Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2017

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Beginning this year, EQMM—a prominent short story publisher with a 75-year history—began publishing six times a year. The issues are longer than the former single-month editions, and the policy was instituted undoubtedly to save mailing costs. I hope this doesn’t mean an eventual reduction in the number of stories EQMM publishes, because outlets for mystery/crime short stories are severely limited.

Judging by the quality of the May-June 2017 issue, there’s no shortage of entertaining content out there. Here are some of the stories I liked best:

  • “Charcoal and Cherry,” by Zoe Z. Dean, in which an amateur sleuth teams up with a retired police detective to unravel a cold-case murder.
  • “Rosalie Marx is Missing,” by Robert S. Levinson. A pair of amateur Las Vegas sleuths find a missing granddaughter. Lively banter.
  • “Find and Replace,” by Marjorie Eccles, an increasingly hilarious (and suspicious) exchange of letters between a homeowner and a newspaper’s gardening expert.
  • “Your Name Will Be Written in Lights,” by Jonathan Moore, author of last year’s excellent The Poison Artist. A show girl puts on the performance of her life.
  • “In the Time of the Voodoo,” by John Lantigua, high-tension effort to protect a Miami immigrant from her past and the Tonton Macoute.
  • “Angel Face,” by M.C. Lee, attention to detail may exonerate a wrongly convicted death row prisoner, in Florida, “a state where the statue of Blind Justice would be better suited standing in front of a Whac-A-Mole machine.”

Libraries and big box bookstores carry EQMM, or subscribe! Available in print and for the Kindle.

Books by some of the authors highlighted above:

Richard Gere: Two Ways Cinematically

Norman

Richard GereFull title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.

The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.

When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.

Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%; audiences 70%.

The Dinner

Richard Gere - The DinnerI have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.

Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.

Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 51%; audiences, 18%.

When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

*****The Lesser Bohemians

london-theater

photo: Andy Roberts, creative commons license

By Eimear McBride — You’ll have trouble with this book. I did. About page 40, I wondered, “is she ever going to write in complete sentences?” About page 90, I thought, “is it ever going to be about anything but sex?” The answer to both these questions was “almost never.” But The Lesser Bohemians is much more than a literary 50 Shades. And I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Ireland native McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and many, many other accolades for her 2013 book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and when I saw she’d written another one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

In Bohemians, released last month, an 18-year-old Irish girl—a drama student in London—meets  meets an older man, a handsome actor near 40. She isn’t a virgin much longer. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cigarettes, a lot of alcohol. We don’t even learn these characters’ names until very far along. He’s Stephen, he calls her Eily. Her full name, her real name, Eílís, is used only once, two pages from the end, when their identity is finally clear to each other and themselves, perhaps. Their urgent and scouring intimacy is McBride’s way of flaying any falseness from the characters and laying them (literally) bare.

The story approaches somewhat closer to a conventional first-person narrative (sentences!) in the second half, in a long section in which Stephen tells her about his past, a true heart-breaker there. Most of it is written in almost a stream-of-consciousness way, and McBride is often compared to James Joyce for that reason. Conversations are presented in long paragraphs, uninterrupted by such reader-aids as quotation marks, but once I got into it, I didn’t have much trouble following.

Emphasizing the difficulty of it risks underpraising how mesmerizing it is. McBride’s approach forces you to slow down and really absorb what’s being said, as she fractures the rules of punctuation and grammar. As NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn said, “By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense—even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.” Or love, I’d add.  A sample:

On that said Saturday, she (Eily’s friend) helps me move into the (friend’s ex-boyfriend’s) flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The I hope you’re proud of yourself, ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. I think I’ll blank him, she decides. Fair enough, I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. I pity you, he’s such an–. Keep it down, I live here now. I bet he shags you before the term is out. I wouldn’t.

Conventionally, this would be handled something like this:

On that said Saturday, she helps me move into the flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road.
“I think I’ll blank him,” she decides.
“Fair enough,” I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up.
“I pity you, he’s such an–.”
“Keep it down, I live here now.”
“I bet he shags you before the term is out.”
“I wouldn’t.”

The Lesser Bohemians is an unforgettable book about two characters I came to really care about. I can picture their lives and prospects and I appreciate an author who doesn’t believe she has to make my job as a reader too easy.

Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett, Israel

Ronit Elkabetz and cast in Gett.

The Israeli movie Gett (trailer) is the story of Viviane Amsalem and her five-year struggle to obtain a divorce (gett) through Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical courts. The only roadblock: her husband says “no,” and under Jewish religious law, a divorce cannot be granted unless the husband agrees. The entire movie takes place in the courtroom and just outside it, as witnesses come and go and the couple and their lawyers face off, in confrontations that rapidly switch between absurdity and tragedy.

This may sound as if there’s not much action, but there is plenty going on emotionally. Except for the lawyers’ confrontations, much of the power of the film comes from the way feelings simmer (mostly) below the surface, through the outstanding performances by the wife (played by Ronit Elkabetz) and husband (Simon Abkarian). He is torturing her in front of the three rabbis who serve as judges, who alternately don’t see it, don’t acknowledge it, and don’t act when they do. This also makes the film a cautionary tale about the difficulties of male-dominated religious courts, intent on shoring up a patriarchic system and oblivious to individual and women’s rights.

Not surprisingly, in real life, Israel’s rabbinic judges claim the movie misrepresents them, which, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz says, “misses the underlying point: that the rabbinical courts will not approve a divorce unless the man agrees to it,” citing a 2013 survey that one in three women seeking divorce in Israel is “subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.” The term for these truly “desperate housewives” is “chained women.”

