Tag Archives: interview

In Conversation with Puzzle Editor Mark Lagasse

With our current issue, we are excited to welcome to our pages a new puzzle series: Mixed-Up Anagrams by Mark Lagasse. Mark is a longtime colleague at Dell Magazines and friend to the mystery-fiction titles. Here, we talk with Mark about mysteries, puzzles, and his career—and even get a tip for solving anagrams.

AHMM: Have you always been a fan of word puzzles?

Mark Lagasse: One of my earliest memories is of me emceeing the boxed home versions of TV game shows (with my sisters as contestants) before I was four years old. A little later, I solved my first crossword in a newspaper and I was hooked. There’s never been a day in my life since when I didn’t solve some kind of puzzle or play a game.

AH: What about mysteries?

ML: I adore mysteries and have read thousands.

AH: If you can pick, what’s your favorite mystery work or author?

ML: There’s no doubt: Rex Stout. The relationship that developed over 40 years between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin was complicated, nuanced, funny, and, most importantly, real; these two can easily stand among the most brilliantly defined characters of all fiction. Now, some people find Stout’s plots shaky and his suspects inadequately differentiated. Still, most readers can’t deny that they are chiefly enjoying the novels and novellas for Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and of course, Wolfe’s brownstone (a character in itself).

I’m also a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Josephine Tey, Stuart Kaminsky, and Lawrence Block. In terms of crime fiction, Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain reign supreme.

AH: How did you get started constructing and editing puzzles professionally?

ML: I’d been constructing all kinds of puzzles for my own (and friends’) amusement since I was five. Naturally, I bought and devoured hundreds of puzzle magazines published by both Dell and Penny Press. After a BS in management, an MBA, and a couple of years in consulting and banking (all probably misguided), in 1987 I finally wised up and applied to Dell Puzzle Magazines for an assistant-editor job. My résumé was accompanied by a puzzle I made that argued why I would be a good hire; it must have worked because I got the position and have been at Dell for nearly 31 years, today as a Senior Executive Editor.

AH: And your favorite type of puzzle to work? What about your favorite to construct or edit—is it the same?

ML: Dell Puzzle Magazines features hundreds of different variety puzzles, so picking a favorite is tough. I will say I love to solve crosswords, specialty Sudoku, anagram-based material, and Anacrostics. And as corny as it might sound, I’ve never encountered a puzzle I didn’t like to construct.

AH: How do you think the two genres or forms of mystery and puzzles connect?

ML: As Lorenz Hart wrote, “If you asked me, I could write a book” on this subject, as the genres overlap a lot. To be brief, I believe that mysteries and puzzles require both the left and right sides of our brain. We must rationally, deductively, even coldly unravel problems that are presented in a highly artistic, entertaining medium. Furthermore, life doesn’t always provide straightforward solutions or satisfying conclusions; mysteries and puzzles (if done correctly) do. Deriving fun and a sense of accomplishment from mere thinking are rare treats nowadays!

AH: Can you offer a tip for solving anagram puzzles?

ML: Some folks haul out their Scrabble sets and rearrange the tiles to gain a foothold, and others jot the given letters in the margin and scramble them there. It’s key to take into account what exactly you’re forming. For names of characters, for example, a J may lead you to JOHN, JAMES, JACK, JANE, etc. In the November-December 2018 issue, when the answers to Scrambled Grafton will be titles of Kinsey Millhone books, it will be very helpful to realize that each entry will contain IS FOR.


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Mysteristas Interviews B. K. Stevens

At Mysteristas, B.K. Stevens talks about her series character Leah Abrams, and much more.

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A Few Words With “Dying Words” Constructor Arlene Fisher

Section of a "Dying Words" acrostic grid.

Section of a “Dying Words” grid.

Arlene Fisher has constructed more than 100 acrostic puzzles for AHMM. She recently answered some of our questions about her interests and career as a puzzle constructor. Her answers are below—and they include some clues for solving the Dying Words puzzle, which can be found at The Mystery Place and in every issue of AHMM (with the solutions appearing the following issue). You can find more puzzles through our sister publications at Penny Dell Puzzles.


AHMM: Tell us a bit about your relationship with puzzles and puzzle-making. When did you become interested in puzzles? How long have you been a puzzle constructor, and how did you develop this skill? What inspires you?

Arlene Fisher: My initial interest in puzzles was fostered by my 6th grade teacher who had my entire class subscribing to the New York Times and working as a team to solve the daily puzzle. And, of course, with her input, failure was never an option. By the time I finished 6th grade, I was hooked and although more years have passed than I care to calculate, that habit has persisted and my day is not complete until I solve the New York Times puzzle. I do not seek out any other puzzle, but if I stumble across one, I am compelled to solve it. Somehow, an empty crossword grid just doesn’t sit well with me.

AHMM: What other types of puzzles do you construct? If you strictly build acrostics, why do these appeal to you?

AF: In my adult years, I started trying to solve the acrostic puzzle which appears in the Times on occasional Sundays and with the passage of time, my solving skills improved and my interest in its complexity and design captured me. I took it upon myself to study its construction and learn the rules of building and coding it. By submitting my constructions to various publishers—which I started to do around 1990—I learned from my mistakes and experienced increasing success in securing publishers from various sources. And, the more acrostics I constructed, the more I became enamored with “words.”

I absolutely love words, find the dictionary to be a wholly entertaining tome and I am always ready to engage in a Scrabble marathon—although I have great difficulty accepting certain “Scrabble words.”

AHMM: What do you like to read?

AF: By profession, I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and I work full-time so my spare time is limited as is my recreational reading. However, my favorite author is Nelson DeMille and more recently I’ve really enjoyed the non-fictional works of Erik Larson.

AHMM: How do you find the quotes for the puzzles?

AF: Finding appropriate quotes—especially ones with solid mystery themes—is always a challenge. I subscribe to Mystery Scene Magazine primarily with the hope that each edition will be a source of unending quotes and each issue generally yields at least one suitable quote. I also skim the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal daily and always keep an eye out for a quote of interest. Book reviews, travel sections and human interest articles occasionally yield a quote here and there.

AHMM: How do you think mysteries and puzzles work together? And what’s a good tip for our readers wishing to solve the Dying Words puzzle?

AF: At the risk of sounding trite or stating the obvious, I believe that mysteries and puzzles are clones of sort . . . Both lure you in, require some thought and are solved by patience and logical thinking. There are times when solutions are elusive but perseverance usually provides the ultimate reward. So . . . for readers who are interested in solving the Dying Words puzzle . . . trust your instincts but be patient with yourself and do not hesitate to forge ahead. Most importantly, learn from your efforts. When success eludes you, check the answers the following month. In time, you learn to think like the constructor. How does that happen??? Well . . . that’s a mystery!!!

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Remembering Jim Ingraham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AHMM: Have you published any novels?

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

AHMM: Which writers do you admire and why?

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


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