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The Origins of Wilson Salinas and “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” by Tom Larsen

Tom Larsen’s fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Big Pond Rumours. One of his stories, cowritten by his grandson, appears in the benefit anthology Friends in Foreign Places. Detective Wilson Salinas is featured in his novel Getting Legal. Here the author talks about his story “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” from the current March/April 2018 issue—his first published mystery story. (Make sure to read the tale first!)

I love to read, which is why I love to write. I love to read character-driven stories, so I tend to write character-driven stories. Of course, to do that requires that I develop characters—characters that are interesting, and most of all, believable. Of all the characters that I’ve developed in twenty years of writing, my favorite is Wilson Salinas, the Ecuadorian private investigator who finds himself a murder suspect in “Los Cantantes de Karaoke”—published this month in AHMM.

My wife Debby and I retired January 1, 2014. Within six months we had sold our house and most of our belongings, and began the move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Although we had made two exploratory trips, this was the real thing. No turning back.

We arrived in Guayaquil at midnight on a hot and steamy June night. The next morning we were on our way to our new home in Cuenca, a stunningly beautiful colonial city located at 8,500 feet elevation in the Andes Mountains.

We had contracted with a driver to take us on the four-hour, 120 mile journey to Cuenca. Emilio, a diminutive fellow with a wide friendly face and an engaging manner, met us at the hotel the next morning, and off we went.

From the vast rice and sugar cane fields and banana plantations of the coastal lowlands we ascended into the lush hardwood forest of the west slope of the Andes, through the dry grasslands and jagged peaks of the summit, and on to the east side. Imagine huge valleys, with far-off mountain peaks rising through the fog like islands out of the sea, pristine lakes too high to be affected by toxic runoff, llamas grazing along the side of the road, colorfully dressed woman milking cows in pastures that rose steeply above us.

We saw all of that and more, but the most memorable part of the trip was meeting Emilio, a proud descendant of the Cañari indigenous group. Ten years earlier, Emilio had emigrated to the United States, like tens of thousands of young Ecuatorianos, when Ecuador’s economy was in freefall. When the economy began to turn around and it looked as if the current president might actually serve out two complete terms (a rarity in Ecuador in recent years) Emilio fled the frigid winters of Minneapolis for the temperate climate of his mountain home.

Emilio’s English was as impeccable as our Spanish was limited, and his knowledge of the history, geography, and politics of his country was excellent. Ecuador couldn’t have chosen a better ambassador.

I’m a mystery writer, so while Emilio pointed out interesting sights and explained the politics of his country, my mind of course, wandered. What must it have been like, I thought, to leave the security and tranquility of the only home you’ve ever known, and head to a cold and frightening megalopolis 3,500 miles north? And, what must it have been like to return years later, with all the changes that you, and your former home, have gone through in the interim? Although I didn’t realize it until a few months later, that was the day that Wilson Salinas came into being.

Now, I have to say that Emilio is nothing at all like Wilson. Emilio’s a hard-working entrepreneur, completely dedicated to his family, and while that’s great, it doesn’t make for an interesting character in a mystery. So, I made Wilson an alcoholic, a smart-ass, and essentially a failure at everything he has tried to accomplish. I sent him off to Seattle for fifteen years, and brought him home to Cuenca at the age of 35, broke, disillusioned, and no more comfortable in his childhood home than he had been in his adopted one.

While living in Portland, Oregon, I had created a character with many of the same attributes as Wilson, and at one point I had begun a short story where the P.I. is duped by an old friend into providing an alibi for him as the friend murders his wife and his brother, whom he suspects of having an affair.

The story went nowhere, but a half dozen years later, as I sat at my desk in Cuenca watching the sun come up over the mountains, the idea came back to me, and Wilson fit seamlessly into the role of the hapless private investigator. I took it a step further and had his old friend frame Wilson for the murders, and that was the origin of “Los Cantantes de Karaoke.”

Fun Fact: Wilson’s name was inspired by a local realtor named Edison Salinas. Names such as Wilson and Edison are fairly common first names in Ecuador. Hitler and Stalin, while not nearly as common, are not unheard of.

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“One Last Job” by Michael Bracken

Fiction and nonfiction author Michael Bracken is the recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in crime fiction. He has also twice won the Derringer Award for short fiction. Here he talks about writing his story “The Mourning Man” from the current issue of AHMM.

Stories about a seasoned criminal’s “One Last Job”—a familiar trope in mystery fiction—often involve protagonists who desire retirement from their criminous careers. On occasion, “One Last Job” stories involve retired criminals roped back in through no desire of their own, and that is the structural framework for “The Mourning Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018).

But that isn’t the story I planned to write. I planned to write a love story.

I have known several men of a certain age who find themselves lost after the death of their spouse. They haven’t shopped, cooked, cleaned, or done laundry in so many years that basic self-care eludes them. When I wrote the opening scene of “The Mourning Man,” I had all those men in mind, but I also remembered how I felt twenty-four years ago when my wife passed away after a protracted battle with cervical cancer and I found myself without sufficient savings to pay for her funeral.

I was lucky. Family stepped in. But what if Johnny Devlin—a cab driver who just lost the love of his life, the woman who convinced him to abandon crime when he was young and who kept him on the straight and narrow during the decades since—borrowed funeral money from a loan shark?

