Tag Archives: Robert Lopresti

“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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Crime Travels (March/April 2018)

Many of the crime stories in our March/April issue involve movement—a chase, a hunt, an escape—and each follows its own twisty journey. Dale Berry offers a graphic story of raw ambition in “The Trail;” a young pickpocket and a grave robber team up to travel a dark path in pre-revolutionary Paris in R. T. Lawton’s “The Left Hand of Leonard;” Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg give us a tale of a grieving husband and father who seeks to atone for a tragic lapse by becoming a “Night Walker”; and a young couple on the run is fatally drawn to a roadside carnival in “Fair Game” by Max Gersh.

Martin Limón’s popular 8th Army C.I.D. agents in 1970s Korea are on the trail of American G.I.’s who beat and robbed a local cabbie and took off with his young female passenger in “High Explosive.” A Denver cabbie reverses direction when he owes the wrong people in Michael Bracken’s “The Mourning Man.” A young kid gets more adventure than he bargained for in Mario Milosovic’s coming-of-age story “The Hitchhiker’s Tale.” And a routine traffic stop is anything but in Robert Lopresti’s “Nobody Gets Killed.”

Sassy Las Vegas stylist Stacey Deshay returns with a special assignment for a comeback star only to discover that her road crew has another agenda in “Knock-Offs” by Shauna Washington. A portrait photographer’s session with a beloved pet develops a negative aspect in “Off-Off-Off Broadway” by Dara Carr. A spouse-sitting assignment gets complicated for Ecuadorian P.I. Wilson Salinas in “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” by Tom Larsen.

In Michael Black’s “Walking on Water,” a P.I. takes on a client in Witness Protection. And Tim Chapman’s one-armed P.I. struggles to remain inconspicuous as he scouts for shoplifters in “The Handy Man.”

Many and varied are the paths that lead to criminal behavior. Leave it to AHMM to steer you straight.

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Expect the Unexpected (January/February 2018)

There’s always an extent to which crime is unexpected, except for the perpetrator—that is, if things go off as planned. It’s often the surprises, though, that make a great mystery story.

You don’t expect a killer to make an appearance at a holiday party, unfortunately for the revelers in Michael Nethercott’s “Sinners at Eight.” And when you’re a young, naïve bookstore clerk, you don’t expect that doing someone a favor will have the repercussions seen in Peter Sellers’ “Christmas Help.”

A corporate attorney doesn’t expect to take on a murder case for a former client in “Coroners Don’t Change Faces” by S. Frederic Liss. But the unemployed nephew of a Hollywood mogul does expect to do great things as a masked crime fighter in James Lincoln Warren’s sendup “The Chinese Dog Mystery.”

A homeless bum doesn’t expect to have a visitor in jail in Robert Lopresti’s “Train Tracks,” but it changes his life. While an unexpected visit from U.S. Postal inspectors confirms a young Navajo boy’s suspicions in David Hagerty’s “Fair Trade.”

In Marianne Wilski Strong’s “Louisa and the Lighthouse,” a beach stroll leads to the unexpected finding of a prized necklace, while the writings of Louisa May Alcott help knit together the clues. In Alex C. Renwick’s “Shallow Sand,” a beachcomber finds more than he expected with the help of a metal detector. An unexpected windfall brings trouble for a woman with a gambling bug in John M. Floyd’s “Scavenger Hunt.” And a seemingly chance purchase from a sidewalk vendor unexpectedly troubles long-buried memories in Janice Law’s “The Crucial Game.”

Plus we have two great (only to be expected) procedurals from John H. Dirckx (“Go for the Juggler”) and David Edgerley Gates (“A Multitude of Sins”).

Finally, this issue’s Mystery Classic is “Nebuchadnezzar” by Dorothy L. Sayers. The story was selected for us by B. K. Stevens, a life-long admirer of Sayers. Sadly B. K. Stevens died before she had a chance to write the introduction, though I know she chose it in part for its humor and because it’s one of the author’s lesser-known stories.

As always, our tales may take some unexpected turns, but you can always expect to find great crime fiction in these pages.

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.

I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)

Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)

Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”

The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.

Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.

Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.

One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.

So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.

With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.

Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.

And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.

I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.

  • The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
  • Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
  • I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
  • The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
  • The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
  • Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
  • The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
  • A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
  • Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford

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Dark Recesses (November/December 2017)

As the days grow short and winter looms, the lengthening evenings offer ample time and reason to brood over the nature of darkness. As the stories in this issue attest, a landscape of shadows offers far too many opportunities for both deception and misperception.

