Tag Archives: Robert Lopresti

“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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A Gala of Wolfeian Proportions

The Wolfe Pack’s annual gala is a lively affair. The Black Orchid Banquet, always held on the first Saturday of December, features toasts to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, to their creator Rex Stout, and to many of the other characters who enliven the series. There is also singing, as each table competes (informally) to create a (semi-)spontaneous and wholly witty tribute in song to oversized detective.

And there are awards.

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