Thanks, Ellery Queen!

As always, the Jan-Feb issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is packed with good reading. Here are some of the standout stories for me:

“The Killing of Henry Davenport” by John Shen Yen Nee and S.J. Rozan – Admittedly, this story, set in London in 1924, was bound to be a hit with me, as it involves both Sherlock Holmes and my favorite detective, Dee Goong An (hearkening back to a real-life personage from the Tang Dynasty). Holmes, Watson, Dee, and the narrator, Lao She (another real-life character), set out to solve an English murder in which a Chinese man stands accused. The story is a foretaste of a new project Rozan is working on that fans (me!) eagerly await.

“The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow” by Sean McCluskey – It’s always fun to see a nicely crafted story in the mag’s Department of First Stories. A hint of more good stuff to come. And I’m easily seduced by a con job where the question of who’s being conned is up for grabs. Nice!

“The Bowser Boys Are Back in Town” by Hal Charles – You can expect some humor in a story that begins, “Like a loud rooster, the bomb in Beverly Dezarn Memorial Park awoke the entire town of Woodhole . . .” The bad-luck Bowser duo is on what turns out to be an all-too-brief (for them) return home from jail, but it looks like they’re headed back to the slammer.

“Can the Cat Catch the Rat” by Steve Hockensmith – This is another in his entertaining series about Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, tyro detectives in an Old West where the frequent shenanigans offers steady employment. The surprise in this episode is that Old Red has finally agreed to let Big Red teach him to read. However, identifying the counterfeit coins someone’s producing requires nothing more than a healthy set of teeth.

Read these and more good stories in EQMM. Subscribe here!

Tales of the Red River of the North

Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything That Rises Must Converge comes to mind whenever life brings seemingly random stuff together around a common theme. It happens all the time. Recently, I’ve read two books about the same patch of land on the Red River of the North, which forms most of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, then flows into Canada (pictured). You can’t even say that I gravitated to these geographically linked books out of personal interest—one was a pick of my book club and the other a gift. Both by prize-winning authors; both great.

The mystery Murder on the Red River, first of a series of three by Marcie R. Rendon, features 19-year-old Cash Blackbear who lives alone in Fargo, North Dakota, and drives trucks for local farmers. Her lifestyle choices leave room for improvement: too much beer, lots of cigarettes. She earns extra money playing competitive pool, often with her romantic partner, a married man. Playing pool isn’t destructive, per se, of course, but being out late at night in honky-tonk bars where the pool-playing events are held does expose Cash to certain dangers.

When she was a child, she fell under the watchful eye of Sheriff Wheaton, who can recognize an at-risk kid when he sees one. They are still friends. He thinks she’s the smartest person he knows and she has intuition so strong, it produces visions. When an Indian man turns up dead in a field, she helps the sheriff investigate, and an engrossing story is launched.

Multiple award-winner Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence is wonderfully rich and evocative, not only of the cultural background and nuanced relationship of her main characters Tookie, an Ojibwe tribe member, and her husband Pollux, a Potawatomi. The ways—big and small—that they integrate tribal teachings with their present lives is fascinating. At the book’s outset, Tookie commits a crime that takes her to prison (one of the meanings of the book’s title), and the first chapter begins, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” With that juxtaposition of unlikely elements, you just have to keep reading!

The dictionary was sent to her by a former teacher, and when Tookie’s sentence is commuted, the teacher hires her to work in her bookstore. (Erdrich herself owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books). This story takes place in Minneapolis, with the occasional reference to Red River places and people—all very fresh in my mind, thanks to Marcie Rendon.

The bookstore’s most annoying customer dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, and the story takes place over the following year, one full of incident. In the wider world, there’s the pandemic, with employees having to figure out how to work, how to keep the business going, even how to live, in the face of that upheaval. A couple of months in, George Floyd is murdered, and social isolation seems not the right way to go, when conscience urges people onto the streets. Aggressive police tactics have affective the Indian community too, as the bookstore employees are quick to point out.

Tookie’s own life has its complications. The dead customer haunts the store, especially her. The staff try any number of stratagems to persuade the poor woman to go. Will they ever get rid of her? At the other end of the life cycle, Pollux’s daughter has come home, bringing her baby, and Tookie is smitten.