Lest you think the problems of chained women are confined to the Jewish State, in 2013 in New York, criminal prosecutions resulted when rabbis kidnapped and tortured several estranged husbands to persuade them to approve their divorces. (Although the United States regulates marriage, divorce, and remarriage through the secular laws, for these proceedings to be religiously recognized, Orthodox Jews must also have them approved in rabbinical courts.)

Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi directed the film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% positive ratings (47 critics), and audience approval was 87%.

Wild Tales

Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Érica Rivas in Wild Tales

This 2015 Argentinian film (trailer), directed by Damián Szifron, is a collection of six unconnected short stories, with both comic and catastrophic elements and carrying the tagline “we can all lose control.” The six very different stories describe “how I would extract my revenge if only I had the nerve.”

The excellent ensemble cast keeps the unexpected happening . . . as people go to the surreal brink of absurdity and tragedy—and keep going. They carry out the vengeful urges we all feel in moments of betrayal, in flashes of road rage, facing overwhelming temptation, or confronting mindless bureaucracy.

The first very short tale involves a casual conversation between two airplane passengers, strangers to each other, who happen to discover they both know a would-be musician named G– Pasternak. One is a woman who once broke up with him and the other, a classical music critic who savaged Pasternak’s early work. A passenger sitting in front of them turns around, saying, “Pasternak?” She was his elementary school teacher, and says he certainly had problems. After a few more people who’ve wronged poor Pasternak pipe up, the music critic stands and asks, “Is there anybody on this plane who does not know Pasternak? And who paid for their own ticket?” There is not. I leave the rest to your imagination. And his.

The funniest story involves an explosives expert trying to reason with the local parking authority, and one of the most satisfying has a bride take her revenge on the groom who cheated on her. It’s a wedding no one will ever forget! Said Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, “While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world.”

Be sure to catch the opening credits, where the names of key cast and production crew members are shown with photos of wild animals reflecting on their personas. The director, I noted, was a fox.

An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film last year, this is one of those rare movies where Rotten Tomatoes critics and audiences are in perfect agreement: 93%.

What Color Is It?

color, green

Emerald, Pantone’s 2013 “color of the year” (ijokhio, flickr.com, CC license)

The role of color in the creative process is one of those backgroundy things that no one really thinks about, and writers, filmmakers, artists, and fashionistas either get so right that the decisions involved seem invisible or perhaps intuitive, or so distractingly wrong that we forget that, somewhere along the line, a choice was involved.

Smart use of color hasn’t escaped web designers, either (some, of course, are beyond redemption; I’m thinking of those black backgrounds with tiny red and yellow type that mystery sites seem to favor). Most interested in color are designers of commercial sites that want you to “convert,” not in the religious, but in the wallet-opening sense. Their advisors cite data suggesting color is “85% of the reason you purchased a specific product.” And isn’t that just about the first question you ask when a friend buys a new car?

So, you might want to pay attention to these designers’ approach. Though brown is great in some contexts, research says women like blue, purple, and green (yes!) and not gray, brown and orange. Men like blue, green, and black, but not brown, orange, or purple. No red for anybody.

People designing brochures and adverts and a new color scheme for the living room might find some new thoughts in this infographic on color theory from designmantic. It includes the basic “meanings” attributed to each color and how colors can be combined successfully, for those throw pillows and whatnot.

Next time you look at a web page you particularly like, take a sec to see whether it’s because the color is just that exactly right shade of trustworthy blue. Thank you, Facebook.

P.S. Pantone’s “color of the year” for 2015 is Marsala, which the color company calls an earthy wine red that “enriches our minds, bodies and souls.” Looks like brown to me.

color, brown

(Frank Daugaard, flickr.com, CC license)

 

Concrete Images: Emotional Impact

wasp

(photo: Serena Epstein, Creative Commons)

Author John Thornton Williams, writing a recent Glimmer Train essay about his strategy for connecting readers with characters, touches on “one of the most important accomplishments of fiction” and one of the trickiest. Certainly writers receive plenty of advice not to come right out and say, “Mary was angry that Bethany was flirting with Ben” or “Dan felt sad when his dog died.” First of all, those feelings are pure obvious, given the situation, and second, naming a feeling doesn’t make the reader feel it.

An alternative, which Williams terms “a lengthy expository digression into the psyche of a character, perhaps accompanied by physical cues,” like “his stomach was in a knot, his throat was on fire,” he says, “generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story at hand.” It distracts him from the narrative, rather than immersing him in it. Or, as Donald Maass says, in Writing 21st Century Fiction, “when you supply everything readers are supposed to feel, they may wind up feeling little at all.”

Williams makes a third choice, especially for a story’s crisis moments, when emotions run highest and, often, at cross-purposes. He calls this approach “indirection of image.” To accomplish this, he takes into account how his characters would see a situation, based on their emotional state. “Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted,” he says.

His example recalls a favorite exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.” This exercise is many times harder than it might appear, and it’s perfect practice for the “indirection of image” approach Williams recommends.

Indirection of image, he says, “is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete.” This actually expresses our lived experience. How many times has a car or a piece of furniture or a particular shirt become more significant in our minds because of its symbolic association with a whole range of emotions, beyond what we can tease out and easily express? Our childhood home. The ghastly color of its bathroom tile. The relentless ticking of the mantelpiece clock. A dead wasp.

By giving readers space to project their own emotions into the situation, by leaving a little ambiguity, readers can experience the emotion on a level that connects with their own experience, Williams says. They can, in other words, get inside the character. Here’s a link to one of his stories.