Tag Archives: crime fiction

Meditations on Murder (November/December 2018)

In our third annual Case File essay, Joseph Goodrich considers the music that puts him in the mood to murder—if only on the page. Meanwhile, in our November/December issue, a dozen thoughtful short story writers offer their own engaging meditations on a range of nefarious deeds.

An oft told ghost story that no longer scare the kids still may have its uses, as Max Gersh demonstrates in “The Week Before November.” Sharon Hunt’s “The Keepers of All Sins” considers a history of death by water for the men of a wealthy family. A young couple’s canoe trip reveals the horrifying truth of their relationship in our cover story, “Leah,” by Julie Tollefson. Multiple story lines converge (literally) on a snowy day in Robert Lopresti’s “A Bad Day of Algebra Tests.” A kid escapes one bad scene only to encounter more trouble in a lonely diner in Michael Bracken’s dark tale, “Going-Away Money.” The late Albert Ashforth’s retired spy Alex Klear is once again pressed into service, this time to check on an American operative in “Death of an Oligarch.” And R. T. Lawton’s Holiday Burglars have a new scheme in “Vet’s Day.”

A flashy young mogul has a tale of losing it all—Miami style—which he tells to Elaine Viets’s P.I. pair in “Mistress of the Mickey Finn.” Mitch Alderman’s central Florida P.I. Bubba Simms brings his considerable weight to bear as he tracks down the people responsible for vandalizing a women’s health clinic in “Fear of the Secular.” Across the globe in Beijing, Martin Limón’s Korean American P.I. Il Yong lands in a Beijing jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but his ticket out comes at a heavy price in “Bite of the Dragon.” The evidence wasn’t adding up in S. L. Franklin’s “Manitoba Postmortem,” so the Carr family detectives cross the border into Canada to get the real story. Susan Thibadeau’s amateur detectives, Pittsburgh attorney Harry Whiteside and his under-employed actor/cousin Jake, find their beloved housekeeper under suspicion of murder when she inherits a bookstore, and a feisty cat.

Plus brain-teaser puzzles, book reviews, and a new Mysterious Photograph contest await inside. You can also check out our blog Trace-Evidence.net for some story-behind-the-story insights. And if you’re in the mood for further reflection, you can use our annual index in this issue as a guide to all of our authors’ criminal creations. As we bring 2018 to a close, we can all reflect on what a great year it’s been for crime fiction, and for the magazines that publish the genre’s best short stories.

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“Write What You Don’t Know” by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson’s first short story appeared in EQMM in January 2018. Here he talks about his story “The Cook Off” from the current issue and his approach to writing in settings he both knows and doesn’t.

Right now I’m trying to write a mystery story set in Las Vegas. My only problem is I’ve only been to Las Vegas once. I stayed overnight in a Motel 6 on a cross-country move—me, my wife, two cats, and a U-Haul. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of time to do Vegas. I remember my wife emptying a jar full of quarters into a slot machine. That was about the extent of our Vegas adventure. But lately I’ve gotten this idea for a story set there, so I found myself facing the dilemma of “write what you know” when I don’t know much at all.

In his book How to Not Write Bad, Ben Yagoda takes on the old adage of “write what you know.” Yagoda says writers too often interpret “write what you know” to mean “write what you already know.” But what would that look like? A lot stories with writers as protagonists? A murder mystery involving paper cuts, query letters, and rejections? No, of course not. “Write what you know,” Yagoda argues, should mean that if we “read, research, investigate, and learn,” we can write beyond our immediate personal experience, and ultimately we will be writing what we know.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because as I try to write mystery stories, I find myself attracted to characters and situations that come from both what I know and what I don’t know. My story “The Cook Off” is just such an example. I started out with what I already knew. The tiny American village not far from the Iron Curtain border that split Germany for forty years—that was home to me as a young teenager when my father was stationed near the spa town of Bad Kissingen. The gymnasium full of soldiers where my story culminates—that was a kind of home for me too—I spent many hours there trying to become a basketball player and not succeeding. The late 70s GIs who inhabit this gym in the story—in their Pumas and tube socks—they are inspired by the real GIs I met in all my sweat and hopeless effort.

What I didn’t know much about was Grafenwöhr, the training area where accidents could kill men rehearsing for war. But I had heard about it, from the same young GIs I shared that gym with, and from my father, who would disappear from our family for weeks at a time to go to Graf, as everyone called it. What I already knew about Graf was that it was cold and miserable, that every GI griped about it, and that when it was a man’s turn to go, he dreaded it. Who could blame him—Bad Kissingen was a resort, and the beer was good. I think it was this not knowing much about Graf that made me want to write about it. I had also heard about a strange thing called a “cook off” from my father, and of a man killed by one. A dangerous place no one wanted to be and an unusual way to die—it sounded like a good mystery story to me.

