Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – Nov/Dec 2020

Santa Claus, reading

What fun to review this issue of “the world’s leading mystery magazine” and have the chance to reexamine its amazingly diverse stories, in numerous sub- and maybe even sub- sub- genres. In this issue there’s a nice mix of brand new and newish authors, as well as some of today’s best writers of crime and mystery fiction.

Picking favorites is hard, but these stories particularly struck me.

“Killer Instinct” by Doug Allyn—a perennial reader favorite. Not only is his story set in my home town, Detroit, his first sentence made me laugh out loud. It’s perfect for EQMM: “The traffic was murder.”

“My People” by Liza Cody – Her protagonist, an undercover London cop, is participating in a huge protest about climate change, sussing out the demonstrators’ intentions. They welcome her; her fellow police are dismissive. As a result, she engages in an entertaining mental back-and-forth about which group is “her people.”

“The Man from Scotland Yard Dances Salsa” by John Lantigua. His Miami-based Cuban private eye is always interesting. Once again, he cleverly negotiates that tropical world of people with lots of dough and the bad guys who want to grab some of it.

“The Cards You’re Dealt” by Michael Z. Lewin – satisfying comeuppance of a full-of-himself police lieutenant, aided by some smart detective work and a sharp boy and his bike.

“The Man at the Window” by Pat Black—an intriguing police procedural about a dead mom, suspiciously swinging neighbors, and a tidy three-year-old.

Photo: Creative Commons License

Story Endings – Part Two

ending, finish, party

Last week Washington Post book critic Ron Charles’s recent essay about book endings that disappoint was reviewed on this website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by this account. Says Post editor Stephanie Merry, his essay let loose a torrent of reader comments that aired “their personal grievances about the endings that still haunt them.” The result, she says, was a funny, eclectic, and, not surprisingly often contradictory view of how we want our books to conclude. She reports on that outpouring here.

According to Merry, there was “nearly universal agreement on a handful of books.” Perhaps readers were reminded of these loathed conclusions by Charles’s post, as the comments repeat many of the examples he highlighted. A “top contender for worst ending” was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. After all the clever and powerful twisting back and forth between Nick and Amy, the consensus seems to be that it’s just too weak. Another popularly unpopular ending was that of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I think I read that years ago, but maybe I just remember Rene Zellweger.

In contrast to Gone Girl, in which the ending just flopped, the disappointment with Cold Mountain seems to be a case in which readers didn’t like the ending the writer chose (my problem with Tess of the D’Urbervilles). People have been saying the same about Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina for generations It’s almost as if we readers are saying, don’t make us care about these characters so much unless you plan to keep them alive long enough for a sequel!

As one reader (Javachip) wrote more eloquently, “There’s a difference between endings that crush you with their sadness or horribleness but still work, and indeed you hate them because they work, (he cites examples), vs. endings that feel like a cheat.” (Emphasis added.) In that category he puts Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—the first of hers I ever read, years ago—and I do not remember the ending at all. Must not have made much of an impression. At least it didn’t make me mad.

A surprising number of readers confess to reading the end first. “I always enjoy a journey more if I [don’t] have to worry about where I am going,” said Post reader Alison Cartwright. Something I would never do, would you?

And then there were the contrarian readers who suggested nominees for best ending, including The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad. Lopezgirl5 is a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s ending for Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That might make a good first line for a certain kind of story, as well.

Photo: pixel2013 for Pixabay

Coming to a Bad End

End, Finish

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles recently wrote about his reluctance to spoil the endings of the books he reviews, yet worried about “the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion.” It’s a conundrum for him, because endings are so critical to what readers come away with. I know many many fellow readers who adored Where the Crawdads Sing all the way up to the last pages, because they believe the ending (whatever it is; my lips are sealed) wasn’t true to the character. Put me in that camp too.

There’s lots of reasons not to like an ending, and a disconnect with the rest of the book is a good one. Critics and critical readers didn’t like the ending to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, because it felt too manipulative and artificially tidy. One of my favorite classics is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I hate the ending—not because it betrays the character, not because it doesn’t ring true, but simply because I don’t want it to end that way. No surprise, then, that in all my many repeat viewings of West Side Story, I’ve sat through the last half-hour in a state of increasing anxiety, hoping against hope that Chino won’t step out and shoot Tony at the end (Oops! Spoiler alert).