It’s a lovely book, and one where my interest never flagged. Can recommend this Red River excursion to whole-heartedly.

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The Narrator

The new Audible Original crime thriller, The Narrator by KL Slater, makes sly meta-fiction use of the audio medium. Two narrators—Clare Corbett and Kristin Atherton—read the story of Philippa Roberts, best-selling author of nine novels about police detective Jane Tower, and Eve Hewitt, the woman who has brought all nine novels to audio life. In an early chapter you learn that Philippa has disappeared—apparently kidnapped, but no ransom demand has been received. The publishing world is alight with rumors.

Ten months later, the attitudes of her agent, her editor, and the head of the publishing company—Harris-Lasson—toward the disappearance provide a mostly cynical look at the competing agendas in the publishing industry. The only person who seems to have Philippa’s best interests at heart is Eve, the narrator. While you may find some of these characters a little over-the-top (the agent, especially), their actions support the notion of a cutthroat industry in which, maybe, the worst actually has happened.

When Philippa’s wife Fleur discovers the manuscript for a tenth Jane Tower thriller hidden in their attic, Harris-Lasson, to a person, is overjoyed. The high-profile mystery surrounding Philippa’s fate will undoubtedly rocket sales of the new book to stratospheric heights. And, the publisher wants Eve, who has always been the voice of the Jane Tower books, to narrate. She’s overjoyed as well, with a chance to relaunch her career.

Eve is sent an original copy of the new book and has begun to read it. She is rather surprised to find it deviates from previous characterizations of Jane and the minutia of her backstory. In the recording studio, she’s given a different copy, and some of the more blatant discrepancies have been fixed. She’s asked to delete the original from her computer and not to tell anyone about the editing that was necessary—a red flag if there ever was one.

It doesn’t take long for Eve to wonder whether the still-missing Philippa was making these awkward errors because she’s trying to send a message. Perhaps even a clue to where Philippa is? A casual reader might miss it, but not someone like Eve.

Eve will try to find out. She begins to ask unwelcome questions. It turns out quite a few people might want to do Philippa harm. And Eve too, apparently. Author Slater deftly expands the list of possible suspects—a super-fan, former friends, former spouses, even Fleur herself—leaving you wondering whether anyone actually liked Philippa. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe so many of these people would actually talk to Eve about the author and their thoughts on her disappearance.

If you’re tempted to rank the suspects most likely to have targeted Philippa, the ones most likely to be targeting Eve are not quite the same. This mismatch deepens the story’s mysteries and heightens its tension. The ending seems a bit of a rush, with a hint of What Just Happened? But on the whole, the plot is strong, with well-placed clues and nicely developed red herrings.

Narrators Corbett and Atherton handle the voices of their respective characters well, across genders and ages. There’s no difficulty distinguishing among the key characters, and the story moves along briskly. If it were a print novel, it would be a page-turner, packing a lot into a little over eight hours! Well worth a listen.

Order here from Amazon.

“The Ring of Truth”

My short story protagonist Brianna Yamato—newly minted reporter for The Sweetwater Register, the fictional newspaper of Sweetwater, Texas—is on the story once again. Her latest exploit, “The Ring of Truth” is published in the August 2022 Mystery Magazine. Previously, she solved a four-person homicide and the death by rattlesnake bite of a wind-turbine repairman who had the makings of a potential boyfriend, but . . .

In this story, Brianna is a volunteer with the local community theater group putting on the comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This is a show my family and I have seen on stage a half-dozen times in various-sized productions—from amateur theater to Broadway (Nathan Lane). And the Zero Mostel movie is a perennial favorite when we need a pick-me-up.

Alas, in the Sweetwater production, the high school senior playing the romantic lead dies one night during rehearsal, and Brianna starts to dig into her story.

Because I’ve written four short stories about Brianna (three published), I have to keep in mind certain details about her world. Since I can’t count on my memory, I created a Word document titled “Facts about the Sweetwater Stories,” which lists the stories in chronological order and when they took place. It has bulleted facts about Brianna, not just her physical description but her way of working (“she tends to let interviewees talk” and “she matches their body language and expressions”), that she lives in a house—not an apartment—with her friend Ruth.

