Friday, May 26, 2017

A Ghost Story

by Eric

StoryADay.org proclaimed May International Short Story Month back in 2013. The Short Mystery Fiction Society is celebrating by highlighting members’ online stories.

Today, the featured story is one by SMFS member Mary and her co-writer: “Waiting: A Halloween Short Story” archived at Kings River Life Magazine.

When Umbrellas Attack

by Mary

A couple of years after the Second World War broke out, the Bishop of Fulham in London was kind enough to share with readers of The Times some advice he had then but lately received from an unnamed official. Apparently the bishop had asked what to do in the event of an enemy attack by poisonous gas. The recommendation he received: to put his hands in his pockets and (presumably not simultaneously) raise his umbrella.

On reading this, my thoughts turned to Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected and subsequently broadcast on the BBC World Service about life in his home country He was assassinated in London in 1978 by means of ricin, introduced either on the tip of an umbrella jabbed into his leg, or by way of a pellet shot from an umbrella-gun. The exact details of the affair will probably never be known, because the Bulgarian Secret Service file relating to his murder was among those reported to have been destroyed when their archives were opened to the public about five years ago.

But since on weekdays at least certain areas of London swarm with civil servants and business men dressed in an unofficial uniform of dark suits, bowler hats, and neatly-rolled umbrellas, who could possibly have suspected that among them was one with murderous intent?

On the other hand, it is my contention the person toting the gamp in Edward Gorey’s sinister title sequence for the Mystery series on PBS is up to no good, and until contrary evidence is produced, I shall remain convinced that there is Something Nasty concealed under that umbrella.

Fanciful, you may say? Perhaps so, but in the annals of the law cases are recorded where there is a direct link between crime and umbrellas.

Take, for example, an 1983 California case concerning a defendant apprehended going into a bank with a stickup note about his person and an umbrella handle disguised as a weapon by the ingenious device of draping it with a towel. The equally ingenious defence offered that his umbrella had been broken by high wind, and he was taking the handle home to attempt a repair of a handleless umbrella he had there. And the stickup note? He maintained that he had just been to a job interview and, while waiting to be seen, had read an article on bank robberies. This had inspired him to idly write a mock stickup note. As to the towel: he declared that he was carrying it because of excess perspiration. An appeals court decided that an umbrella disguised in the manner described would be frightening enough to support a conviction of attempted armed robbery.

Less than ten years later, in 1992, on the other side of the country a New York man was found guilty of being involved in the sale, by a third party, of a controlled substance to an undercover detective — in this case, cocaine vials, produced from an umbrella.

Sometimes the umbrella’s role is more marginal, for example in questions of liability. The worst case occurred in 1983 in Louisiana, where a passenger attempted to stop a woman leaving a bus. The woman’s husband struck him with an umbrella and was then fatally shot. The bus driver was not held liable because of his lack of knowledge as to the intent of the passenger, and the fact that he did not know he was armed. However, in 1916 in Arkansas, when a female passenger struck a fellow traveller on his head with her umbrella — he had apparently grabbed her arm — the railway company was held liable because the man had been allowed to board in an intoxicated state.

In Louisiana in 1930 a driver escaped liability for negligence when he struck a pedestrian in an intersection after the light turned green. It was found that because it was a dark, rainy night, and the injured party was not only dressed in dark clothes but also was holding a black umbrella over her head, the driver would have been unable to see, and thus avoid, her.

Another Louisiana case in 1969 involved a shopper hit by an automatic door when leaving a store. Having paused within range of its sensor to open her umbrella, she was considered to have contributed to the accident. As in a 1993 suit in North Carolina, where a customer fell over an umbrella protruding from a display into a store-aisle, the complaint was dismissed.

Courts have ruled that expert testimony is not required in cases where the general public would find cause and effect obvious. This was illustrated in 1981 case in Illinois, where the record noted the public generally understood that if someone is stabbed in the eye with the point of an umbrella, that eye will be severely damaged.

Lamentably, then, umbrellas have been occasionally been put to uncivil uses. Lovers of Ed Hoch’s short stories must forgive my closing by giving away part of the plot of his One Bag of Coconuts, published in the November 1997 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, but who could resist quoting this wonderful confession:

“I had to do it,” Adelaide said, holding the smoking umbrella.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Last Summer Holiday

by Mary

Occasionally I find myself wondering if those eternal motion machines that are the young ever pause long enough to contemplate the enjoyable sight of the lengthy vista of days -- nay, weeks -- stretching out before them when the summer holidays finally begin.

