Tag Archives: mystery

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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The Making of “The Making of Velveteen Dream” by Chris Muessig

Author, editor, and instructor Chris Muessig’s fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories; he is also a contributor to AHMM and EQMM. Here he talks about the background to his unique and compelling story from the July/August 2017 issue, “The Making of Velveteen Dream.”

Both my sons, Travis and Jeff, pitched their way up from Little League diamonds to college baseball scholarships.  Jeff had the added good fortune of being picked in the 20th round of the 2001 Major League draft but “retired” from pro baseball in 2008 after two decades of involvement in the sport—a time span associated with career servicemen and police officers, not a 26-year-old.

High-level competition put a lot of wear and tear on those bodies—in Jeff’s case necessitating Tommy John surgery and several knee and shoulder operations.  Along with the physical damage came extreme frustration as each setback seemed to occur when he was about to break through to the next level. Recovering from these repeated injuries required a work ethic, mental toughness, and level of patience that he did not inherit from me. Although my wife and I shared plenty of excitement with him, we were also privy to the long stretches of painful rehab. Those are among the closely personal makings of the story.

Meanwhile, there is a funny amateur indie out there that was put together a dozen years ago by a trio of Jeff’s Stockton teammates.  Dream Revolver, the creation of Ben Winslow, Eddie Cornejo, and Jed Morris (they lend their names to some of the fictional teams in the imaginary Pacific Valley League), began as a day-in-the-life video spoof. Hours of footage later, the project had snowballed (not the most apt metaphor for the San Joaquin Valley) into a surrealistic feature in which every member of the team got to appear on screen and which may very well have been key in reversing what began as a lackluster season.

I recall briefly contemplating a novelization of the film, but found myself too busy trying to sell shorter fiction to well-known mystery magazines.  The makings, however, kept simmering on the back burner, until three years ago when I resolved to revive the “dream” in the guise of a crime story and pitched it (no pun intended) to Jeff to get his help in developing background and motivation.

As we went back and forth, I aimed for exposition-lite while slipping in as much detail about minor league life as the story’s confines allowed.  I think most of it was relevant, the rest revelatory. And since I was fashioning a crime story, I had to juxtapose the exhilaration of playing and contending at that level with other less positive issues that open the door to corruption and violence.

Firstly, there are so many empty hours to fill “at home” and during the long and uncomfortable “away” trips on cramped buses and in distant motels—the proverbial idle hands. Players have to contend with a guaranteed half-year’s separation from family and friends, not to mention the pressures, demands, uncertainties, and illusive lucre of a sport in which only a small fraction make it to the Show, and not all of them under innocent circumstances. For many players, only the supporting fabric of their communal living keeps their careers above water, no matter what their talent. So what happens if they don’t fit in?

On the brighter side, the Stockton Ports roster for 2005 lists the names of more than a dozen players who eventually stepped onto major league ball fields.  Perhaps the movie magic had something to do with that high success rate. Eddie and Jed remain active in baseball as successful college coaches, Benny is still making action-filled films of men in uniform (Navy and Marine Corps), and Jeff has become part of another special team, albeit law enforcement—which just goes to show how persistent some dreams can be.

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Staging a Mystery: Nero Wolfe Comes to the Midwest (by Linda Landrigan)

E.J. Subkoviak as Nero Wolfe; photo by Park Square Theatre.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the premier of “Might as Well Be Dead,” a new play by AHMM contributor Joseph Goodrich. The play, produced by the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rex Stout.

Naturally, the story features Stout’s famous sleuths, the corpulent Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. We fans love these books for the lively writing, the bantering dialogue, and the vivid characters. I’m happy to say that Joe captured these dynamics nicely in his adaptation.

Adapting any novel-length work to the stage is necessarily an exercise in condensation, which Joe and the director, Peter Moore, handled beautifully. As Joe later explained, because the novel is so plot driven, it was essential that the story of the play “take off like a bullet,” and not flag from there.

This production featured a single main set—Nero Wolfe’s office—with side wings where a handful of off-site scenes were staged. On several occasions, characters addressed the audience directly, which also helped to keep things moving. In this production, most of the actors doubled up on roles, though I didn’t catch on to this until well into the second act. (I prefer to think of this as a tribute to the actors’ skills, rather than a comment on my observational skills.)

It’s interesting to note that the Park Square Theatre has a special group of supporters—the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club—who encourage and support the bringing of mystery plays to the stage.

