My Book: Agent Brantley and Me
Scott Nicholson

nicholson_scottScott Nicholson talks to the Feds

I’m fortunate as a journalist to meet a wide array of people, and I’ve found they love to talk about their professions. Most are willing to help when they hear I am a writer, though I usually get a fairly sanitized version and still must rely heavily on my imagination. But those people provide details, language, and philosophy that you’d never find in a textbook.

I met retired FBI Agent Alan Brantley in 2004 when I did a newspaper story on him. He now operates a consulting business but at one time worked under John Douglas, the noted agent who served as the model for Thomas Harris’s fictional FBI profilers. Brantley interviewed a number of captured killers and endured personal threats and manipulative taunts. He also had field experience and underwent the typical tough training required at Quantico.

At the time I met Brantley, the novel that became They Hunger was not even a grain of sand in the folds of my frontal lobe. But about a year later, I was casting about for an idea for my next book, and wanted to do something set in the remote Southern Appalachians where I live and play.

I came up with a rafting expedition, but I also decid-ed to draw on the FBI manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber who hid away in the mountain wilderness and eluded capture for nearly three years.

A key character in the story is Ace Goodall, undereducated religious militant and abortion clinic bomber. Because of a copycat bombing across the country, my FBI is short on resources, and sends a pair of undervalued agents to the wilderness to follow up on a longshot tip that sets them on Goodall’s trail.

That’s when I started consulting Brantley, first telling him the rough idea and asking his thoughts. He drafted a typical team for such a mission: a piss-and-vinegar “Super SWAT” guy paired with a more bookish but still well-trained new recruit, as well as the process they would use to predict Goodall’s behavior. He also gave me a rundown of the equipment they’d likely carry, including firearms and communications gear. At this point I was hesitant to take up more of his time, but he volunteered to read the parts of the book where the agents appeared.

nicholson_theyhungerWe met at a coffee shop to go over his notes, and I quickly realized he preferred the agents to look polished, heroic, and dignified, which was not what I wanted. In fact, one of the richer elements of the story is the crack-up of the veteran agent, who becomes as delusional as the killer he is chasing.

Most fascinating was when Brantley upbraided me for using certain phrases. “Your agent cusses too much,” he said, though I noticed he worked a few expletives into our conversation. He edited my “clusterfuck” to the preferred nomenclature of “boondoggle.” Interestingly, he claimed that “agents refer to headquarters as ‘HQ’ or simply ‘headquarters,’” but later on, as he relaxed, he called it “the Puzzle Palace in D.C.” Of course, I put that phrase in the book before the coffee was cold!

I needed my characters isolated, unable to punch a radio and call in the cavalry. The FBI has some of the finest equipment in the world, so it took a little creativity to make that happen. Brantley’s advice not only brought this realism to the work, it added an extra plot twist that helps build to the payoff.

In retrospect, I realize he may even have served up the original slumbering seed of the story. In our original newspaper interview he told me that myths of vampires, demons, and werewolves grew from gruesome murders, with people ascribing the deaths to supernatural forces because that was easier to understand. “They couldn’t accept that another human being could do that,” he said.

I’ve never wanted to be an FBI agent, as admirable as those agents are. Thanks to Alan Brantley, I got the benefit of 30 years’ experience for the price of a few phone calls. He’s the first person listed on the acknowledgements page of They Hunger, and while it’s my name on the cover in big letters, Brantley and hundreds of other people have shaped and informed my worldview. They play no small part in bringing my stories to life.

They Hunger by Scott Nicholson (Pinnacle Books, April 2007, $6.99)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 22:38:26

Scott Nicholson talks to the Feds

My Book: Cowboys and Idiots
Steve Hockensmith

hockensmith_steveSteve Hockensmith

“Write what you know,” they say. Which has always led me to suspect that they—whoever “they” are—are idiots. It’s hard to write what you know if, like me, you don’t really know much of anything.

Star Trek trivia. The Green Lantern oath. How to make a killer pot of chili. It’s hardly Pulitzer material. If I followed “their” advice, I’d be writing books about a thirtysomething slob whose most exciting life experience so far has been sitting in the same row as Larry “Bud” Melman at a 1989 screening of Great Balls of Fire!

So instead I write about cowboys.

Before I dreamed up crime-busting drovers Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer (the heroes of my mystery/Western novels Holmes on the Range and On the Wrong Track), everything I knew about cowboys I’d picked up from either movies or commercials for Time-Life Books’ Old West collection. And, of course, most of what I “learned” from them wasn’t even true. (In real life, anyone who rode into a cattle town dressed like Gene Autry would immediately find himself riding right back out—on a rail. And as it turns out, John Wesley Hardin wasn’t so mean he once shot a man just for snoring. The guy was breaking into Hardin’s room at the time, which is awfully hard to do when asleep.)

Yet there was one thing I truly did know about cowboys when I decided to write about them: I liked them. I always had, thanks to both a father and grandfather with an insatiable appetite for B Westerns. Forget Sesame Street. I was raised on The Rifleman and Roy Rogers matinee filler.

Between 1970 and 1977, my mom never had to even ask me what I wanted to be for Halloween. She just had to buy a bigger cowboy outfit. (A very un-PC “hobo” get-up finally broke the cowboy streak in 1978. After that, I always opted for the classic Teenage Boy Who Puts on a Cheap Plastic Mask and Calls It a Costume So He Can Scam Free Candy Off the Neighbors Even Though He’s Really Much Too Old for This Sort of Thing.)

So even though I knew next to nothing about authentic cowboy life when Big Red and Old Red first lassoed my imagination, I was willing to learn. Today, my shelves are lined with books about the Old West, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours pouring over cowboy journals, biographies, and old photographs.

hockensmith_onthewrongtrackYet I still can’t saddle a horse or tie a diamond hitch or brand a steer. I never wear a Stetson or cowboy boots or leather chaps. I never refer to friends as “pardner” and I don’t chew tobacco or use words like “vamoose,” “tarnation,” “flapdoodle,” or even plain old “ain’t.”

I am not a cowboy.

But after writing two novels and several short stories about the Amlingmeyers, I feel like I do know cowboys. Two of them, anyway. My cowboys—my characters. And that’s what that mysterious, bossy, idiotic “they” ought to be talking about. Knowledge is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s not going to get you through to a finished draft of a 90,000-word novel. Only passion can do that.

So it’s not “Write what you know.” It’s “Write what you’d like to know about.” Or, to put it a bit more cynically, “Write what you can research and think about and wrestle with for months upon months upon months without losing your freakin’ mind!”

Or, to be utterly uncynical about it, write what you love.

And that ain’t no flapdoodle, pardner.

Steve Hockensmith’s On the Wrong Track ($23.95), released by St. Martin’s Minotaur

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.

Teri Duerr
2012-02-29 22:57:41

Steve Hockensmith

Cara Black
Tom Nolan

black_cara-credit-laura-skayhanFrancophile Cara Black writes popular police procedurals starring a young Parisian detective Aimée Leduc. The newest Leduc novel is Murder at the Lanterne Rouge (March 2012). Mystery Scene caught up with Black in this 2010 profile.


Photo: Laura Skayhan


In the popular mystery books written by San Francisco author Cara Black, a twenty-something Parisian detective named Aimée Leduc disinters dark deeds of decades past to find clues to 1990s events.

It’s also possible, somewhat in the style of Aimée Leduc, to trace the beginnings of Cara Black’s Paris-oriented career to events in the youth of a girl born in Chicago and raised in Northern California.

When Cara Black was growing up in the Bay Area, her father, a sales manager (“He could sell anything,” his daughter says) was an avid Francophile: “He’d make us watch that Jacques Tati film [Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday] countless times,” she remembers. Later, Black’s father joined with friends to found a winery. As a teen, Cara attended a Catholic school where nuns spoke and taught archaic French. And Cara had an uncle who’d studied art in Paris under the GI Bill with Georges Braque (until, according to family lore, he had the temerity to ask that great painter to turn up the heat in his frigid studio).

“My parents weren’t stereotypical, at least my dad wasn’t,” Cara Black says. “I always felt there was a bigger world than where we lived in a California suburb. And maybe that kind of opened my eyes.”

The culturally aware Cara grew up a constant reader, with Charlotte Brontë and Oscar Wilde among her favorite authors. At 16, she fell in love with Promise at Dawn, a book by contemporary French novelist Romain Gary, and wrote its author a fan letter which his American publisher forwarded. Gary sent back a thank-you note which included his Paris address: 108 Rue du Bac.

les_deux_magots_cr_robyn_leeMeanwhile, Cara’s father, who had read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a one-time Paris resident), had become a fan of detective fiction, especially the works of Dick Francis and P.D. James. “You ought to try one,” he told his daughter. But Cara had other interests.

After junior college, she embarked on several years’ travel: working in Switzerland, studying in Japan, visiting France.

Café Les Deux Magots, Paris. Photo: Robyn Lee.

She was 19 the first time she went to Paris, she says: “We slept under the bridge, you know; it was the days when you were hitchhiking around … I went to 108 Rue du Bac, Monsieur Gary’s address, and went inside the building. It was just incredible—these stairs that went up, this red carpet, the stained-glass window. Here I am in jeans, and I knock on the door and there he was: very handsome man, very charismatic…this black hair…blue-turquoise eyes, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do I know you?’”

The novelist took his young visitor to the corner café, where he ordered for her what he ordered himself. “So I had my first cigar, and my first espresso with Romain Gary!” Black recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be a writer in Paris….’”

She started keeping a journal—but lost it. “I was too much into living,” she says now. “I always thinking, ‘Some day I’m going to write this down,’ and—nothing.”

Done with world wandering, Cara returned to Northern California, graduated from San Francisco State, became a preschool teacher, married a bookseller—then returned to Paris in 1984 to visit an old friend.

cafe_angelina_parisThe woman took Cara to the Marais district, where sagging, soot-stained 17th-century buildings surrounded them. “We walked into this narrow street,” Black says, “and it opened up—and we were in the Place des Vosges…this arcaded 17th-century square. There was grass, and fountains gurgling, and pitted stone—and I felt, in this strange way, that I was back home.”

Her friend wanted to show her something else: They walked to a street where the signs were in Hebrew and Yiddish. “She pointed to an apartment upstairs and said, ‘That’s where my mother lived during the German occupation, during World War II. She was Jewish, and she was 14, and one day, 1943, she came home from school and her apartment was empty; none of her family was there.’”

The building’s concierge said she didn’t know where the girl’s parents and siblings had gone, but she fed and helped the girl, who lived there alone for the last year of the war—after which she learned her family had died in Auschwitz.

“I heard this story,” says Black, who isn’t Jewish, “and I thought, ‘Fourteen years old! What would that be like?’ I never really forgot that.”

Another decade passed. Cara and her husband became parents of a son. The Blacks returned to France for a month in Provence. The country was changing. Its past was catching up with its present; old sins from the war period were being acknowledged.

On the eve of their return to San Francisco, Cara and family stayed in Paris for one night—in the Marais. “I was back in that Place des Vosges,” she says, “and this time the moonlight was hitting the stone, and that whole story came back to me. And I thought...what if I had lived during that time? What if I had a young son? What if I had to put food on his table? Just what would it be like?”

france_1939_stampCara’s past was catching up to her too: After all these years, she wanted to create—to tell this story that moved her. But how? She’d never made good on her vow to write fiction and at this late date didn’t think she could. And yet—

“I’d started reading mystery novels,” she says. “I was reading a lot of P.D. James. And I thought, ‘Well, her books are novels; sure, there’s crime, and murder—but there’s also psychological depth, and social comment.’”