Brianna, being Japanese, tiny (and female) has to hold her own in a sea of big and tall Texas men. They’d love to patronize her, if she’d let them. In several of the stories, she gets comments like “you don’t look like a Brianna” and remarks about immigrants. So I established that her family arrived in California, where she was born and raised, in 1880. Similarly, in the current story, she receives an earful from an interviewee, father of the dead girl who wants her to stop her “medding.” Here’s how she sets him straight.

“You people—” He started to walk away.

“We journalists? Or we twenty-somethings?”

He came back and barked in my face. “You Orientals start your wars, let us settle your hash, then leave your crappy countries and move here, to enjoy everything America offers.”

Oh boy. I said, “My granddad and his brothers served in the US Army in World War II. You’ve heard of the Purple Heart battalion? His youngest brother was killed in Korea. And my dad and uncles fought in Vietnam. What was your unit?” I could hear my editor now.

To break off his death-stare, I said, “Kayla’s friends say nice things about her. I just wondered whether you’d noticed any change, anything unusual, before she died.”

“No. You people saw more of her than we did those last weeks.”

“Oh. We thespians.”

I also keep a list of the businesses she visits—the Triple Joe Café next door to the newspaper, the Southside Grill with its homestyle cooking and the names of its friendly servers, the Egg ‘n’ Oink where Brianna likes to track down police chief Hank Childers while he’s having his Sunday brunch.

When I was a kid, I had family who lived in Sweetwater and visited them every year. The picture in my mind of the community is no doubt vastly different from what the town is today. I read the newspaper online when I’m working on a story to bring myself forward a few decades. But the rattlesnakes are the same.

Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

Gods of Deception

Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)

I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”

At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).

These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.

One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.

In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.

On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.

All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.

Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

Order The Quarter Storm here from Amazon
Or here from an independent bookseller.

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.

A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Where Stories Come From: Outside and In

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” which is not a question with a straightforward answer. So many facts, ideas, memories, glimpses, pet peeves, dreams, loves, and outrages weave themselves into a story, the truthful answer would be “everywhere.” For people who aren’t writers and haven’t engaged with the word-collage building that is storywriting, that is not an insightful or satisfactory answer. Certainly, it gives no aid to the questioner whose unspoken follow-up may be “and how can I do it?”

I’ve identified the seeds of two of my recent stories. One was prompted by an external source and the other, by my own experience. Being a great believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to put things together, I confess these are only the influences I’m aware of!

“Saving the Indiana Dae”

Published in issue #10 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, along with works by my friends and writing acquaintances Steve Liskow, Barb Goffman, and Liz Zelvin, with seven others I look forward to meeting. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who buys and refurbishes a permanently beached ship in Cape May, N.J., turning it into a quirky vacation cottage. Stunning. But then the trouble starts. Is the ship haunted? Is he losing his grip?

The long-ago origin of this story was a John Gardner writing prompt my writers’ group worked on. It asked us to plot a ghost story with certain elements. We had such fun with this cooperative exercise that we all went home and wrote the story, each one very different, but involving a vacation cottage, Cape May, a crusty 1800s sea captain, and (for two of us, a very fowl-mouthed parrot [sorry about the pun]). The eventual story in BCMM takes off from that early effort, though the hero has considerably more agency, and the existence of the ghost is still in question. I suppose the message is, whatever fires your engine, let it rip!

“A Hungarian Christmas”

If you’re familiar with the hilarious books about Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel you may remember how she was always angling to get herself a present. In this story, published in the Mystery Magazine December issue, along with works from several fellow-members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the unsuspecting Bert and his fiancée Veronika are anticipating the holidays. She’s helpfully explained to him that, as a Hungarian, she should be given a special present on December 6, Hungarian Christmas. (This is a scam that actually works, don’t ask me how I know.) Maybe it was taking the Zoom class on precious gems last year that inspired it, or the several notable jewel robberies I’d read about recently, but Bert decides his special gift should be something from Tiffany’s. As you can predict, mayhem ensues.

I set the story in northern New Jersey, close to Manhattan, but not in it, so that the scale of the police presence and Bert and Veronika’s living arrangements wouldn’t present word-count busting logistical difficulties. Because I believe most complicated problems/investigations benefit from a team approach, I gave her a loving family—older brothers defending her and Bert’s interests.

To quote a lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the late Stephen Sondheim, “And a happy ending of course.” Hey, it’s the holidays.

For Your Bookshelf

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (I still don’t understand some of this one.)