2020 Anthony Award Eligible Titles

Anthony Awards Eligible* for Bouchercon

15 October – 18 October 2020 in Sacramento, CA.

Ballots due Tuesday, 30 April 2019.

Select 1-5 titles per category on your Ballot

  • Best Novel
  • Best First Novel
  • Best Paperback Original
  • Best Critical or Nonfiction Work
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Anthology
  • Best Young Adult

*Check this site periodically, since it will be updated. The categories listed below follow the online ballot.

Authors: Please verify that your title is eligible and in the appropriate category. Contact me via this page for Additions/Corrections. Please review the quote below from Bouchercon Committee.

ELIGIBILITY RULES: To be eligible for the 2020 Anthony Awards, books and short stories must have been published for the first time in North America during calendar year 2019.

(Exception: Titles published elsewhere are eligible based on their year of first publication or later first North American publication date.)

Ballots due Tuesday, 30 April 2019.

Best Novel

  • JD Allen. Skin Game.
  • R.G. Belsky. Below the Fold.
  • James R. Benn. When Hell Struck Twelve.
  • Connie Berry. A Legacy of Murder.
  • Susan Bickford Dread of Winter.
  • Allison Brooks. Buried in the Stacks.
  • Claire Booth. A Deadly Turn.
  • Barbara Bourland, Fake Like Me.
  • Rhys Bowen. The Victory Garden.
  • Rhys Bowen. Love and Death Among the Cheetahs.
  • J.L. Brown. The Divide.
  • Catherine Bruns. Penne Dreadful.
  • D.W. Buffa. The 45th.
  • Lucy Burdette. A Deadly Feast.
  • Alafair Burke. Better Sister.
  • V.M. Burns. Motherless Child.
  • Ellen Byron. Fatal Cajun Festival.
  • Austin Camacho. The Wrong Kind.
  • Richard Cass. Last Call at the Esposito.
  • Steph Cha. Your House Will Pay.
  • Donna Walo Clancy. Seashells and Christmas Bells.
  • Tracy Clark. Borrowed Time.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Uncovered.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Encountered.
  • Megan Collins. The Winter Sister.
  • Ellison Cooper. Buried: A Novel.
  • S.A. Cosby. My Darkest Prayer.
  • Matt Coyle. Lost Tomorrows.
  • Deborah Crombie. A Bitter Feast.
  • Blake Crouch. Recursion.
  • Annette Dashofy. Fair Game.
  • Hilary Davidson. One Small Sacrifice.
  • Hannah Dennison. Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall.
  • Sara Driscoll. No Man’s Land.
  • Elisabeth Elo. Finding Katarina.
  • Hallie Ephron. Careful What You Wish For.
  • Aya De León. Side Chick Nation.
  • P.A. De Voe. No Way to Die.
  • Kaitlyn Dunnett. Cause & Effect (Deadly Edits)
  • Allen Eskens. Nothing More Dangerous.
  • Sharon Farrow. Mulberry Mischief.
  • Lyndsay Faye. Paragon Hotel.
  • Mariah Fredericks. Death of a New American.
  • Dianne Freeman. A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder At Royale Court.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder at the Arts and Crafts Festival.
  • Eva Gates. Read and Buried.
  • Eva Gates. Something Read, Something Dead.
  • Victoria Gilbert. Past Due for Murder.
  • Lee Matthew Goldberg. Desire Card.
  • Alexia Gordon. Fatality in F.
  • Marni Graff. Death at the Dakota.
  • Lena Gregory. Spirited Away.
  • Elly Griffith. The Stranger Diaries.
  • Elly Griffiths. The Stone Circle.
  • Rob Hart. The Warehouse.
  • Cheryl Head. Catch Me When I’m Falling.
  • Rachel Howzell Hall. They All Fall Down.
  • Sherry Harris. The Gun Also Rises.
  • Sherry Harris. Let’s Fake A Deal.
  • Sherry Harris. Sell Low, Sweet Harriet.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. The Things That Are Different.
  • Julia Henry. Pruning the Dead.
  • Julia Henry. Tilling the Truth.
  • Nancy Herriman. A Fall of Shadows.
  • Edwin Hill. The Missing Ones.
  • Reese Hirsch. Black Nowhere.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs.
  • Cheryl Hollon. Down in Flames.
  • Julie Holmes. Murder in Plane Sight.
  • Mary Ellen Hughes. A Curio Killing.
  • Tim Johnston. The Current.
  • Leslie Karst. Murder From Scratch.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Genuine Fix.
  • Ausma Khan. A Deadly Divide.
  • Dharma Kelleher. A Broken Woman.
  • Thomas Kies. Graveyard Bay.
  • Shannon Kirk. Gretchen.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. The Subject of Malice.
  • Kristen Lepionka. The Stories.
  • Kylie Logan. The Scent of Murder.
  • Kathryn Long. Buried in Sin.
  • Lisa Lutz. The Swallows.
  • Bonnie MacBird. The Devil’s Due.
  • Meg Macy. Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.
  • Isabella Maldonado. Death Blow.
  • Jamie Mason. The Hidden Things.
  • Catherine Maiorisi. The Blood Runs Cold.
  • Lynn Marron. Murder at the Mill: A Mystic Witch Triplets Mystery.
  • Alyssa Maxwell. Murder at Crossways.
  • Edith Maxwell. Charity’s Burden.
  • Amy Patricia Meade. The Garden Club.
  • Laura McHugh. The Wolf Wants In.
  • Clara McKenna. Murder at Morrington Hall.
  • Catriona McPherson. Strangers at the Gate.
  • Catriona McPherson. A Step So Grave.
  • Liz Milliron. Heaven Has No Rage.
  • Allison Montclair. The Right Sort of Man.
  • Jess Montgomery. The Widows.
  • Abir Mukherjee. Smoke and Ashes.
  • Gigi Pandian. The Glass Thief.
  • Carol J. Perry. Late Checkout.
  • Carol J. Perry. Final Exam.
  • Delilah C. Pitts. Black and Blue in Harlem.
  • Steph Post. Miraculum.
  • Keenan Powell. Hemlock Needle.
  • Lissa Redmond. A Means to An End.
  • J.D. Rhoades. Won’t Back Down.
  • Michael Robotham. Good Girl, Bad Girl.
  • Barbara Ross. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody.
  • Barbara Ross. Sealed Off.
  • SJ Rozan. Paper Son.
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan. The Murder List.
  • Alex Segura. Miami Midnight.
  • Sarah Shaber. Louise’s Crossing.
  • Terry Shames. A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary.
  • Judy Penz Sheluk. A Fool’s Journey.
  • Lida Sideris. Murder: Double or Nothing.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. Murder on the Chopping Block.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Jay Stringer. Marah Chase and the Conqueror’s Tomb.
  • Faye Snowden. A Killing Fire.
  • Stacy-Deanne. The Stranger.
  • Triss Stein. Brooklyn Legacies.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Vicki Thompson. Murder on Trinity Place.
  • Wendy Tyson. Ripe for Vengeance.
  • Kathleen Valenti. As Directed.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.
  • John Vercher. Three-Fifths.
  • Lea Wait. Thread and Buried.
  • LynDee Walker. Deadly Politics.
  • LynDee Walker. Leave No Stone.
  • Jeri Westerson. Traitor’s Codex.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me no Secrets.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me You Love Me.
  • Marty Wingate. The Bodies in the Library.
  • Erica Wright. Famous in Cedarville.
  • Vincent Zandiri. The Caretaker’s Wife.

Best First Novel

  • Nicole Asselin. Murder at First Pitch.
  • Mark Bergin. Apprehension.
  • Connie Berry. A Dream of Death.
  • Kelly Brakehoff. Death by Dissertation.
  • S.A. Cosby. My Darkest Prayer.
  • Sharon Daynard. Murder Points North.
  • Samantha Downing. My Lovely Wife.
  • Tori Eldridge. The Ninja’s Daughter.
  • Heather Harper Ellett. Ain’t Nobody’s Nobody.
  • Nancy Good. Killer Calories.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Literal Mess.
  • Angie Kim. Miracle Creek.
  • Tara Laskowski. One Night Gone.
  • Vanessa Lille. Little Voices.
  • John McMahon. The Good Detective.
  • Richie Narváez. Hipster Death Rattle.
  • S.C. Perkins. Murder Once Removed.
  • Ang Pompano. When It’s Time for Leaving.
  • Lara Prescot. The Secrets We Kept.
  • Patricia Shanae Smith. Remember.
  • Cynthia Tolbert. Out from Silence.
  • Grace Topping. Staging for Murder.
  • John Vercher. Three-Fifths.
  • Carl Vonderau. Murderabilia.
  • Lauren Wilkinson. American Spy.
  • Kate Young. Southern Sass and Killer Cravings.