Wishing the ending the author chose were something different isn’t exactly the same as disliking the ending that was chosen. In the first case, the problem is internal to the reader and, in the second, it may be with the author.

Charles reports on an analysis by online retailer OnBuy.com of GoodReads reviews to identify the “Books with the Most Disappointing Endings.” Their methodology, he says, “feels a bit dubious,” but, nevertheless, here are the top five: Romeo and Juliet (you want it to end differently), Atonement (too neat), Requiem by Lauren Oliver (don’t know it), and The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (don’t know it either). Two Harry Potter books are on the list: “Deathly Hallows” at spot 9 and “Half-Blood Prince” at spot 11. Weaknesses, if there be them, haven’t hurt sales, though. “Half-Blood Prince” sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours and “Deathly Hallows” 8.3 million—before most readers got to their questionable endings, I’d wager

Here are the contradictory assessments readers provide about the endings they hate: they’re too rushed (that deadline is looming; wrap this baby up!) or too drawn out (enough already; The Goldfinch is a prime offender here); they’re too surprising (surprising? If no groundwork is laid, sure, but if it is . . . don’t we like plots with a twist?) or too predictable (thrillers, especially, have developed a too well-worn plot groove). And here, Charles notes, other readers bedsides me lament the fate of poor Tess.

Charles’s article prompted hundreds of WashPo readers to comment, “and the result was a funny, eclectic and often contradictory look at how we want our books to conclude,” wrote editor Stephanie Merry. More on that next week.

Photo: Alexas_Fotos for Pixabay.

Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Iditarod

By Sue Henry — To gear up for cold weather, you couldn’t do better than reading Sue Henry’s first Alaska mystery, Murder on the Iditarod Trail. Whatever winter throws at us in the lower 48, compared to the people who race the Iditarod, our situation is positively toasty. First published in 1991, the story won Macavity and Anthony awards. It has aged well and is worth a fresh look.

Pretty much all I knew about the race when I turned the book’s first page is that it is a thousand-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome that you’d have to be near crazy to undertake. For from eight to fifteen days or more, mushers compete through blizzards, white-out conditions, below zero (F) temperatures, and brutal wind-chill. They traverse sea ice, travel through tricky areas that look frozen solid but may not be, and drive on in gale-force winds. There’s little (but mandatory) time to rest for dogs or humans. The fact that many mushers continue to compete year after year means . . . Brrr-r-rrr.

The story begins when the centrifugal force of a sharp turn sends a sleeping musher flyikng from his sled and crashing into a tree. The stub of a broken branch enters his skull. Accidents on the trail are inevitable, but death is not. This was a first, and Sergeant Alex Jensen, an Alaska State Trooper, is called in to investigate. An autopsy reveals the dead man’s coffee had been laced with a powerful barbiturate.

Because Jensen is new to Alaska, he doesn’t know a lot about how the race is run or the single-mindedness of the competitors. Over the next week, he finds out. He begins his inquiries at the Finger Lake Checkpoint, where the high temperature for the day will be a balmy 5˚ F and the low -3˚. There he meets many of the leading mushers and several race officials, people he will encounter repeatedly over the next nine days, as he and his colleagues leapfrog ahead to farther checkpoints.

If that first death unnerved people, a few hours later a sled careens off the trail north of Finger Lake and musher Virginia Kline plunges to her death. The gang-line on her sled snapped, and when Jensen arrives, he observes that the line had been cut nearly through. These apparent murders have occurred near the beginning of the race, when the sled teams are relatively close together, but as the race continues, the teams spread out, the number of people with the opportunity for sabotage shrinks, and the dangers mount.

Henry steers the novel’s tension as deftly as an experienced musher traversing Rainy Pass. On the one hand is the tension of the fiercely competitive race, with mushers determined to win despite the hazards of weather and terrain and exhaustion. On the other hand is the pressure on the investigators to identify the culprit or culprits before more deaths and injuries can take place.

