Tag Archives: whodunit

“Something Old, Something New . . .” by John H. Dirckx

 

John H. Dirckx is the author of Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma (Aspen Press) and short fiction in AHMM, EQMM, and Woman’s World as well as nonfiction in the medical field. Today he talks about handling clues in mystery fiction, and in particular his short story “Go for the Juggler,” the latest in the series featuring Detective Sergeant Dollinger and Lieutenant Auburn, from the current issue of AHMM.

A detective story needs a crook, a crime, a sleuth, and one or more clues that enable the sleuth to pin the crime on the crook. Not all clues in mystery fiction, however, point to the identity of the criminal. Some merely help to establish a chronology of events, provide background details, or exonerate suspects. Others are blatant red herrings, designed to bewilder or mislead the detective for a while and, perhaps for a while longer, the reader.

But somewhere in every story there must be at least one piece of evidence that unerringly incriminates the guilty person by a rigorous and intellectually satisfying application of Aristotelian logic, thus ensuring a fitting sentence in a court of law. (Often overlooked or ignored in classic mysteries of the Golden Age was the difference between a damning clue, such as the ineluctable bloody thumbprint, and a mere hint or suggestion, such as the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.)

Whence does the mystery writer garner clues that meet the requirements of both plausibility and evidential value? Often they turn up in the ongoing series of occurrences, mostly banal, that weave the fabric of daily life: the broken shoestring, the misread headline, the book put back on the wrong shelf in a moment of distraction.

In “Go for the Juggler,” Detective Auburn tumbles to the killer’s trick of insulating a car battery terminal with a plastic cap because he had once made the mistake of wiring up a new battery without removing the protective cap placed on the negative terminal by the manufacturer. That idea occurred to me because I once made the same mistake myself.

Auburn finds a cache of gold and jewelry by observing that the discoloration on the underside of a kitchen cabinet caused by rising heat doesn’t match the present location of the electric toaster. Over the years I’ve noticed several such discolorations while sprawled on various kitchen floors installing or repairing appliances.

Clues mustn’t be too conspicuous or too transparent—otherwise there is little or no mystery. The word kieselguhr has had an intriguing and exotic ring to my ears from the first time I heard it in a chemistry lecture decades ago. Kieselguhr may not be in your working vocabulary, but you can find out more about it than you could possibly want to know with a simple Internet search.

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried . . .” Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade never heard of surveillance cameras, but they’re ubiquitous today, and they pop up often enough in crime fiction. In this story, taped video footage enables the detectives to identify the “juggler.”

“Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” In the construction of the modern detective story, convention permits an occasional nod to the venerable past of the genre. For the piece of evidence that clinches the guilt of the killer in “Go for the Juggler,” I fell back on that hoary cliché, fingerprints found on articles used in the commission of the crime. Who says tradition isn’t what it used to be?

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How I Came to Write “The Hawaii Murder Case” by Terence Faherty

 

Terence Faherty is the author of The Quiet Woman as well as the Owen Keane and Scott Elliott mystery series. His recent short-story collection Tales of the Star Republic is available from Gisbourne Press. Here he talks about the inspiration behind and the writing of his story “The Hawaii Murder Case” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

My wife and I enjoy traveling, and I thought it would be fun to write a new short story for each place we visited. Instead of forcing a whodunit format on each locale, I decided to let the setting suggest the proper story to tell. For example, St. Simons Island, where we stayed in a creaking old carriage house, seemed like a good place for a ghost story. When we visited Scotland, we encountered the life and legend of Mary Queen of Scots everywhere we went, so I came up with a suspense story that used the famous queen.

But I was hoping for more inspiration than just what type of story to write. Years ago, I came across a writer’s block remedy. It consisted of a deck of cards that would randomly generate certain basics of a story, like setting, protagonist, and problem. Trying to weave together those random elements was supposed to stimulate creativity. I never used the card system, but it occurred to me that I could let our trips serve the same role. I began traveling with my notebook at the ready, so I could jot down random elements that I would later weave together in a story. I’m happy to report that the system worked. And it not only served as a creativity stimulus, it made each story a scrapbook of that particular vacation.

“The Hawaii Murder Case,” as the title reveals, was inspired by our vacation on Kawai. I came back with the following story elements. 1) During the trip, I was reading a Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case. 2) While we were standing at the edge of a remote waterfall, a branch the size of a suburban tree fell from the forest canopy and narrowly missed us. 3) To access the beach nearest our condo, we had to go up and down a long, steep stairway that was out of sight of anyone not on the stairway itself. 4) On the beach, we observed a May/December couple who barely spoke to one another. 5) Our condo building contained three units, all of which were owned by the same person and decorated identically.

From those major elements, and a dozen minor ones, I came up the story of a vacationer who is conked on the head by a falling tree branch and begins to take on the characteristics of the fictional detective he’s been reading about. There follows a sudden death, of course. I made it a comic mystery—told by the “famous” detective’s harried wife—because the crazy premise pointed that way and because I enjoy writing funny stories. They’re a nice break from the grim stuff. You can check out the results in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February double issue. And if you’re ever facing writer’s block, try the random detail remedy. I recommend trying it in Hawaii.

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