Tag Archives: mystery fiction

“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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Wrap Up a Mystery (January/February 2019)

It’s that time of the year, a season observed by many with an exchange of gifts. We hope you’ll consider this issue a neatly wrapped package of criminous cadeaux. Variety is always welcome in a bestowal of presents, and so this issue offers a range of delights from the humorous to the spooky; from the past to the present; from the poignant to the puzzling.

Among them: the seasonally-appropriate “Blue Christmas,” in which Melissa Yi’s doctor/sleuth Hope Sze is sitting down to a festive holiday dinner with coworkers when two people suddenly become deathly ill. “The Case of the Truculent Avocado” by Mark Thielman, in which a P.I. supplements his sporadic income with a part-time job dressing up as a potato. Shelly Dickson Carr’s clever tale “The Beacon Hill Suicide,” showcasing historic Boston. What to do about a slobbering dog is the question for a “cleaner” in Zandra Renwick’s “Dead Man’s Dog.” And “A Six-Pipe Problem” by proceduralist master John H. Dirckx.

Several tales pack a powerful emotional punch. A grieving widower in our cover story, Pamela Blackwood’s “Justice,” hears voices and barking late at night, only later learning the significance of those noises. A new tenant in a Queens apartment house unlocks troubling memories for a lonely neighbor in Devon Shepherd’s “The Woman in Apartment 615.” Another newcomer, in “The Man Across the Hall” by Janice Law, has a destabilizing effect on a young married couple in Miami. And Chicago P.I. Kubiak steps into a family drama when an old colleague from the police force asks him to follow his wife in Steve Lindley’s “A Matter of Trust and Surveillance.”

The uncanny and inexplicable also add zest to our holiday package. A pre-Sherlock Dr. J. H. Watson recounts an episode from his time in Afghanistan, revealing what really happened at the Battle of Kandahar in James Tipton’s “Shiva’s Eye.” And our mystery classic features that master of the ghost story, E. F. Benson, with “The Confession of Charles Linkworth.”

And so, best wishes for the season. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, maybe you’ll find a little murder tucked into your stocking for your guilty pleasure.

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All in the Family (September/October 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, these stories show that blood will tell.

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“Welcome To My Tribe” by Robert Lopresti

Novelist, short-story author, and nonfiction writer Robert Lopresti is a government information librarian at Western Washington University. He blogs at SleuthSayers, Little Big Crimes, and Today in Mystery History. Here he talks about the mystery-fiction community and writing his story “Nobody Gets Killed” from the current issue of AHMM.

Everybody needs a little help sometime.

My story, “Nobody Gets Killed,” which appears in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, consists of just one scene: a confrontation between a cop and a driver on a country road.

It didn’t take long to write it, but after the first draft I got worried. I didn’t want my cop to do anything wrong—at least, except if I intended him to wrong, of course. And what do I know about police procedure?

Not much. So naturally I called the cops. Specifically, I called my friend David Dean, who is both a crime writer and the retired chief of a police department in New Jersey. He quickly read over the story and made one correction, which I was happy to accept.

Now the moral of this story is not that you should all send your short stories to David for free editing (I promised him I would say that). My point is that mystery writers help each other out.

You might not know that if your knowledge of us comes primarily from, well, mysteries. In those tales you frequently find writers plotting fiendishly against each other, with gossip and backstabbing—figurative or literal—galore. What fiends we all seem to be! (And, full disclosure, my “Shanks On Misdirection,” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s July/August 2009 issue, is about two crime writers being distinctly mean to each other.)

But I confess: It’s all make-believe. The truth is, we’re a pretty nice crowd. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Newbie X tell how Best-selling Y went out of their way to help X up the ladder when there was no chance for reward. Not long ago a crime novelist connected me to her Hollywood agent because she thought my Greenfellas would make a good movie. A lot of paying forward, as they say.

When I hear about a new market for short stories I always pass the news on to my short fiction friends. I know they will do the same for me. And the best part of events like Bouchercon is swapping stories over a coffee or beer with your sibling scribblers, the only ones who really understand how it feels when a reviewer condemns you for not writing the book they wanted, instead of reviewing the one you did write.

Maybe we get all of our nasties out on the page and don’t feel the need to do it in real life. As I recall the late great Sue Grafton claimed she wrote her first mystery for the chance to kill off an ex-husband in it.

At the 1993 Edgars Banquet, when Donald E. Westlake was recognized as a Grand Master he got choked up and told the crowd “You’re my tribe!” I can’t put it better than that, and I’m proud to be a member.

I wish I could end on that note, but in the spirit of honesty I have to report that while this piece was gestating I heard from a female mystery writer that when she announced a piece of good news to a crowd of her peers one man said “Who did you have to have sex with to get that?” Except he didn’t say it nearly so politely.

I’m sure he would say he was joking, but come on. Does anyone not understand what underlies that kind of joke? And in the autumn of #MeToo could anyone claim it was an innocent mistake?

Which just proves, I suppose, that there are jerks in every tribe. And maybe they tend to be more visible to the women in the crowd than the men.

And that, oddly enough, brings me back to my story “Nobody Gets Killed,” which is about two strangers trying to negotiate a difficult situation, both hoping there are no jerks involved. If/when that happens to you, I wish you the best.

