Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.


****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.

Mystery Short Stories: Ellery Queen & Betty Fedora

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

The September/October 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is the one picked to be the 75th anniversary issue in the year-long celebration of the publication’s staying power and popularity. The precise date of the first issue in 1941 is unknown, but it was fall, in a rather bleak time in history, with World War II raging and uncertainty everywhere. Three-quarters of a century later, EQMM still challenges and entertains!

Betty Fedora, by contrast, is a new mystery/crime publication, dubbed “kickass women in crime fiction.” Issue 3 arrived recently and contains a story of mine, “Breadcrumbs,” with the kickass woman in question a Michigan state trooper hoping to protect a young woman hiding from her abusive husband. She fears he’s tracked her down.

Here are some of my favorite stories from these two magazines—writers I hope to read more from:

  • reading, beach

    photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license

    Linda Barnes’s EQMM story, “The Way They Do It in Boston” has great energy and atmosphere. She’s the author of 17 novels and has collected numerous award nominations.

  • “The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin—his first published story—is reprinted from the 1948 issue of EQMM. Ellin was a novelist whose books were adapted for the screen, big and small. He was foremost a master of the short story, and this is “one of the most famous crime stories ever published.”
  • In this issue, perennial EQMM reader favorite (mine, too!) Dave Zeltserman’s a.i. assistant Archie helps not his detective Julius Katz this time, but Katz’s sister Julia elude a determined assassin.
  • Preston Lang’s Betty Fedora story, “The Sign,” is a tale of double-double-crosses, launched by a decades-old sign in a seedy Manhattan bar that reads “Hardtack Coghlan doesn’t pay for a drink.” Has the real Hardtack finally walked in?
  • Office speculation runs high about the true identity of dishy Rudy in the Louisa Barnes story, “Her Colours.” Rudy, she says, had “a gift for insubstantiality.” While the women fixated on him, was there really a spy in their midst?
  • Colleen Quinn’s story poses Betty Fedora readers an intriguing problem. In “The Game of Six Brothers,” when the groomsmen at a wedding discover one of the bridesmaids is a private investigator, they challenge her to figure out which of them is a murderer. And she can ask each of them only one very important question.

Read and enjoy!

***Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – August 2016

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine continues its 75th year celebration with another collection of classic and new stories. Collectively, they demonstrate many of the forms this genre can take. Whether you prefer cozies or police procedurals or amateur detectives or hardboiled, you will find them in EQMM’s pages. From the August issue, which celebrates past EQMM editors, here are four of my favorites:

• In “The Ten-Cent Murder,” the first EQMM editor, Frederic Dannay, teams up with his real-life friend Dashiell Hammett to solve a crime in 1950s Manhattan. Joseph Goodrich, whose play Panic won the 2008 Best Play award from the Mystery Writers of America, adopted a period tone for this amateur sleuth outing.
• I always enjoy Dave Zeltserman’s stories and their sly humor. This month Zeltserman deviates from his Julius Katz private-eye series to present a classic noir tale. In “The Caretaker of Lorne Green,” a man on the run from the mob poses as a home health aide and plans to rob his elderly, wheelchair-bound client, but which of them is more ruthless?
• Jonathan Moore’s compelling police procedural, “A Swimmer from the Dolphin Club,” begins with the discovery of a woman’s backpack, shoes, and neatly folded clothes underneath San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. Suicide? Murder? Disappearance? Will the truth come too late? Moore’s most recent book is 2016’s The Poison Artist, which Stephen King called “an electrifying read . . . I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” High praise from the master.
• In Ruth Graviros’s psychological tale “Ted Bundy’s Father,” you are gradually overtaken by the same horror that grips the late middle-aged protagonist, Warner Chadason. Chadason has “enjoyed an unthreatened life,” as the author puts it early on, a life about to explode disastrously. His name reveals all. Graviros was a pseudonym used by EQMM’s second editor, Eleanor Sullivan.

EQMM regularly includes reviews of new books, as well as a monthly rundown of mystery/crime blogs and websites worth following up on, as well as additional features, especially in this 75th year. You can subscribe on the website or through Amazon. Or obtain the August issue here:

What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Ben Long got his first potential client and his first real girlfriend on the same day in June 1952. He’d opened an accounting office on the second floor of a Nassau Street building above a clothing store. The hum of the store’s customers drifted up through the ductwork in a vaguely companionable way during the new firm’s early, idle days.

Ben wasn’t worried about the slow start to his business. He had a clear-eyed sense of the man he was, and that man would be successful. He’d graduated from a prominent West Coast business school, and his proximity to Princeton University would burnish the sophisticated and confident image he aspired to project.