I attended the play as part of a program organized by the Wolfe Pack, AHMM’s partner in sponsoring the Black Orchid Novella Award. Members from around the country converged for a fun weekend that also included the post performance party with the cast and crew, brunch the next day with the playwright, director, and members from the cast, and a book discussion. It was a terrific time-out to meet new friends who share a passion for the inimitable Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

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Robert Mangeot on “Let It Burn”

Robert Mangeot talks about his story “Let It Burn,” from the magazine’s current issue, on his blog. Check it out here!

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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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Jeff Cohen on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl”

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker series, the Asperger’s Mystery series (as coauthored by E.J. Copperman), and three other series under the Copperman byline. He also pens the Double Feature series about Elliot Freed, to which his tale in the current AHMM belongs. Here, he talks about how that story came to be.

It was time.

I’d written three novels featuring Elliot Freed, a one-time novelist who was now running a one-screen movie theater that he dubbed Comedy Tonight. Elliot showed only comedies; one classic, one contemporary every night. But Elliot’s run had ended (the publisher’s decision) and he’d gone into retirement in my head.

Except that he didn’t. I kept thinking about the character years after the last book (A Night at the Operation) was published. How had he coped with his sort-of newfound financial security? How was he getting along with Sharon, his ex-wife, who was now carrying his child?

That was the thing—the baby. Readers would send emails asking about the baby. Was it a boy or a girl? (I’d always answer, “yes.”) Did Elliot and Sharon remarry? (I thought I’d made that one clear in the last book—no.) Was that all there was to say about the gang at Comedy Tonight?

Enough questions and enough random thoughts in my head led to my AHMM story, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!” I wanted to revisit Elliot and his entourage (his parents, his theater staff, Sharon) and see how they were doing. I wanted to answer the question and most of all I wanted to write in Elliot’s voice again.

Elliot is my favorite of my characters (sorry, Alison, Samuel, Kay, Rachel and others; I love you too) because he’s a comic hero—he fights back with humor. Writing for him is like writing for Groucho Marx. I wanted to see if I could get back in that groove.

Whether or not I did is up to you. But I’m pretty happy with where things ended up. Maybe in a few years I’ll miss Elliot enough again.

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker and Double Feature (Elliot Freed) mysteries and co-author with E.J. Copperman of the Asperger’s Mystery series. As Copperman, he writes the Haunted Guesthouse, Mysterious Detective and Agent to the Paws series. That sounds like a lot of work. He may have to lie down now.

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Delights, Dangers, and Debuts (May/June 2017)

Our May/June issue is heavy on the humor, but nicely balanced with some darker tales, and topped off by several voices new to our pages. A perfect medley of crime.

On the lighter side is Jeff Cohen’s nervous dad-to-be/proprietor of a comedy film theater, who has serious doubts about the hospital staff in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!”; and Neil Schofield’s ex-Detective-Inspector Harry Tattersby and his side-kick, small-time burglar Eggy, who plumb their underworld connections to break up a gang of under-aged thieves in “Tattersby and the Silence of the Lumbs”; and Catherine Dilts’ scheming Granny cleans up in Turnip Junction in “Unrepentant Sinner.” A tired comedian in a Borscht-belt resort frames John C. Boland’s story “The Kubelsky Block,” featuring perceptive widow Tamar Gillespie, and even draws a few laughs.

Messing with the toughest man in Halifax, Skig Skorzeny, is a dangerous feat, especially when his mechanic Creepy Culbertson has his back in Jas. R. Petrin’s “Money Maker.” Two commuters on the graveyard shift bond over their fondness for mystery novels in Christopher Latragna’s story “The Loneliest Night of the Week.” Detective Fritz Dollinger and Detective Lieutenant Cyrus Auburn team up to puzzle what happened to cause the death of an unidentified man found with a cryptic message in his pocket.

We welcome three newcomers this issue. SJI Holliday’s Scottish Sergeant Davie Gray, who spends his Brighton vacation investigating a murder in “Home from Home,” is featured in her novels Black Wood, Willow Walk, and Damselfly. Retired Judge Debra H. Goldstein—author of Maze in Blue and Should Have Played Poker— brings us “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” which takes place in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. Los Angeles native Paul D. Marks has had a long career in film directing and writing. He is also the author of White Heat (2012) and Vortex (2015) as well as countless short stories. His story “Twelve Angry Days” recalls the old Henry Fonda film, Twelve Angry Men, but with a very different outcome.

In addition, Jason Half introduces one of his favorite mystery classics, “Daisy Bell” by Gladys Mitchell. All in all, twelve fiendishly good stories to keep you awake all night.

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