Best Paperback Original

  • Cathy Ace. The Wrong Boy.
  • Tessa Arlen. Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders
  • Ed Aymar. The Unrepentant.
  • Susan Alice Bickford. Dread of Winter.
  • Susanna Calkins. Murder Knocks Twice.
  • LA Chandlar. The Pearl Dagger.
  • Anne Cleeland. Murder in the Blood.
  • Anne Cleeland. Murder in Just Cause.
  • Joe Clifford. Broken Ground.
  • Joe Clifford. Rag and Bone.
  • Joe Clifford. Skunk Train.
  • Andrew Davie. Pavement.
  • Mary Feliz. Cliff Hanger.
  • Alison Gaylin. Never Look Back.
  • Anna Gerard. Peach Clobbered.
  • Debra Goldstein. Two Bites Too Many.
  • Carol Goodman. The Night Visitors.
  • JJ Hensley. Forgiveness Dies.
  • Aimee Hix. Cold Suburbs.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets.
  • James D.F. Hannah. Behind the Wall of Sleep.
  • Greg Herren. Royal Street Reveillon.
  • Meghan Holloway. Once More Unto the Breach.
  • Jennifer Kincheloe. The Body in Griffith Park.
  • Nick Kolakowski. Maxine Unleashes Doomsday.
  • William Lashner. Freedom Road.
  • Matthew McBride. End of the Ocean.
  • Hannah Marie McKinnon. Her Secret Son.
  • Catriona McPherson, Scot & Soda.
  • Jonathan Moore. Blood Relations.
  • Karen Odden. A Trace of Deceit.
  • Alan Parks. Febrauary’s Son.
  • Leigh Perry. The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking.
  • Matt Phillips. Countdown.
  • Rob Pierce. Tommy Shakes.
  • Lissa Marie Redmond. A Means to an End.
  • Lissa Marie Redmond. The Murder Book.
  • Adam O’Fallon Price. The Hotel Neversink..
  • Lisa Sandlin. The Bird Boys.
  • Wendall Thomas. Drowned Under.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.

Best Critical or Nonfiction

  • John Billheimer. Hitchcock and the Censors.
  • Ursula Buchan. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan.
  • John Curran. The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club.
  • Anne McKendry. Medieval Crime Fiction: A Critical Overview.
  • Mo Moulton. The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women.
  • Cara Robertson. The Trial of Lizzie Borden.
  • Hallie Ribenhold. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.

Best Short Story

  • René Appel and Josh Pachter. “Starry Night” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Hector Acosta.“Turistas” in Paque Tu Lo Sepas.
  • Karin Amatmoekrim. “Silent Days” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Rusty Barnes. “The Russian” in Mystery Tribune.
  • Tina de Bellegarde. “Second Chances” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Adelkader Benali. “The Girl at the End of the Line” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Michael Berg. “Welcome to Amsterdam” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Hanna Bervoets. “The Tower” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Melissa Blaine. “Living on Borrowed Time” in Crime Travel.
  • James Blakey. “The Case of the Missing Physicist” in Crime Travel.
  • Michael Bracken. “Love, or Something Like It” in Crime Travel.
  • Micki Browning. “Revisions” in Writers at Work.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “A Death in Yelapa” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “Miss Starr’s Good-bye” in AHMM
  • Susanna Calkins. “Tea Leaf” in Trouble & Strife.
  • Theo Capel. “Lucky Sevens” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Dara Carr. “Emily and Elodie” in Black Cat Mystery.
  • Anna Castle. “The Sneeze” in Crime Travel.
  • Bruce Coffin. “Old-Fashioned” in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs.
  • Jen Conley. “Good for Gone” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • S.A. Cosby. “The Anchors That Tie Us Down” in Rock in A Hard Place.
  • S.A. Cosby. “Whiskey Made Us Brave” in TOUGH.
  • Susan Daly. “Spirit River Dam” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Hilary Davidson. “Cold Comfort” in At Home in the Dark.
  • Hilary Davidson. “Honor Thy Father” in Mystery Tribune.
  • Hilary Davidson. “Unforgiven” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • David Dean. “Reyna” in Crime Travel.
  • P.A. DeVoe. “Gambling Against Fate” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Simone De Waal. “Salvation” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Peter Di Chellis. “Callingdon Mountain” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Nikki Dolson. “The Mistress” in TOUGH.
  • Brendan Dubois. “The Dealey Paradox” in Crime Travel.
  • Mary Dutta. “Festival Finale” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • T.Y. Euliano. “The Choices We Make” in The Society of Misfit Stories Present…(Vol. 1 Issue 3)
  • Tracy Falenwolfe. “Partners in Crime” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5.
  • John Floyd. “Ignition” in Crime Travel.
  • Kellye Garret & Ray Salemi. “Code Switch” in Down and Out Magazine, Vol. 2 Issue 1.
  • Kaye George. “Grist for the Mill” in A Murder of Crows.
  • Barb Goffman. “Alex’s Choice” in Crime Travel.
  • Barb Goffman. “Punching Bag” in Flash Bang Mysteries.
  • Barb Goffman. “Power Behind the Throne” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Harvey and the Red-Head” in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Pig Lickin’ Good” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Nova, Capers, and a Shmear of Cream Cheese” in Fishy Business.
  • C.C. Guthrie. “A Sure Thing” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Rob Hart. “Butcher’s Block” in TAKE-OUT.
  • Rob Hart. “Have You Eaten?” in TAKE-OUT.
  • Rob Hart. “Swipe Left” in TAKE-OUT.
  • Rob Hart. “Last Request” in Tales from the Crust.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. “Pretty Dreams” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Greg Herren. “This Town” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • Greg Herren. “Moist Money” in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs.
  • Loes Den Hollander. “The Stranger Inside Me” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Heidi Hunter. “No Honor Among Thieves” in Crime Travel.
  • Murat Isik. “The Man on the Jetty” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • William Kamowski. “Last Thoughts” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • David James Keaton. “Body Cam Crucifixions” in Noir Nation 7.
  • David James Keaton. “Turtle Cake” in Mystery Tribune.
  • Kristin Kiska. “Snowbirding” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Eleanor Cawood Jones. “O Crime, In Thy Flight” in Crime Travel.
  • V.S. Kemanis. “Sucker Punch” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Herman Koch. “Ankle Monitor” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. “The Blue Ribbon” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Jessica Laine. “The Sundowner” in Paque Tu Lo Sepas.
  • Jessica Laine. “Lust to Love” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • Tara Laskowski. “The Long Term Tenant” in EQMM.
  • James L’Etoile. “Deal With The Devil” in Strangers in a Strange Land.
  • Lisa Lieberman. “Better Dead Than Redhead” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Livia Llewellyn. “One of These Nights,” from Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers.
  • Joan Long. “The Extra Ingredient” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ramona DeFelice Long. “Moe’s Seafood” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, vol. 4.
  • G.M. Malliet. “Whiteout” in EQMM.
  • Paul Marks. “Fade-Out in Bunker Hill” in EQMM.
  • Paul Marks. “The Box” in Mystery Weekly.
  • Paul Marks. “Past is Prologue” in AHMM.
  • Edith Maxwell. “Sushi Lessons” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ruth McCarty. “Killer Chocolate Chips” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Mike McCrary. “Broken” (single)
  • Mike McCrary. “Mad as Hell” (single)
  • Catriona McPherson. “Barnet Fair” in Trouble and Strife.
  • Adam Meyer. “The Fourteenth Floor” in Crime Travel.
  • Barbara Monajem. “The Last Page” in Crime Travel.
  • M.A. Monin. “Bad Ju-Ju” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Terrie Farley Moran. “Flamingo Road” in AHMM.
  • Korina Moss. “On the Boardwalk” in Crime Travel.
  • Richie Narváez. “None of This Is On the Map” in EQMM.
  • Lisa de Nikolits. “Fire Drill” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Max Van Olden. “Seven Bridges” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Laura Oles. “The Deed” in Diamonds, Denim and Death: Bouchercon 50th Anniversary Anthology.
  • Christine Otten. “Soul Mates” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Secret Lagoon” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “A Study in Scarlett” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “Cremains of the Day” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Two-Body Problem” in Mystery Weekly Magazine.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” in The Eyes of Texas.
  • Josh Pachter. “When You Sue, You Begin With Do, Ray, Me” in Denim, Diamonds, and Death.
  • Ang Pompano. “Stringer” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Ang Pompano. “Diet of Death” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Eileen Rendahl. “Concealment” in Life is Short (MWA Anthology)
  • Merrilee Robson. “Stealth” in The Desperate and the Damned.
  • Merrilee Robson. “A Locked Co-op Mystery” in Mystery Weekly.
  • KM Rockwood. “Frozen Daiquiris” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Verena Rose. “Death at the Willard Hotel” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Verena Rose. “Death at the Boston Vigilance Committee” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Peggy Rothschild. “The Cookie Crumbles” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Cynthia Sabelhaus. “Soup” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Harriette Sackler. “Honor Thy Father” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Harriette Sackler. “If I Should Die” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Alex Segura. “Red Zone” in Paque Tu Lo Sepas.
  • Terry Shames. “Bring it” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • John Shepphird. “VINEGAROON” in Denim, Diamonds, and Death.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. “The Gourmand” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. “The Last Word” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Josh Stallings. “The Whole World Lost Its Head” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Earning” at Mystery Tribune.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Clean By” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Janet Raye Stevens. “Murder at the Bijou” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Gerald So. “Fred” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Cathi Stoler. “That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It” in Mysterical-E.
  • Jay Stringer. “Half Inch” in Trouble and Strife.
  • Johanna Beate Stumpf. “Thank You For Your Cooperation” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Art Taylor. “Hard Return” in Crime Travel.
  • Art Taylor. “Better Days” in EQMM.
  • Wendall Thomas. “Forget That Day”in Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s.
  • Anneloes Timmerije. “Spui” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Julie Tollefson. “In the Rough” in Denim, Diamonds, and Death.
  • Julie Tollefson. “A Killer Story” in Life is Short And then You Die.
  • Kirsten Tranter. “The Passenger,” from Sydney Noir.
  • Gabriel Valjan. “Popcorn” in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs.
  • Walter Van Den Berg. “Get Rich Quick” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Mensje Van Keulen, “Devil’s Island” in Amsterdam Noir.
  • Joseph Walker. “Bonus Round” in AHMM.
  • Joseph Walker. “Haven” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Heather Weidner. “Art Attack” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “Who They Are Now” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “New Energy” in EQMM.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “The Ghost Who Read the Newspaper” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Chris Wheatley. “The True Cost of Liberty” in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense.
  • Sam Wiebe. “Home at Last,” from Die Behind the Wheel: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan.
  • Cathy Wiley. “And Then There Were Paradoxes” in Crime Travel.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Secret Blend” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Retirement Plan” in EQMM.
  • Jeri Westerson. “Last Pole on the Left: A Santa Noir Story” Dragua Press.
  • Dave Zeltserman. “Brother’s Keeper” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
  • James W. Ziskin. “A Bed of Roses” in Strand Magazine (February 2019).

