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“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.

 

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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.

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“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.

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On “Bothering With the Details” by Dayle A. Dermatis

Dayle A. Dermatis is the author of several novels (including Ghosted, in the Nikki Ashburne series) and over 100 short stories in the mystery, thriller, romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and other genres. She is also a founding member of the Uncollected Anthology project. Here she talks about her story “Bothering With the Details,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Some stories have tenuous beginnings: a phrase, a scrap of dialogue, a what-if, an interesting fact that sends the brain spinning. Other stories have such murky origins that by the end of writing, whatever sparked the story is long lost.

“Bothering With the Details” is not one of those stories.

In 2015 I took an intensive Mystery Writing Workshop run by Edgar- and Shamus-nominated writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I’d taken such writing workshops from her before, so I should have known what I was in for. I knew I’d be writing a story ahead of time, and at least three stories during the week-long workshop, along with novel sketches and technique assignments and more.

Before the workshop, Kris asked for several pieces of information, including one or two things we were proficient at doing. Along with writing, my “day job” is publishing: copyediting, design, etc. Having just finished a copyediting job, I responded to her question with “copyediting.”

As I said, I should have known better. At the workshop, she assigned us to write a crime story in which the thing we were good at was integral to the story. In other words, if you take out that skill, the story doesn’t work.

I found myself faced with writing a crime story in which copyediting was paramount.

Well, hell.

As a copyeditor, I’ve encountered many writers who think they don’t need a copyeditor. (My own mother, for instance, was sure that her first readers would catch everything. When I published her novel, I hired an outside copyeditor . . . who, unsurprisingly, found errors.) Yes, most folks—such as my own husband—can catch typos. But it takes another level of skill to know, say, when to use “a while” versus “awhile,” or the nuances of the n-dash. The difference between “my husband Ken” and “my husband, Ken” speaks to how many husbands I might have.

You get the idea.

So I started with a woman who’d been downsized because the company didn’t think they needed someone who bothered with those details . . . and off I went. I haven’t got the Chicago Manual of Style memorized like Lydia does, but I had a great time researching (one might say bothering with) the details as I wrote the story. Reader, I laughed.

A possibly interesting side note: at the workshop, we were later charged with writing a story using a secondary character from one of our other stories. I chose Brittani, the granddaughter of Lydia, the protagonist in “Bothering With the Details.” Delving into Brittani’s past, I’ve written several stories about her history as a “fixer” at her high school, including ones that are slated to appear in Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine and Fiction River: Dark and Deadly Passions.

Finally, if you’re a writer interested in learning more about the craft of writing mystery, Kristine Kathryn Rusch will be teaching the above-mentioned workshop again in 2019.

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“Making Choices and Bridging Gaps: Writing Historical Fiction” by Anna Castle

 

Anna Castle writes two historical series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mysteries. She has a BA in Classics, MS in Computer Science, and PhD in Linguistics, and has worked a variety of careers (including in waitressing, in software engineering, as an assistant professor, and as an archivist). Here she talks about writing historical fiction and her story “For Want of a Book” from the current issue.

This post was prompted by Linda Landrigan’s question about the way I spelled the name of an historical figure in my short story, “For Want of a Book,” set in the late Elizabethan period. The character in question is the well-known Sir Walter Raleigh, who evidently spelled his name “Ralegh” more often than not. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days; a standard English orthography took centuries to achieve, not beginning in earnest until long after Raleigh’s death. Historians these days write “Ralegh,” so I did too, in my first Francis Bacon mystery novel. Linda’s question made me revisit that issue and decide to go the other way. Readers of fiction don’t care that much about trends in historiography. Next time someone asks that question, I’ll probably flip back again—which, come to think of it, is the most historically accurate response of all!

Writing historical fiction is full of such minor leaps. The historical record is rarely complete enough for the full quotidian texture of a short story, much less a novel. I’m a bona fide Elizabethan history nerd with an excellent university library at my disposal, but even so, I make something up with each new person or place. My goal is to make my inventions blend invisibly into the documented realities.

Walking through my story in this month’s issue supplies an array of examples. I invented Francis Bacon’s desire to re-read Lucretius’s De rerum natura. No list of Bacon’s books exists, alas. He must have had an extensive library, but it apparently disappeared onto the shelves of his friends upon his death. It’s impossible that he wasn’t fully familiar with Lucretius, however, like every other well-educated man in England.

I know how bookshops smelled, thanks to works like James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.) But I have to invent the layout of the shop, which nobody bothered to describe. I also assume they shipped books and paper in barrels; they used barrels for everything in those days. Plus I like the word—it sounds round.

Happily, titles and authors of books of all kinds are preserved for all time in many places. I snag the ones that catch my eye as I’m reading history books and keep them in a list. I like to know what my characters are reading. And once I have a title, I can often find the document itself, either at Google Books or Early Modern Books Online. Yes, it’s a distraction, but I’m curious, and sometimes it’s fun to deploy a quote to give readers a taste of the real McCoy.

I can look at the images from Pietro Aretino’s Sixteen Postures, still shockingly explicit, on my screen while Bacon and his bookseller turn the pages in the shop. I can snag images from the Grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes for my blog, thanks to the British Museum. But again, I don’t know what the interior of a mercer’s shop really looked like. I know they sold all sorts of luxury items, so I invent a few for show.