Back home in the Bay Area, she attended mystery writing conferences at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Corte Madera, where professionals including Judy Greber (aka Jillian Roberts), Marilyn Wallace, and Carolyn Wheat encouraged her fledgling efforts. “People offered really constructive criticism,” she says. “You know, I was a young mother; but when I was away for these four days, I was—a writer. I could talk [about] my ideas and was taken for real, do you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t just a dream.”

But there was much to learn: how to shape dialogue, set a scene, maintain tone. Cara joined a Berkeley writing group and worked three and a half years on her book, which featured a young, half-French, computer-savvy investigator named Aimée in the early 1990s: the time when Cara herself began revisiting and researching Paris.

Some people in that city were willing to speak with her, she says, and some would not. “I got the whole gamut,” Cara remembers, “...because I wasn’t published, I had no credentials. It’s really taken a long time to form connections, but you know in France it’s about who you know, and whose brother’s uncle’s son-in-law knew this thing. And a lot of it [involves] introductions: they’re very traditional. But I persisted. At that time, before we had email, I had to write letters—in this archaic French—to meet people and set up appointments.”

Her persistence paid off. In ensuing trips (Black now visits Paris twice a year), she’s made and maintained many French contacts, from people in the upper reaches of government to folks who love to explore underground sewers. During her most recent stay, she says, “I got to visit the crime-scene unit at the Quai des Orfèvres: you know, where [Georges Simenon’s fictional] Inspector Maigret had his office? That was fascinating; I spent four hours there. And that was again through a connection of a connection; and it took six months. But they were very nice and really helpful.”

paris_mosaic_smallBack in 1999, without benefit of agent, Cara Black sold her book Murder in the Marais to Soho Press, a firm specializing in mystery fiction set in foreign countries.

She’d fulfilled her youthful promise to write a book; now she thought her work was done. But her Soho editor surprised her: “[She] said, ‘Well, where’s Aimée going next?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, where’s the next book gonna be set?’”

“How about Belleville?” the new author blurted, naming the Parisian district where she’d often stayed at a friend’s apartment.

So, this time in much less than three and a half years, Murder in Belleville was written and published—and after that, eight more Aimée Leduc mysteries, each set in a different one of Paris’s 20 arrondissements, all taking place in the 1990s. The just-published Murder in the Palais Royal has Aimée dealing with criminal acts stemming from old events in Murder in the Marais.

Cara’s found no shortage of crimes for Aimée to investigate in those turbulent ’90s. “I was really intrigued by how France was changing,” she remembers of that period. “Joining the EU, and these secrets coming up after the war. [The President of France, Jacques] Chirac gave the speech in ’95, where he actually apologized and admitted France had maybe done some things wrong during the Occupation. So a lot of things were hidden, but they were starting to come out. I was hearing lots of stories.

black_murderatlanternerouge"I had met this man who was in the Ministry of Interior, a man who’s wracked by guilt, and he started talking to me and telling me about what he had to do for his job—which was to kick out illegal immigrants who were on a hunger strike in a church. He himself had been born in a displaced-persons camp after the war; he was a brilliant guy, but very messed-up psychologically. I started thinking about telling his story, of what he was going through, which I [eventually] fictionalized.”

In learning about such people and events, Black found that her original passion for storytelling somehow “just kept going.” But she isn’t sure when or even whether she’ll bring her heroine into the 21st century, with its more advanced technologies and post-9/11 concerns. “I don’t know; I’m really thinking about what I’m going to do.”

But one gets the sense that so long as Cara and Aimée attend to the past, their future will take care of itself.

A CARA BLACK READING LIST

The Aimée Leduc Investigations
Murder in the Marais, 1999
Murder in Belleville, 2000
Murder in the Sentier, 2002
Murder in the Bastille, 2003
Murder in Clichy, 2005
Murder in Montmartre, 2006
Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis, 2007
Murder in the Rue de Paradis, 2008
Murder in the Latin Quarter, 2009
Murder in the Palais Royal, 2010
Murder in Passy, 2011
Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, March 2012

Tom Nolan is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner) and editor of Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator (Crippen & Landru).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 18:21:39

paris_mosaic_small Francophile Cara Black writes popular police procedurals starring Parisian detective Aimée Leduc.

My Book: Genesis of a Pi
Ed Lynskey

lynskey_edEd Lynskey offers a Frank assessment

I set out to create my PI, Frank Johnson from the imaginary Pelham, Virginia, as a regular guy.

He owns a double-wide trailer because he likes its low upkeep. He drives a pickup truck (good gas mileage). He’s divorced, and a recovering boozer.

PI work, at best, generates an irregular income. Therefore Frank needed a day job. Having once worked for Sam Cummins, the late international arms merchant, I decided to make Frank a gunsmith. But Frank isn’t a gun geek, or nut. It’s just a job he does to keep his bill collectors at bay.

Frank needed cop experience in his background to be a credible PI. For nearly two decades, I’d worked with a guy who’d been an MP, and he had a raft of stories to share on slow afternoons. So I fitted Frank with an MP stint at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I spent some time myself.

I thought I could use Frank’s friends to characterize him, so Gerald Peyton entered the novels. Gerald, ostensibly a bail bond enforcer (aka bounty hunter), is a hulking man always up for some rough fun. When Frank gets jammed up, Gerald is always ready to help.

A new dilemma arose. Given his skimpy bank account, Frank lacks the funds to go chase down the clues. That’s when Robert Gatlin joined Frank’s motley retinue. A billionaire attorney with posh offices in the foxhunt country near Middleburg, the burly Gatlin is on a mission to represent the underdog and downtrodden. Gatlin loves to play to the cameras of Court TV and rub elbows with attendees of A-list parties. Knowing a powerful, well-connected lawyer like Gatlin also allows Frank to escape his various legal scrapes.

lynskey_thebluecheerFrank enjoys his life and friends in Pelham. But he has wanderlust and often grows restless. Fortunately Gatlin can finance Frank’s trips abroad. Traveling allows Frank to interact in different environments and new foreign locales. I never believe Frank can roust out enough crimes and murders in Pelham.

In The Blue Cheer he’s moved to the West Virginia mountains to stay in a log cabin and clashes with a racist cult. Later, he takes on a missing person’s case by flying to Turkey in Troglodytes (Mundania Press, 2008). Frank had once been stationed at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey so he knows the lay of the land. In fact, Frank’s overseas assignments grant him a certain worldly knowledge, so that he doesn’t feel ill at ease when outside his hometown.

Frank has no immediate family. A drunken driver killed his parents in an auto accident when he was a kid. One distant cousin goes to jail in The Blue Cheer. A different cousin is murdered in the upcoming book Pelham Fell Here. I doubt if he’ll age much. He’s content to hang suspended in that grand bachelor’s age of his early thirties. Who wouldn’t?

The Blue Cheer by Ed Lynskey (Point Blank, February 2007, $26.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 21:28:25

Ed Lynskey offers a Frank assessment

My Book: Mister Persistence
Jack Getze

getze_jackJack Getze the call he's been waiting for

Over a woe-is-me, three-martini lunch 20 years ago, a pal and fellow disgruntled stockbroker told me a tale that became the basis for my debut novel, Big Numbers.

A half-eaten olive spat from my mouth even before I heard the punch line. “Say that again?”

“Jim was a stock-jockey like the rest of us, living hand-to-mouth, until his richest client died,” my pal said. “One week after the client’s funeral, Jim started dating the rich new widow.”

I picked up my errant and twice-bitten green olive.

“And Jim married her?”

“Yup,” my friend said.

Bottoms up on my third martini. “That sounds like a novel.”

“A noir tale of greed.”

Maybe it was the times. The mid-1980s celebrated renewed and sharp economic growth, even greed in my opinion. Or maybe it was just my own greed, my desire to escape the dismally frustrating and soulfully repugnant stock and bond trade. Dialing for dollars, we used to call it. Income based solely on commissions. Believe me, avarice gets nurtured daily when you watch your salary go back to zero every month.

“God, that really sounds like a novel,” I said again five minutes later. I imagined movies with famous redheads, a handsome young star as hero. Piles of cash. Boats. Stolen securities.

“You should write it,” my friend said.

Well, I did. In less than a year. I found an agent willing to shop it to publishers, too, but that first version written two decades ago failed to sell in three years of trying. The character was unlikeable, we heard over and over. Greed is not a quality Americans want for their heroes.

I started and finished four other manuscripts over the next two decades, and none sold. I’d reached my lowest point in 30-plus years of total disappointment writing fiction. I’d been working with a new agent for two years, on a thriller, and she declared my latest draft completely awry.

“What were you thinking?” she said.

After she made me stop crying, my agent suggested I pull something old from a drawer and work on that for a while, give the thriller a rest. I eventually recovered, did some thinking, called the agent back, and told her about two or three old projects including the original version of Big Numbers.

getze_bignumbers“I like the one about the stockbroker,” she said.

Some friends call me Mr. Persistence. Almost a dozen unpublished manuscripts. No sale in 38 years. I put aside my thriller and trudged ahead with a rewrite of that old failed mystery, Big Numbers. In two weeks I knew I was onto something special. I couldn’t stop writing. I was making myself laugh in the wee hours of darkness. I couldn’t wait to show the opening to my agent.

When she read the first 30 pages, with its down-and-out protagonist trying to provide for his estranged children, my agent said, “This is funny. This is you. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

Six months later I got the call I’d been waiting for. Hilliard & Harris wanted to publish my novel.

The novel I began to write 20 years earlier over martinis and lurid gossip.

I know what you future mystery novelists are thinking: Holy weak manuscripts, Jack! It better not take me 38 years and 11 freaking novels to break into print.

Trust me, it won’t. For the first 30 of those 38 years, I just wrote my stories. I didn’t read any books or magazines on writing fiction. I didn’t attend workshops or writing seminars. Craft? It wasn’t until I attended Writers Retreat Workshop in 1998 and began to network that I realized that writing fiction requires a set of skills needing study and practice.

If you are a writer, a future mystery novelist, you already know about craft or you wouldn’t be reading Mystery Scene. So don’t worry about those rejections. Just keep going.

You’re way ahead of my schedule.

Jack Getze is a former reporter and stockbroker and the author of Big Numbers (Hilliard and Harris, $28.95, 2007).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 21:47:40

Jack Getze the call he's been waiting for

My Book: Retirement Homes Are Murder
Mike Befeler

befeler_mikeMike Befeler

When I had to relocate my mother and stepfather to a retirement home, I met many interesting characters and experienced, firsthand, the pathos and humor of the aging process. This inspired me to write a murder mystery set in a retirement home. The protagonist, Paul Jacobson, must become an amateur sleuth to clear himself as a murder suspect when he finds a dead body in the trash chute of a retirement home.

My stepfather suffered from short-term memory loss, and I spent three days walking with him from his new room in the retirement home down to the Jacuzzi so that he could remember the path on his own. We had fascinating conversations about his experiences in World War II flying into Burma and eating water-buffalo meat, but he couldn’t remember where he’d put his glasses half an hour before. His favorite saying was, “Getting old isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it sure beats the alternative.”