One skilled navigator of the shadows is post-war Manhattan private investigator Memphis Red, who confronts shifting motivations, political alliances, and even identities in L. A. Wilson Jr.’s “Harlem Nocturne.” Meanwhile, a young woman who seeks the shadows, trying to escape the consequences of a one-time lapse in judgment, finds she can’t escape those determined to find her in S. L. Franklin’s “Damsels in Distress.” And the shadow of calamity, in the form of drought, leaves a western town vulnerable to a charismatic, and dangerous, itinerant preacher in Gilbert Stack’s “Pandora’s Hoax.”

The idea of the serial killer casts its own dreadful shadow, as the residents of Laskin, South Dakota find in Eve Fisher’s “Darkness Visible.” The neighbors in Robert S. Levinson’s “The House Across the Street” also know a little something about serial killers—and they’re willing to share. And speaking of neighbors, a suspected witch in Kilgore, Texas beguiles her hapless neighbor in William Dylan Powell’s “The Darkness and the Light.”

Photographer Anita Ray takes up the cause of an American mathematician-turned-nun who is brutally attacked but who refuses to talk to the police in Susan Oleksiw’s “A Slight Deviation from the Mean.” And Tara Laskowski gets into the head of another woman in a brutal situation in her short-short “Hostage.”

To mitigate the darkness a bit, mid-level coworkers wreak their own special brand of havoc in plain sight in Robert Lopresti’s “The Chair Thief,” while R. T. Lawton’s Holiday Burglars return in “Black Friday,” where they must face up to their competition.

Each of B. K. Stevens’s Leah Abrams mysteries take place around a different Jewish holiday, and “Death Under Construction” is set during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.  Leah takes a temp job at a firm that makes luxury doghouses while she works on her academic tome on workplace communications, so she is receptive to the subtle clues when the firm’s manger is killed in the storeroom.

We welcome back to these pages Carol Cail, with her tale of mysterious goings-on and hidden rooms at a seniors’ community in “Ghost Busters.” And we welcome Anna Castle, whose first story for us is “For Want of a Book,” featuring a young Francis Bacon.

This issue also features the second installment of our new feature The Case Files: this time, Steve Hockensmith brings to light some cutting-edge mystery-related podcasts. We’re sure you’ll want to check them out.

So there’s no need to be afraid of the dark when you have such a substantial issue of great stories with which to while away the evenings.

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“Shanks Holds the Line” by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti writes the very popular Shanks stories for AHMM, but this one is a little different. He sent it to us with the request that it go on our blog immediately. He explained that it is “based on a scam that recently did major damage to the mother of a friend of mine. . . . I consider the story a kind of public service, since it warns people about this thing.” Here it is. Enjoy, and be warned!

“Please hang on,” said Leopold Longshanks. “I’ll have to start up my computer. It’s down in the basement.”

“Of course,” said Jake. “I’ll wait.”

“You’re too kind,” said Shanks. He was in his home office, checking his e-mail. His publisher had replied, in a cranky mood, concerning Shanks’s complaint about the proposed cover for his new novel. The artist had apparently been unaware that only the bullet is fired out of a gun, not the entire cartridge. You would think the publisher would be grateful Shanks caught it before they all got laughed at, but no.

There was also an email from the organizers of a conference, reminding him that he had agreed to speak. Shanks was happy to do so, good publicity, but was less than thrilled by the topic they had assigned him. He was supposed to find something new to say about that old classic: Why do people read mysteries?

The question we should be asking is why more people don’t. If we could double the readership I could buy a better computer, and a new smartphone—

Phone. He picked it up. “Jake? You still there?”

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NAMING THE DETECTIVES: Robert Lopresti

AHMM regular Robert Lopresti is the winner of the 2012 Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, for “The Red Envelope,” which appears in our July/August issue. We co-sponsor the BONA contest with The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe appreciation society, to encourage the ratiocinative detective style exemplified by Wolfe. Here, Rob discusses the important matter of finding the right name for your character.

If you’re a writer creating a character, you need a name. (Oh, there are exceptions: Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, for instance, but if you fill an entire book with Anonymous and Mr. X it might get tiresome pretty fast.)

I’m usually pretty casual about names, but when I started writing “The Red Envelope,” my entry for the Black Orchid Novella Award contest, I was hoping that this might be the beginning of a series. That meant that if I were lucky, I might have to live with those characters for a long time.

So I gave a lot of thought to matching the characters to their names. Consider my detective. The story is set in Greenwich Village in 1958 and the hero is a beat poet, a bit of an oddball, and definitely a man who likes to be the center of attention. Surely his name would be unusual. Something that stood out in some way. Hmm . . .

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