rest.

The germ of an idea for “Stella By Starlight,” came from a snatch of conversation. I’d been to the funeral of a man with whom I tended bar many years before. We’d been good friends when we worked together and for a few years afterward. We lost touch for a good while, and caught up with one another again a couple of years before he died of a heart attack. After his wake, I’d gone for a drink with a group of people—a half-dozen former cocktail waitresses (the title for women who served drinks back in the day) and a couple of bartenders from the airport lounge where we’d all worked together. They’d all stayed in the area and kept in touch with one another. I’d moved on and hadn’t seen any of them for better than thirty years.

When I’d worked at the airport lounge, the cocktail waitresses were in their early twenties and gorgeous. It was that kind of bar, in an airport, with mostly businessmen stopping for a drink before or between planes, where the waitresses wore uniforms modeled on stewardess outfits, featuring very short shorts. These young women weren’t working for the summer to help with their college costs. As young as they were, they were journeymen waitresses, for whom this would be a lifetime occupation. Many of them, single mothers or wives to good timing men, had, despite their youth, charm, and beauty, already started out on hard roads that were to become harder with the years.

I don’t remember much of the conversation that night after the wake. It was largely people sharing memories that were tinged with regret. One of the women, wildly attractive at the time we worked together and by the time of this conversation showing the ravages of a difficult life, was describing one misadventure or another in her life, when she said, “He asked about my ex-husband. I didn’t know who he was talking about. I’ve been married five times.”

So this snippet of conversation, the germ of an idea for the story, caught up with a bunch of other images and memories in my unconscious and set the story in motion.

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Don’t Miss “Dirty Bop to Blighty” by Diana Deverell

The Norwegian American will be serializing Diana Deverell‘s “Dirty Bop to Blighty,” from the the September 2010 issue of AHMM. Check it out here. A new story by Diana Deverell will appear in our November 2016 issue.

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Remembering Jim Ingraham

At the beginning of this year, we received some sad news: Our author Jim Ingraham has died. An ex-marine (WWII) and a retired professor of American history, Jim Ingraham had been at various times, a movie extra, a piano player in saloons in Detroit and Providence, and a portrait painter. We published “Mystery of the Chinese Ball” in 1986, and since have published nine more. He’s also written and published half a dozen novels. Last year we bought a new story from him, and he told us then in an e-mail that “I’m not a very interesting person but some people around here think it exceptional that I wrote this story at the age of 91 and sold it at the age of 92 and am working on other stuff.” On the contrary, he was a very interesting person indeed, and his life experiences informed his stories. Like his P.I. Duff Kerrigan, Ingraham grew up in Maine; he told us once: “Where Duff Kerrigan lives on the docks of old Portland, was my boyhood paper route. In real life the area has changed, but in Duff’s life it’s as it once was.” He did an interview with us for our September 2007 issue, which we think you’ll find interesting too, so you can read it here.

AHMM: You come from an academic career. Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you come to write P.I. stories? How has your writing been influenced by your work as an academic?

JI: After graduating from NYU as a history major (I didn’t want to spend my life grading English papers), I wrote three sprawling novels, one of which caught the attention of a New York editor who gave me a lot of advice. I spent two years trying to satisfy him and failed. I just didn’t understand story organization. After I had tried for many years to get published, your predecessor, the late Cathleen Jordan, accepted my story “Mystery of the Chinese Ball.” She rejected at least ten subsequent submissions but always encouraged me to keep trying.

Through some form of osmosis I began to realize that crime stories provided the structure I had been searching for. Before I became a history major at NYU I was a music major at Michigan State. Strange as it may sound, the biggest academic influence on my writing has been my acquaintance with the music of Beethoven. All of art is composition and symmetry and Beethoven is the grand master of that. It’s the structure, the order, not the content, that led me to write the Duff Kerrigan stories.

AHMM: What are the origins of the Duff Kerrigan character?

JI: I guess Duff Kerrigan is me. I think every first-person narrator is a version of the writer. Hemingway’s point-of-view character is always the same—Robert Jordan in one book, Nick in the “Three Day Blow.” It’s always Hemingway—not a portrait of himself, but an emanation from himself.

AHMM: Like you, Duff Kerrigan grew up in Maine. To what extent is that an important aspect of his character, and of yours? You now live in Florida; do you visit Maine often?

JI: What I like about Maine people is their lack of pretension. Maine, unlike Massachusetts, was not founded by Puritans. It became established by fishermen and farmers and resisted the encroachment of the Puritans. The people I like to write about are ones I admired as a boy—self-respecting, independent working people who do not intrude upon their neighbors. I see Duff as that kind of man.

I don’t try to avoid the postcard image of Maine. I just try to represent my memory of Maine and its people truthfully. The first member of my mother’s family took a job in a lumberyard in Kittery, Maine, in 1623. Her people were obstinately Yankee. My father’s father arrived in this country at the age of fifteen. I don’t believe my mother’s people ever forgave her for marrying an immigrant’s son, especially a Catholic immigrant’s son. Maine, like all of New England, seethed with intolerance, of Irish Catholics on the coast or French Canadians who came down to work in the mills. The tourist magazines like to present Maine as though no “foreigners” had ever settled there. I grew up among Irish longshoremen in Portland, who were looked upon as trash. I could write a lot of stories about this aspect of Maine life, but it’s still too painful to think about. I ran away from home twice before I was in the eighth grade.

I go back to Maine at least once a year. I visit the waterfront and upstate woodlands and pastures, sit with people, talk with people, absorb atmosphere, I love it but can no longer tolerate the winters.

AHMM: Is there a chance that Duff Kerrigan may appear in a novel?

JI: I guess there’s every chance, although I have nothing planned. I think of Duff as engaged in tight little plots that unfold in a few thousand words. But who knows? Good ideas pop up all the time.

AHMM: Have you published any novels?

JI: Glad you asked! My novel Remains to be Seen has been purchased by Five Star Mysteries and is scheduled to appear in July 2008. It’s a fair-play whodunit, unfolding in an academic setting in Maine and follows a murder investigation by a young woman detective called Perci Piper. A major character, Vinnie Milano, comes right out of Duff Kerrigan’s neighborhood in Portland.

AHMM: Which writers do you admire and why?

JI: I admire writers I can learn from. There are, of course, the giants on whose shoulders we all stand. But aside from them, I admire Ross Thomas, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Somerset Maugham, Tony Hillerman—pretty much in that order. To me, Ross Thomas was the best of the modern crime writers—witty, urbane, structured. Hemingway for his understanding of point of view, Greene for his seamless placing of characters in the story’s atmosphere, Hammett for his directness, Maugham for his storytelling, Hillerman for his evocation of atmosphere.


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