My initial concept was a relationship story of three widowed men who eat together at a retirement home and three women who eat at a separate table. Each of the three men had aging challenges including short-term memory loss, macular degeneration, and incontinence. It quickly evolved into a murder mystery, and the protagonist had the challenge of solving the murder when he couldn’t remember anything from the day before.

befeler_retirementhomesaremurderThe novel explores the issues of aging in a humorous fashion while demonstrating that octogenarians can still be active and creative, and can experience romance and friendship. Paul develops the means of overcoming his short-term memory problems, including keeping a daily journal and relying on others for help. He enjoys getting to know his precocious 12-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer. She makes suggestions on how to solve the murder, uses the Internet to help her grandfather (he refuses to touch a computer) and secretly reads his journal—including a description of his love life.

As Paul’s snooping and short-term memory loss get him in trouble with the local police, Jennifer and his new friends help him solve an expanding list of crimes. Paul finds romance as he struggles to escape a murderer intent on a repeat performance.

The novel takes place in Hawaii, providing the setting for the climax when Paul, who hates going in the ocean, must face his greatest fear to save his friend and escape the killer.

Retirement Homes Are Murder by Mike Befeler (Five Star Press, January 2007, $25.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-01 22:08:21

Mike Befeler

A Correction From Lawrence Block
Lawrence Blcok

THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST STORY EVER WRITTEN

Before I close this saga of my days at The Scott Meredith Literary Agency, I need to offer a correction. Some months ago I attributed "Rattlesnake Cave," the error-ridden story created as a test for job applicants at Scott Meredith, to the late science fiction writer Lester Del Rey. The byline, transparent enough it would seem, was "Ray D. Lester," and it was common knowledge in the office that Del Rey, an agency client and former employee, had written the piece.

Kate Stine was good enough to point me to an interview Ed Gorman had done with Stephen Marlowe, shortly before Marlowe's death; in it, Marlowe claimed authorship of "Rattlesnake Cave." Did I want to amend my column accordingly?

No, I said. I was sure it was Del Rey, everyone had always known it was Del Rey, and I'd had enough experience with people misremembering the remote past to believe Marlowe had done just that.

Stephen MarloweSo the piece stayed as I wrote it, and when it appeared my friend Barry Malzberg (who knows more about the workings and history of that agency than anyone else ever did, not excepting Scott) put me straight. Steve Marlowe did indeed write it, and the byline was his way of giving Del Rey one in the eye.

I stand corrected. And it may seem a small point, but the damn story has been read by thousands upon thousands of people, including many leading lights of the publishing world. Might as well get it right!

-- excerpted from "The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III," in Mystery Scene 2012 Winter Issue #123.

Brian Skupin
2012-03-08 21:51:31

THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORST STORY EVER WRITTEN

Before I close this saga of my days at The Scott Meredith Literary Agency, I need to offer a correction. Some months ago I attributed "Rattlesnake Cave," the error-ridden story created as a test for job applicants at Scott Meredith, to the late science fiction writer Lester Del Rey. The byline, transparent enough it would seem, was "Ray D. Lester," and it was common knowledge in the office that Del Rey, an agency client and former employee, had written the piece.

Kate Stine was good enough to point me to an interview Ed Gorman had done with Stephen Marlowe, shortly before Marlowe's death; in it, Marlowe claimed authorship of "Rattlesnake Cave." Did I want to amend my column accordingly?

No, I said. I was sure it was Del Rey, everyone had always known it was Del Rey, and I'd had enough experience with people misremembering the remote past to believe Marlowe had done just that.

Stephen MarloweSo the piece stayed as I wrote it, and when it appeared my friend Barry Malzberg (who knows more about the workings and history of that agency than anyone else ever did, not excepting Scott) put me straight. Steve Marlowe did indeed write it, and the byline was his way of giving Del Rey one in the eye.

I stand corrected. And it may seem a small point, but the damn story has been read by thousands upon thousands of people, including many leading lights of the publishing world. Might as well get it right!

-- excerpted from "The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III," in Mystery Scene 2012 Winter Issue #123.

My Book: Dead Head
Allen Wyler

wyler_allenAllen Wyler

From a very young age, when other kids wanted to be firemen or policemen, I wanted to become a physician—a family practitioner, no less. By my second year of medical school I realized that my temperament narrowed my choices tremendously. I felt more comfortable trying to be intensely good at a few things rather than pretty good at a lot of things. Given that, I decided whatever I did, I would specialize. By then my interest in the nervous system made everything else pale in comparison, giving me only three choices: neurology, neurosurgery, or psychiatry.

Once again my choice was dictated by my personality. I am action oriented. Like most surgeons, I like to meet problems straight on, treat them, and then move on. The choice was clear: neurosurgery. This personality trait is probably one of the reasons I’m also drawn to thrillers.

What I try to do is bring the reader into the OR to see neurosurgery from a realistic point of view. Several readers have asked if the situations and characters in my first book, Deadly Errors, were based on my own experiences. The answer is: absolutely.

One day during a dreary meeting, I started thinking, what might be the consequence if a hacker was able to penetrate a hospital’s computer system? Better yet, what if a hospital’s software was really flawed and no one knew about it?

This idea turned out to be the kernel for the plot of Deadly Errors.

wyler_deadheadThe kernel for my new book, Dead Head, came about in an entirely different way. I was in New York, returning to the Flatiron building after a delightful lunch with my editor when she offered, “Have you considered writing a story about keeping a severed head alive? If anyone could write that one, it’d be you.”

Strange idea, I thought. But, one that had the potential to be a “high concept.” Immediately, I flashed on The Tomorrow File, a 1973 novel by Lawrence Sanders—his only attempt at science fiction—before his very successful Deadly Sin series. Re-reading it 32 years later, I was shocked at how off the mark some of his technology predictions were, though they seemed plausible at the time. One of the issues he never addressed scientifically was how the detached head—devoid of lungs to drive the vocal cords—could communicate.

Then I remembered a couple of scientific publications by a neurosurgeon in Cleveland in which he described his attempts to transplant animal heads with the ultimate goal of using this as a way of treating patients with high quadriplegia (never mind where he might obtain the donor bodies).

As I dug further, I discovered that in 1987 the United States awarded patent number 4,666,425 to inventor Chet Flemming, for a device “which provides a physical and biochemical support for an animal’s head which has been ‘discorporated’ (i.e., severed from its body).” I downloaded the patent off the Internet. It made for some interesting reading.

I put these gruesome facts together with a reason for keeping a human head alive—for the information in its brain—and that combination gave me Dead Head.

Dead Head by Allen Wyler (Forge, Feb. 2007, $7.99)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 20:04:21

Allen Wyler

My Book: Homicide 69
Sam Reaves

reaves_sam_smallSam Reaves' detective wears no flowers in his hair

It is the summer of 1969, not the best of times for Chicago homicide detective Michael Dooley. With a son in the Marines in Vietnam, a marriage going sour, and an ever-expanding case load, he’s got plenty to forget when he drinks. A mobster’s girlfriend is brutally murdered and Dooley’s suspicion that this is more than a sex killing takes him into the deep waters of corruption and mob intrigue. The hallucinatory last year of the '60s plays out in the background as Dooley refuses to give up on a case nobody wants solved.

Homicide 69 is a big book, the longest I’ve written and the product of a lot of research. It is also a “prequel” to my last novel, Dooley’s Back. That book was written as a stand-alone. I had absolutely no intention of writing a series, but I did give Frank Dooley a family, which was a first for me. I’d always written about alienated loners, but this was a homecoming story that cried out for a family. Years ago I had an Irish-American girlfriend who was from a big extended family of Chicago police officers. Thus, when I started writing a book about a Chicago cop, he naturally became Irish and had a family with other cops in it. As I worked on Dooley’s Back, the family aspect started to take on more importance, and eventually I knew I was just going to have to write more about them.

reaves_homicide69Then, when the 30-year anniversaries of things like the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Woodstock started coming up, I started thinking about what a strange year 1969 had been, and got an idea for a novel, a sort of cops-and-mobsters epic set against the background of all the wacky things that were happening back then. And there were the Dooleys, just waiting for me. So in Homicide 69 we see Frank as a 15-year-old kid, while his brother Kevin is offstage in Vietnam, and their father Mike Dooley is the hero of the book. I’d like to do a whole series about the family, covering the years between 1969 and the present. It would be a cop series but also a kind of panoramic view of Chicago life over those decades.

In writing Homicide 69, I worked closely with John DiMaggio, a retired Chicago police officer who served on the department from the '50s through the '80s. John provided me with reams of material and vetted the chapters as they were written, insuring that the novel provides an accurate picture of the day-to-day life of a Chicago homicide dick in the late '60s. I also consulted with experts on organized crime, including Arthur Bilek, a Chicago law enforcement legend who made his reputation fighting the Outfit in the '60s and knew several of the figures portrayed in the novel personally. While the particular premise which drives the plot is fictional, the depiction of the power struggle in the post-Giancana Outfit is accurate.

My hope is that it all makes for a good novel about a man and his family and a city on the brink of big changes. 1969 was the high-water mark of the Vietnam war and of mob influence in Chicago, the end of our innocence and the beginning of the rest of our lives. In Homicide 69 I’ve tried to convey a little of the lunatic quality of the times in a story of an old-fashioned honest cop at work.

Homicide 69 by Sam Reaves (Carroll & Graf, January 2007, $26.95)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 20:32:03

Sam Reaves' detective wears no flowers in his hair

My Book: Climb Every Mountain...and Building, Too
Twist Phelan

phelan_twistTwist Phelan between a rock and a hard place


Writers often go to great lengths for research—that’s my excuse for how I was almost arrested last summer.

In my legal-themed Pinnacle Peak mysteries, each book features a different sport. For me, part of the fun is actually experiencing the sport I write about. For Heir Apparent, I learned to team rope and entered a rodeo. For Family Claims, I rode my bike from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast in less than a month.

Rock climbing fit the plot perfectly for my third book, Spurred Ambition. More specifically, bouldering—climbing without special gear, except for a chalk bag and climbing shoes. For safety’s sake, a crash pad—a six-by-four-foot chunk of foam—is left on the ground below.

I didn’t think learning to rock climb would be that difficult. After all, since retiring from trial law to travel and write, I’d mastered a number of other athletic endeavors: Ironman triathlons, outrigger canoe paddling, distance cycling, and skate-ski marathons, to name a few.

But that was before I learned about my fear of heights. And that I get vertigo, and readily pass out when I’m upside down.

I wanted to start out on a real mountain, not in a climbing gym. However, it was winter and I was in training at the Olympic cross-country ski course in Alberta, Canada. All the nearby mountains were many feet deep in snow. But my ski coach pointed out that Banff National Park is considered among the world’s best ice-climbing sites.

That’s how, 10 days later, I came to be hanging over a fissure in the ice, holding on for dear life, frozen by the weather (minus 20 Celsius) and fear. It was so cold that whenever my eyes watered, my lashes would freeze together. My fingers had gone past tingling to numb, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt my toes.

My instructor had chosen a route up a frozen waterfall. He led the way—turning titanium screws into the ice, attaching carabiners to them, feeding the rope through the protection as he ascended. When he reached a safe stopping point, he would secure himself to the ice. Then it was my turn to tie in and begin climbing on belay. Ice axe in each hand—double-headed pick and hammer in the right and pick and adze in the left, tools that I would have mistaken for butcher’s implements in any other setting—I gradually ascended the vertical column of frozen water.