Since Graf was mostly outside of what I already knew, I did what Ben Yagoda suggests—read, research, investigate, learn. There are a lot of ways to start such research. First person accounts are always the best place to start, and I had my father. I also wanted to know more about armored cavalry units, live fire exercises, training accidents, the history of Grafenwöhr, and that thing called a “cook off.”

Tom Clancy wrote a series of military reference books, and his Armored Cav edition taught me much. From this book, I learned what an armored cavalry unit actually does (the dangerous job of reconnaissance, often behind enemy lines), and what a live fire exercise is like (with all of its noise and destruction, there are also plenty of safety precautions and stationary plywood targets).

I learned much about Graf through a deep graze of the web. Back in 1910 the Kaiser requisitioned eighty-three square miles of Bavaria near the town of Grafenwöhr to train a military that would fight the next two world wars, only to see it all carpet bombed and then re-requisitioned by a new tenant, the U.S. Army. Graf became the home especially for what was called Reforger, an enormous annual exercise meant to simulate a NATO response to a Soviet invasion. I also learned that Graf, with all of its tanks and guns and bombs, had been the setting for more than a few fatal training accidents. The most tragic occurred in 1960, when a 200 pound artillery shell overshot its target and killed 15 men billeted in tents. All of this was good background for Graf, but part of me also wanted to sense the place, and although I could not feel the cold or smell the fumes, I could at least see the place. Absent a time machine, I would have to rely on other means, mostly photos and videos collected from books and web sources. Here is one of my favorites. Yes, that’s Elvis Presley in Grafenwöhr. It’s cold and you can tell—he’s got his field jacket on, and his Elvis hair is hiding under the standard issue cold weather MQ1 pile cap.

The “cook off” was another investigation. I had heard my father’s story of a man accidently killed when a belt-fed .50 caliber kept firing even after the gunner took his finger off the trigger. This is due to the intense heat in the firing chamber, which literally cooks any remaining rounds unless the gunner clears the belt from the chamber. A cook off is not uncommon, although a fatal one is.

In my search for background on Daley Barracks, the American garrison adjacent to Bad Kissingen, I often visited Eaglehorse, a site dedicated to the history of the armored cavalry unit stationed at Daley Barracks for many years. There is a lot to look at on the site, with a great collection of photos and first-person accounts going far back. And here is the story memorializing a man killed by a cook off, the same soldier my father had told me of. I can tell because the date is perfect for when we lived there in the late 1970s. I printed this memorial out and sent it to my father, who is close to eighty now. For years, I have often wondered how much of my father’s army stories were factual and how much were more akin to legend. When he received the printout, we had a good talk on the phone, and he said, “Yes, that was the man I told you about. It was a cook off, and it was a shame because it should have never happened.” After we hung up, I felt the sensation of traveling in a circle. I had come back to a story my father mentioned years before, a story I already knew.

This is one of the joys I get from writing—uncovering real mysteries of places and people and times both close to me, and also quite remote. It is a bit of detective work I like to do on the way to imagining a story of detection. What I already know and what I come to know—I hope it all adds up into a good piece of mystery fiction.

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“‘Coolbrook Twp’ and Other Characters” by Dennis McFadden

Upstate New York writer Dennis McFadden is the writer of the collection Jimtown Road, which won the 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Here he talks about his story in the current issue and writing vivid characters.

My stories all start with character. There’s a very good reason for that: When you’re as lousy at plotting as I am, they almost have to. I’d love to be able to craft a pristine Rubik’s Cube of a tale that leaves readers nodding in admiration at the sleight-of-hand they should have been able to detect along the way, but Agatha I certainly ain’t. Memorable characters are my best hope to connect with a reader.

The smallest seed can blossom into a good character. The characters I come up with originate in different ways, but primarily they fall into one of two categories: those based on real people I’ve known, and those I essentially invent—people I wish I had known? Well, maybe. Except for the psychopaths.

I’m not sure what it says that my most successful stories seem to be based on a character, Terrance Lafferty, who falls into the latter category, a complete product of my imagination. Maybe my real friends and acquaintances are too bland to compete with him? Or maybe this invented guy couldn’t be my real-life friend, because he might be somebody I wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around with in public? Naw—I’d love to go on a pub crawl with him. Of course, I’d have to buy. Lafferty is an Irish rapscallion, an antihero, fond of the horses and allergic to labor, whose fight or flight instinct came minus the fight part, and whose dimple just below his smile seems irresistible to most members of the opposite gender. I like him so much he’s starred in multiple stories, many of which have found fine homes, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories, a couple of times. Colorful—that’s the word. Maybe to achieve real memorability, a character has to be bigger-than-life colorful, more colorful than the real folks we know.

