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“Kickass Women of the Bible” by Kenneth Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia is the author of 23 Shades of Black, The Fifth Servant, and Red House, and is the editor of Jewish Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. Here he discusses the inspiration behind his story “Bride of Torches” in the current issue of AHMM.

The biblical Book of Judges depicts a semilawless era before ancient Israel was united under a strong monarchy, an unstable period defined by vivid flashes of extreme violence, when rugged tribal chieftains were the principal source of strength and authority (think of Samson and his downfall).

The cycle of violence includes mass mutilations, an apparent human sacrifice, and an idolatrous warrior named Abimelech who commits mass fratricide, killing seventy of his brothers in a single day, in order to become king, then commits a horrific war crime—burning alive one thousand men and women who had sought refuge in a tunnel. But they are avenged when Abimelech besieges the town of Thebez and an unnamed woman drops a millstone from the ramparts onto his head and cracks open his skull. He orders his attendant to kill him with a dagger so that no one will say that a woman killed him. (Judges 9:53-55).

Gustave Doré: The Death of Abimelech

When I first set out to read the Bible in its entirety more than thirty years ago, I went with a traditional Hebrew Bible in English translation. No explanatory notes. Just the Hebrew text on the right-hand pages with a clunky King James Version-style translation on the facing pages.

The King James Bible (KJV) is a towering achievement, and countless terms and phrases in its majestic language have entered our language. But sometimes its poetic qualities can present an obstacle to understanding the plain meaning of the text. One of my favorite examples comes when Sarah tells Abraham to cast her handmaid Hagar, and Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, into the wilderness. Abraham is torn, and asks God for advice. In the KJV, God replies:

Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. (Gen. 21:12)

Hearken unto her voice. Beautiful poetry, even Shakespearean in style. But what does it mean in today’s English? The Jewish Publication Society’s (JPS) modern translation is as follows:

Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.

Do as she says. A bit stronger than hearken unto her voice, isn’t it? And this is God speaking. Our media-savvy Bible-thumping moralists never seem to quote that one: Do what your wife says.

So the language of the KJV can obscure meaning, and I’m willing to admit that on my first read-through, my sometimes rudimentary following of an unfamiliar narrative meant that the sudden depictions of violence seemed to leap at me from out of nowhere.

Like the assassination of King Eglon of Moab, whom we are told is “very fat,” with its startlingly specific detail:

And Ehud took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into the king’s belly; and the haft went in after the blade, and the fat closed upon the blade so that he could not draw the weapon out, and the filth came out. (Judges 3:21-22)

The Hebrew is unclear, but the filth came out most likely means the king, upon receiving a mortal wound, loses control of his bowels and craps himself. Yeah, that’s in the Bible.

Then there’s an especially disturbing scene where a mob of men rape and abuse an unnamed woman all night long, leaving her for dead. When her husband finds her unresponsive the next morning, he heads home and cuts her body up into twelve parts and sends a part to each of the twelve tribal territories of Israel as a sign that “an outrageous act of depravity has been committed in Israel” (JPS, Judges 20:6). This leads to a devastating intertribal war that brings more rape, death and destruction.

But the violent event that stood out the most to me was the story of Jael (Ya’el in Hebrew), who kills a powerful warrior named Sisera by nailing his head to the ground with a mallet and tent peg. Needless to say, I did not see that coming.

Gustave Doré: Ya’el and Sisera

The whole incident is described in five short verses (Judges 4:17-21), then repeated with a bit more detail in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It’s worth noting that Bible scholars believe that The Song of Deborah and the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) are among the oldest passages in the Bible, possibly dating from around 1000 BCE or even earlier.

Gustave Doré: The Song of Deborah

So who was this Ya’el? The text identifies her as the wife of Hever the Kenite, not as an Israelite, and we’re told that there was friendship between her husband and Sisera’s commander, King Yabin of Hatzor. So why does she do what she does? The Bible offers no explanation. In short, she has no motive.

Until now . . .

From that day, more than thirty years ago, I was determined to flesh out the story of Ya’el, but it wasn’t until recently, after doing extensive biblical and archeological research for my current novel-in-progress, that I finally had the background knowledge to expand on this brief biblical vignette.

As part of my research for a novel based on the story of one of the strongest women in the Bible, I re-read the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament) along with a shelf-load of books of commentary ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Artscroll Mesorah series to a collection of essays by group of feminist rabbis.

One particularly provocative observation I learned from all this research is that the stereotypical biblical descriptions of women as the source of all that is evil and dirty (see: the Whore of Babylon) are almost entirely in the (ahem) New Testament. Women may not have much of a voice in the Old Testament, but when they do speak up, their demands are heard.