Best Anthology or Collection

  • Amsterdam Noir (editors: René Appel and Josh Pachter)
  • At Home in the Dark (editor: Lawrence Block)
  • Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery and Suspense (editor: Judy Penz Sheluk)
  • Crime Travel (editor: Barb Goffman)
  • Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs (editor: Liam Sweeny)
  • Denim, Diamonds, and Death. (editor: Rick Ollerman)
  • The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods. (editor: Michael Bracken)
  • Rusty Barnes. Kraj the Enforcer (collection)
  • Rob Hart. TAKE-OUT And Other Stories of Culinary Crime. (collection)
  • Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible (editors: Verena Rose, Rita Owen, Shawn Reilly Simmons)
  • Murder-A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the music of The Go-Go’s (editor: Holly West.
  • Paque Tu Lo Sepas (editor: Angel Luis Colón)
  • Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories (editors: Verena Rose, Harriette Sackler, and Shawn Reilly Simmons)
  • Trouble and Strife (editor: Simon Wood)

Best Young Adult

  • Jen Conley. Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry.
  • Naomi Kritzer. Catfishing on CatNet.
  • Adriana Mather. Killing November.
  • Randy Ribay. Patron Saint of Nothing.
  • Kristen Simmons. The Deceivers.
  • Leah Thomas. Wild and Crooked.

Ballots due Tuesday, 30 April 2019.

Posted in American Writers, Mystery, Noir | Tagged , , , | 38 Comments

Bouchercon 2019: You Didn’t See THAT Coming Panel

Bouchercon 2019. You Didn’t See THAT Coming. Friday, 3 November, 10AM in Reunion C. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own.

Panelists. Moderator: Halley E. Sutton (HS), Jay Brandon (JB), Bruce Coffin (BC), Rebecca Drake (RD), Layne Fargo (LF), and Peter Swanson (PS).

HS: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the You Didn’t See THAT Coming, a panel all about the shocking plot twist, where you never know what you might expect. And thank you for showing up on Sunday, the last day of the conference, the last slot of the conference. This is a genuine plot twist for all of us. My name is Halley Sutton and my debut noir thriller, The Lady Upstairs, will be out next summer [July 14, 2020] from Putnam.

Much more interesting than me, we have our five panelists, up here today.

Directly to my right, I have Layne Fargo (LF). Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. Her novel, Temper, was released in July 2019 by Scout Press, and is a psycho-sexual thriller about an actress whose break of a lifetime leads to an intense psychological struggle with her mercurial and dangerous director. The NY Times said that “for potboilers, nothing comes close to Temper, and the New York Journal of Books called it “one hell of a ride and readers” and “readers won’t find better in the debut thriller category this summer.”

She is a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicago chapter of Sisters in Crime, and co-creator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

Then we have Jay Brandon (JB) who is the award-winning author of many novels and short stories, acclaimed critically by both critics and readers. His first novel Deadbolt was awarded Booklist’s Magazine Editor’s Choice Award after a starred review. His first legal thriller, Fade the Heat, was short-listed for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best Novel, was optioned by Amblin Entertainment, and has been published around the world. Against the Law is his most recent novel, and his next book From the Grave will be coming out in 2020. All of his novels have been published by more than a dozen or more foreign publishers with worldwide distribution. Jay’s most recent short story “A Jury of His Peers” was chosen by Lee Child for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories [2010]. Jay lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Next up, we have Rebecca Drake (RD). Rebecca’s latest novel, Just Between Us, was featured by O, The Oprah Magazine who called it “compulsively readable”, while Publisher’s Weekly and Associated Press lauded it as “tense, bombshell-laden, and action-packed” and “twisty and compelling.” Barnes & Noble chose her novel Only Ever You as a top Thriller of the Month, and Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “a gripping domestic thriller.” She is also the author of Don’t Be Afraid, The Next Killing and The Dead Place, as well as short stories in the anthologies A Thousand Doors and Pittsburgh Noir. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her husband, two children, a big cat, and a small dog.

Next up, we have Peter Swanson (PS). Peter Swanson is the author of five novels, including The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award and a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Her Every Fear, an NPR Book of the Year, and his most recent, Before She Knew Him, which the starred review from Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional psychological thriller.” His books have been translated to over 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, The Guardian, Strand Magazine, and Yankee Magazine. A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College, he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and cat.

And finally, last but certainly not least, we have Bruce Robert Coffin (BC) who is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron mystery series. A former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, Bruce spent four years investigating counter-terrorism cases for the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest award and honor a non-agent can receive.

His most recent novel Beyond the Truth, winner of the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for Best Procedural, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and a finalist for the Maine Literary Award for Best Crime Fiction. His short fiction appears in several anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. He lives and writes in Maine. [Note: Bruce’s Within Plain Sight, the fourth in the John Byron series, was published on February 4, 2020]

So to kick us off, I wanted to ask a kind of an ice-breaker question, which is what’s your favorite twist in a novel, not written by you. And if we go old enough, we can spoil them, I think. Maybe.

RD: My first favorite twist was Rebecca the novel, which I picked because I was like, ‘Oh, my name is the title character,’ and then it was, ‘Wait, she’s the antagonist?’ So that was my first favorite one I read when I was eleven or twelve. Oh, that was so exciting. I remember the excitement of figuring out what had really happened.

JB: Ok, if we are going to go back that far…I once wrote an article about Agatha Christie’s own favorites of her novels, four or five of her favorites, and one of them was Endless Night, which I really loved. I read all of four of them, and none of them featured her series protagonist, and at least one of her series protagonists she came to really despise, and you can tell when you read her later Hercule Poirot novels when Poirot doesn’t appear until page hundred-forty of a hundred-ninety-page book. You could hear her go, ‘Oh, God. Drag him on again.’ Her books without her series characters are so good. She was there before any of us, putting in every twist that could possibly be done.

My favorite is there’s one simple one, where there are two characters meeting for the first time, and they just loathe each other on first sight. Man and woman. They keep back-biting each other throughout the novel until it actually turns out that, ‘Oh they’re actually lovers.’

LF: I’m really just basic, and just say Gone Girl. I mean, it made me want to be a writer. Honest. It was when I started to dip my toe into writing. Reading the twist in Gone Girl inspired me so much. It still does to this day.

