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.)

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

Suburban Dicks

Several times a week, I encounter every gas station, restaurant, and road in this novel. So that feeling of being able to visualize the story’s setting? This was its epitome.

Early one weekday morning, massively pregnant Andrea Stern screeches into a gas station and emerges from her minivan carrying a toddler desperate for a pee. With the mom-urgency of the situation and the distraction of four wailing children inside the vehicle, she’s overlooked the parked police cruiser and the two officers standing around uncertainly. Nor does she initially see the sprawled body of the South Asian station attendant who’s been shot in the head.

The female officer won’t let unlock the restroom for her, because it’s a crime scene, but Andrea, who trained to be an FBI behavioral analyst, four and three-quarters kids ago, instantly sees that the two young patrol officers have already hopelessly compromised the scene. Held out at arms’ length by her mother, the little girl gives in to the inevitable and lets loose. So much for preserving evidence. Andrea squeezes back into the minivan and speeds away before detectives arrive with lots of questions.

Andrea is famous for solving a difficult serial murder case in New York. She gave up that work, to her lasting regret, to become a suburban mom. She loves her kids but doesn’t romanticize motherhood, and her wry comments about the job are ones any honest parent can identify with. Later the day of the murder, in talking with several South Asian women at the community pool, Andie has an idea about the murder and is determined to investigate.

Disgraced journalist Kenneth Lee arrives at the crime scene to get the story—the first murder in West Windsor Township in decades. He once won a Pulitzer Prize, but several serious judgment errors have moved him down the reportorial food chain, and he now scrapes by, writing for a flaccid weekly newspaper. There’s more to the station attendant’s death, he senses, and this story excites him as nothing has in years. He too is determined to investigate.

Andie and Kenny meet up on the steps of the police station. They knew each other in school, but have lost touch. While their motives and approaches are vastly different, they have one belief in common: the police are lying. But why?

Author Fabian Nicieza does an admirable job describing the social dynamics of this multicultural area of New Jersey. He tells the story with great good humor, sometimes at the expense of one ethnic group or another. In the acknowledgements, Nicieza thanks his multicultural reading group for advising him about the cultural portrayals in the book and for “understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Nicieza grew up in New York City and New Jersey. For decades he worked in the comic book industry. He co-created the character Deadpool, who has appeared in three X-men films, and after a lengthy stint at Marvel, he’s done work for almost all the major comics companies. This is his first novel and one you may find supremely entertaining.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

Fireworks from Ellery Queen

The July-August 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is once again filled with dazzling stories, 19 of them. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Elvie Simons’s “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” shows how a tidbit of arcane knowledge can grow into a full-fledged plot. Engaging characters too.

Richard Helms’s “Sweeps Week” provides strong characterizations, then rewards with some old-fashioned retribution.

Jon L. Breen’s “The Body in the Bee Library,” wryly humorous, provides satisfying comeuppance.

Dave Zeltserman always makes me smile, even before I start reading. His characters Julius Katz and his cyber-assistant Archie delight once again in “Julius Katz and the Two Cousins.”

Barbara Allan’s “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” takes you to San Diego Comic-Con, and you can witness the attendees’ shenanigans without donning your Spiderman costume.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Bone Marrow Donor” is only three pages long, but to me was the darkest story of the lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nonfiction piece she has written about her own husband’s last day in our local hospital and imagining how that colored this story, even subconsciously. As I remember what she wrote, she received an urgent call to come to the hospital, and, of course, she drove there pell-mell, pulled to the curb on one of the nearby residential streets, and rushed inside. The staff had been right. The end was very near. When she’d signed all the paperwork, she walked to her car in a daze and found this awkwardly spelled note on her windshield: “Learn to park, bich.”

Beyond the Headlines

RG Belsky’s Clare Carlson series may technically fit in the ‘amateur detective’ category, because Clare is a New York City television news director, not a police officer or FBI agent, but her skill at getting to the truth doesn’t take a back seat to anyone’s. There may be delays, detours, and false starts, but she gets there.

In Belsky’s latest book, his fourth in the Clare Carlson series, she’s again not content to assign the big story of the day to her reporters, she’s on the case herself. Clare’s best friend tips her off that mega-celebrity and Vietnamese immigrant Laurie Bateman wants to divorce her wealthy older husband, Charles Hollister. Bateman wants Clare to tell her story on-air.

This is shocking news, because the couple maintains a super-happy public image, but when Clare arrives at the Batemans’ apartment building, the street is filled with police. Hollister is dead, and Bateman is accused of killing him. Clare witnesses her would-be interviewee driven away in a squad car. Still, the murder is breaking news, and she has the story first.

Turns out, quite a few people might have wanted Hollister dead: his son, who believes himself short-changed in his father’s will, disgruntled business people he’s trodden upon, his mistress, her jealous husband. The police and prosecutor are not interested in any of these possibilities. They have the wife in a Riker’s Island cell, and tunnel vision keeps them focused on her. When Clare finally does get to speak with Bateman, the woman maintains her innocence.