During Ben’s lunch hours, he took long walks through the university campus, studying the buildings and the easy manners of the students—all male, then—lounging on the steps and lawns in their cardigans and pale trousers. Some wore straw boaters, just like his, though as a businessman, he wore a suit. Plenty of young women were about. They poured out of the administrative offices and the professors’ lairs, carrying their lunches and spreading their skirts to sit on the grass.

Princeton UniversityHe attracted unexpected attention as he criss-crossed the campus, so he kept a ready smile as he sped forward on his long legs, loosening his tie and tipping his hat to the ladies. On that memorable day, he was in a bit of a rush because of that impending first appointment.

“We’re all talking about you,” said a Breck-girl blonde, who hurried up beside him, striving to keep up. She looked like a midwestern kid—clear-skinned, bright blue eyes, illusions intact, like the freshman girls at his alma mater.

“Really. Why?” Was his outsider status so easy to detect? He plowed ahead.

“We all know you,” she said and, when he gave her a quizzical glance, added, “or feel we do.”

“Oh?” He took a second look at her and slowed.

“I mean, we know who you are.” She blushed and fluttered her hands.

He’d never seen her before. He would have remembered. “You’re sure about that?”

They were about to reach University Place, where he would turn back toward his office.

“Sure. You’re Jimmy Stewart.”

That stopped him. Her blue eyes radiated sincerity. He couldn’t meet those eyes with a lie, tempting though it was. Smiling, he said, “Hate to disappoint you, but I’m a CPA. I have an office on Nassau Street.”

“Oh, certainly.” She laughed. “Jimmy Stewart, Class of ’32.”

“Sincerely. My name is Ben.” He stuck out his hand.

She held it as if it were glass. “If you say so,” she giggled. She giggled enchantingly.

“And you are?”

“Cathy.” He could imagine her mother saying, “Speak up, dear.”

He still smiled. He still held her hand. The day was warm. The breeze made the sky-blue hydrangea heads bob agreeably. They were the exact shade of her eyes.

“Cathy, I’m pleased to meet you.” Awkwardly, he gave her hand a parting squeeze. “Well, goodbye. I have to go.”

“Sure. I know you’re busy,” she paused, “Jimmy.”

Back at the office, he studied his reflection in the men’s room mirror. Tall and lanky. Long neck with a head blobbed on top—like a safety match, his brother said. Brown hair, blue-grey eyes projecting a hefty dose of sincerity. Bland expression. Too bland, in his opinion, but perhaps it was a face on which people could project what they wanted to see.

Maybe that’s why people on campus stared. Did they really mistake him—even briefly—for James M. Stewart, Princeton ’32?

His first prospective client, Charlie Caputo, certainly did not look like a movie star: dark, compact, a little paunchy, face sweating on the warm day. Caputo launched into a long convoluted explanation of his money woes. Ben had to keep lassoing his mind, pulling it back from thoughts of Cathy and how she thought—or pretended to think—he was the famous actor, a man whose films he had seen many times.

“If I understand you correctly,” Ben broke in, “you want an accountant who will make sure you don’t pay any taxes.”

“There’s loopholes. Find them. Next time I’m in town we can discuss it further.”


He ran into Cathy nearly every day after that. They’d walk together across campus, at a slower pace than he preferred, but he didn’t mind. They started eating their lunches together. He brought a blanket. She brought two five-cent Cokes from the vending machine. Under the summer trees they talked about everything and nothing. Her friends from the office sometimes joined them, and it was hard to believe they all could laugh so much.

Like Cathy, they persisted in calling him Jimmy.

“Ben,” he’d say.

“That’s not what she says.”

“Hey, I’m only twenty-four! Do I look in my forties to you?”

“Remarkably well preserved.” Cathy pushed a deviled egg into his gaping mouth, silencing him.

Business picked up. Ben hired a secretary. He joined the Rotary Club and attended testimonial dinners. He took Cathy to a Rotary picnic, and she was amazed at how easily he talked to people, how many friends he had.

“When you’re in business in a small town like Princeton, you have to have friends,” he said.

“You sound like a character from one of your movies!”

He glanced around to make sure no one had heard. “Cathy, please stop doing that. People will think—”

“They will think you’re a success at whatever you do? You can’t help yourself. You’re just so pleasant.”

“Sure.” To himself, he quoted Elwood P. Dowd’s mother: “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Under his breath, he added, “For years I was smart, I recommend pleasant.”

“Wasn’t that a line from Harvey?” she whispered.

“You may quote me.”