Why, the time rolling out ahead seemed endless to us when school was at last out, with those menacing back-to-school sales so far away at the other end of the summer as to be easily ignored -- and just as well since once they arrived we would have to get the number 4 bus into town to buy school supplies and new tennis shoes, which in turn meant that the new term was not far off and thus soon it would be time to drag ourselves off to the grey Victorian building in which we laboured, to again wrestle with French verbs, toil over geometry exercises and try to recall the names of all the Hanoverian rulers in the correct order -- all these tasks being carried in that strange chalk-and-old- books atmosphere that seemed to permeate every school in which I ever set foot.

Thinking on it now reminds me that my last school holiday was largely spent sprawled on my bed devouring cookers (cooking apples) so tart my teeth almost shrank from them as I chewed away while reading as many books as I could borrow from the library. It was a particularly hot summer that year and our fashionable frou-frou sponge-skirted petticoats ensured that those of us who considered ourselves trendy suffered mightily for the privilege. But the unaccustomed heat -- for when it's above 72 degrees in England, it's inevitably described in the media as A Scorcher -- made my shady room, the pile of green, shiny-skinned cookers and the even larger stack of books with covers of all colours even more attractive to one who was already a bookworm and fruit-lover. The noise of the neighbours' children playing all over the roadway -- despite living in houses with hanky-sized gardens that were nonetheless large enough to allow games of Traffic Lights or Statues or Tag without any risk of getting run over by the mobile fish and chip shop or a passing coal lorry -- was easily ignored, even though our windows were wide open to whatever breeze might meander in, bringing with it the scent of the two small lilac trees growing by the corner of the house.

Because even if those kids had spent their entire summer practicing playing euphoniums outside our front door, I should have taken no notice at all -- I had flown off on the magic carpet of books and would not be back until teatime. And so those long, golden afternoons unwound to the gentle rustle of pages turning and the piling up of apple gowks (cores) until it was time for tea. And when the washing up was done, the tea-towel hung up to dry and the plates and cups and cutlery put away again, there would still be time for a chapter or two or more to be read as shadows started to advance, shrouding the raspberry canes in the back garden and fingering the windows. Soon there would come that strange hush that creeps in between the time when workers arrive home for their evening meals and when they go out for the evening. Every night that quiet calm fell around the house like a kindly mantle and while it was true that, to the despair of my parents, I would probably be found in the kitchen at midnight frying up bacon and eggs, still I knew that tomorrow would proceed at the same slow pace, and the next day, and the day after that as well.

But it was recalling that this would be my last long summer holiday before I joined the work world that really added to its strange enchantment and, I think, to the sense that time was flying, bearing us all along willy-nilly faster and faster towards adulthood. It all seems dreamlike and far away now.

Retired and Retiring

Mary and I decided to change the title of our blog because we're retiring. We've both given up all of our freelance writing and editing except for the fiction. I guess if you only work at what seems like play, you're retired.

Then again we've always been retiring in the sense of being shy and diffident, at least when it comes to making a public spectacle of ourselves in order to sell books. Our retiring natures extend to Internet social media, like Facebook. Mary shies away from the invasion of privacy involved. I cringe at how you need to accumulate, "friends" or followers. To me. social networking sites feel too much like parties and the minute I walk into a party I'm immediately flung to the wall by the centrifugal force of the social whirl.

But both of us would love to receive -- and respond to -- comments here. Talking to people one at a time is different than addressing crowds. Unfortunately, crowded social networks are the preferred method of communication these days.

We hope to post to this blog more frequently than in the past. Mary has a strong interest in Golden Age detective novels and will continue with her reviews, but we have other interests as well and are also at an age where we can be forgiven -- hopefully -- for pausing to look back along the road we've traveled. And then there's our writing. We've learned quite a bit over the past decades and writing during retirement, which so many of us aim for, poses its own challenges.

We won't pretend to be writing teachers, however. Neither of us has ever taken a writing course, or attended a workshop. We both agree writing can't be taught. It's something you learn to do on your own. We all develop our own methods and write in our own styles. There are no tricks or magic formulas.

