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“Observing Venus on a Trip to Mars” by Mark Thielman

Every year in conjunction with The Wolfe Pack, AHMM presents the Black Orchid Novella Award to a work of fiction best exemplifying the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The winner this year (and in 2015) is Mark Thielman, a Texas criminal-law magistrate.  Here he talks about his BONA-winning tale, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which you can read in the current July/August 2018 issue. We have more tales by Mark coming up in forthcoming issues.

I love killing people in ships from the age of sail.

The setting provides a natural locked room. The killer must be onboard somewhere. The location allows for the sleuth to exercise his/her full powers of ratiocination. (I didn’t know that word until the Trace Evidence blog promoting the July/August edition of AHMM used it to describe my character. Now, I feel educated and obligated.)

Exotic words I don’t get to use in my everyday life—part of the fun of writing a sea yarn: I get to exercise my inner Patrick O’Brian.

The Black Orchid Novella Award is a partnership between the Wolfe Pack, the official Nero Wolfe Society, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine honoring the novellas of Rex Stout. I have been fortunate to twice win the award. The challenge is to write a story which celebrates the components of the Rex Stout canon without being derivative.

I found my story this time in Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1769 to observe Venus crossing the sun. In modern terms, the voyage seems the equivalent of traveling to Mars. Both trips would take about an equal length of time and have the common goal of hitting a tiny point of land in a vastness of void. A principal difference, however, was that the technology for determining longitude, how far a ship had travelled east or west, was still being developed in 1769. The captain, a man who had the intellectual wherewithal and confidence to steer a ship to a pinprick of land, presented an authentic Wolfe-like character.

Somewhere on my shelves is a dusty edition of Alistair MacLean’s biography of Captain Cook. Captain Cook’s journals from his voyage may be read online. His observations are readily available. Drawings of the HM Bark Endeavour can also be found through the Internet. I hoped to give the story the proper nautical feel through the details obtained by study.

The 1769 voyage of the Endeavour was a joint project of the British Navy and the Royal Society. The scientists, being gentlemen, were not berthed with the sailors, but rather shared the Captain’s space. Joseph Banks, the chief scientist, was a gentleman, unlike Cook, a man born to working class roots who rose through the ranks. Banks, younger than Cook, with his own unique skill set, housed with the Captain. He seemed a natural fit for Archie.

The Endeavour’s odyssey had an additional mission. The plan remained a secret until the ship had set sail. The Navy wanted Cook to search for a hypothetical southern continent, a land mass to offset those of the northern hemisphere. Geographers postulated that such a land was necessary to keep the earth from wobbling in its rotation. Captain Cook also tested foods to avoid scurvy, a plague of long ocean voyages. Secret missions with a culinary angle, reminiscent of Mr. Wolfe and his chef, Fritz. A natural pairing of strong individuals living together. Each bit of research heightened my enthusiasm that I had found an ideal setting in which to recast a Wolfe tale.

The voyage of the Endeavour was a naval expedition. Yet its purpose was not victory in battle but rather a search for truth and discovery. The existence of the great southern continent, the dimensions of the galaxy, and an effective tool for combatting scurvy were all undertakings on Captain Cook’s expedition. This search for truth provides an excellent backdrop for a whodunit. I merely added a body.

And, it allowed me to use cool words like fo’cs’le and bowsprit.

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A Legacy of Crime (July/August 2016)

Over the past sixty years, it has regularly been our pleasure to welcome new voices, writers either new to our pages or making their publishing debut. This double issue continues that legacy. Congratulations, then, to two authors appearing in print for the first time: Jason Half with “The Widow Cleans House,” and Mark Thielman with his Black Orchid Novella Award–winning “A Meter of Murder.” And welcome to three authors new to AHMM: Alan Orloff, author of “The Last Loose End;” Andrea Smith, who introduces to our readers her intrepid beauty salon proprietor Vera Ames in “Beauty Shop of Horror;” and James Nolan, who brings us a tale set in Mexico in “Shortcut to Gringo Hill.”

As it happens, the notion of legacy plays an important role in several of this issue’s tales. Our cover story, Eve Fisher’s “Great Expectations,” examines a family’s handling of a small inheritance. Attorney David Crockett, in Evan Lewis’s “Mr. Crockett and the Indians,” carries with him a rather uncomfortable legacy—the crotchety voice of his ancestor Davy. Kevin Egan’s “The Heist,” set in the New York State Supreme Court building in Manhattan, involves the cultural legacy of a Hungarian émigré. And a legacy of Mob violence drives the latest installment of Janice Law’s series featuring Madame Selina and her young helper Nip.

Regular appearances by favorite writers and characters are another aspect of the AHMM legacy, and this issue features other strong installments in familiar series. John H. Dirckx, a recidivist for nearly forty years, teams Lieutenant Cyrus Auburn and Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger in “Can’t Undo.” R. T. Lawton, whose four different series display an impressive range of tone, setting, and eras, this time brings us “The Great Aul,” a new tale of the Armenian and his young Nogai helper. And Terence Faherty, who first appeared in our pages in 2007, offers “Margo and the Milk Trap,” his latest entry in a WWII–era series featuring radio producer Margo Banning.

Great crime fiction is a legacy our readers need not feud over.

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