As we approached the top, the ice became increasingly rotten. Setting a screw, my instructor loosened a frozen sheet, sending it crashing down the mountain and exposing a wide expanse of granite. To continue the climb, we’d have to cross over a crack (a fissure in the ice and rock) to the other side of the waterfall. Luckily, an overhang connected the two sections. But because of the conditions, we would have to transverse the span of ice and rock on its underside.

I watched my instructor move deftly across the bottom side of the overhang. Then it was my turn. I started out confidently. Only a few moves and I’m there, I told myself. Halfway across, the Velcro flap on my vest pocket started to come loose—I heard that r-r-r-r-i-p sound when the toothy side pulls away from the fuzzy side. My camera was inside that pocket, and I didn’t want to lose the only photos of our ascent. So I paused mid-bridge to refasten my pocket f­lap.

What they say about “never look down” is true. One glance, and I was as frozen as the ice around me. Worse, the Velcro continued to separate. The noise grated like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Reach down and fasten the flap, my brain directed.

No way, my right hand said.

By now, my climbing instructor had joined the conversation. “Focus—you can do this. Just reach forward with your right axe.”

Despite the cold, I had broken out in a sweat. My heart pounded loudly in my ears.

R-i-p went the Velcro.

Grab the camera! said my brain.

My right hand still refused to move.

As it always does, gravity eventually prevailed. With a final tearing sound, the pocket flap opened and the camera slid out.

One thousand one, one thousand two… I got all the way to three before I heard the camera hit the bottom of the crack.

That was all it took to render the rest of me as immobile as my right hand—full deer-in-headlights mode. It was another five minutes before my instructor—resorting to hypnosis—could talk me across to the other side.

After relocating to a warmer clime, I moved on to bouldering. The pattern was always the same: I would climb about a dozen feet up a rock face—just high enough so that a fall, even cushioned by a crash pad, knocked the breath out of me and left bruises—before peeling off and starting all over again.

My skills improved, and a friend suggested I try buildering. As the name indicates, buildings are the terrain of choice, rather than rocks or cliffs. Buildering can be done with or without aids—years ago, a guy walked up the World Trade Center with suction cups strapped to his hands and feet. It’s also usually illegal, with trespassing the minimum charge.

A climbing mishap left my friend in an ankle cast. Undeterred, I decided to go ahead on my own. Decked out in climbing clothes—black tights and athletic top—I set out late one afternoon for the neighborhood touted as having the most “rock-like” surfaces.

Leaving behind the orange crash pad—I didn’t want to attract attention—I parked the car and sized up my first assault: a two-story restaurant. Fingertips taped for protection, hands coated with chalk from the bag around my waist, I reached for my first hold. The building was faced with brick, and I made it to the first floor window with ease. Elated with success, I quickly descended, then walked to the next building and tried again.

Structures with rock sidings were the easiest, although ridged concrete worked well, too—I almost reached the second floor on one try. Wood shingles gave me slivers, and metal was out of the question.

After about an hour, my fingers were pretty sore, so I decided to call it a night. I was half a block from my car when a vehicle pulled up alongside. One of the occupants shone a flashlight in my eyes.

“Everything all right, ma’am?”

Seeing the light bar on top, I realized it was a patrol car. What a nice town, I thought. The cops watch out for folks walking alone at night.

“Fine, thanks,” I said, expecting the car to drive away. Instead, it pulled over to the curb and two uniformed policemen got out.

phelan_spurredambition“What’s your name?” asked the first, still shining the flashlight in my eyes.

“Twist Phelan,” I responded, squinting against the glare.

“That a real name or street name?”

Street name? “Um, my real one.”

“Mind if we see some ID?”

The part of me that is a card-carrying member of the ACLU minded a lot, but this was neither the time nor place to make a fuss. Besides, I’d left my purse locked in the trunk of my car.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any with me.”

“Are you out for a walk, or going somewhere in particular?”

I opted for the truth. “Actually, I was buildering.”

Scarcely had I said the words when the cop pushed me against the nearest building, his flashlight digging into my back. After ordering me to assume “the position”—palms flat against the concrete, feet spread—he frisked me, while his partner talked into his radio.

“No ID, no tools on her,” said the first cop.

I was more furious than afraid. “Illegal search and seizure...no probable cause...no warrant..." I rattled off everything I could remember about the Fourth Amendment from law school and watching Law & Order.

“Take it easy, ma’am. We got a call about a burglar in the neighborhood,” said the second cop. “And you did just tell my partner that’s what you were doing.”

Great, I thought. Of all the cops in town, I had to get stopped by two who were hard of hearing.

“I didn’t say burglary. I said buildering.” My neck muscles were starting to cramp from looking over my shoulder, and I turned to face the two cops.

“And that would be...?” asked the second cop.

“Climbing up the outside of buildings.”

He frowned, puzzled.

“I wanted to see if I could climb up high enough to get in a window,” I added helpfully.

From the look on the first cop’s face, I knew he thought I belonged in the back of the patrol car on my way to lock-up.

My frustration got the better of my forbearance. “Oh, come on! Do I look like a burglar?”

The second cop eyeballed my black pants and shirt, my dark climbing shoes.

“Yeah, pretty much. And as far as no probable cause...”

He nodded toward the wall where my hands had been pressed moments earlier. Two perfect white handprints stood out starkly against the dark brick. Then he pointed down the block. Even though it was twilight, I could see telltale chalk marks on half a dozen buildings.

Uh-oh. I started to babble. “I’m a mystery writer, it’s research...”

The first cop rolled his eyes, but his partner surprised me.

“You’re a mystery writer? I liked The Da Vinci Code.”

“Oh,” I said. “Dan Brown’s book.”

The second cop looked at me with interest. “You know him?”

“He comes to some of the meetings,” I lied, praying he wouldn’t ask me which meetings or, worse, if I could get him Mr. Brown’s autograph. I was pretty sure passing off a forged signature as genuine was at least a misdemeanor, if not a low-grade felony.

The first cop still looked skeptical. How could I convince him that I was climbing for fun and not larceny?

“Look, I can prove I’m a mystery writer,” I said. “My car’s around the corner.”

We proceeded to the car and I retrieved my wallet. Removing my driver’s license, punch card for the local rock climbing gym, and Mystery Writers of America membership card, I handed them to the first cop.

He passed my driver’s license to his partner, who proceeded to recite the information into his radio. The first cop glanced at the climbing gym card, but lingered over my MWA card. I wished the logo were something more professional-looking than a caricature of Edgar Allen Poe.

Clicking off the radio, the second cop nodded to his partner and gave me back my driver’s license. After a long moment, the first cop returned the other two cards, and I let out the breath I had been holding.

“Don’t go climbing up any more buildings,” the first cop said gruffly.

“And you better not put this in a book,” said the second cop, but he was smiling.

“I won’t,” I assured him, quickly getting behind the wheel. I wanted to leave before they asked to search my car.

How would I ever explain that copy of Sisters-in-Crime’s Breaking and Entering on my back seat?

Attorney/athlete Twist Phelan’s latest Pinnacle Peak mystery, Spurred Ambition, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in January 2006 ($24.95).

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 21:15:29

Twist Phelan between a rock and a hard place

My Book: a Boy and His Hound
Steve Hockensmith

hockensmith_steveSteve Hockensmith

I know it’s probably coming a bit late to be of any use to you, but here’s a little trick I’ve picked up: It’s easy to fake your way through a book report. And you don’t even need Cliff’s Notes to do it.

I learned that lesson in 1981, when I presented my seventh-grade English class with my musical-comedy reimagining of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. My “report” wasn’t based on Jules Verne’s classic novel (at least I assume it’s a classic—I still haven’t read it) and not even on the 1954 James Mason/Kirk Douglas film adaptation. Instead, it was drawn from the illustrations in a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the book and snippets of the movie’s big squid fight that I caught one night on The Wonderful World of Disney.

I got an A.

So a year later, when I was assigned a book report on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I knew I didn’t have to waste my time actually reading it. I did, though. I already loved Sherlock Holmes.

Growing up I’d noticed that once every other year or so, my father would pull his worn copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes from the shelf and read it cover to cover. This was no Reader’s Digest version, either. It was the entire canon printed in what looked like three-point type and still weighing more than our dog.

Obviously, there had to be something special between those frayed covers to keep drawing my dad back again and again. So eventually I’d picked the book up myself (just barely managing not to herniate myself in the process) and started reading. And kept reading. I never made it cover to cover—but I didn’t forget Holmes or his adventures. How could you?

hockensmith_holmesonarangeI remained a Holmes fan over the years, reading the stories from time to time, enjoying both the Basil Rathbone films and the Jeremy Brett TV adaptations, even developing a soft spot for the corny mess that is Young Sherlock Holmes. Yet even after I became a mystery writer, with stories popping up regularly in both Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines, I had no desire to write about Holmes myself. Frankly, the idea scared me. I couldn’t imagine putting words in The Man’s mouth. It would be like writing a first-person novel about the life of Jesus.

And I still feel that way—which might surprise folks who know I have a Sherlockian novel coming out from St. Martin’s Minotaur this year. But my book, Holmes on the Range, isn’t a pastiche. In it, Holmes is a distant, mythic figure who inspires a couple of very down-to-earth guys—cowboy brothers in 1893 Montana—to try their hand at “deducifyin’.” The great detective himself never appears, except as a topic of discussion.

Could I write a Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle? I don’t think so. But can I write a novel that pays homage to the Holmes canon even though its own style couldn’t be more different? I think I have.

You see, all it requires is a sincere respect for Conan Doyle and a deep affection for his greatest creation. And that, unlike a book report, you can’t fake.

Steve Hockensmith writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Holmes on the Range was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in February 2006, $22.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:00:36

hockensmith_steve"I know it’s probably coming a bit late to be of any use to you, but here’s a little trick I’ve picked up: It’s easy to fake your way through a book report. And you don’t even need Cliff’s Notes to do it."

My Book: Dating Is Murder
Susan McBride

mcbride_susan_smallSusan McBride

Honestly, can you think of a better motive for murder than a broken heart?

Like the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate, and what woman (or man, for that matter) who’s had her feelings trampled hasn’t at least imagined painful ways to torture an ex?

For most crime writers, writing is great therapy. We get to funnel our angst through our prose, and find the closure we never get in real life in the pages of our latest book.

In The Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club, the third Debutante Dropout Mystery featuring society refugee Andy Kendricks and her Chanel-wearing mother Cissy, I get to dip into the frightening world of blind dates, in particular, the upscale matchmaking services that cater to wealthy widows.

Cissy starts losing friends and doesn’t believe their deaths are natural, despite a doctor’s ruling to the contrary. So she ends up masquerading as a resident of a chi-chi retirement village in Dallas to seek clues on why her pals went boots up (and that would be couture boots). Andy thinks her mom is losing her mind and moves into Belle Meade with her, basically to baby-sit, only to realize that things might not be as kosher as they initially seemed.

When Cissy discovers that her bridge chums had both registered with an exclusive dating service, she begins to suspect the killer might be masquerading as Mr. Right, though he’s truly a match made in hell.

So, you wonder, did my research come from my own dating experiences? From meeting too many losers to count? Nursing my own broken heart?

Yes, I put some of that to good use.