A budding romance between Jensen and musher Jessie Arnold gives her the chance to explain what the race means to participants. This aspect of the story is a bit dated, with Jensen’s patronizing advice she should quit, but Arnold doesn’t let him get away with it. All told, it’s a thrilling adventure.

The Iditarod (the Athabascan name of one of the small villages the race passes through) was never more than of transient interest to me, but Sue Henry brings it to life. In recent years, animal rights groups have objected to the treatment of the dogs, which has resulted in some rules changes. By telling the race’s story so fully, she provides perspective on that issue, as well.

Photo: skeeze for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivers of Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to dwell in backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers want readers to know. Unless you start your book at the very beginning of a character’s life, like David Copperfield’s “I Am Born,” there are relationships and episodes you need to review in order help readers understand who the character is in the today of the novel.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is in his early sixties in 2011, he was in his mid-twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I have done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstration would have been very much top-of-mind to him at a crucial and formative stage of life, with indelible impact.

Rather than take a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch story, The Black Echo, which was so immersive that when the story returned to the present day, I was briefly discombobulated—I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites.

He briefly returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but looking back, in each case, they come to his mind at times he is very much in peril. It must be the intensity of the hazard that resurrects them. For example, late one afternoon, Landis is standing in front of a window in his office, and someone shoots at him from across the street. He reflexively dives to the floor. No standing there, thinking, “What? Where did that come from?”

Some chapters later, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he hearkens back to his Vietnam experiences and the way the Viet Cong would enter hostile territory and contrasts that with his options in the situation he finds himself in. It causes him to reflect on the kind of person he has become. I’m not telling a war story; I’m showing who he is.

Many pages later, when an attack on him and a well-armed colleague is expected—this is now forty years after Vietnam—he asks whether he should have a gun too.
“You done much shooting?” his colleague asks.
“Not since Vietnam.”
“There’s your answer.”

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day and was a part of them. They help me—and the reader too, I hope—see him as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

For how to think about this aspect of his past, I relied on Karl Marlantes’s fine novel, Matterhorn. Marlantes is a Yale alumnus, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as a Marine in Vietnam.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence

By Michael Carter — For every mystery/crime fiction lover, there are books that hit the sweet spot of their special interests. There are the cozies with the knitting patterns and recipes. There are election fraud novels for political junkies. There are the gritty, down and dirty books for people who don’t get enough of that in the daily news. Books featuring computer nerds, financial advisers, art appraisers, cat sitters, on and on.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence, not the first book I’ve read about a math whiz, is an eye-opener. It was inspired by real-life cases in Britain, in which women were convicted of killing their infants based on a really faulty understanding of statistics. Most people—and that apparently includes lawyers and judges and juries—don’t have a good grasp of how statistics work. You might think calculating odds (except, perhaps in horse-racing) is a rather straightforward exercise. Yet, how you calculate them makes all the difference, and the results can fly in the face of “common sense.”

For example, if you toss a coin that comes up heads ten times in a row, you might be inclined to take the bet that you’ll get tails on the next toss. Don’t do it! Unless the coin is faulty, each toss is an independent event and the odds of heads or tails is 50-50 every time. Likewise, you might estimate you’d need a group of at least 100 or even 200 people to make it likely two of them would have the same birthday. You’d be wrong. You only need 23 people to have a 50-50 chance of matching birthdates.

Luckily for the fictional Sarah Richardson, the woman standing trial in Michael Carter’s novel, on her jury is engineer Martin Fielding. Richardson’s two infant sons have died of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the US). Dr. Michael Goodwin, the prosecution’s expert witness, says that, given the relative rarity of cot death (one in every 8,500 births), the odds of losing two children that way are one in 72 million (8,500 x 8,500). “One death is a tragedy; two deaths are murder,” he says. But juror Fielding believes the correct number is more like one in 18 and sets out to prove it.

Set aside for a moment any skepticism that a juror would repeatedly burst out his objections to a witness’s testimony. Then set aside your doubts (perhaps they could be expressed as odds, like one in a thousand) that Fielding would be invited to take over the questioning of Dr. Goodwin. Once you accept those long odds—the outbursts, the cross-examination—the story becomes a delightful takedown of a pompous and dangerous man. A bit of a deep dive into statistics, but . . . it might save someone’s life.