Do as she says.

Mount Tabor, scene of a decisive battle in Judges 4. (Image: © BiblePlaces.com)

I’ve always been attracted to strong female characters, and there are some mighty strong women in the Bible. (Deborah is depicted as being a stronger leader than a warrior named Barak, who appears to be her husband, until he assumes command of an army of ten thousand and charges down Mount Tabor in Judges 4.)  And I’m thrilled to have had the privilege of dramatizing this striking incident from a lawless era when there was no king over Israel and some kickass women had to take matters into their own hands.

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A Conversation with The Center for Fiction’s Allison Escoto: Part 1

Earlier this year, The Center For Fiction moved from its Manhattan site to a new home in downtown Brooklyn. EQMM and AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had a chance to speak with Allison Escoto, the Center’s head librarian, about the Center and its Raven Award winning mystery and detective fiction collection, her work and goals for the library, the organization’s history, and her thoughts on the mystery genre and other literature. Allison, a New Yorker by way of New Orleans, is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and Queens College and has worked as a librarian for seventeen years. She is also a poet, copywriter, and the associate editor of Newtown Literary. Here is the first half of our conversation; the second half will appear tomorrow at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN, the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine blog.

Allison Escoto. Photo courtesy of The Center for Fiction.

Jackie Sherbow: You’ve had your hands full—literally and metaphorically—during the Center’s move to Brooklyn. What can you share about what the move has meant for the library and for your role there?

Allison Escoto: The Center for Fiction was previously known as the Mercantile Library of New York, an organization that had been in existence since 1820 and has had various homes throughout NYC in the ensuing years. Our building at 17 East 47th Street had been its home since the 1930s so you can imagine how much had been accumulated in that building, especially the library! I came onboard as the Head Librarian right before we moved out so I didn’t really get too much time to spend with the collection but now that we are settling in, I am really getting to know the collection. My vision in the coming years is to continue to add to the amazing titles we have collected over the years and to really take my time getting to know the great fiction that has been decades in the making.

JS: What was the relocation’s timeline, and what can you tell us about the new building?

AE: Our relocation from East 47th Street has been in the works for at least ten years, from the sale of our old location, to the design and planning of this new one. The new building is incredible! There are so many beautiful aspects to the design but my favorite part is of course, the library, which occupies all three levels. There can be little wrong with books everywhere!

JS: You joined the Center’s staff at a transitional moment in its history. How has it been for you to have such an intimate start to your time there?

AE: The unique thing about an organization that has been around for centuries is that even though it evolves and changes with the time, you can always sense the past all around you. I’ve been so lucky to see both the traditional and well-loved building with all its history and memories as well as to witness this exciting phase in an impressive new place. It has been great!

JS: What are you looking forward to now that the move is over?

AE: I am very much looking forward to meeting and greeting new members and program attendees. I’ve witnessed firsthand just how much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making this Center a literary gathering place to celebrate fiction and I think welcoming people here is going to be great. I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on the collection!

One corner of the Center’s extensive mystery/detective/suspense fiction collection. Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: The Center for Fiction is the only organization in the U.S. devoted solely to the art of fiction. What is it like to work with a collection having a singular (yet vast) focus?

AE: As a lifelong and voracious reader, working with an entirely fiction collection has been a dream come true. In my previous jobs in a variety of libraries, fiction was my consistent favorite and to be able to focus on it here has been enlightening. I get to talk about, think about, and work around fiction all day!

JS: What can you tell us about the library’s award-winning mystery and detective- fiction collection?

AE: The mystery and suspense collection is the recipient of a Raven Award and it is a part of the collection we are very proud to have. Our in-depth collection is housed in the cellar of our new space, with over 16,000 titles of mystery and suspense, including rare titles and full runs of many mystery writers including Cyril Hare and Mary Roberts Rinehart as well as extensive collections from the golden age of detective fiction authors such as John Rhode and Ellery Queen. Our contemporary mystery and suspense is growing right along with us as a Center as well with the most dynamic and exciting new mystery fiction.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow.

JS: How often do you acquire new (or new to the collection) works of mystery?

AE: I order new books every month and throughout the year, I always have my eyes and ears open for brand new publications to add to our collection.

Photo by Jackie Sherbow

AH: Why do you think the mystery genre came to play such a big role in the library’s collection and the Center’s focus?

AE: From the inception of the Mercantile Library in the 19th Century, it was clear to the founders that their members wanted to read for entertainment and enjoyment, along with education. This organization has been collecting fiction and what they called “the best imaginative works” for the members and a huge part of that ended up being mysteries and suspense novels. The tradition was carried through the years and over time we amassed a great collection of the genre.