PS: Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, written in the 1950s. 1955 rather, it’s great.

BC: Nice. I would say that one of my favorites for that would probably be Mystic River. That was incredible, and it doesn’t matter how many times you read it, it’s not only a twist for the reader but it’s a twist for the characters. I find that brilliant. If you haven’t read it, go out and read it.

HS: Lots of great recommendations here. So, another question for the panel at large. Why do you think we are drawn to twists as readers, and then why are we drawn to them as writers?

LF: As a reader, you want to be surprised when you read something you haven’t read before. As a writer, I think it’s because we are sadistic, and we want to mess with our readers.

RD: I think we read suspense, and the thing about commercial fiction is that it’s the difference—the prime difference, I think, between that and literary fiction is that it’s about reader engagement and reader involvement. When a reader picks up a suspense novel, they are expecting certain things, and it’s like a roller coaster ride, right? They are expecting that, and like the thrills of a rides like that, you want that adrenaline rush. I suspect all of us are drawn to writing this kind of fiction because we enjoy that. I don’t like roller coasters but I love nothing more than a great twist in a novel. I love that feeling: the fear; the building suspense; and then the release when you get it, and it’s great.

JB: As a reader-writer, what’s fun for me in reading is trying to figure out what’s going to happen and beat the writer at that game; so, as a writer, what’s fun for me is to try beat the reader who is trying to figure it out, and so it is more engaging for the both of us. My special thrill in an ending—mystery readers are really smart, and they’ve read a lot of mysteries and, if you can give an ending that satisfies them; and they go, ‘Yeah, I saw that coming’ and then there’s a twist—that’s the most satisfying thing for me.

HS: I agree; that’s a lot of fun.

PS: It’s about surprises. Not being bored. That’s what it is all about. Maybe you are going to ask this, but there’s a difference, technically between a Twist and what’s technically a Surprise. I think that word ‘twist’ gets misused all the time. Now, it gets used one the front of every book. ‘You’ll never see this twist coming.’ Now, I will.

Most of what people call twists are actually surprises; some of them are genuine twists. Gone Girl was a twist because there’s a change to what you read before. Some of them are just a surprise, and who doesn’t want to be surprised when they’re reading a book? Opposite of surprise is knowing exactly what is coming next.

LF: Sometimes they’ll call it a reveal. It’s interesting to know the differences.

JB: The good thing about the twist in Gone Girl is that it comes halfway through the book instead of at the end, and it changes everything that went before it and everything that follows.

BC: And then you don’t trust what you’re reading, because you’re thinking, “What are they going to do to me next?” It just breaks the monotony. If you stop to think about it during your day, everything you happens is usually what you expect to happen. Your work day is awesome; it flies by, and all those things you do, like me catching my coffee in midair [pic from movie Ronin]. I never saw that coming. I think everyone likes that, because it pulls us from the humdrum. It gives us, “What if my life was this exciting, and if you didn’t know what was going to happen next?”

PS: I, for one, don’t want twists in my life.

RD: Oh, maybe it’s the relief of “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t marry Amy Dunne.”

LF: I’m glad I didn’t marry Nick Dunne. I would’ve liked to have married Amy. That’s why I didn’t like the film version because in the book, they are both equally loathsome. In the film, he’s kind of a jerk but comes across as more likeable.

PB: She was loathsome but I loved her because she was so smart.

HS: Peter, that leads me into one of the questions, what is the difference between a Surprise or a Twist? What do you, and the panel at large, consider a genuine Twist vs. a Surprise in your plotting?

PS: Well, I think we already mentioned that a twist changes what came before. I think that is the definition. I know we aren’t really doing spoilers, but people often say the love the twist in one of my books—I won’t say which one it was—

BC: That’s marketing right there

RD: No—buy’em all.

PS: The twist was I took what looked like a main character and killed that main character off. Now technically, that’s not a twist, that’s just an event that happened that surprised the audience, but…I mean it didn’t change anything that went before per se, but, you know, its semantics, right because a twist is, oh, you know that feeling, that’s a twist

LF: Well, in some ways I disagree with that one because I think it could almost be considered a twist, and that’s where it gets sticky, because even if it didn’t really change what was before, impact fully, the reader didn’t expect that at all, so sometimes it is about the subversion of the reader’s expectations, too, so that’s interesting.

JB: Well, a surprise can just be a character with a knife jumping out from around a corner and there’s no way anybody could see that coming, it’s just like you said, an event that happens in the book. But if the character you thought was the hero stabs somebody, that’s a twist.

PS: Yeah, that’s a good definition.

BC: I think another way you can do that and actually this is kind of how the series for me started out, was I wanted to write a scene, and it ends up being the opening scene, that you could interpret more than one way, and then the twist really, I don’t have to do the work, if I’ve got the reader misinterpreting what they just saw, just read, then later on, that’ll turn on its head. And I love that. If you can write it in such a way that the reader’s own biases and personal history will flavor what they think you are saying, then you don’t have to do all that extra work. Which is great.

LF:  I’d like to go back because I think that’s a great example of the difference really. So if someone jumps out, that’s a surprise, right? But if you knew that person as a positive character and they are jumping out suddenly to stab the antagonist, that’s can be a twist, right? If they were their best friend. So that’s kind of the difference in a nutshell.

RD: It can cast everything in a different light. The best twists make you just want to go back and reread everything you just read to see what you missed.

HS: Which leads to another of my questions, which is what makes a great twist vs. one that feels cheap or unearned? How do you ensure the twist in you book is genuinely effective?

PS: Well, first of all it has to make sense. I mean there’s those last page twists that suddenly—if you do go back and read it, and you are like: ‘No, no, that person wouldn’t have done that’, there’s those cheap things. You see those more in movies. I think around the time that, like 99 was a big year for films; The Sixth Sense came out, and Fight Club came out, and both those had those mammoth twists at the end.

LF: But you thought those were effective, yes?

PS: Oh yeah, but then there was a while there where every movie had to have like a game changing twist at the end…there was the Planet of the Apes remake, with a twist that made absolutely no sense. So yeah, I think readers are pretty clued in to like a cynical twist, a twist that is just there because the author felt like they had to put one in.

JB: The Sixth Sense is a good example because when that comes, it’s earned. You immediately look back and go, ‘Oh, it always got cold when he was in the room’, there was the color scheme that changed, the clues were all laid in, you just weren’t looking for them. That’s what’s an earned twist.

BC: And the subtlety of that, we all saw it, and some of those clues were repeated, but when that first reveal happened, I immediately felt cheated, and I turned to my wife and said ‘This is B.S. There’s no way. They were talking and holding hands at the table in the restaurant.’ I was convinced that’s what I saw. But then when they played it back that’s not at all what happened. But my own history put that together.

RD: It’s the assumptions we make. You assume you see certain things you don’t—and also using misdirection. Like using misdirection effectively. Because you see him shot point blank range at the very beginning shot in the movie, the opening scene, but because our direction is turned then to the little boy—and I remember when I first saw it, I remember thinking, well what happened? Did he heal from his thing?

BC: He recovered.

RD:  He recovered but then we are caught up in the little kids story and so our direction is shifted and we just don’t think about it. I think that’s the fun of writing that too, if you can use misdirection effectively, I mean, sometimes I hear the word “manipulate” used a lot too, manipulative, again I think if it comes out of nowhere or it feels implanted, natural—but I also do think, well of course we’re manipulating stuff, we’re supposed to be a magician, right? We’re using misdirection, you should be in control of those things in your story.

JB: Half the people I know who saw the Sixth Sense immediately sat thru it a second time, and went ‘Oh, they’re not talking when the kid comes home from school, they’re both sitting there staring.’

BC: And using the boy as the misdirection was brilliant, because in fact there it is, in every single, he’s telling you over and over again that he sees dead people. [laughter] Oh, that’s right, Wow! That makes sense.

LF: It’s really effective. You almost want to feel stupid when the twist happens like ‘oh I’m such an idiot how did I not notice?’

PS: And it’s funny cause it kind of wrecked M. Night Shyamalan’s career for a while because he became the Twist Guy. And then he did some movies with decent twists but then some movies with really ridiculous twists. But I do think, thinking about the Sixth Sense, and clearly, we should call this panel the Sixth Sense Analysis Panel. The other reason it works is because it is the emotional heart of the story. The twist is the story. Like that’s what it is about. A dead person trying to leave that plane, about a boy in a situation where he sees the dead around him. Everything is there so that it never cheats its own story. Its organic.

RD: If we can use his films as an example, I personally felt that The Village that the big twist at the end of that was not great because it didn’t feel organic within the story. It explains things, but it felt kind of artificial and it raises more questions like, “C’mon, how did they not see that?” A lot of things felt artificial to me at least.