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“Plans and Revisions” by Steve Liskow

Steve Liskow is the author of three mystery series, and his latest book is Hit Somebody. In 2016 he became the Black Orchid Novella Award‘s first repeat winner. You can read his winning story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” in the current July/August 2017 issue. Here, he talks about the evolution of this story, his previous winner, and the Woody Guthrie series.

“We live most of our lives in Plan B.” Was that a bumper sticker, a button, or a tee shirt? I don’t remember, but I agree with the claim.

In fall 2003, I wrote the first draft of a PI novel that went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. I sent it out with the PI named Rob Daniels, Eric Morley, and at least one other name I no longer remember. In 2013, I finally self-published it as Blood On the Tracks.

In late 2004, after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference, I wrote “Stranglehold,” a short story installment in what I saw as a series set in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was almost 7000 words, too long for most magazines, and the others rejected it. I showed it to a fellow writer who said he had trouble keeping track of so many characters in the first three pages. I needed all those people, so I shelved the story and turned to other projects.

In fall 2006, a friend suggested I write a romance novel. Ghost Writers in the Sky became a romantic mystery spoof set in Connecticut with deliberately over-the-top characters, including a PI named Zach Barnes. Between 2007 and 2009, I sent it to nearly seventy agents and publishers with underwhelming success.

Late in 2008, I learned that the Wolfe Pack, named in honor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, sought entries for the Black Orchid Novella Award. Stout’s work influenced both my prose and my tone, so I wondered if I could expand “Stranglehold” to 15,000 words and introduce the large cast more slowly.

Plan B, indeed. Over the next week, I added 9000 words and realized that nothing felt like padding. The story was a novella waiting to be recognized. By then, the Barnes novel was dead in the water, but I liked the character’s name. I gave it to my Detroit rock ‘n’ roll wannabe and sent the new and improved (I hoped) “Stranglehold” to the contest early in 2009.

A few months later, I learned of a new local publisher looking for Connecticut mysteries and sent the Zach Barnes novel out to them, too…with the same protagonist. My wife convinced me to change the title, to Who Wrote the Book of Death? This has to be about Plan C, right?

Six months later, Jane Cleland called to tell me “Stranglehold” had won—twenty-four hours after Mainly Murder Press offered me a contract for Who Wrote . . . ?. Now Zach Barnes had two cases, one in Detroit and the other in Connecticut, a tough commute.

I still saw the Connecticut novel as a stand-alone and thought the Detroit story had legs, so I decided to keep Zach in Detroit and re-name the Connecticut shamus. Years before, at that Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt gave me a piece of advice that resonated now:

Beware of changing the name of a character because it will change the rhythm of every sentence in your story that names him or her. Ah, the joys of computer technology. I did a global edit and changed “Barnes” to “Nines.” Same rhythm, same consonant sounds. “Zach/Zachary” became “Greg/Gregory” and there we were.

I thought.

A few reviewers wanted to read more about “Greg” and his beautiful girlfriend. Some readers went to my website and told me they thought Greg Nines was a dumb name. By then I’d also noticed that Spell-check went spastic every time I used “Nines” as the singular subject of a sentence. Hmmm.

Eighteen months later, I parted company with that publisher and re-edited the book. The Detroit series was still generating huge waves of ennui, so I changed the PI’s name back to Zach Barnes . . . in Connecticut. Zach now appears in five books. In 2013, when I self-pubbed Blood On the Tracks, the first in the Detroit series, the PI formerly known as Zach needed a new name. My high school classmate, session musician Susie (Kaine) Woodman, inspired the character of Megan Traine, so I still wanted him to be musical.

After bouncing ideas off my wife (much better at names and titles than I am), my equally brilliant webmistress (ditto), and my cover designer, we came up with Elwood Christopher Guthrie, who goes by Chris. Naturally, everyone else calls him “Woody.” Woody’s fourth adventure, Before You Accuse Me, will arrive in December or January.

“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” is a sequel to “Stranglehold.” I actually planned the story as a novel, but didn’t find any of the possible subplots intriguing enough to bear writing, so it ended up as another novella—this time shrinking to size. If you read both stories in Alfred Hitchcock, you noticed the name change. Now you know why.

Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .

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60 Is the New . . . (December 2016)

Editing a magazine is all about novelty—the next issue, the new stories, the new authors. One of the nice things about a significant anniversary is the occasion to pause and reflect. As we notch our sixtieth year, we thought it would be fun to invite some other voices that have long been associated with the magazine, contributors and a few staffers, to reflect on AHMM in this month’s special feature (The Case File).

But it’s the stories and authors that are the magazine’s raison d’être, and this celebratory issue is also a fine representation of AHMM’s recent decades. We are delighted to welcome Lawrence Block back to our pages with “Whatever It Takes”; Mr. Block first published a story in AHMM in 1963. And we are also delighted to welcome Bruce Arthurs, who makes his AHMM debut this month with “Beks and the Second Note.” And in between those extremes, we have new stories from other writers who have long associations with the magazine: John C. Boland (first AHMM story in 1976); Kristine Kathryn Rusch (1989); David Edgerley Gates (1991); Kathy Lynn Emerson (2001); and Stephen Ross (2010).

I wish I had the room to list the hundreds of authors who have graced AHMM’s pages with stories that have delighted and horrified and intrigued our readers for 60 years. We are grateful to them all.

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