The conversation continues tomorrow, 8/28/19, at SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

You can check out the Center for Fiction on their website, on Instagram and Twitter @center4fiction, on Facebook @thecenterforfiction, or by visiting them at 15 Lafayette Avenue, Brookly, New York. For a look at their upcoming classes and workshops, visit https://www.centerforfiction.org/events/ and https://www.centerforfiction.org/groups-workshops/.

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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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“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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“Stagecoach Mary” by Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. She was the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction (for Death al Dente and Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure). The fifth book in her Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles, is out this week from Midnight Ink. Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “All God’s Sparrows” from the current issue of AHMM.

In “All God’s Sparrow’s” (AHMM May/Jume 2018), we meet Mary Fields, a historical figure also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832, Mary worked after the Civil War as a domestic servant in Ohio, where she met Ursuline Sister Amadeus Dunne.

In 1884, Amadeus—by then the Mother Superior—took a small group of nuns to St. Labre, in Montana Territory, to start a school. The next year, the Jesuits asked her to start a school serving Blackfeet Indian girls and white settlers’ daughters at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

In 1885, Amadeus became ill with pneumonia, and Mary traveled west to nurse her. Amadeus recovered, and Mary remained to work at the Mission. Legend says she created more than a bit of trouble, and eventually, the bishop forced Amadeus to fire her. Amadeus helped her get the postal delivery route in Cascade, leading to the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” Later, she became postmistress, the second woman and first black woman in the country to do so. She was known for her love of baseball, children, and flowers. Mary Fields died in Great Falls, Montana in 1914.

I’d long heard of Mary and wanted to write about her, but had no idea what kind of story I could tell. Though literate, she left no written record, although extensive archives at the state historical society and Ursuline Center document the mission and her life.

Writing in Montana 1889: Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood, historian Ken Egan, Jr., notes that racial and ethnic minorities played a greater role in territorial Montana than one might think from the monolithic appearance of the present-day state. The war displaced many people, white and black; the vast lands of the West beckoned.

But as statehood approached, pressures increased. Native peoples were forcibly moved onto reservations. National events, such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, devastated the Chinese community, which had grown up around railroad construction. The lands were harsh, and many early settlers moved on.

Mary stayed. Why? Clearly her bond with Amadeus was strong. But difficult as life here was, I think the West gave her a freedom she lacked in Ohio. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with historical mysteries. Finally, I realized, I’d found a format that would allow me to explore the life and times of this astonishing woman. I hope you enjoy taking the trip back in time with me.

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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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In Conversation with The Digest Enthusiast’s Richard Krauss

Richard Krauss is the editor and designer of Larque Press’s The Digest Enthusiast, which has appeared twice yearly since 2015. In today’s post, associate editor Jackie Sherbow talks with Richard about his work and the world of digest magazines. Find out more at the Digest Blog—and you can purchase all issues of The Digest Enthusiast here.

Richard Krauss, portrait by Joe Wehrle, Jr.

AHMM: Please tell us a bit about yourself. You’ve worked as a designer, marketing strategist, artist, and cartoonist. How did your interest in digests develop, and has that relationship changed over time?

Richard Krauss: AHMM is a long-time favorite, so it’s quite an honor to be here. I’d always read crime fiction, but Geoffrey O’Brien’s reference book Hardboiled America opened the floodgates to 1950s era paperback originals for me. The novels by these crime writers were too seductive to resist. Soon, I found these same authors wrote short stories for digests, by then the preferred format for fiction magazines. There were hundreds of titles—Manhunt, Jonathan Press, Pursuit, and of course Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, to name just a few.

Collectors D. Blake Werts, Rob Imes, and I were chatting one day via e-mail about digests. As the brainwave to document them dawned, The Digest Enthusiast was born. Every potential contributor asked was eager to help: artist/writer Joe Wehrle, Jr., magazine historian Tom Brinkmann, author Lesann Berry, illustrators Michael Neno and Larry Johnson, cartoonist Bob Vojtko, and Hugo award-winning artist Brad Foster. Once the first couple of editions were out, our circle grew to include writers like Steve Carper, Peter Enfantino, and Gary Lovisi—and our contributor list grows with every new edition.

My passion remains crime fiction, but working on the magazine expanded my interest in all genres of fiction, and even nonfiction titles like True Crime Detective, Fate, and Exploring the Unknown.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 2

AH: Each issue of The Digest Enthusiast is full of a wide variety of content, from interviews to reviews (in many genres) to poems, artwork, and features like “Opening Lines.” What guiding principles help you maintain focus?