BC: That felt like he was repeating the Planet of the Apes deal—you didn’t see the Statue of Liberty, but ‘Holy God—they were right in the middle of the city’.

PS: In a weird way I think it would have worked in a thirty-minute episode, like a Twilight Zone, where quickly, “Well, that’s a great twist” but for a two-hour movie it was sort of like eh.

RD: I think as a native New Yorker I’m immediately picturing Central Park or something and thinking no one climbed over the wall the other way? OK, they choose they are in this little colony or something, but I kept thinking like nobody ever investigated? C’mon, there’s always someone who breaks in someplace right?

BC: We should call this: “We are not gonna ruin our own twists but we are gonna ruin everyone else’s.” [laughter]

JB: The thing about those works too is that they set a high standard for us, because with Gone Girl now people are looking for something like that and it makes it even harder for us—like DNA made it harder for us to pull off a murder. Not long after The Sixth Sense I had a book come out, and I got a review that said “It doesn’t have the twisting suspense of, say, The Sixth Sense. ‘Of, say, The Sixth Sense?’ Just to pick something at random? It doesn’t have the romantic tragedy of, say, Romeo and Juliet. [laughter] The bar just got a lot higher.

HS: You bring up a good point, Jay, that everything these days seems to be marketed as “twisty” and when you do that you kind of run the risk of hyping reader expectations to be looking for twists. How do you deal with that as a writer? How do you subvert reader expectations when it is there on the book jacket?

JB: You could fool readers by having utterly no twists. [laughter]

RD: And there’s the big twist for your publisher.

LF: I’m a debut author, my first book just came out, and I, even having been a thriller reader for a long time, I didn’t realize how much there was an expectation for a big twist. I mean I like twists in books when they are really well done, but it’s not something I look for. In my debut novel [Tempted], it really doesn’t have a big twist. The ending, I’m not going to spoil it, but the ending is supposed to feel sort of inevitable, like a tragedy, and I got all of these angry people on GoodReads saying “the twist was so predictable” and I’m like it wasn’t ever intended to be a twist, like I wasn’t trying to have a twist, but OK.

RD: I think sometimes it reminds me of when you watch gymnastics now or figure skating, and I’m old enough to remember when it was enough to do a simple little leap and now, these poor kids, they have to do so much, and I feel like that sometimes, because you’re right, because they expect it—it’s so much harder. And there’s so much more out there and so much available. I think in general as authors, there so much competing for your attention. I feel this pressure, I feel it’s my job to entertain, to keep the pages turning, to keep the standards of suspense, to add the twists to do things, but I think now when we all carry around a device where we can flip from our book or audio book to immediately something on YouTube or Netflix, that the bar is set a little higher and you have to work harder.

LF: And readers are so savvy now. They’ve all read these books, and can see things 50 miles away. As an author, unless I can pull off a Gone Girl-style and a mind-blowing twist, I don’t even want to go there necessarily. I don’t know. The expectation is there.

PS:  Maybe, the next trend is going to be books with less twists. There’s a long history of really great crime novels that are straight forward in a way. Jaws does not have a twist. It starts with a shark attack and it ends with killing the shark. Sorry, spoiler. There are other ones. Even something like Rosemary’s Baby, which reads like a perfectly executed book. I think nowadays, the pressure would be on to keep…the surprise of course is that they move in next door to Satan, who somehow impregnates/rapes Rosemary. But you figure that out somehow, right at the beginning. There’s no additional twist to that. There’s a little bit with the husband.

There’s tons of suspense. I can reread that book every year. There is something to be said for a straight-ahead thrillers. They all don’t have to have a game-changer at the end.

RD: Did anyone read Thomas Cook’s Red Leaves? It’s kind of literary. I hope I got the title right. Again, I don’t think there’s any big twist, but it’s suspenseful and well-written crime novel about what would you do if, or believe if your child is accused of committing a crime. It’s a beautiful, poignant well-written book. There’s no great twist.

BC: I think we’re all waiting for the Hollywood twist. Who is more surprised than David [Morrell] when Rambo lived at the end of the movie? Right? You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you read the book, you didn’t.

PS: First Blood did not have a twist, but the movie did.

BC: I was very surprised.

HS: Where in the drafting process do you come up with twists? Is it something you know from the beginning, or something that happens organically? I guess another way of asking this question is whether you are a Pantser or a Plotter. Can you be a Pantser who writes twists?

BC: I’m a hybrid. I set out knowing where I want those moments to be, those pivotal moments in the novel for the reader. But I also know I’m also missing half of what I want to accomplish, and usually as you’re writing it, it falls into place. You get the a-ha moment the further you get into it, when you understand exactly what it is you’re creating. Sometimes, we have an overarching feel for what the story will be, but until you read it and your characters start to take a roll in it, I don’t think we get the whole thing. I think you have to write it to have that happen. That and go to the gym. That’s where all my a-ha moments happen.

RD: I do that, too. When you’re working out in the morning. Sometimes, I think you have to really know the character well, and I think it goes back to whether the twist is organic, and sometimes for me, it comes at the end of the really bad first draft. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, the sense of the ending. It’s nice when the twist comes to you and then you make sure you deliver on that twist. Others will come in the process.

BC: Case in point to that. I don’t know if any of you have heard of this but when M. Night Shyamalan was talking about writing The Sixth Sense, and I think it was the 17th draft, or something crazy like that, when he finally realized that Bruce Willis’s character was dead. That’s the ultimate pantser.

LF: Wow, I would’ve assumed that was the original concept, that he came up with it, so that’s surprising.

JB: I’ve had it both ways. One of my favorite books. I remember sitting in the semi-darkness after everyone in my house had gone to bed. I had an idea for a book, a small-town legal thriller. I suddenly realized one of the relationships in the book was not what I had thought it was, and so everything cascaded into place from that. I had written it, but from there I wrote in six months and it was so easy because everything fell into place. On the other hand, my most recent novel, the one coming out in January, which the first advance review came out, and Kirkus said “hang on for the great double-twist at the end.” I didn’t think of that until I was almost there, and it occurred to me that if this character knows something she must’ve heard it from somewhere, and that changes everything. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to me, until I am into it. The characters don’t develop until I’m actually writing, they don’t develop in the outline stage.

RD: It’s always nice when it works out that way, too. I think that’s the fun part of writing, because then it’s a twist for you. In my first novel, I had that—no spoilers—I realized something, a big twist, only like two-thirds of the way through the novel. I knew there was something in this character’s past, and then I realized what it was, because they revealed it to me, and that was very satisfying. Then, you just have to go back so things build to that point.

JB: Once I realized it, I had already laid in a couple of things to make that work, somewhere in my head I knew it was coming but I didn’t even know it myself…until the 17th draft.

BC: Talk about hanging in there – Where is this book going? I have no idea.

HS: I want to talk about POV a little bit. Layne, Rebecca, and Peter—your latest books kind of feature twisting points of view between chapters, and I want to talk about how all of that lends itself to plot twists, or doesn’t.

LF: My book is told in two points of view and even though there isn’t a game-changing plot twist, there are individual twists for the individual point of view characters. You will see something from one person’s point of view, and then there’s a twist for one character, which the other character already knows. The reader knows. I think you can do a lot with that tension. You’re pulling twists on the characters, even if the reader is aware of what’s going on, you’re still surprising and pulling the rug out from under one of the characters. I think that’s a lot of fun.

PS: Point of view (POV) is a great tool to use to build suspense, and surprise. I’ll go back to Sixth Sense and you’re seeing this one point of view, and that’s kind of where twists can kind of come in. I think it’s hugely important. Writing suspense is about revealing what you’re going to reveal when you reveal it. The author knows everything and can’t reveal it; it’s about holding back information, so one way to do that it to look in through someone else’s eyes, who doesn’t have that information yet. I love those scenes where you see something from two different points of view, and one person knows something and the other person doesn’t. I think that’s brilliant.

RD: Classic suspense. In the latest one, everything else I’d written was third-person, I would do that often and switch between POVs, and then, for some crazy reason, I thought this would be really fun and let’s do first-person and four different points of view; for some weird reason, I must’ve been drinking, I thought that would be easy. I don’t know why. I think because everyone says first-person is so immediate, and then it was like, “God that was so hard.” At some point in the writing process, I’ll bemoan why I wasn’t paying attention in math class, and I should have gone into STEM, and not this but eventually it worked. It was a fun way to do it. I’m actually doing it again.

PS: When you can’t keep track of your days, and when things happen. Is that what you mean?

RD: No. It was like…what do you mean, your schedule?

PS: Yeah, I do that. I’ve had books that bounce back and forth in first-person narratives. In one part, and then my editor will be, “You have this happen on a Wednesday and forgot what’s happening to the person on Thursday.