The question remained unanswered and the rough draft of my opening scene remained untouched until I read “Chronic Insecurity,” an article by William Wheeler in the July/August 2014 Playboy about the legal marijuana shops in Denver and the problems marijuana dispensers everywhere have banking their money. Wheeler quoted the owner of one dispensary who referred to a two-block stretch of Broadway in Denver that houses a dozen marijuana dispensaries as “Retard Row.” I thought those shops were ripe for robbery, and so does the loan shark who provides the money to bury Devlin’s wife.

Devlin finds himself torn between his debt, the promises he made to his dead wife, and the needs of his living friends and relatives. In the end, even though I used the tropes of the “One Last Job” story, I think I did write a love story because the decisions Devlin makes demonstrate his love for his wife, his friends, and his family.

 

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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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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“Multi-Tasking” by Dale Berry

 

Dale W. Berry is a commercial artist and designer, graphic novelist (see the Tales of the Moonlight Cutter series), and the founder of Myriad Publications. In December 2015, AHMM published his “Not A Creature Was Stirring,” the first graphic short story ever to appear in the magazine, and in the current issue (March/April), we published a second, his suspenseful “Dead Air.” Here he talks about that story, and how graphic storytelling and the mystery genre work together.

Sometimes I think the process of creating graphic short stories—of telling a tale visually on the page as well as in written words—is like having to do the same thing every writer does, but times two.

You imagine the plot and characters, maybe a certain sequence or relationship, and then conjure the words to describe them. You live and breathe and compose them into existence. Difficult enough, even in the best of situations. But then, somewhat ridiculously, you must do it all again, in sketches and thumbnails, in pencils and inks, and graphics and print production.

In the end, though, it’s worth it. Because that fusion of words and pictures, laid out in sequence like movies on paper, connects in the reader’s mind differently than words alone. And that’s always been the real magic of “comics.” They can float a global corporate film franchise, sure, but they’ll also take you into your most private space. There’s really no great, cosmic backstory necessary.

For me, that’s why creating them in the mystery genre makes sense, especially in short form. Graphic storytelling can capture a moment. Arranging and re-arranging that sequence of little pictures evokes mood, atmosphere and motivation. It allows you to examine an intimate human drama, building and dissecting conflict and suspense, beat by beat. You go deeper.

And the mystery genre does the same thing.

The two forms were made for each other. If I’m wrong, then Alfred Hitchcock never storyboarded the shower scene from Psycho.

For “Dead Air”, in the latest issue of AHMM, I drew (pardon the pun) on my 25+ years as a radio disc jockey to tell the kind of intimate story that mysteries and comics both do well: the isolated protagonist is confronted with a potential life-or-death puzzle, and must solve it while the clock is ticking.

It’s a classic set-up. It’s also classic live radio . . . you can ask any disc jockey. God forbid you let “dead air” happen, even as somewhere out there a listener is connecting with you in an immediate and intimate way.

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All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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Josh Pachter on “Pisan Zapra”

Writer, editor, and translator Josh Pachter’s Mahboob Chaudri stories can be found collected in The Tree of Life. He is a regular contributor to EQMM’s Passport to Crime department as a translator, and he has been publishing fiction since 1968. Here he writes about how he came to write his story “Pisan Zapra,” which is featured in the November 2016 issue of AHMM.

For Christmas of 2014, my in-laws gave me a fascinating little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (10 Speed Press, 2014). As I leafed through it the next morning, I chuckled to find gezellig, which is my favorite untranslatable Dutch word, and came to a dead stop four pages later at pisan zapra, which is listed as a Malay noun meaning “the time needed to eat a banana.”

Now that’s a title for a short story, I thought, and it seemed obvious that the story it was a title for would be set in Malaysia, and would unfold over a period of no more than a couple of minutes—the amount of time needed to eat a banana.

I did some basic research and discovered that there is disagreement as to whether or not the expression is legitimate Malay. Some sources say yes, while others—including numerous native speakers of Malay—say they’ve never heard it.

As I continued poking around the Internet, I stumbled across some fascinating information about a vengeful vampiric spirit known as the pontianak. In Malay folklore, the pontianak are said to be the ghosts of women who died in pregnancy, generally depicted as pale-skinned beauties with long hair, dressed all in white. A pontianak usually announces its presence through the cries of a baby; if the cry is soft, it means that the spirit is close. Although it lives in the trunk of the pokok pisang—the banana tree—its presence is sometimes accompanied by the fragrance of the plumeria flower, followed afterward by a terrible stench. The pontianak identify their prey, I learned, by sniffing out clothes left outdoors to dry. (For this reason, some Malays refuse to leave any article of clothing outside their residences overnight.) A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. If you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head, and, when the pontianak goes after a man, it may rip out the poor slob’s sex organs with its hands.

So, pisan zapra and the pontianak. Who could ask for anything more? This turned out to be one of those stories that pretty much writes itself—or perhaps it was a vengeful Malay spirit that guided my fingers on the keyboard. . . .

In any case, I wrote the story and submitted it to Linda Landrigan, and I am absolutely delighted that she selected it for inclusion in AHMM in this 60th-anniversary year. Although I’ve been publishing in EQMM pretty regularly since my first appearance in its pages in 1968, this is my first appearance in Hitchcock’s since 1986—half the magazine’s life (and almost half my life) ago. It’s great to be back!

Now I hope you’ll excuse me while I go eat a banana and make sure I get the laundry off the line before nightfall. . . .

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