But, mostly I used the Web for research, finding the perfect operation in the Chicago area on which to base my fictional Two Hearts, Inc. This set-up specializes in finding compatible women for high-powered men. The one-year contract for arranging dates with local women starts at $10,000. If a wider net needs to be cast, the cost goes up by tens of thousands. Should the client wish to hire a personal matchmaker to jet around the world with him, locating dream dates, the price can climb to an astounding $150,000.

mcbride_lonestarlonelyheartsclubGeez, you’d think with that kind of money, a guy should have no problem attracting teams of eligible gold diggers.

My friend Cindy provided me a glimpse into the Internet dating scene by joining up with several online services, which netted her tons of responses. When she weeded them down through email missives and photos, she ended up with slim pickings. After months of arranging to meet these guys and finding few she was attracted to, she’s decided online dating is a big bust.

I’m still inclined to believe that meeting a potential match through friends or family is the best route, though that becomes trickier the older you get. So I’m trying something else a little different… I was named one of my city’s “top singles” by St. Louis Magazine, which involved a feature spread with photos and a questionnaire.

I’m hoping the perfect guy will see my spiel and ring me up (well, email in this case).

We’ll go out, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

But, if he breaks my heart, I’ll have to kill him.

Update from the author

I am firmly convinced that everything happens for a reason. Like being named a “top single,” which meant attending lots of parties (including an event where I was auctioned off for charity). This, in turn, led to my meeting a really great guy whom I’ve been seeing steadily and I haven’t stopped smiling since. So all’s well that ends well, and I’ve no plans to kill off this one, not yet.

Susan McBride is the author of the Debutante Dropout Mysteries from HarperCollins/Avon, including Blue Blood, winner of the Lefty Award and Anthony Award nominee, and The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. The Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club was released in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:14:13

Susan McBride

My Book: Gone to the Dogs
Sue Owens Wright

wright_sueowensSue Owens Wright writes what she loves

How do you know when your writing career has gone totally to the dogs? It could be when your work gets published mostly in wag mags, and your dog lover’s mystery is featured in Dog Fancy’s Popular Dogs series. Another clue might be when you are nominated three out of four years running for a Mighty Maxwell, the coveted medallion awarded annually by the Dog Writers’ Association of America for the best writing about dogs. And you actually win one of those swell dog tags to wear around your neck.

Your career could also be going to the dogs when you’re invited to Basset Hound Waddles, Slobberfests, and Droolapaloozas to speak and autograph your books. Or it could be when you’re contracted by publishers to write more books about dogs. For me, it’s all of the above.

Although it’s been a long, slow waddle between novels, the second book in the Beanie and Cruiser series will be released January 2006 by Tekno/Five Star Press. Sirius About Murder is the sequel to the first novel in the series, Howling Bloody Murder. Like the first book, this one is set at Lake Tahoe and features Native American sleuth Elsie “Beanie” MacBean and her comical basset hound, Cruiser, who helps her sniff out crime.

Here’s a tidbit: Beanie and Cruiser find themselves dewlap-deep in a murder investigation when supporters of a controversial dog park proposed for a coveted tract of Tahoe shoreline are earmarked for death.

The fur starts to fly at a Howloween fund-raiser for Alpine Paws Park when Abigail Haversham, heiress to the lakeside property, is discovered strangled near the Psychic Paws booth after her quarrel with Madame Pawline, a pet psychic with a bone to pick.

At writing seminars I’ve attended over the years, I’ve heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Write what you know.” In the beginning, when you are unsure of yourself and haven’t a clue what to write about, writing what you know is certainly helpful in building your writer’s resume. If I had paid more attention to that advice, it might not have taken me so long to find my groove. However, I think the message might have been clearer to me had those writing instructors advised their students to write about what’s close to the heart.

wright_siriusaboutmurderEdith Wharton wrote, “My little dog—a heartbeat at my feet.” There’s nothing closer to my heart than my dogs. Turns out that my best chance for literary success lay right at my feet all along (as Daisy and Bubba Gump are doing while I’m writing this). It was only when I began writing about what I have adored my entire life, dogs, that my work started gaining some recognition.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was born on January 2, the day of the year when Sirius, the Dog Star in the constellation Canis Major, appears in the east and orbits across the northern hemisphere. Whenever I feel a little lost on my course, I like to think I’m being watched over by that bright blue eye of the dog leaping up in the night sky.

I also keep a New Yorker cartoon by George Booth displayed near my computer. It shows a writer seated at his makeshift desk. Arms folded across his chest, he puffs on a pipe as he stares at the blank page in the typewriter. Clearly, he’s suffering from writer’s block. Surrounding him in his workspace on the back porch are a dozen dogs of various breeds. Through the open door, where his wife is standing, you can see many more dogs inside the house and others running up and down the stairs. His wife says, “Write About Dogs!” That cartoon has become my mantra. Whenever I’m in doubt about which path I’m meant to follow—and like my bassets, I’ve strayed far afield now and then—Booth’s cartoon reminds me.

Most recently, I’ve been contracted to write two nonfiction books about dogs, and more are forthcoming. What’s Your Dog’s IQ and Bright Ideas for Bored Dogs will be published in 2006 by Adams Media Corporation. My third Beanie and Cruiser mystery is completed, and I’ve embarked on writing the fourth.

Siriusly speaking, my writing career has finally gone to the dogs, and to tell you the dogs-honest truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sirius About Murder, Five Star, January 2006, $25.95

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-13 22:36:39

Sue Owens Wright writes what she loves

My Book: From Hip Hop to Hot Wired
Jane Isenberg

isenberg_janeJane Isenberg's new-school novel

Last year my friend Ann, an avid scrapbooker, gave her 90-year-old mother a beautiful and thoughtfully assembled album highlighting key moments of the older woman’s life. As I leafed through the painstakingly crafted album, I was amazed. Within the scrapbook Ann’s notoriously short tempered and critical mother had morphed into a paragon of maternal virtue! Ann had always wanted a caring and loving mother, so she organized, captioned, and embellished the memorabilia she had collected and made one up!

That’s similar to what I do when I write. I take the images, ideas, and people who fill my head and my heart and shape them to fit the tale I want to tell. Hot Wired begins when a former student with a grudge disses protagonist Professor Bel Barrett on a community college website. The inspiration for this plot thread came from several articles in both The New York Times and The Seattle Times about websites on which high school and college kids smear one another and sometimes their teachers. As a retired community college prof, it was easy to imagine the ripple effects of such a smear.

In 2004 when I started planning Hot Wired, I was a hip hop virgin. To me, 50 Cent was half a dollar spelled funny, and Eminem a morsel of chocolate meant to be consumed in bulk. Convinced by the media that all rappers were trigger-happy, woman-hating drug thugs, I’d never even listened to a rap song all the way through.

But as hip hop beats, lyrics, films, and fashion gradually became part of mainstream popular culture, I wondered if I were missing something. My ignorance was making me feel out of step, even, dare I say it, old. It was time to lose my hip hop virginity. I learned hip hop history, watched concert videos, and listened to rappers online. Our condo walls pulsated, our floors throbbed, and our sedate, retired neighbors wondered what the ruckus was about. But before they could have us evicted, I was writing rap lyrics, and the student who dissed Bel had become a wannabe rapper.

isenberg_hotwiredAt the same time, the war in Iraq was going from bad to worse, and some of our young soldiers were beginning to come home seriously wounded. According to the newspapers, military recruiters were visiting high schools and colleges trying to encourage young people to enlist. I was and am deeply troubled by this war, so it’s not surprising that a wounded recruit made his way into Hot Wired.

I also have personal preoccupations. My husband Phil and I have five adult children scattered all over the map, and we struggle to stay connected, using the unprecedented array of technical devices available to us. In Hot Wired, Bel’s daughter stops returning Bel’s calls, and her friends’ kids are also incommunicado. I poke gentle fun at the push me/pull you of letting go/holding on that we parents and our kids experience today.

Even though Hot Wired is amusing, like the other seven books in the series, there’s a lot of old fashioned homesickness written between its lines. Five years ago, I retired after nearly four decades of teaching. At first I missed it terribly. I missed my students, my colleagues, my tiny office, and my bare-bones classroom in a gritty section of Jersey City. To make matters worse, three months after I retired, we moved away from Hoboken where we had lived for many years. Then I also missed our home, our neighborhood and neighbors, the perfect brick oven baked pizza and bread, the imperfect but colorful political system, and the proximity to Manhattan. Writing about Bel Barrett’s classroom experiences gives me a chance to think about teaching without actually doing it. Likewise, writing about Hoboken, where Bel lives, enables me to visit there in my head without leaving my condo. In fact, at a reading I’m doing in Hoboken on March 6, 2006, Mayor David Roberts is going to issue a proclamation in recognition of the fact that I’ve written eight novels and a short story, all set in New Jersey’s Mile Square City!

No discussion of what inspired Hot Wired or any other book in the series would be complete without reference to the fact that Bel Barrett was conceived when I had my first hot flash. Back then, nobody was writing fiction about menopausal women, and that infuriated me. So, like my scrapbooking friend Ann, I made up the woman I wanted to read about. Bel is a fiftysomething woman living, loving, and working, in a world that is not always kind to those of us who sweat and forget, even if, like Bel, we solve crimes and keep the world safe for hip hoppers, chocoholics, and mystery lovers alike.

Jane Isenberg is a retired community college English Professor now living in Issaquah, WA, with her husband. Hot Wired was released in November 2005 by HarperCollins.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 15:47:33

Jane Isenberg's new-school novel

My Book: How to Kill Your Clients Without Losing Your Job
Laura Durham

durham_lauraLaura Durham's bride wears black

When people find out that I’m a wedding planner turned mystery writer they usually have lots of questions. As For Better or Hearse, the second book in the Annabelle Archer mystery series, hits the stands people want to know if I’ve really served a dog-shaped wedding cake (yes) or had a bride who made her bridesmaids carry floral tambourines (no) or had a bride order a limo just to transport her wedding dress (scary but true).

But the oddest question has to be “Why would a real-life wedding planner want to write murder?” If you have to ask that you’ve never been involved in planning a wedding. Anyone who has been involved knows that by the end of it there are at least a dozen people you’d like to see dead.

In For Better or Hearse, the temperamental chef that Annabelle Archer is working with meets a cold death by being impaled on an ice sculpture. I’ve run into my share of moody chefs and it was fun finally putting one on ice.

Revenge is the reason I started writing mysteries. One of my real-life MOBs (wedding planner lingo for mother of the bride) was so awful that imagining ways to kill her inspired me to write the first book in the series, Better Off Wed. By the time I finished the manuscript, the original MOB had evolved into a composite of every difficult MOB I’d ever met. I used the horrible hair from one, the overexposed and wrinkled cleavage of another, and the controlling personality of a third. It was thrilling to realize that I could finally kill all the bridezillas and MOBs who had made my job torturous.

Now don’t get me wrong. Most of my brides are delightful, charming girls with lovely mothers to match. Only rarely have I had a bride-to-be or MOB who’s lost her grip on sanity. But those are always the most memorable.

At first I tried to keep my new career as a mystery writer hush-hush. That lasted about all of two seconds. Once word got out, I had brides rushing out to bookstores to buy Better Off Wed. They claimed that they were being supportive, but I knew that they really wanted to see if any of the nutty brides in the book resembled them too closely.

durham_forbetterorhearseA happy by-product of my clients discovering my writing life was that they suddenly became much more easy-going. Even my most high-maintenance brides began tip-toeing around me out of fear that bad behavior would land them in the pages of the next book. Demands turned into pleasantly worded requests, and late night calls to my cell phone became a thing of the past. If I’d known that killing off a few clients in a book was all it took I’d have started writing mysteries years ago.