RD: Oh, yes. Completely. I’ve done that, and it’s hard because you’re the person writing it, and we’re always in the heads of our characters. I feel they’re individual but when I was doing first-person and I was trying to give them a different voice, and then switch and I’ll realize that it’s inconsistent with this character, and catching that feature on drafts is satisfying, but really hard.

LF: Definitely, and they’ll always catch things. Someone said about my book once, a great copy editor who was super-impressed and done the research that at the local hospital where I had set it, that I had the wrong color elevator. I don’t think even Pittsburgh readers are going to know that. Like you know how hospitals have the purple elevators, the silver elevators, and I had the wrong color for whatever floor they were going to. I was super-impressed until I she got to the part she missed where, because of those mix-ups where you’re jumping back and forth, I had Halloween happening in November. Everyone is going to know that!

JB: You didn’t see that coming.

HS: Bruce and Jay, I want to talk a little about writing twists in series, with the Detective Byron and the Edward Hall novels. You have a compact with the reader that the hero is going to make it through okay, maybe psychologically or physically scarred but okay, as opposed to a standalone. You really don’t know if the main character is going to live or die. How do you build in the twist, while honoring that compact with the reader?

BC: There are many different ways. The twist could be about the story in particular to that novel, or the tension buildup and the change from book to book could also be about their personal life. For me, I set out right at the beginning, one of the few things I did accidentally the right way was that when I wrote the first novel and it opened up, I knew exactly where I wanted John Byron to be by the end of the third novel; it was one of the few things that I actually figured out, and so to do that I wanted to take the reader on a journey of the character’s development, or even setback, depending on what it was.

It’s funny because my editor and I generally agree on things. Not always. We don’t come from the same world. He lives on a Wednesday, and I live on a Thursday. We did have an initial disagreement on one part, but I kept it the way I had it, which was that I made a cliffhanger out of whether or not he would succumb to the draw of the bottle in a scene. I intentionally did that and I broke it before it resolved and went to another scene, and he thought that wouldn’t be satisfying for the reader. I fought for that and I got it. Immediately, I started getting private messages from people. ‘Oh my God, I love that. I was so nervous something bad was going to happen.’

Yeah, spoiler. But I think that matters, it’s fun to be able to play with not just the story with reveal or things that will build tension for the reader, whether by twisting or not twisting it, but also with their personal lives. If you’re going to write a series, I think you have to do that.

JB: I didn’t feel constrained by that when I was writing Against the Law because I didn’t intend for it to be a series, until I got the first copy from the publisher and it said, The Edward Hall Series.

HS: That was their twist.

JB: I thought: “Oh, OK, I guess that’s what’s happening now.” [inaudible question from audience] It’s about a lawyer in Houston, who has been disbarred because he broke into a court reporter’s office at the courthouse and had a cocaine feast from the cocaine that had been admitted into evidence. So he’s disbarred and has been out of prison for about a year in the first one [book]. Then his sister is arrested for murder, and these are not Spoiler Alerts; this is all in chapter one. His sister is arrested for murder and wants only him to represent her, so he finds a way to do that, but at the end—No Spoiler Alert—he’s still disbarred, so I’m thinking, “How is he going to get around this?”

I came up with a way. One of the other things is that he has a girlfriend in the first one named Linda, and I was thinking about a sequel. “Maybe he and Linda should be broken up, so he’d be more open to new romantic possibilities and things like that.” My daughter who had read Against the Law said, “You can’t get rid of Linda; she’s a badass.” So, in the second one, Linda has a bigger role instead; that came as bit of a surprise.

HS: I like that.

BC: Did you name the second book Rebar?

JB: Barred Again. The good thing about it now is that the characters are growing with each book. I’m plotting the third one, and not only are they growing in number, but they are deepening, and so you have to be true to that. Not so much about a twist, but that is one of the good things about a series. It used to be with a series that there was this concept of ‘Oh, dear. Another poor girl has gotten engaged to one of the Cartwright boys, so you know she’s dead by the end of that episode because nothing changes from one book to the next.

Spenser and Susan Silverman are still going to be together, but not married for, you know, 120 years. But I don’t do it that way. I have one previous series, and I want things to change each time like they do in real life.

RD: Can I ask a question? Sometimes—does anyone read Elizabeth George? No Spoilers because her [Inspector Lynley] series is great. I was fangirling over the fact that she was here and I’d never gotten to hear her speak. Anyway, it’s a long-running mystery series, and I don’t remember which number the book is in the series but she killed off a significant character, a side character but still a very significant character. I loved the book, and I found that the most satisfying—there’s literally not a boring moment in that book, and it worked so well in the book and gave—because the series had been so long running—the series new direction to it, and gave a new problem for the protagonist. It really moved. It’s been a while, but I remember there was a lot of flak from readers because it was very unexpected. People were very upset that this character was eliminated.

BC: Speaking of Elizabeth George. Here’s a twist for you. I’ve been looking to meet her, to thank her for picking my short story [“Fool Proof”] for Best American Mystery Stories in 2016. No success. I found nobody who would be willing to give me her private contact information. I ran into her and thanked her, outside of the bathroom the other day. I did not see that coming.

HS: Again, for the panel at large. Are there any twists that you would never write? That’s like a spoiler for future books.

BC: Bathroom scene with Elizabeth George.

HS: What about you Layne? You were saying that because something was holding you back, and you didn’t want to write that.

LF: Yeah, unless it was a really amazing twist. I’d rather go without. Something I’d never write, because we’re in Dallas, is “It was all just a dream” at the end.

JB: That’s a good one. You wouldn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t write something where it turns out that the person was something they completely were not, without having little clues to signify to the alert reader that maybe this person is not exactly who they think they would be. I wouldn’t do, “Aha, I didn’t tell you I had a twin brother. He was in the room that night.”

RD: The same. I don’t think anything should be off limits to writers. We’re supposed to get in the minds about tis the beauty of it. You get to live in other people’s worlds, and you are supposed to develop, I think, empathy and understanding for other people. I would hope that you are never so desperate on deadline to do that—go for the cheap twist that isn’t organic with the character, because “I need something, and they’re pressuring me to do that triple flip, and I need to do something.”  I hope I wouldn’t do that.

PS: There was this tradition in the 50s and 60s. Beast in View [1955, Margaret Millar] was one of them, where the twist were sort of centered around who was a man and who was a woman. There’s some trickery there with gender roles, which I think at this point in time and history would come off as kind of cheap because they were used in an exploitative way. In a weird way The Crying Game, which is actually a movie I actually loved, kind of played along that shock and exploitation quality of the woman who turned out to be a man, especially the way they revealed that. I don’t think I would go down that road, unless I felt I could do it in an interesting, contemporary way.

LF: In The Crying Game, I think what’s interesting about that is that you’re right in that it was early in people understanding trans, but I think what’s really effective about it is that it’s dealing with the character’s prejudices—the one who it is revealed to; so again, I didn’t feel it was cheap because it is so tied to his movement across the course of the movie, his understanding outside of his own world, and what love is, and expanding on that definition.

PS: I don’t think it was cheap. I think it played cheap, a little, because I remember seeing it in the movie theater, where there was a lot of outrage. I think it played cheap, but I don’t think it was. The film itself was an interesting exploration of that idea.

BC: And I don’t think you can do that because it has to be seeded. Everything that you put in, everything that precedes that has to set it up, regardless of how many flips it is, or how many times it flips back and forth. It has to be seeded. I don’t think for the readership you wouldn’t want to do it, because you’d become the unreliable writer and nobody would want to read your books.

JB: I’ll give you a great example of that. Years ago I remember reading a short story in an anthology, and the great thing about mystery anthologies is the chance to discover writers you didn’t know before. You go into it looking for favorite writers because they contributed but if you’re lucky you’ll find others there, too. I read a short story by a very well-known mystery writer, but one whose works I have never read. It was a murder mystery that takes place in an apartment, in an apartment building, and it’s a short story. Several people got glimpses of the murderer, and they had varying descriptions, as they always do, and the one thing they all agreed upon was that it was a woman, so everybody was insistent about that. As a reader, you’re like, “Ok, here are the suspects, and here are the three or four women, who are suspects and, in the end, it was revealed to be a man. The man said, “Well, I kind of have longish hair and I’m fairly short, and I’ve often been mistaken for a woman.” I thought, “Crap!” I have a friend who is five-four, and he’s never been mistaken for a woman in his life. Serena Williams is tall, with great arms, and she’s never been mistaken for a man, let me tell you. That was just completely unfair to the reader.