Or maybe not. Jimmy Plotner and Buster Clover (our heroes in “Coolbrook Twp,” who transform before our very eyes into James and Russell) are not bigger-than-life colorful. Maybe everyday, run-of-the-mill colorful, tops. And maybe that’s because they’re based on me and my lifelong best friend.

“Coolbrook Twp,” for those of you who haven’t yet read it (and what are you waiting for?), is constructed of alternating sections set in 1994 and 1954. This much, from the earlier sections, is true: My friend—we’ll stick with his fictional nickname, “Buster”—and I attended a four-room country schoolhouse, we competed climbing the tilting flagpole in the yard, we had a severe teacher much like “Mr. Fenstemaker,” famous for his huge paddle and readiness to use it, and we devised the brilliant scheme of hiding in the playroom cubby hole one afternoon after school so we could have the place all to ourselves. And we peed on the furnace, casting an unholy stench over the rest of the school. Or one of us did. We’ll stick with his fictional nickname too, “Jimmy.” Oh, and the first-ever orgasm “Jimmy” experiences at the top of the flagpole? Yep. True. Can’t make this stuff up. Stranger than fiction and all that.

What didn’t happen? Pretty much all the rest of it. We didn’t get caught, our teachers weren’t carrying on (that we know about), “Mr. Fenstemaker” was not murdered forty years later.

But the bits that did happen were enough to make me want to mine them for a story years later when I started writing fiction. The whole sexual awakening theme was already there, so, to enhance that theme, I invented the teachers’ affair, the boys getting caught, Buster getting a beating, the “Man, are we in for it now,” and there the story sat, contained in 1954, for years. Recently, I brought it out and dusted it off, looked at it with older, fresher eyes. I’d learned by then that a good way to give depth and resonance to a story, to make a story better, is to tell two stories at once; and so the 1994 plotline fell into place—you see, by then too, the mysteries of everyday life, the utter unknowability of exactly what the hell’s going on around us as we live out our years, had become my main preoccupation in story-telling, the underlying theme in nearly all my stuff.

One of the most rewarding things about writing “Coolbrook Twp” was the chance to play with the perspective offered by the distance of time—that wider, wiser perspective, the way lifetimes fall into focus, patterns and destinations become revealed, is one of the nifty things about getting older. (And there aren’t all that many nifty things about it.) Over forty years is a long time for a friendship to endure, and “James” and “Russell” are every bit as grounded in reality as are “Jimmy” and “Buster.” And, then again, maybe the 1994 plotline was motivated in part by the desire to extract a bit of revenge on “Mr. Fenstemaker” for the real-life beatings he inflicted on many a poor boy, “Buster” included.

And “Jimmy”? No. He was far too angelic and well-behaved to ever have encountered that fearsome and legendary paddle.

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All in the Family (September/October 2018)

Old songs notwithstanding, we are not, strictly speaking, required to always hurt the ones we love—but as this issue’s stories demonstrate, things often work out that way. Ah, family!

Consider siblings. In R. T. Lawton’s “The Chinese Box,” for instance, the city-bred and educated son of a Shan Army warlord finds himself in stiff competition with his own older half-brother, while two actors who once played brothers on a hit TV show have a very different off-screen dynamic in Brendan DuBois’s “The Wildest One.” Ecuadoran P.I. Wilson Salinas, meanwhile, must retrieve his neighbor’s granddaughter—snatched by her own father in Tom Larsen’s “En Agua Caliente.” A woman working a prison kitchen is tested when the man who killed her father demands that she help him escape in Janice Law’s “Good Girl.” And a family inheritance is at stake in our Mystery Classic, “Betrayed by a Buckle” by Louisa May Alcott, introduced by Marianne Wilski Strong.

Conventioneers extraordinaire Spade and Paladin see their extended family of SF fans and writers divided by a bitter schism with criminal consequences in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Unity Con.” A mob family’s brutal management of a co-op inspires two retired seniors to act in “Rats” by Tom Savage. And new to our pages this month, Matthew Wilson brings a tale of an army sergeant confronting racism among his brothers-in-arms at a training base in Germany in “The Cook Off.”

A man who once looked for unexploded WWII ordnance in Europe must confront his own past when he encounters an old lover in Mark Thielman’s atmospheric “Buried Past.” Loren D. Estleman’s Four Horseman return with a case involving a patriotic “Scrap Drive.” Feuding neighbors bring color and headaches to Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger’s investigation of the murder of a young musician in John H. Dirckx’s procedural “Counterpoint.”

History repeats itself in Dennis McFadden’s dual coming-of-age story, “Coolbrook Twp.” And a bad actor gets a shot at auditioning for a psychological thriller in this month’s cover story, James Lincoln Warren’s “Casting Call.”

Once again, these stories show that blood will tell.

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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.

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