But my colleagues still provide wild stories. When one of my assistants called to complain about a bride changing her wedding date because Venus was going into retrograde, I’m sure she had no idea she’d be providing a scene in For Better or Hearse.

I originally worried that my wedding industry colleagues wouldn’t be pleased with my lampoon of our business. Luckily, they seemed to share the fantasy of killing off a client. Some of my friends got so into the idea that they began calling me with names of new people I needed to bump off in future books, and creative ways to kill them. I had a florist friend suggest a poisonous flower as a murder weapon, although he thought it would only be powerful enough to knock off a flower girl or ring bearer. Somehow I don’t see myself killing a flower girl in a future Annabelle Archer mystery.

But knowing that I can simply kill someone in the pages of a book allows me to let the worst behavior roll off my back. And for anyone who hasn’t encountered a true bridezilla, that’s really saying something.

Laura Durham’s Annabelle Archer mystery For Better or Hearse, $6.99, was published in March 2006 by Avon Books.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 16:50:15

Laura Durham's bride wears black

My Book: From Opera to Ol’ Opry
Joanne Pence

pence_joanneJoanne Pence

“I Don’t Want Your Body if Your Heart’s Not in It “
—Country-Western song

I married a man I hardly knew. I thought I knew him, but after only 28 days from introduction to wedding, how well can you know anyone? I was young, foolish, and had just moved back to San Francisco... and into my parents’ home. (That, obviously, had something to do with it.) My head and heart, on the other hand, said “love at first sight” was not to be walked away from.

My husband, a San Francisco resident, loved symphony and opera, and was incredibly well read—so much so that this U.C. Berkeley girl was impressed. He had moved to The City (as we native San Franciscans called it) via San Diego, had been born in Columbus, Ohio, and had lived in many different states while growing up. There was nothing surprising about that—most San Franciscans moved there from somewhere else. I was one of the few people in the city who’d been born there!

The surprise...no, that’s too mild a term...the stunning, jaw-dropping, eyeball-bulging, who-is-this-person shock of my life came when, a few years after our marriage, we took a car ride to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. I had never been to Arizona. Before getting married I’d lived on my own in Japan, and spent time in both Hong Kong and Korea, but I had never seen much of my own country.

We crossed the California-Arizona border, and a few miles into the state, David found a country-western station on the radio. At this time there was no country-western station in the Bay Area (and there might not be one yet). The sound of it was stranger to me than the drums of a Kabuki play or even Javanese gamelan. Not only had my husband, a man who owns several versions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, put on the station of his own volition, but then...and this is where I fully understand people who claim they see extraterrestrials...he began to sing along. He knew all the words to nearly every song.

pence_redhotmurderI was shocked. I’ll never forget that visit to Arizona.

In Red Hot Murder, the lucky 13th book in the Angie Amalfi mystery series, Angie gets to experience the kind of surprise I did when she learns that her fiancé, San Francisco Homicide Inspector Paavo Smith, spent time in Arizona as a boy. Now, because of that connection, he has to go back to help a friend. They don’t go to Phoenix or even Tucson, but to a small town in the sun-baked desert near the Colorado River. Of course, there are a few things that only Angie would have to deal with—such as, instead of a herd of cattle, she confronts a herd of ostriches—but that’s what makes Angie and her stories different. Along with the mystery of this town, where deadly secrets have long been hidden under a peaceful facade and now boil to the surface, Angie discovers a part of Paavo she had no idea existed, and her shock is every bit as strong as mine was. Oh, yes—the book also contains some great southwestern recipes, including a pork stew of my “cowboy” husband’s that is beyond delicious.

And yes, we are still married, despite the country-western music (which I’ve actually come to like...sort of....).

Joanne Pence has been back to Arizona many times, and now lives in Idaho. Red Hot Murder was released by Avon Books in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:04:16

Joanne Pence

My Book: a Sporting Chance
Judith Skillings

skillings_judithJudith Skillings learns to love the racetrack

Marriage certificates should contain the question: “Are you obsessed with sports? If so, which one?” I never asked; my future husband never told. I knew he wasn’t addicted to baseball which was all I needed to know, having overdosed on the Red Sox as a child. Each summer during trips to-and-from Maine I squirmed in the front seat of my father’s Pontiac listening to a slow-talker announce another game over the radio—dragging out every pitch, stolen base, and run batted in. On restless nights I can still hear the voice droning on and on, muffled by the down in my pillow.

In hindsight I should have been more curious about my future partner’s ambivalence, but during our courtship the sports question sat mutely in the back seat like a well-behaved cousin. Once we acquired our first television, however, it jumped up, poked a finger to its chest and announced: “Formula One, open-wheeled racing. I’m here to stay.”

I nodded meekly and went off to make coffee, thinking, “Hey, it could be worse; at least it’s not football.” My husband cajoled: “There are only 16 races between March and October. They air at 7:00 Sunday mornings. Maximum time is two hours.” Okay. Okay. Bagel oozing cream cheese in one hand, crossword puzzle in the other, I’d survive. Or sleep through them trying.

Silly me. Formula One was just the peak of the open-wheel race world. Here in America we’d built an entire series around the Indianapolis 500, a race so famous and of such importance that competing teams spent the month of May practicing at the Speedway. This I learned when I told my husband I was going to Indianapolis to meet with a researcher.

“It’s qualifying for the Indy 500,” he instantly pointed out. I didn’t bother asking if he wanted to tag along: he was salivating. When we arrived at the hotel we found that the researcher I was meeting had left two Indy 500 hats and a cooler of beer for me at the front desk. Taped to it was a note: "Research later. Let’s meet at the track." That’s how my husband fell in love with a woman he’d never met.

skillings_driventomurderThat weekend began my own love affair as well—with open-wheel racing. Sitting high in the stands above turn one I listened to the cars accelerate, flip through the gears, and shoot down the straightaway as faster and faster lap times appeared on giant video screens. The distance muted the engine noise but not the rumble or the sense of speed. My pulse quickened imagining the drivers’ reflexes, their ability to concentrate, and their apparent disdain for death.

When Rebecca Moore, my series heroine, took over her uncle’s automotive restoration shop it was inevitable that she would make her way to Indy. In Driven to Murder she’s there at the Brickyard prepping a vintage Formula One race car for a man whose past is about to catch up with him—with a vengeance. Not surprising, for the magnificent speed machines attract rich, powerful egos and their sycophantic followers.

When the first shot is fired Rebecca’s cop friend Mick—intent on a more romantic status—flies to Indy to protect her. Searching for the sniper from the stands, he’s distracted by the qualifying process. Seduced by it. Perhaps the same way his father had been seduced by baseball. Mick never understood that obsession, but when his father was killed in the line of duty, Mick stored away his collection of notebooks containing the statistics of each season’s games. They’re still wrapped in the attic.

Sometimes you have to sit alone in the stands and absorb a spectacle before you can appreciate another’s passion. Sometimes that’s enough and you connect. Now each year, when Formula One comes to the U.S., we pack up and head to Indy as house guests of that researcher who got me hooked on racing decades ago. Other weekends, from March through October, we make do with televised races: F1, IRL, and CHAMP, the major open-wheel series. Throw in NASCAR and my husband and I can spend most Sundays engrossed in overlapping sporting events that don’t involve a ball.

Once and a while we even turn on a baseball game. Like in the fall of 2004 when the Red Sox took the pennant. Those autumn nights, it was Dad’s voice I heard in my sleep cheering his team on to victory. As he analyzed every pitch, foul ball, and dropped fly, the hum of V-10 engines seemed to fade away into the distance.

Driven to Murder is Judith Skilling’s first mystery and was published by Avon in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:26:56

Judith Skillings learns to love the racetrack

My Book: Postponing Geezerhood
Jonathan Lowe

lowe_jonathanJonathan Lowe

What if there was a pill that could extend your life by ten years or more? Sound like science fiction?

Well, maybe it’s not, according to Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a researcher in the field of longevity science. It was after hearing about her work that I began contemplating our obsession with youth. Having just turned 50, and suddenly finding myself on the AARP’s mailing list, I read with heightened interest that Dr. Kenyon had successfully altered the genes of nematodes to produce a 50-percent increase in lifespan. True, I wasn’t exactly a worm, personally, but I also read that Kenyon had cofounded a company called Elixir in an effort to mimic the effect even in midlife mystery novelists.

Great, right?

Anyway, when I heard the name “Elixir,” I imagined—out of the blue—a story about a researcher who extracts a bristlecone pine tree gene, because I’d also read that this particular tree lives thousands of years. I knew the greedy pharmaceutical company in the story would need a transport mechanism for the gene—a method of introducing the gene into humans. So I consulted a scientist at Pfizer, and came up with a modified HIV virus, which would allow the gene to pass the blood/brain barrier without killing the subject. In the book, Geezer, this formula is stolen and secretly tested on a small town in Iowa, with several surprising twists and revelations, including the identify of the thief...and murderer.

lower_geezerBut wait. Novels are about characters, not plot twists. So let me introduce Mr. Alan Dyson, a researcher who works for Tactar Pharmaceuticals. Alan’s an honest guy. His humor is dry. His personal life is awry. Just entering the cusp of middle age, he’s also single and lives for his work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But things are about to go very wrong for Alan. His computer research files are stolen. Darryl Alexander, a computer programmer at the firm, and one of Alan’s few personal friends, tracks the thief to a PO box in Zion, Iowa. After Alan is reassigned and granted vacation leave, he decides to go there and investigate. He can’t tell Tactar because the stolen files had been on his home computer, against company regulations. How did the theft come about? Well, Alan meets a woman in a bar...

Would I personally take a pill or an injection to live longer? Whenever my neck starts bothering me, for sure. Anything to avoid becoming a geezer before my time.

Geezer was published by Five Star in December 2005.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:45:00

Jonathan Lowe

My Book: Family of the Heart
Sharon Short

short_sharonSharon Short

Who hasn’t endured at least one of these Thanksgiving dinner experiences: a know-it-all relative who insists on pontificating on religion/politics/sports instead of simply passing the gravy; eating an unappealing dish because it is traditional and otherwise the person who brings it year after year will have hurt feelings; a flaming turkey carcass?

All right, the flaming turkey carcass is a little over the top for most real-life Thanksgiving experiences, but I thought it nicely captured how frequently our most well-intentioned family gatherings go up in flames, at least figuratively. So, I used the flaming turkey as the climax of the Thanksgiving dinner scene in Hung Out to Die, in which Josie Toadfern meets her parents, and many other assorted relatives, for the first time in her adult life.

Josie is a stain expert, laundromat owner, and amateur sleuth in my Stain-Busting Mystery Series. She lives in Paradise, Ohio and has plenty of friends, but very few family relationships. She is guardian of Guy Foersthoefel, an adult with autism and her cousin from her mama’s side. And she is friends with Sally Toadfern, one of her many cousins from her daddy’s side.

But when she was a child, Josie was left behind by her parents when they took off to explore life and possibilities outside of Paradise, Ohio. They left her to be reared by her Aunt Clara and Uncle Horace Foersthoefel (Guy’s parents). Aunt Clara and Uncle Horace acted as very good parents for Josie, but they died when Josie was in her late teens, leaving her their business—the town’s one and only laundromat—and the guardianship of Guy.