From “the grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes.” The British Museum.

I do know where to put an upscale shop—in Thomas Gresham’s beautiful new Royal Exchange. I can look at a drawing of that important building made in the mid-seventeenth century on Wikipedia. How cool is that! I can pick a place to put my shop, upstairs on the corner, away from the whores and above the dust. I adore location-hunting in the past.

The Royal Exchange. Wikipedia.

I can chart a course from Gray’s Inn on the western fringe of the metropolis to St. Paul’s and from there to Billingsgate and back with perfect factuality, thanks to Adrian Proctor and Robert Taylor’s indispensable A to Z of Elizabethan London (Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent, 1979.)

Edward de Vere, 1575. Wikipedia.

Thanks to that resource, I know where Edward de Vere lived, some of the time. I have to invent the interior, but not the earl’s atrocious character, thanks to Alan Nelson’s biography, Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( Liverpool University Press, 2003.) Many of the earl’s letters were preserved. They’ve been transcribed and annotated, thanks in some part to the Oxford Authorship Society, a group of people who believe Edward de Vere wrote many of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. And now we’ve arrived at an interpretation requiring far greater leaps over historical gaps than I would ever dare to make.

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“Plotting a Dark and Twisty” by Jane K. Cleland

AHMM readers will be familiar with Jane K. Cleland‘s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, both at novel and short-story length. Jane also writes about business communications, and her book Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot won the 2017 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Here she talks about suspenseful storytelling in a darker vein and her tale “Night Flight to Bali” from the September/October 2017 issue.

“Night Flight to Bali” is unlike anything I’ve written before. My long-running Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series falls firmly into the traditional mystery genre. Cozies are firmly within my bailiwick, yet I want to write darker.

Darkness in storytelling derives from longing. Who longs for what and what are they willing to do to get it? It’s all about a deeply felt yearning that can’t be denied: This is true about all crime fiction, of course, but in dark and twisty crime fiction, the longing is closer to the surface.

“Night Flight to Bali” tells the story of Sabrina and Sam, a couple in love, a couple determined to be free. Sabrina will do anything to marry her soulmate, Sam. Sam will do anything to get rich. Sabrina longs for love, to belong to a man; Sam longs for independence, for the freedom that only money can buy. Since Sam doesn’t want anything Sabrina has to offer except money, her efforts to satisfy her longing are doomed to fail.

In plotting “Night Flight to Bali,” I aimed to introduce a plot twist every few hundred words or so. I use the phrase “plot twist” as an umbrella term, by the way, summarizing three specific plotting techniques, which I refer to as TRDs. (I wrote about TRDs in my Agatha-Award winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot.) The three TRDs are:

  • plot Twists, something that takes your story sidewise
  • plot Reversals, something that takes your story in the opposite direction
  • moments of heightened Danger, something that adds urgency and dread to the story

I set out to use a variety of TRDs, the more the better, weaving them in every few hundred words or so. By showcasing Sabrina and Sam’s longings, my goal was to create a story that, because it was so twisty, got readers thinking about the unexpected and essentially fluid nature of authenticity—in art and in love.

One of the stand-out moments of my career was when Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, emailed me that she was going to publish “Night Flight to Bali,” She wrote: “Love it! So dark and twisty.” I shouted “Yes!” to my computer monitor, then did a happy dance around the room.

I hope you enjoy the story, my first effort at writing raw.

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Familial Faultlines (September/October 2017)

There are few better sources of drama than the family, as many of the stories in this issue illustrate. If one is well advised to keep friends close and enemies closer, then perhaps one must keep family members closest of all.

A death in the family often provides an occasion for changes—such as for the widow in Charles Todd’s “The Trophy” who seeks solace in the countryside of southern Wales, or the woman in Jane K. Cleland’s “Night Flight to Bali,” who is suddenly freed to cash in a forged painting upon the death of her domineering mother.

Or family ties may throw up walls that are difficult for outsiders to penetrate, such as in the investigation into possible insurance fraud involving a disabled teen and his mother in John Shepphird’s “Electric Boogaloo,” or the tangled relationships revealed by the court transcript of a case of a contested will in Eve Fisher’s “Happy Families.”

But sometimes such ties can be powerful motivators—such as for the Muslim woman who hires Beijing P.I. Il yong to find the Uighur son she’d given up for adoption in Martin Limón’s “The Smuggler of Samarkand”—or sources of support and encouragement, such as Jack Tait finds in his formidable aunts as he tries to prevent a rush to judgment against a black tenant farmer in the Depression-era South in “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered in an Open Field with no Footprints Around,” by Mike Culpepper.

Other stories in this issue feature a perfect storm of disasters for Deputy Hector Moody when his car breaks down in the Gallatin mountain range in David Edgerley Gates’s “Cabin Fever”; the outsized dreams of a mid-level accountant in Max Gersh’s “Self-Portrait”; a copyeditor using her wits to foil an e-mail scammer in Steve Hockensmith’s “i”; a volatile partnership between a writer and an actor in Janice Law’s “The Front Man”; an aging spy recalled to action in Michael Mallory’s “Aramis and the Worm”; Dr. John H. Watson encounters a gentleman with a strange health regimen in “The Vampire of Edinburgh” by James Tipton.

No matter the state of your relations with other relatives, our readers are valued members of the AHMM family.

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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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