On their first real date, Ben took Cathy to dinner and a movie, Bend of the River, featuring, naturally, Jimmy Stewart. Ben had read the book and thought it might help Cathy appreciate the part of the country he came from.

“I know where you’re from,” she said, humoring him.


“Jimmy,” she said, as if to a small child with a tall tale. “Western Pennsylvania.”

Maybe if she weren’t so darn cute, he thought, I’d make a stink about it, but it’s all so ridiculous, why bother?

Instead, he said, “What is it you want, Cathy? What do you want? You want the moon?”

As if summoned, the moonlight pooled in the tears forming in her eyes. “You know,” she said, “it’s a wonderful life.”


One hot day in August, when they sat close together on the campus lawn, she said, “Having fun?”

Half of him knew it was dangerous, but the other half wouldn’t stop, and he said, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

She laughed. “That’s definitely from Harvey. You’re too funny!”

He sighed. Being with Cathy was becoming more than a habit, it was something he needed. Like a drug. But this day he couldn’t linger. Mr. Caputo was expected.

That meeting didn’t go nearly as well as lunch with Cathy.

Caputo slapped Ben’s tax plan on the desk. “The loopholes you found aren’t enough. Not nearly enough. Why report all my income? I got enough problems without forking money over to Washington.”

“Well, I don’t know, Mr. Caputo. There’s ways to reduce your taxes and there’s ways to get into trouble.”

“You remember what I said I’d pay you?”

“Yes, I do. You said ten thousand dollars a year. That’s a lot of money, Mr. Caputo. I’m not sure—”

“How much would make you sure? Twelve thousand? Fourteen?”

“No, now, come on, Mr. Caputo. Maybe you need some other kind of accountant.”

“You think about it. When I come back, I’ll want your answer.”

Fourteen thousand dollars a year! Ten, even, would make marrying Cathy and starting life together possible—no, perfect. Ben tapped out a thinking rhythm with his pencil.


September approached, and posters appeared advertising a forthcoming talk by famous alumnus James M. Stewart, ’32, sponsored by the University drama club. “Public invited.”

Here was his chance to put Cathy’s embarrassing fantasy to rest. He couldn’t be Jimmy Stewart, sitting next to her in the audience and watching the real one on stage. But as the date of the lecture approached, he hesitated to mention it. It was a harmless delusion, and did she truly believe it? She’d introduced him to her parents as Ben, and that’s what they called him.

“So I’m Ben now,” he said that night as they walked home arm-in-arm.

“You don’t think they’d let me go out with a movie star, do you? I couldn’t tell them that.”

Once again, his mischievous side won out. “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules, if behind them they didn’t have a little ordinary everyday human kindness,” he said. “In this case, helping us be together.”

She sighed. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My favorite. One of them.”

The light of the streetlamp, hidden among the sycamores, barely lit the walk up to her house.

“I’m going to your lecture next Wednesday,” she said. “All the girls in my office are going. We’ve got our tickets.”

Increasingly nervous about the lecture, he’d decided not to go with her. Maybe he wouldn’t go at all. The likelihood of disastrous disillusionment was too high. “Are you sure that’s wise? What if you don’t like the guy? Where does that leave me?”

At the top of the steps, he embraced her, and all five feet two inches of her strained upward toward him. “But I do like you. A lot.” As she said this, someone inside switched on the porch light. They kissed anyway.

The rest of the weekend was agony. What did she really believe? Whatever it was, it was bound to come to a crashing conclusion. He’d lose her, just as he was realizing how desperately he wanted her. “It can’t be anything like love, can it?” he asked himself, Philadelphia Story-style.


On Wednesday, Ben closed his office at two and walked across campus to the lecture hall where his alter ego—or was it his nemesis?—was scheduled to speak. A crowd already filled most of the seats, and he saw Cathy and her friends about halfway down. He’d thought about joining them, but instead leaned against a pillar and tried to distract himself by reading the newspaper.

After a hushed moment, the most famous member of Princeton’s Class of 1932 strode onto the stage. In his homey drawl, he charmed the audience. They applauded, they cheered, Cathy and her friends were on their feet. It was over. People streamed up the aisle past him, talking and laughing.

He hid behind the newspaper again as Cathy and her friends approached. Someone called to her. “Cathy, what did you think?”

“He was great!” she said, “But he’s not my Jimmy.”


Mr. Caputo came to the office at five, and Ben handed him a neat stack of papers. “Here’s the tax plan I worked out for you,” he said.

Caputo skipped to the end and looked up, fuming. “This isn’t what I asked for!”

“These strategies are all legitimate.”

“It’s not what I asked for.”

“So you’re asking me to lie and cheat?”