Meanwhile, with the notable exception of Sally, Josie’s cousins, aunts, and uncles on her father’s side have always ignored Josie at the behest of demanding Toadfern matriarch, Noreen Faye Wickenhoof Toadfern—whom Josie calls simply “Mamaw”—because Mamaw blames Josie’s mother for her son running off years ago.

Why did I give Josie so few family ties? I told myself that it was because I wanted to keep her life fairly simple so she’d be free to investigate murder mysteries. It was a device I’d used for another character, Patricia Delaney, when I wrote three PI novels about her back in the mid-1990s.

But truthfully, I think it was because I wanted to explore how Josie could create community within her hometown and among her friends without the built-in ties that come with family. Also, my own family is not particularly close-knit, and I think I steered away from dealing with a large, close family due to lack of personal experience in that area.

short_hungouttodieBy the time I’d written several adventures for Josie, however, I realized it was time to address her relationships with her parents in particular and her family of origin in general. A Thanksgiving setting seemed perfect for that, since it’s the quintessential family holiday in the U.S. I wanted to see how Josie would deal with suddenly being thrust into a large family with whom she was mainly unacquainted.

Of course, added to that tension is an intriguing murder. Just a few hours after the flaming turkey carcass incident at Thanksgiving, Josie discovers her Uncle Fenwick murdered, tied up and stabbed on an old telegraph post along an old canal tow path turned hiking/biking path. Not only that, but her father is accused of the murder, since it was a fight, complete with death threats, between Josie’s uncle and father that resulted in the pilgrim-shaped candleholders toppling into Mamaw’s turkey carcass—which she was hoping to boil down for soup—and sending it up in flames.

In the course of sleuthing, Josie becomes reacquainted with not only her family, but also with the esteemed Burkettes. To Josie, the Burkettes have always represented what Josie thinks a perfect family should be—successful, well-respected in Paradise, and always properly behaved.

But Josie learns that no family is perfect. And in the course of learning this lesson, and solving the murder mystery with the help of her good friends Sally and Cherry Feinster, Josie also learns another important lesson: that friends are really the family of the heart. It’s a lesson I learned a while back, but I needed to bring it to life.

That’s why Hung Out to Die is dedicated to my closest friends, who are also the family of my heart.

Hung Out to Die is the fourth book in the Stain Busting Mystery series, and was published by Avon in February 2006.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 17:55:20

Sharon Short

My Book: Ghost Hunters
Nancy J. Cohen

cohen_nancyjNancy J. Cohen's spirited research yields results

In my book, Dead Roots, hairstylist Marla Shore and her fiancé attend a family reunion at a haunted Florida resort—along with a group of ghost hunters.

Paranormal research isn’t an exact science, but investigators use certain tools to help determine if an anomaly is present. Over the course of the book, Marla learns a lot about real and imagined spiritual activity.

For example, the lead ghost hunter explains to that although spirits can be active at any time, video readings are taken at night because there are fewer distractions and the dark background produces more viewable results.

Here are some of the other instruments Marla learns about:

Electronic Voice Phenomena Recorder
EVP recorders capture voices and sounds that can’t be heard with the human ear. Researchers will enter an empty room with a recorder on, invite anyone present to speak, and then maintain silence while the recorder is running. It is important to attempt duplication from other sounds in the vicinity in order to eliminate natural causes. Pipes and duct work, for example, may conduct sound.

Electromagnetic Field Meter
This device measures electromagnetic energy in the area. Spirits produce a disruption of energy, but so do many of our common household appliances. Therefore, it’s essential to get a reading during different times of the day to detect and eliminate household electricity as the cause of any readings.

Thermometer
There will be a colder reading when a spirit is present because it sucks up energy from things around it.

Cameras
Supposedly, entities emit near-infrared radiation, or NIR. The most common type of anomalies caught on film are simple orbs. By contrast it is rare to see an entire apparition. Researchers have caught videos where anomalies have gone through walls, hit ceiling fans, veered around people.

cohen_deadrootsIf you do find a ghost or apparition, the next step is to identify who it is, or was. This can often be done by considering the history of a place. Residual hauntings, for example, are like recordings. They reflect events that occurred at a particular location. Footsteps going up and down stairs, soldiers fighting on battlefields, people walking down hallways; these are experienced in the same place over time, like the apparition in St. Augustine, FL, who’s always seen doing her laundry.

Anniversary ghosts are similar. They only appear on the anniversary of a significant event, so their appearance can be considered a type of residual haunting.

There are also intelligent ghosts who will try to get your attention by rattling doorknobs, creating odors, moving furniture, making noises. They’re the ones who create mischief.

In Dead Roots, Marla meets a variety of these spirits. The ghost of her over-affectionate Grandfather Andrew pinches her in the tower elevator. She sees Alyssa, the love-struck daughter of the original plantation owner, who met her demise while waiting for her lover in the sugar mill where a fire erupted. There’s a Union solder who was shot to death outside the original homestead, now converted into concierge suites. And finally, Marla puzzles over the two strangers wearing Cossack hats who haunt the condemned wing of the hotel.

What Marla has to determine from these stories is how much is real, and how much is fantasy created for a sinister purpose.

Dead Roots is the seventh book in the Bad Hair Day mystery series from Fort Lauderdale resident Nancy J. Cohen.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 18:08:45

cohen_nancyjNancy J. Cohen's spirited research yields results

My Book: Axel of Evil
Alina Adams

adams_alinaAlina Adams' inglorious blades

Back in 2002, I had a nonfiction book out, Sarah Hughes: Skating to the Stars, the unauthorized biography of a 16-year-old girl who was expected to win bronze—maybe!—in ladies’ figure skating.

The 16-year-old girl, of course, went on to strike gold. As did my book.

2002 was also the year of “PairsGate.” (Did the French judge cheat? Did the Russians deserve the gold? Could the Canadian team be any cuter?). As a figure skating expert (wasn’t I one of the few to predict Sarah would win gold?) I spent a lot of time on radio and television explaining the situation.

“PairsGate” inspired my first mystery novel, Murder on Ice, in which our plucky television researcher, Bex Levy, must figure out who killed an Italian judge after the poor woman awarded gold to a sullen Russian diva instead of a perky American sweetheart. (All resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. I mean that.)

Well, now Bex is at it again. In Axel of Evil (Berkley Prime Crime, January 2006) she must get to the bottom of a Russian coach’s murder, just in time for the Winter Olympics.

adams_axelofevilSo now, having written both fiction and nonfiction set in the figure skating world, I’ll let you in on a secret. If you’re yearning for the truly dirty, deep-down dish on the glitzy, glamorous world of figure skating, you’re actually better off picking up one of my mysteries.

The reason is simple: When I write nonfiction books, I make sure to only include the non-offensive, the non-derogatory and, most important, the non-liable. I’ve worked as a researcher for ABC, NBC, TNT, and ESPN in the past (just like Bex! What a coincidence!) and I hope to do so again in the future. But future employment would be most difficult to hope for if I libel my potential colleagues, employers, and interview subjects.

On the other hand, when I write fiction, all the gloves are off. With just a little name (and sometimes nationality or sex) change, I can include any salacious story or embarrassing rumor I want. The only people who’ll know who the tales are really about will be the ones it happened to. And they’re not talking.

Axel of Evil by Alina Adams was published by Berkley Prime Crime in January 2006, $6.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 18:34:55

Alina Adams' inglorious blades

My Book: How I Didn’t Write Such a Killing Crime
Robert Lopresti

lopreseti_robertRobert Lopresti

I have a confession to make. I never wrote a novel called Such a Killing Crime.

True, there is a book heading into the stores with that title and I’m listed as the author. I’ll even admit I’m proud to have my name on the cover.

But I didn’t write Such a Killing Crime. Uh uh. Not me.

I’d better explain. You might say the story begins with a hound and a boa constrictor.

I have been a mystery fan all my life. I can still remember exactly where and when I first read the immortal words “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” A year later, when I was a sixth grader, I used to hide in the mystery section of the Plainfield, New Jersey public library to avoid librarians who wanted to banish me back to the children’s room. It was in that cozy hide-out that I made the acquaintance of Rex Stout and Agatha Christie.

At age 21 I sent my first story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. They sent it back faster than nuclear waste, and they were right. It was awful. My first sale came three years later, to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. So far about 30 of my stories—all mysteries—have been purchased by magazines, anthologies, and websites.

My other lifelong love is folk music. That probably dates back to kindergarten when someone at a family party pulled out a guitar and played some wonderfully subversive songs, like “Little Boxes,” by Malvina Reynolds, and “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor,” by Shel Silverstein.

I have done my best to add to the world’s supply of such songs. An album of my stuff, called Can I Blame You?, appeared in 2003.

The two great loves of my life came together when I was out for a drive one evening. I was listening to a recording of Arlo Guthrie singing the great Bob Dylan song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” When he sang the line about the street being “too dead for dreaming” I hit the brakes so hard I almost went off the road. Too Dead for Dreaming! What a great title for a mystery!

By the time I got home I had decided that a novel with that title had to be about the folk music scene. Dylan wrote that song in 1963, the high water mark of the folk revival. Rock music was in the doldrums then and groups like the Kingston Trio were getting airplay with genuine folk songs like “Tom Dooley,” and modern imitations like “Greenback Dollar.”

Time had just written a big article about the boom, featuring Joan Baez on the cover. Television even permitted a censored, castrated version of the material on the air in the form of a show called Hootenanny.

I set my book in Greenwich Village, one of the major centers of the scene. If you owned a guitar in 1963, as soon as you figured out how to play three chords (or maybe sooner) you moved to the Village to become a star. There were more than two dozen coffeehouses offering live music on MacDougal Street alone.

lopreseti_suchakillingcrimeThe hero of my novel is Joe Talley who manages one such coffeehouse, the Riding Beggar. When one of his performers is mugged and another killed, he searches for a missing demo tape that may hold a clue to the crimes.

Joe’s journey reveals some of the conflicts that made up the Village in 1963. Walk a single block and you might bump into beatniks, folkies, former Communists of the Old Left, and pioneers of the New Left which was just beginning to form around the issues of civil rights and Vietnam. Add in the drug culture which was beginning to grow like a psychedelic mushroom. And don’t forget the remains of McCarthyism and the locals who longed for the good old days when the neighborhood was Italian.

All these groups were not jigsaw pieces fitting together so much as they were tectonic plates, crashing together. For example, in 1961 the City decided to ban people from performing music in Washington Square. The result was a flat-out riot, with ten musicians arrested.

Joe Talley is fictional, but a few real people do appear in the book, Phil Ochs most prominently. And one of those real people dies in my book, as he (or she; I’m not telling) did in real life, in another example of those forces crashing together.

As it turns out I couldn’t get permission to use the Dylan line as the title of my book. I went with my second choice, Such a Killing Crime, which comes from an old Scottish folksong with the decidedly non-criminous title of “Love Is Pleasing.”

So, like I said, I never wrote a book entitled Such a Killing Crime, but I’m very pleased to have it in the bookstores anyway, under any title.

What about Joe Talley? Did he go on to solve more crimes in and around the world of folk music?

I happen to know he did. But whether those adventures will get written and published—well, you might say that the answer to that question is blowing in the wind.

Such a Killing Crime by Robert Lopresti was published in October 2005 by Kearney Street Books.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #92.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 18:50:52

Robert Lopresti

My Book: Close to Everything
Joyce Krieg

krieg_joyceJoyce Krieg

Sacramento?