RK: Our purpose is to explore the diverse world of digest magazines. We cover all types of genre fiction digests and select nonfiction titles. Variety is essential. We want something for everyone, every time. We even include a few short stories. After all, fiction is what draws most readers to digest magazines in the first place.

Much of our content is a look back, but we also report on the current scene. Recently we started a column called “News Digest,” which includes all the late-breaking industry news we can gather as each issue enters final production. We present cover previews and news about the four Dell digests, F&SF, Nostalgia Digest, Fate, and the new generation of digests, mostly made possible by today’s publishing technology—Pulp Literature, Paperback Parade, Weirdbook, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, Betty Fedora, and many others.

AH: And what motifs and themes do you see across the variety of digests?

RK: Editors like Ellery Queen, Ray Palmer, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and H.L. Gold were as important to their readers as their magazines. Publishing a genre fiction digest has always been challenging. The editors, artists, and writers that create them love what they’re doing, and readers know it. Readers want that affinity for their favorite writers and their stories and characters.

You expect crime and deception from a mystery digest; new ideas and concepts from a science fiction title. But with a closer look, you’re struck by the unexpected, and energized by the unbounded creativity in digests. For example, Robert Arthur’s Mysterious Traveler digest, with every tale hosted by the title’s namesake. In 1981, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine had flash fiction from Robert Lopresti before flash fiction was labeled. B.K. Stevens’ epistolary approach to her Bolt and Walt series for AHMM—and the inclusion of Dale Berry’s seven-page comic story earlier this year. Get a digest and get enthused.

For writers, these days, it’s all about platform. Most successful digests also leverage platform. Alfred Hitchcock, Isaac Asimov, The Man from UNCLE, and The Saint were all well established names/brands before their digests debuted. In 1953, Manhunt began serializing a brand new novel by Mickey Spillane, at the height of Spillane’s popularity. Manhunt sold over half a million copies of their first issue. In 1948, the UFO craze seized America. Fate Magazine debuted with Kenneth Arnold’s account of his famous 1947 sighting, catapulting Clark Publishing into success.

Slow and steady only wins if you can afford to stay in the race. Otherwise, better to hitch your wagon to a proven platform.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 4

AH: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between visual elements and copy in your favorite digests?

RK: You judge a book by its cover—or more precisely, you form your first impression from a book’s appearance. The cover is primary, but you react to the whole package. How does it look and feel? Digests have an inherently appealing size, easy to hold, easy to carry, and inviting to read.

Some fiction magazines use the same fonts for every story title, intro, text, and notes. Others vary the titles using different fonts to reflect the feel of the story to come. The text font is probably unconscious to many readers, but the magazine’s designer has given it a lot of thought, trying to balance all the options in style, size, weight, leading, and line length.

If the budget allows, an illustration can spark interest in a story in a heartbeat. The best are custom-made, depicting a scene from the story, or perhaps the overall feel of its milieu. Digest collectors follow their favorite artists as often as their favorite authors.

AH: What observations do you have about the community of digests enthusiasts (collectors, artists, writers, fans, etc.)?

RK: The community is as friendly and welcoming as you could ever want. Writers and editors, reviewers, contributors, collectors, and readers—they’ve all been enthusiastic and energizing. Just a terrific group of people, sharing and celebrating their common interest, a love for compelling fiction and artistry.

AH: What are the top three things you wish everyone would know about digests?

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 6

RK: First, they’re a bargain. Probably no surprise to AHMM readers, but digests offer the best, most affordable short story writing available. Online, at your local newsstand, or by subscription, there is no better fictive bang for your buck.

Second, they gave many of the world’s favorite writers their start. Perhaps the biggest star, Stephen King, had his first professional stories published in Startling Mystery Stories. But there are plenty of examples: Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Joe Lansdale, etc. Art Taylor’s “Rearview Mirror” first appeared in EQMM and later won the Agatha Award for best first novel as On the Road with Del & Louise in its expanded version. If you want to discover tomorrow’s bestselling, award-winning author today, read a digest. (And many of the greats return to the pages of their earliest supporters.)

Finally, there are hundreds of terrific digest magazines available. Whether you want a new adventure or a new passion, digests are easy to find online, highly collectible, and more affordable than just about any other type of magazine.

AH: Are you working on or planning any other projects?

RK: Writer and filmmaker, Alec Cizak, published of one of the earliest digests to leverage the new publishing technologies, Pulp Modern. After a year hiatus, he and I teamed-up to revive the title and released our first new issue from Volume Two in May 2017. The next Pulp Modern will be out late this year, near the same time as The Digest Enthusiast #7.

I’m also working with Marc Myers on a collection of Clark Dissmeyer’s comix work from the 1980s, which will be released this fall.

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All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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