When Clare’s interview with Bateman is televised, it opens a floodgate of public support, just as cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. Before long, Bateman is a free woman again and credits Clare with getting her out of jail. It was a big story, rewarding even, but Clare starts to have doubts. Had she just managed to set a murderer free?

The puzzle aspects of this book are nicely intriguing, and Belsky writes with a lot of narrative energy and humor. He also writes with authenticity and conviction on various aspects of the news business and about his Manhattan setting. The new well of experience he draws on for this book is his military experience in Vietnam, before the war began its slow wind-down.

When investigating a crime, Clare leads with her strength, conducting smart interviews. Her news stories are not police procedurals, and there’s not a lot of attention to CSI-type details. However, here, I thought some gaps needed filling. There was such a rush to arrest Laurie, why no gunshot residue test on her and her clothing? When it appears the killer may have had access to the apartment the evening before the body was found, what had the coroner established as time-of-death? Belsky recognizes this hole and patches it with a throwaway statement about the medical examiner’s uncertainty. Not quite good enough. These are investigative touchstones that Clare, with her experience, would presumably be asking about herself.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the central aspects of the story—the motives and behavior of a long list of iffy characters, each of them having their own secrets—Belsky excels.

Order here from Amazon. Or, Shop your local indie bookstore.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2021

Eighteen stories in this issue, blanketing the gamut of mystery and crime subgenres. Recently I read 75 short stories published last year for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Awards. Most I hadn’t read previously, but some I recognized immediately as having appeared in EQMM. It’s a testament to the editors of the leading mystery fiction magazines that they select such memorable short fiction!

Among my favorites in this issue:

“The Hidden Places” by Linda Stansberry – A nice barroom tale: “The Open and Shut wasn’t a bar for wine lovers. It was a bar for lawyers who needed to drink.”
“The Case of the Strangled Man” by Steven Torres – A suspect is strangled to death while sitting alone in a police station interview room, and the cops must investigate each other. A detective and the desk sergeant had “gotten to the part of the interview where it was relevant to ask who was the greatest hitter in baseball history.” LOL
“Frank Scarso Finds His Life” by Doug Crandall – A true feel-good story, as is “Birdman” by Alex Knight. Revenge takes many forms.
“The Bunker” by Herbert De Paepe and translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Great evocation of a bizarre workplace!

And, best of all, this issue contains the news that my editor, Barb Goffman, won the EQMM 2020 Readers’ Award for her “Dear Emily Etiquette.” Barb’s “irrepressibly satirical tale about the modern wedding” appeared in last year’s Sept/Oct issue. I certainly enjoyed that story and, clearly, many other readers did too!

Be sure to check out the issue cover, for a challenge along the lines of “what’s wrong with this picture?” I see at least three mysterious and deadly references.

Murder on the Island

By Daisy White – If you like to be in on the very beginning of a new cozy mystery series, you should know that Murder on the Island is billed as the first book in the Chloe Canton Mystery Series. At Chloe’s 50th birthday dinner, her husband of some years announced he was leaving her. Impeccable timing.

Soon thereafter, she learned her grandmother had died and left her the house and horse stables she owned in Bermuda. The timing of that is pretty spot-on, too, as Chloe definitely needed a fresh start. The story begins on the airplane ride taking her from the UK to her new life.

Thirty-some years earlier, Chloe spent time in Bermuda with her grandmother and the beautiful island is still somewhat familiar. But still, it holds surprises. Not all of them pleasant. On an early-morning trail ride, she discovers a dead body on her property. The victim turns out to be an up-and-coming artist showing at a gallery in town. Chloe is a bit of a busybody—ok, more than a bit—and, as the investigation seemingly bogs down, starts asking questions herself. Always a risky proposition.

Is her curiosity the reason for her escalating troubles? There’s a break-in at her home, rampant rumors her business is going under, and the horsenapping of a palomino scheduled for a high-profile photo shoot. Or, are other stable owners on the island concerned she’ll be too successful? Or, does someone want her to leave Bermuda altogether? Author White has an easy writing style that keeps the story pinballing among these possibilities with alacrity.

Helping Chloe sort out her increasingly fraught situation, as well as trying to assure that she stays safe are her jovial neighbor, her conscientious stable manager, and a detective from the local police—her age, handsome, and widowed. Romance is definitely on the turquoise horizon.

Chloe takes oddly unnecessary risks, as heroines in the cozy genre do, and you may be puzzled as to why she’s thinking whatever she’s thinking at a particular moment. And, while you may not be surprised at the whodunnit solution, getting there is definitely a pleasant ride. One of the strongest features of the book is author White’s depiction of Bermuda. She became acquainted with the island in real life while working as a flight attendant, and her descriptions are so lush and vivid, this book is like a vacation between covers.

Order here from Amazon or support independent bookstores by ordering here from IndieBound.

The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.