The photo is from a 1990s British courtroom drama series, Kavanagh, QC, starring John Thaw. Excellent entertainment!

The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes

subway station

In my novel about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis, he travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site of a major design project about to break ground. His firm, Landis + Porter, has the commission to design the reconstruction of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of the European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, it faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized?

I selected Schuman station some years ago when I began working on this book and so was shocked when, in the morning of March 22, 2016, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop east of Schuman. This attack was coordinated with two others at the Brussels airport. In all, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured.

The second concern arises from protests at the site, because it will involve the destruction of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier. The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, as a matter of business and despite the personal issues he’s facing, he must deal with both of these dilemmas.

To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little guy in Google maps. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which at that time (2011) was undergoing a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect.

Photo: labwebmaster for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Who Are These Women?

sangria-colored room, andallshallbewell Tumblr page

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart. For me as a writer, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing my first or second draft, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He’s aware of all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the heavy dark curtains, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. The apartment is all straight lines, its walls are pale gray, the furniture has white leather upholstery, and a painting by Joan Miró provides only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie dresses in long knitted skirts, tunics and drapy attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Avoiding Cliché Traps

Superficial inventories (height, hair, eyes, clothing, voice) when a character is first introduced tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re akin to the first impression of someone, and nothing like the rich descriptions and telling details that reflect the real person.

Trying for an intriguing first draft detail, maybe, have you noticed how often authors give a female character green eyes? I am one of the two percent of people worldwide who actually have green eyes, so I notice this. A green-eyed woman has become a bit of a cliché. (One of my characters has them too!) In any case, eye color is not a significant detail. Rarely does a plot depend on the color of a character’s eyes (or hair). Height, maybe.

Some interesting research bears out the prevalence of male and female stereotypes in physical description that, thanks to overuse, no longer connect with readers.

Other posts in this series: Why an Architect?

Photo: andallshallbewell Tumblr page

Listen Up!

earphones

Two more excellent books in audio. One by a new author, the other by one of my favorites. Clicking the title takes you to my Amazon affiliate link.

Miracle Creek

Angie Kim’s debut novel received so many “book of the year” accolades, I acquired it on that basis alone. When I grasped the story-line, I was prepared to be uninterested. Boy, was I wrong! It pulls you deeper and deeper in as the plot twists and turns. Young Yoo and her teenage daughter Mary immigrated to America from South Korea with nothing. Young worked long and hard while her husband stayed in Korea to earn money.

Miracle Creek, Angie Kim

After several years, he does come to the States, distant relatives in the South Korean community provide underwriting so he can buy a Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) chamber and set up a treatment center in Virginia. A sealed HBOT device delivers 100 percent pure oxygen to the people inside and is touted as helpful for a wide variety of  conditions. However, the FDA considers its benefits unproven.

Among Pak’s clients is a group of mothers of children with autism who are convinced HBOT can help. One day, despite all the center’s safety precautions, a tragic fire erupts in the barn where the chamber is housed, killing parent and one child. It’s soon evident the fire was deliberate, and the mother of the dead child is arrested and put on trial. You’ll find everything is far more complicated than it seems. Expertly read by Jennifer Lim.

The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Probably I don’t need to say more than that this intriguing family story was written by Ann Patchett and narrated by Tom Hanks. Maeve and Danny Conroy grew up in the 1960s in a 1922 mansion built by the Van Hoebeek family. Located in the Philadelphia suburbs, the house is filled with extravagant touches, including a gilded ceiling in the dining room.

The children’s mother has abandoned them to go to India, it is said, and they are left mainly in the care of loyal servants. When their father remarries, they have little use for his new wife. She returns their disaffection and exiles them as soon as she can.

The adult Maeve and Danny sit in Maeve’s car outside the Dutch house and try to make sense of how they grew up, what they have lost, and what they have become. The house is a character in the story, the embodiment of lost treasure. Although there is plenty of opportunity for excessive sentimentality in this modern fairy tale, Patchett does not fall prey to it and her characters move briskly through life.