“If you say so.”

“And you’ll pay me well to do it too.”

“Ten thousand a year.”

“I just want to be clear about all that.” Ben imagined himself looking in the mirror again, but it was Jimmy Stewart looking back. Jimmy Stewart as Tom Destry, Jr. Big dented hat, drooping neckerchief, six-pointed sheriff’s star. He let Tom Destry speak for him: “You know what I have to say to your offer, Mr. Caputo? ‘Nobody’s gonna set themselves up above the law around here, understand?’ You go to hell.”


This story was published in U.S. 1, Summer Fiction Issue, July 27, 2016.

Glimmer Train – Spring/Summer 2016

Glimmer Train, literary magazines

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Literary magazines that publish short stories are an easy way to get a taste of a new writer’s work without committing to an entire novel. As a person who still actually pays for books–authors need to eat, too!–I know reading is a commitment of both time and money.

I’ve subscribed to Glimmer Train since (I think) its first issue and, four times a year, it brings me first-rate fiction, mostly by authors previously unknown to me. Quite a few of the stories in the current issue were by authors from other cultures, emigres, exploring dislocation, distance, fitting in, or not. Nine of the 16 stories are written in the first person. This does not mean they are memoir. Their authors used the first-person device to get to the heart of the story, closer and quicker, not having a novel’s 85,000 additional words to do so.

Here are just three stories I particularly enjoyed in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue:

  • Eric Thompson’s “The King of India” is a man simultaneously obsessed with Elvis and the fate of his new son. (Do South Asians have a particular affinity for Elvis, I wonder, recalling the recurrent image in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things? Or is it that “The King” is universal?) Poignant and funny.
  • “Waterside” by Marni Berger, captivated me with its opening epigram from Anne of Green Gables. It’s about an adolescent friendship between a boy and girl, how the world is seen through the friend’s eyes, and the shell of not-caring adolescents affect. It’s about what matters. The narrator, who buries herself in books, says: “Stories are shelters to hide inside, and you can hide inside someone else’s story to escape your own.” Which of us hasn’t been there?
  • The story “The Tune” by Siamak Vossoughi humorously probes issues of connection through the tale of an American who calls her Iranian friend in San Francisco and hands the phone to the Iranian cab driver she’s just met in Chicago. Surely, they will have things to talk about, she believes. Life, for instance. What the two strangers don’t say to each other is as revealing as what they do. Vossoughi’s book Better Than War won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

And, I learned a new word: scordatura. It means tuning a stringed instrument (a lute, a violin) a little differently, in order to produce a particular effect. Christa Romanosky used it in her story “Every Shape That the Moon Makes” in this nice sentence: “Moods come and go as quickly as rock falls, as a scordatura, moods your ring cannot discern.”

Explore the riches Glimmer Train and other literary publications offer. Find them in your big box book store’s magazine section, library, or online. Feel free to tell me and our readers what you discover!

***Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May & June 2016


photo: Brady Wahl, creative commons license

The first mystery when dealing with “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is, what’s the name of this publication stuffed with short stories, anyway? The cover says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but the website calls it Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Best just to do what the cognoscenti do and call it EQMM and be done. Always a treasure-trove for mystery lovers, it’s in its 75th year, and all year long is publishing celebratory content.

The International Issue

The May issue is devoted to stories from international authors. Some of those I enjoyed most were:

  • “The Scarecrow’s Revenge” by Paul Halter (France) – this story is copyright 2016, but reads as if it is a Golden Age classic—in style, plot, and theme. Deadly fun.
  • “The Miracle on Christmas Eve” by Szu-Yen Lin (Taiwan) – a sweet story about a widowed father’s determination to preserve the myth of Santa Claus for his young son.
  • “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems” by Helene Tursten (Sweden) – you shouldn’t underestimate the determination of an old lady to cling to her apartment, in Scandinavia, as elsewhere!

Other stories are from Argentina (Jorge Luis Borges), Angola, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Belgium and prove, in case proof were needed, that mystery is a universal language.

Mystery Writers of America Issue

In the June issue, the editors pay their respects to the Mystery Writers of America and feature new stories from authors who have won at least one of MWA’s several awards. Again, many riches to choose among, with special appreciation from me of:

  • “Puncher’s Chance” by Doug Allyn, who is not only an MWA winner but a frequent and highly popular author in EQMM. This was one of the best of his I’ve read. He captured the boxing world and the psychology of fighters superbly.
  • “The Unit” by T.J. MacGregor, whose 2002 novel Out of Sight won an Edgar Allen Poe award. I love how her website confesses upfront that her publisher advised her to use initials, not her name (Trish) because, and she quotes, “mysteries by men or androgynous people [think JK Rowling] were outselling mysteries by women”!
  • “The Night Watchman’s Wife” by William Dylan Powell. I’ve read a previous story about boat-dwelling, Lone Star-swilling, unlicensed Texas private investigator Billie and his pet monkey Ringo. Ringo is a charmer. Billie, too. Funny & fun.