RD: I will say that I was on a beach in Hawaii once, and I was walking and very happily pregnant, in that state I know women can empathize that it’s always your dream to be enormous in paradise. I was waddling along the beach with my husband, behind this very attractive woman who was wearing a pink bikini, and with very long hair and with a beautiful figure that I took to be feminine, and the hair was all the way down the back so that you couldn’t see the top of the bikini and then when we finally passed, I was surprised that it was a man. It was slightly startling and nothing else. I thought, wow, you’re beautiful.

BC: Was your husband pretending not to look?

RD: Probably. He’s a smart man.

JB: See, anything can happen in real life, because real life has no standards of believability.

RD: That’s so true.

HS: But straight to your point there about the short story. You bring up a good point too. If you have to spend a lot time in the denouement explaining Why this twist works, then maybe that’s a problem, which leads me to a question about so if satisfying twists are built on seeding throughout your narrative that this is eventually where we are going to go. How do you size clues so that they are not too subtle or too large to alert someone that, “Oh, it’s going to be this in another 200 pages?”

LF: I’m having this problem right now with my current book. There are definitely some twists in there. A lot of the revision process is turning the volume up and down on the clues because you want them to be there so that when the twist happens, people can go back and see them, but you don’t want to be telegraphing them too much. It’s really hard because as an author you know everything that’s going to happen because you made it up and you’re reading it so many times and it all seems obvious to you as the author. That’s what I find hard. You get to a point where, “Of course that’s going to happen” because that’s what you came up with, and you’ve been sitting with it for so long. I try to adjust the volume, and then have someone read it who doesn’t know the twist and ask them a lot of leading questions and see what they say.

BC: You can also and one of the things I’ll use—these are procedurals I’m writing. One of the things I’ll use, is you’ll come to have faith in the characters and a faith in their ability to investigate. I think a lot of times what gives things away is that it seems that the author is misdirecting you from what it is you don’t want you to see, and so I’ll have detectives ponder these possibilities including the one that is actually the right one, but if they discount that, then the reader is going to go along with that, and later on it’s, “Ah.” So the character finds out as the reader finds out; it’s a good tool. It’s not cheap when you’re actually talking about it, but you sort of discount it.

PS: I think as a writer, this is when being a reader comes in really handy for craft. Sometimes what I’ll do when I am building a book, I’ll give myself a reading list of books that did similar things with the twist, and I read them as see how they did them, and the parts that worked for me and the parts that didn’t—because it’s really tricky because you don’t want to give it away, but you’re right, you can’t not foreshadow it all, because that’s cheating as well. It’s hard to know sometimes with a reader because as a writer, you giving every sentence a ton of attention and they are just flying through it. It’s different, so I rely on myself as a reader, and I make sure I read books that did a similar thing. I did that recently with Robert Bloch’s Psycho, which I hadn’t read in years, because it did something I wanted to do in a book. It’s really helpful.

RD: I think that’s really great advice. I think it’s also good advice where you were saying earlier about keeping it from being boring, because again sometimes as a writer you’re in it because you like the craft and you’re laboring over sentences, which the readers are going to flit past, and you want it to be a smooth ride, like never lift-your-eyes-from-the-page experience. I always say this from having given enough talks that the suspense is over for me because you have some sense of how it’s going to end up, so the hardest thing is knowing whether that’s going to work or not. I like how Layne put it, turning up and down the volume, because that’s what you’re always tweaking and re-tweaking, and having an outside reader is essential.

JB: One way I did this in the book I was talking about earlier is the twist involves someone’s parentage. To be fair to the reader, I had to raise that as a question. If I raised that as a question, that was ongoing throughout the book, well, that was gonna be too big a signal, and so what I did was—I said it was set in a small town with an outsider there. If there’s a mystery in a small town, then gossip will solve it. I had someone, a townsperson, tell the outsider, “We used to wonder about this, but then we figure out this, this was who, because she used to have a sister and the sister disappeared so this is clearly…” and so it was solved. It was a little mystery but it was solved by gossip. But sometimes gossip is wrong, and just like the police detectives pondering something and deciding it’s wrong, you can disguise it by having someone saying this is how it happened, like the town know-it-all, but it turns out that the town know-it-all doesn’t know it all. That’s one way.

HS: So, we are about 10 minutes out and I want to make sure we leave time for questions. Anyone have any questions?

Let me rephrase the question, in case you didn’t hear it. In the case of the Maltese Falcon, which is basically a twist on top of each other, Is there such a thing as too many twists?

RD: I think if you do it effectively. Let’s look at Harlan Coben. Some people may argue that’s too many. I think it’s personal with the author, and if you’re capable of it. There’s always going to be somebody capable of doing that quadruple axle. Again, the reader will let you know. I don’t think so, but it depends on the book because there’s a little bit of whiplash with that. What is a satisfying read? If there are so many that it becomes again a spoiler because you know every five minutes something else is going to happen here. Do we cease to feel that level of suspense? Does it deliver on the level of emotional impact? You want to have that satisfying ride.

PS: There can definitely can be too many twists. I can think of a contemporary book I read recently where they put in two twists that they didn’t need in the end. With something like Maltese Falcon, it’s a twisty ride like The Big Sleep because there are so many people and changes as they rush in. I don’t know if they’re twists, though. It’s a rogues gallery of such great characters that you can lose the plot in that book or movie and still be enjoying your time. It’s a slightly different thing. I do believe there can be too many twists.

BC: I have to agree with that. One of the things that makes the twist work is that you have to care as a reader. If you overdo that, and there’s not enough room to build where you care for what’s happening. You have to be invested in it as the reader. I think if you can overdo it if there’s not enough time to build that up. Some sympathy for what’s happening.

JB: I love the Maltese Falcon, both the book and the movie. I’ve read and seen the movie multiple times. What is great about it and keeps you going is those characters. Those characters, and each of them is true to his character throughout. The whole character isn’t revealed. I think it plays very fair. For example, you don’t see it the first time when you watch it, but when his partner gets killed while he’s following someone, he has his hands in his pockets. You see it from the killer’s point of view, and he has his hands in pockets and there’s a little smile on his face. He would not be doing it if Floyd Thursby was the one pointing the gun at him, so I think it plays fair.

LF: I think if there’s too many, it can get exhausting. Like with anything, it’s pacing. You have to give people room to breathe and invest, like you said. If it is coming fast and furious, people get tired and want to put the book down. I think that’s true with sex scenes, too – if there are too many each individual one loses its power. So same thing with twists.

HS: A question from the gentleman for Rebecca. How do you create a twist that hasn’t been done before?

RD: I don’t think you can. I think all of them have been done. Honestly.

LF: I think if you think of it that way, you’re putting so much pressure on yourself. It gets harder to do, again it has to come out of character and out of the story.

BC: I think we should charge for that answer. If you’ll see us afterwards, we’ll be happy to tell you.

PS: Also, do you actually have a twist that’s never been done before? That you want to sell to us? [laughter]

HS: The question is, Have you had a review that reveals the twist?

BC: Yes, and it makes you want to kill the reviewer.

Posted in American Writers, Mystery, Women Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Left Coast Crime 2020 Eligible Titles

Lefty Award Eligible* titles for Left Coast Crime Conference, March 12-15, 2020 in San Diego, CA. Eligible means published in 2019.

  • Best Humorous Novel
  • Best Historical Mystery Novel [pre-1970]
  • Best Mystery Novel
  • Best Debut Novel

*Check this site periodically, since it will be updated. Nominations are due electronically by 12 January 2020; the email has been sent to eligible voters.

Authors: Please verify that your title is eligible and in the appropriate category. Contact me via this page for Additions/Corrections. Please review the quote below from LCC web.

To be eligible, titles must have been published for the first time in the United States or Canada during the calendar year preceding the convention, in book or ebook format. If published in other countries before the calendar year preceding the convention, a book is still eligible if it meets the US or Canadian publication requirement.

Best Humorous Mystery Novel

  • Donna Andrews. Terns of Endearment.
  • Mary Angela. Coming Up Murder.
  • Leslie Budewitz. Chai Another Day.
  • Lucy Burdette. A Deadly Feast.
  • V.M. Burns. Wed, Read & Dead.
  • Ellen Byron. Fatal Cajun Festival.
  • E.J. Copperman. Bones Behind the Wheel.
  • Vicki Delany. Silent Night, Deadly Night.
  • Mary Feliz. Cliff Hanger.
  • Angela Henry. Doing it to Death.
  • Katherine Bolger Hyde. Cyanide with Christie.
  • Lee Goldberg. Killer Thriller.
  • Debra Goldstein. One Taste Too Many.
  • Jenna Harte. Death of a Debtor.
  • Sybil Johnson. Ghosts of Painting Past.
  • Leslie Karst. Murder from Scratch.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. The Subject of Malice.
  • Jess Lourey. April Fools.
  • Alice Loweecey. Better than Nun.
  • D.P. Lyle. Sunshine State.
  • Catriona McPherson. Scot & Soda.
  • Leigh Perry. The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. The House on Hallowed Ground.
  • Abby L. Vandiver. Potions, Tells and Deadly Spells.