Too many years ago, while I was living in New York City, I was invited to a party by one of my former college professors. An accomplished painter, she was showing off her newest -- and very pricey -- canvases to potential buyers. As an impoverished student from the sticks I had less than nothing in common with the well heeled big city art crowd in attendance. Her enormous expressionist paintings wouldn't have fit on the wall of my apartment. I couldn't have afforded the paint to cover the canvases let alone buy the artwork. Luckily, my professor had invited another student from the small Pennsylvania college were she taught, a friend of mine. We retreated to a shadowy, far corner of the loft and talked and joked in the relative quiet as we observed the social melee from afar.

Mary and I are hoping this blog might serve a similar purpose as our own quiet little corner of the Internet.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Returning Writing's Magic

by Eric

Mary and I have begun work on our twelfth John the Lord Chamberlain mystery. We don't have a title yet, not even a working title. Well, except for "Twelvfer". Ever since "Onefer" Our Byzantine books have started with that sort of default title. We have completed an outline. We know that John is going to sixth century Rome. Besieged by the Goths, the former imperial capital is a ghost of its former self, half ruined and depopulated. We also have a vague idea of what transpires. Our preliminary outlines are subject to change and usually do. It's nice to start off with a destination in mind, but our itinerary changes as the trip progresses.

One thing I am sure of is that the journey is going to be arduous, more so for me, than the writing of Onefer, Twofer or even Elevenfer. I learn something new about writing with each new book. There's always another aspect I realize I should've been thinking about but never bothered with. Transitions? Don't they just kind of...happen?

The increasing difficulty of the job surprises me because I imagined writing would naturally get easier -- just another of many misconceptions I nurtured, along with my dream of being an author, practically since I could hold a crayon. That's plenty of time to grow a fine crop of misconceptions.

In particular I underestimated how much plain hard work is involved in writing for publication. An aspiring author might take half a lifetime to produce a publishable novel but then, in most cases, he or she (or they) have to do it all over again -- in the space of a year or two. Then repeat the process again and again. If they are fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

There are beginning authors who think writing a novel is like matching the winning numbers on a lottery ticket. Sure, we read in the newspaper about Joe Shmoe who wrote that gripping page-turner "Flaming Pizza of Desire" while scrubbing pans at the Greasy Spoon Diner and then, practically before he had bundled his handwritten manuscript off to a Major New York Literary Agency, was drying his sudsy fingers on a contract for more then the gross national product of Paraguay. But we also read on the same page about John Shmoe of Cat's Elbow Corners who just won $25,000,000 on the Lotto. Neither happens often enough to worry about.

First-time authors have been known to get mega-bucks deals and, hey, someone's got to win the lottery. But while few would argue that buying lottery tickets is a viable career path, one occasionally sees aspiring authors whose thought is that nothing will do but they will write an instant bestseller. Is a thriller about a lawyer embroiled with middle eastern terrorists while on an expedition to Mount Everest climbing the Bestseller Lists? Then it's time to bone up on crampons and falafel and get writing!

Fortunately, Mary and I never entertained the notion that writing is a lottery. We went about it like any other job, starting small -- or I should say short -- by writing stories for anthologies and magazines. After we had a better idea of what we were doing, we wrote a "practice" mystery novel, to prove we could write at that length, made an effort to sell it in line with our expectations of a sale (small), did not succeed and moved right on to writing our first John the Lord Chamberlain novel, One For Sorrow. When it was completed we queried here and there but quickly decided we'd have a better chance of being noticed by an independent publisher.

After Poisoned Pen Press bought the manuscript we reworked it as needed under the guidance of our editor Barbara Peters and in the process learned a lot that an editor at a Big Publisher could never have taken time to try to teach a pair of novice novelists. Then we applied the lessons when writing Two For Joy.

And the learning process continues.

Will we ever have a bestseller? With a Byzantine eunuch as a protagonist, only if the general population has the discerning taste of those of you reading this blog.

Will we continue to work at our craft and gain a larger audience? We certainly hope so.

Writing isn't really about hitting the jackpot. Rather it is about knowing that readers are enjoying your work. Mary occasionally visits library web pages so we know our books are on library shelves all over the country -- in Schenectady, NY; Stillwater, OK; LaGrange, IL; Osh Kosh, WI.

It amazes me, the idea of our book, sitting on the shelf of some distant library in a place I've never seen. When I was a kid, it was visiting the library that hooked me on books, on the magic of the bound pages that would transport me to other worlds and allow me to lead other lives.