Subscribe to EQMM with the link below or find single-issues in the magazine section of your local B&N.

Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock

Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Late last year author David Griffith wrote a timely essay in The Paris Review about Flannery O’Connor’s infrequently anthologized short story, “The Displaced Person.”* He was inspired to do so by the ongoing political debates over immigration. First published as a short story in 1955, the story was made into a tv movie with John Housman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Irene Worth in 1977.

O’Connor generally avoided stories that tried to make a particular point about social issues. Topical writing can sink unpleasantly into polemics or become outdated. Think about the reservations people now have about The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the McCarthy era witch hunts. Griffith says O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” is another exception. (It’s the unforgettable tale of the mother who gets on the bus wearing her distinctive hat.) It manages both to avoid lecturing the reader as well as remaining relevant, as the bigotry it lampoons has not disappeared and constantly shifts to new targets. As have suspicion and resentment of “the displaced.”

More important, says Griffith, “To be topical, (O’Connor) thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts.” We hear that in the current campaign as well. Idealistic, pie-in-the-sky proposals from politicians that have not a wisp of a chance to become anyone’s reality. When we think about the desperate parents of Guatemala, who were willing to part with their beloved children and send them impossibly far away to the United States to keep them safe (only to find they weren’t welcome here), the difficulty of transforming greedy hearts is abundantly clear.

Griffith, like other students of O’Connor’s works, would argue that in fact many of her characters are displaced persons—if not literally, he says, then figuratively: “morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both.” And their displacement comes from their inability to love their neighbor. One way Griffith describes displacement is being “without a community to care for you” and, I’d add, “to care about.” The loss of caring community certainly describes the situation facing migrants all over the world today. They did not ask for their home countries—their caring communities—to become disastrous, murderous places.

“The Displaced Person,” Griffith concludes,“carries a dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.” The character in this post-World War II story has been displaced through the intolerance and hatred spawned by the Third Reich. Yet O’Connor does not refer to the war itself, but instead focuses “on the long shadow cast by this kind of evil,” a shadow that at the time of her writing extended all the way to Milledgeville, Georgia, and that in 2016 is deepening across our beloved country.

*If you search for “The Displaced Person full text,” the Gordon State College link has it as a rather funky pdf.

Fall Books Already Creating Buzz

The remainder of 2015 is shaping up beautifully for readers of literary fiction. Lists of forthcoming novels by well-known—as well as new—authors promise a rich season ahead and delightful holiday giving.

Flood of Fire, Amitav GhoshThe Millions has a lengthy list of these, and I’ve picked out just few novels, one book of short stories, and one biography:

  • Flood of Fire: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy) by Amitav Ghosh – about the first Opium War. I enjoyed his Sea of Poppies, first in this trilogy and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and The Atlantic Monthly calls him “a writer of supreme skill and intelligence.”
  • Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson – a collection of six stories, which I would definitely read having found his Pulitzer-winning The Orphan Master’s Son so powerful.
  • The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood – winner of the Man Booker in 2000. Her new book is about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free.”
  • Fates and Furies, Lauren GroffFates and Furies: A Novel by Lauren Groff – delves into the symbolism of Greek mythology to fully plumb the mysteries of a couple’s marriage. Read the opening sex-on-the-beach scene to find out how it all started. Her story “Ghosts and Empties” appeared in the 7-20-15 issue of The New Yorker.
  • Slade House: A Novel by David Mitchell – I’ve read five of his previous novels and enjoyed them all. Slade House began as a story in tweets.
  • Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. If you know her from public radio’s This American Life, you know how funny and smart her social commentary is.
  • The Daughters: A Novel by Adrienne Celt—this “virtuosic debut” is “a gorgeous, riveting story about family, mythology, and curses,” says Book Riot.
  • The Big Green Tent: A Novel by Ludmila Ulitskaya – Russia’s most popular novelist describes what tThe Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskayahe USSR was like in the 1950s and has become “a voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians,” said Masha Gessen’s review in The New Yorker. Sounds dangerous.

Also coming soon are books by an impressive phalanx of well-known writers, including Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Patti Smith, Orhan Pamuk, Jane Smiley, Umberto Eco, Oscar Hijeulos (posthumously), and Marilynne Robinson.