You’re writing a mystery about—where?!

Such was the reaction some fifteen years ago when I first began doodling around with a series about a crime-solving talk radio host based in—yep!—Sacramento, California.

I mean, aren’t mysteries supposed to be set on the gritty streets of a major city, preferably New York or Los Angeles? Or in some quaint village, preferably by the sea or in the South?

California’s capital city is neither gritty nor quaint. But for some reason, I clung to the idea that Sacramento could work as the setting for a mystery, that its very obscurity could work in my favor.

The thing is, Sacramento is not California, state capital notwithstanding. At least, it’s not the California most folks think of—movie stars, the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, surfers, and all those left-leaning fruits and nuts. Once east of the Coast Range, California morphs into a red fly-over state, a vast prairie filled with agribusiness (tomatoes, rice, safflower, cotton), Bible-thumpers, truck drivers, country music on the radio, and towns with names like Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton—and Sacramento. As my protag, Shauna J. Bogart, observed, “I might as well be in Iowa.”

Or Cleveland. When Les Roberts’ series featuring Cleveland P.I. Milan Jacovich debuted in 1990 with Pepper Pike, it bumped up my confidence level by several notches. If Roberts could make Cleveland seem intriguing and even exotic, and sell a series based on the banks of the flaming Cuyahoga, why couldn’t Krieg do the same for the seemingly bland state capital sandwiched between the muddy waters of the Sacramento and American rivers? The heck with those nervous chuckles and arched eyebrows that I was receiving from well-meaning friends in the mystery community, and at the agent/editor pitch sessions at writers conferences. Sacramento could work!

And why not? You’ve got the Old Sacramento historic district, dripping with Gold Rush-era atmosphere. Two major rivers, a pro basketball team, professional opera, theater and ballet companies, a world class traditional jazz festival, a regional population of around two million, the home base of Tower Records. Then there’s the infamous triple-digit summer temperatures, leading to Sacramento’s unofficial slogan, “But it’s a dry heat.” Sacramento is America’s most racially diverse city, according to Time magazine, where non-Hispanic whites make up just 41 percent of the population and no one is in the majority. The state bureaucracy and the elected officials at the capitol dome provide an infinite source of intrigue and scandal just waiting to be exploited by the enterprising mystery writer.

krieg_ridinggainSacramento also has the dubious distinction of being the city that discovered Rush Limbaugh and launched his career. My greatest claim to both fame and shame is having worked at the radio station where a chubby, out-of-work disc jockey from Kansas City was getting his start 20 years ago. But this is not a case of “write about what you know.” My protag is a liberal shock talker, and she’s not addicted to prescription painkillers.

The California capital may be relatively uncharted territory for the mystery writer, but I’m by no means the first to use it as a setting. Steve Martini has placed several of his legal thrillers in Sacramento, while Terris McMahan Grimes had an Anthony-winning series going in the mid-90s featuring state worker and “soul sister” Theresa Galloway. Karen Kijewski’s Kat Colorado prowled Sacramento landmarks like Zelda’s pizza, the bar in Mace’s restaurant, and the Midtown district from Katwalk in 1989 to Stray Kat Waltz in 1998.

More recently, Michael Siverling set a novel featuring P.I. Jason Wilder in a thinly disguised Sacramento (he called it River City) in The Sterling Inheritance. In email chats with Michael, I get the idea he might be having a few second thoughts. Especially since a certain Austrian bodybuilder landed the role of The Governator and put the California capital on the worldwide political map.

My decision to write about Sacramento, up front and by name, seems to be working. The reviewers have been kind. My all-time favorite blurb came from Roger Krum, executive director of the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, who calls the series, “Incruckin’ fedible!” One thing everyone says about Sacramento is that it’s close to everything. By “close to everything,” they mean that it’s an easy day trip to the Napa Valley wine country, the Sierra ski resorts, the Lake Tahoe-Reno casinos, and San Francisco. In other words, it’s easy to get out of town and escape to a destination that seems, at least on the surface, a lot more exciting than Sacramento.

I will plead guilty to letting Shauna J. Bogart share some of that “anywhere but here” sentiment. In both Murder Off Mike and Slip Cue, my protag spends weekends on the Central Coast, and in Riding Gain (St. Martin’s Minotaur, Nov. 2005) she jets off to Hollywood and back for a job interview.

But thus far, I’ve managed to resist Shauna J.’s petition for me to allow her to spend the entire book in a “close to everything” locale like a Napa Valley spa or a four-star San Francisco hotel.

When it comes to Sacramento, Shauna J. is here to stay!

Joyce Krieg is the author of the Shauna J. Bogart Talk Radio Series (Murder Off Mike, Slip Cue, Riding Gain, Nov. 2005) from St. Martin’s Minotaur.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #92.

Teri Duerr
2012-03-14 19:17:42

Joyce Krieg

International Mystery Writers' Festival

internationalmysteriesfestival_logo

Owensboro, Kentucky, will be the place to be June 14-17 for the fourth International Mystery Writers’ Festival. This year's theme is “Discovering New Mysteries."

Unlike the vast number of mystery fiction conferences this is indeed a festival. The International Mystery Writers’ Festival takes a unique approach by including authors and TV writers and producers as well as playwrights.

The International Mystery Writers’ Festival is considered the place to launch new mystery plays. And at least two plays discovered at the festival have been awarded the Edgar Award: Joseph Goodrich's Panic in 2008 and Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett Till in 2009.

This year's festival again will showcase mystery plays. Three works have been selected to debut during the four-day festival, which will include two live radio theatre productions and one full-length stage play. These productions will use professional directors and actors.

The festival also will showcase film and television mysteries, along with their creators, in the “Writers Reel” program.

The featured films will include writer/director Lee Goldberg’s Bumsickle, the sequel to his short film Remaindered, both of which were produced in Owensboro using local talent in front of, and behind, the camera. Goldberg is a two-time Edgar Award nominee whose many TV writing and/or producing credits include Diagnosis Murder, Hunter, Monk, and The Glades. He is also the author of the Diagnosis Murder and Monk series of original mystery novels

Novelists also will be featured during workshops, panel discussions, and retrospectives of their work.

Guest authors, playwrights, etc., soon will be announced.

The International Mystery Writers' Festival has been a festival that I have wanted to attend. My husband is a theater critic and we both applaud the nurturing and development of new plays.

Xav ID 577
2012-03-28 10:41:25

internationalmysteriesfestival_logo

Owensboro, Kentucky, will be the place to be June 14-17 for the fourth International Mystery Writers’ Festival. This year's theme is “Discovering New Mysteries."

Unlike the vast number of mystery fiction conferences this is indeed a festival. The International Mystery Writers’ Festival takes a unique approach by including authors and TV writers and producers as well as playwrights.

The International Mystery Writers’ Festival is considered the place to launch new mystery plays. And at least two plays discovered at the festival have been awarded the Edgar Award: Joseph Goodrich's Panic in 2008 and Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett Till in 2009.

This year's festival again will showcase mystery plays. Three works have been selected to debut during the four-day festival, which will include two live radio theatre productions and one full-length stage play. These productions will use professional directors and actors.

The festival also will showcase film and television mysteries, along with their creators, in the “Writers Reel” program.

The featured films will include writer/director Lee Goldberg’s Bumsickle, the sequel to his short film Remaindered, both of which were produced in Owensboro using local talent in front of, and behind, the camera. Goldberg is a two-time Edgar Award nominee whose many TV writing and/or producing credits include Diagnosis Murder, Hunter, Monk, and The Glades. He is also the author of the Diagnosis Murder and Monk series of original mystery novels

Novelists also will be featured during workshops, panel discussions, and retrospectives of their work.

Guest authors, playwrights, etc., soon will be announced.

The International Mystery Writers' Festival has been a festival that I have wanted to attend. My husband is a theater critic and we both applaud the nurturing and development of new plays.

Karin Slaughter Series on Tv

slaughter_karin2Television networks—especially cable networks—are discovering that crime fiction is a gold mine for involving stories. We readers have known that for a long time; the networks should have checked with us years ago!

Karin Slaughter's six novels that explore Grant County, Georgia, appear to be the latest scheduled to make it to the small screen.

Beginning with Blindsighted in 2001, Slaughter has delivered unflinching thrillers that meld Southern Gothic traditions with noir crime fiction. Slaughter looks into the heart of darkness that plagues rural George while also tempering her dark approach with a believable vision of the machinations of families. The series revolves around Grant County pediatrician and coroner Sara Linton.

Deadline.com reported that Entertainment One and Piller/Segan/Shepherd have acquired the TV rights to Slaughter's series.

That's the same company that partnered on the Syfy network series Haven.

The Grant County project will go into development immediately, with Slaughter co-writing the pilot script, according to Deadline.com.

Slaughter, needless to say, is quite happy about this opportunity.

"I'm thrilled to be working with the producers who've brought some of Stephen King's stories to life and look forward to adapting the Grant County novels in a way that keeps my readers happy," Slaughter told me in an email.

In addition to her bestselling novels, Slaughter is the founder of the SaveTheLibraries project, which has to date raised more than $50,000 for the DeKalb County (Georgia) Library Foundation.

Before her novels become a TV series, catch up on her novels. The Grant County series include Blindsighted, Kisscut, A Faint Cold Fear, Indelible, Faithless and Beyond Reach.

Slaughter's next novel Criminal will be published in July, 2012, and continues her other series about Will Trent, a brilliant agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The paperback version of her novel Fallen in the Will Trent series just came out.

Mystery Scene correspondent Cheryl Solimini's interesting profile of Slaughter appeared in our Summer 2011 Issue (No. 120).

Xav ID 577
2012-03-21 10:51:18

slaughter_karin2Television networks—especially cable networks—are discovering that crime fiction is a gold mine for involving stories. We readers have known that for a long time; the networks should have checked with us years ago!

Karin Slaughter's six novels that explore Grant County, Georgia, appear to be the latest scheduled to make it to the small screen.

Beginning with Blindsighted in 2001, Slaughter has delivered unflinching thrillers that meld Southern Gothic traditions with noir crime fiction. Slaughter looks into the heart of darkness that plagues rural George while also tempering her dark approach with a believable vision of the machinations of families. The series revolves around Grant County pediatrician and coroner Sara Linton.

Deadline.com reported that Entertainment One and Piller/Segan/Shepherd have acquired the TV rights to Slaughter's series.

That's the same company that partnered on the Syfy network series Haven.

The Grant County project will go into development immediately, with Slaughter co-writing the pilot script, according to Deadline.com.

Slaughter, needless to say, is quite happy about this opportunity.

"I'm thrilled to be working with the producers who've brought some of Stephen King's stories to life and look forward to adapting the Grant County novels in a way that keeps my readers happy," Slaughter told me in an email.

In addition to her bestselling novels, Slaughter is the founder of the SaveTheLibraries project, which has to date raised more than $50,000 for the DeKalb County (Georgia) Library Foundation.

Before her novels become a TV series, catch up on her novels. The Grant County series include Blindsighted, Kisscut, A Faint Cold Fear, Indelible, Faithless and Beyond Reach.

Slaughter's next novel Criminal will be published in July, 2012, and continues her other series about Will Trent, a brilliant agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The paperback version of her novel Fallen in the Will Trent series just came out.

Mystery Scene correspondent Cheryl Solimini's interesting profile of Slaughter appeared in our Summer 2011 Issue (No. 120).