It is still magical but now, with a lot of hard work, we add just a little bit to that magic.

Monday, May 8, 2017

How Accurate Must a Historical Mystery Be?

by Eric

Most readers and writers would probably agree that the history in a historical mystery should be accurate. If your mystery plot depends, say, upon Oliver Cromwell, Jack the Ripper and Gertrude Stein being contemporaries (heaven forbid!) then you're writing alternative history. Unfortunately the question of accuracy is rarely so simple. The historical record, not to mention common sense, would indicate that Queen Victoria didn't hunt Jack down in her spare time, let alone by posing as a member of a traveling circus, but then again maybe the historians missed that. The trick to writing imaginative historical mysteries is keeping just under the radar of the historians.

There is definitely some flying room there. A little research, especially reading the footnotes, quickly reveals that historians sometimes don't know quite as much as it appears. What looks like a detailed drawing often turns out, on examination, to be a few scattered dots of facts connected into a coherent pattern by the historian based on his general expertise and personal theories. Another historian might connect those same dots into an altogether different picture. In Two for Joy we mention the pagan philosophers who fled to foreign shores when Justinian shut down Plato's Academy. The story is often alluded to, but is actually mentioned only briefly in a handful of sources.

But sources also can be untrustworthy. Consider Procopius who, while in Justinian's service, wrote panegyrics to the emperor but in his posthumously discovered Secret History excoriated him as a rapacious demon without a face. As a writer, when faced with such inconsistency, I prefer to choose whatever suits my purpose! That might sound like cheating but, I suspect, historians do much the same thing in a somewhat more sophisticated way. (I don't know if a Byzantine mosaic depicting a demon, like the one above, would give a writer of historicals license to include demons!)

It must also be remembered that surviving records can be spotty. (Not surprising after 1500 years -- I have a hard enough time keeping track of the mailing list for our newsletter for two months). Much of what we know well, we know by chance and what survives is not always what we would expect. During the life of Justinian, Cassiodorus wrote a massive Gothic History. Strangely, those twelve volumes have vanished but a short abridgment, The Getica, by Jordanes, probably made during Cassiodorus' lifetime, survives.

I'm not arguing that historical mystery writers have a license to be inaccurate but rather that they should take advantage of the many available opportunities to be creative. To put the matter into legal terms, the fiction writer's burden of proof is the opposite of the historian's. Historians must prove what they say is true while historical writers are allowed to say just about anything that can't be proved false.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: The Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman

by Mary

One of the Psalms speaks of those who go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters, but such ventures usually do not involve murder. However, this very crime occurs In The Shadow of the Wolf. The reader knows whodunnit and why right away and so the novel relates how Dr Thorndyke reasons out the solution to the case.

Messrs Varney and Purcell, old school and college chums now engaged in forging banknotes, quarrel while sailing in the English Channel. Varney wants to end their joint venture but Purcell will not agree. To make matters worse, Purcell married Margaret Haygarth, the woman Varney loved, while the latter was engaged in the dangerous business of passing forged banknotes abroad. A thick fog descends and Varney takes advantage of its concealment to murder Purcell, weight the body, and toss it overboard near the Wolf Rock lighthouse. Once ashore, Varney cleverly lays a false trail giving the impression Purcell has absconded.

The Rodney brothers, barrister Jack and medical practitioner Philip (owner of the small yacht borrowed for the fatal voyage) now make their appearance. Friends of the couple, they are puzzled by Purcell's apparent abandonment of his wife, and Varney plays along by pretending to investigate possible sightings of the missing man. In due course Dr Thorndyke is engaged to find Purcell since Mrs Purcell wishes to obtain her freedom either by having her husband legally declared dead or obtaining a divorce, for she suspects he has left her for another woman. Then a mysterious tenant disappears from chambers in Clifford's Inn, almost on Thorndyke's doorstep, and this event provides Thorndyke with certain information that ultimately leads to the cracking of the case.

My verdict: A good book for a quiet evening's read, being slower paced than some Thorndyke novels. Nevertheless the reader's interest remains engaged while following Thorndyke's reasoning of the circumstances of the case and how he obtains and confirms the necessary evidence. As a bonus they'll also learn something about how banknotes are forged!

Etext: The Shadow of the Wolf by R. Austin Freeman