Best Historical Mystery Novel [Note: pre-1970]

  • Rhys Bowen. Love and Death Among the Cheetahs.
  • Susanna Calkins. Murder Knocks Twice.
  • L.A. Chandlar. The Pearl Dagger.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Uncovered.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Encountered.
  • Margaret Dumas. Murder at the Palace.
  • Lyndsay Faye. Paragon Hotel.
  • Mariah Fredericks. Death of a New American.
  • Dianne Freeman. A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder.
  • Nancy Herriman. A Fall of Shadows.
  • Meghan Holloway. Once More Unto the Breach.
  • Kay Kendall. After You’ve Gone.
  • Jennifer Kincheloe. The Body in Griffith Park.
  • Bonnie MacBird. The Devil’s Due.
  • Sujata Massey. The Satapur Moonstone.
  • Alyssa Maxwell. Murder at Crossways.
  • Edith Maxwell. Charity’s Burden.
  • Clara McKenna. Murder at Morrington Hall.
  • Allison Montclair. The Right Sort of Man.
  • Jess Montgomery. The Widows.
  • Catriona McPherson. A Step So Grave.
  • Steph Post. Miraculum.
  • Sarah Shaber. Louise’s Crossing.
  • Star, Sue and Bill Beatty. Burning Candles.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Vicki Thompson. Murder on Trinity Place.
  • Jeri Westerson. Traitor’s Codex.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.
  • James Ziskin. A Stone’s Throw.

Best Mystery Novel

  • Cathy Ace. The Wrong Boy.
  • JD Allen. Skin Game.
  • Ed Aymar. The Unrepentant.
  • R.G. Belsky. Below the Fold.
  • Connie Berry. A Legacy of Murder.
  • Susan Bickford Dread of Winter.
  • Allison Brooks. Buried in the Stacks.
  • J.L. Brown. The Divide.
  • Catherine Bruns. Penne Dreadful.
  • Alafair Burke. Better Sister.
  • V.M. Burns. Motherless Child.
  • Austin Camacho. The Wrong Kind.
  • Richard Cass. Last Call at the Esposito.
  • Steph Cha. Your House Will Pay.
  • Donna Walo Clancy. Seashells and Christmas Bells.
  • Tiffany Clark. Borrowed Time.
  • Megan Collins. The Winter Sister.
  • Ellison Cooper. Buried: A Novel.
  • S.A. Cosby. My Darkest Prayer.
  • Blake Crouch. Recursion.
  • Annette Dashofy. Fair Game.
  • Hannah Dennison. Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall.
  • Aya De León. Side Chick Nation.
  • P.A. De Voe. No Way to Die.
  • Kaitlyn Dunnett. Cause & Effect (Deadly Edits)
  • Tori Eldridge. The Ninja’s Daughter.
  • Sharon Farrow. Mulberry Mischief.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder At Royale Court.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder at the Arts and Crafts Festival.
  • Eva Gates. Read and Buried.
  • Eva Gates. Something Read, Something Dead.
  • Victoria Gilbert. Past Due for Murder.
  • Lee Matthew Goldberg. Desire Card.
  • Carol Goodman. The Night Visitors.
  • Alexia Gordon. Fatality in F.
  • Marni Graff. Death at the Dakota.
  • Lena Gregory. Spirited Away.
  • Cheryl Head. Catch Me When I’m Falling.
  • Rachel Howzell Hall. All Things Fall Down.
  • Sherry Harris. The Gun Also Rises.
  • Sherry Harris. Let’s Fake A Deal.
  • Sherry Harris. Sell Low, Sweet Harriet.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. The Things That Are Different.
  • Julia Henry. Pruning the Dead.
  • Julia Henry. Tilling the Truth.
  • Edwin Hill. The Missing Ones.
  • Reese Hirsch. Black Nowhere.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs.
  • Cheryl Hollon. Down in Flames.
  • Julie Holmes. Murder in Plane Sight.
  • Mary Ellen Hughes. A Curio Killing.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Genuine Fix.
  • Ausma Khan. A Deadly Divide.
  • Thomas Kies. Graveyard Bay.
  • Shannon Kirk. Gretchen.
  • Kristen Lepionka. The Stories.
  • Kylie Logan. The Scent of Murder.
  • Kathryn Long. Buried in Sin.
  • Lisa Lutz. The Swallows.
  • Meg Macy. Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.
  • Isabella Maldonado. Death Blow.
  • Jamie Mason. The Hidden Things.
  • Catherine Maiorisi. The Blood Runs Cold.
  • Laura McHugh. The Wolf Wants In.
  • Catriona McPherson. Strangers at the Gate.
  • Liz Milliron. Heaven Has No Rage.
  • Gigi Pandian. The Glass Thief.
  • Carol J. Perry. Late Checkout.
  • Carol J. Perry. Final Exam.
  • Delilah C. Pitts. Black and Blue in Harlem.
  • Keenan Powell. Hemlock Needle.
  • Lissa Redmond. A Means to An End.
  • Barbara Ross. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody.
  • Barbara Ross. Sealed Off.
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan. The Murder List.
  • Alex Segura. Miami Midnight.
  • Terry Shames. A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary.
  • Judy Penz Sheluk. A Fool’s Journey.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. Murder on the Chopping Block.
  • Faye Snowden. A Killing Fire.
  • Stacy-Deanne. The Stranger.
  • Triss Stein. Brooklyn Legacies.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Wendy Tyson. Ripe for Vengeance.
  • Kathleen Valenti. As Directed.
  • John Vercher. Three-Fifths.
  • Lea Wait. Thread and Buried.
  • LynDee Walker. Deadly Politics.
  • LynDee Walker. Leave No Stone.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me no Secrets.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me You Love Me.
  • Marty Wingate. The Bodies in the Library.
  • Erica Wright. Famous in Cedarville

Best Debut Mystery Novel

  • Nicole Asselin. Murder at First Pitch.
  • Andi Bartz. The Lost Night.
  • Connie Berry. A Dream of Death.
  • Damyanti Biswas. You Beneath Your Skin.
  • Kelly Brakehoff. Death by Dissertation.
  • Sharon Daynard. Murder Points North.
  • Heather Harper Ellett. Ain’t Nobody Nobody.
  • Nancy Good. Killer Calories.
  • Julie Holmes. Murder in Plane Sight.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Literal Mess.
  • Angie Kim. Miracle Creek.
  • Tara Laskowski. One Night Gone.
  • Vanessa Lille. Little Voices.
  • Richie Narváez. Hipster Death Rattle.
  • Nuckolls, Baird and James Sands. Shattered Angel.
  • S.C. Perkins. Murder Once Removed.
  • Daniela Petrova. Her Mother’s Daughter.
  • Ang Pompano. When It’s Time for Leaving.
  • Cynthia Tolbert. Out from Silence.
  • Grace Topping. Staging for Murder.
  • Carl Vonderau. Murderabilia
  • Kate Young. Southern Sass and Killer Cravings.
Posted in American Writers | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Agatha Award Eligible Titles for Malice Domestic 32

Agatha Award Eligible* titles for Malice Domestic 32, May 1-3, 2020 in Bethesda, MD. Eligible means published in 2019.

  • Best Contemporary Novel
  • Best Historical [pre-1960]
  • Best First Novel
  • Best Nonfiction
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Children/ Young Adult

*Check this site periodically, since it will be updated. Nominations are due electronically by 10 January 2020; the link has been sent to voters.

Authors: Please verify that your title is eligible and in the appropriate category. Contact me via this page for Additions/Corrections. Please review the quote below from Malice Domestic.

The Agatha Awards will be awarded at Malice Domestic 32 for books and stories first published in the United States by a living author during the calendar year 2019 (January 1-December 31), either in hardcover, as a paperback original, or as an e-book by an e-publishing firm.

The Agatha Awards honor the “traditional mystery,” books typified by the works of Agatha Christie and others. For our purposes, the genre is loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and are not classified as “hard-boiled.”

Best Contemporary Novel

  • Cathy Ace. The Wrong Boy.
  • Donna Andrews. Terns of Endearment.
  • Mary Angela. Coming Up Murder.
  • R.G. Belsky. Below the Fold.
  • Connie Berry. A Legacy of Murder.
  • Allison Brooks. Buried in the Stacks.
  • Catherine Bruns. Penne Dreadful.
  • Leslie Budewitz. Chai Another Day.
  • Lucy Burdette. A Deadly Feast.
  • V.M. Burns. Wed, Read & Dead.
  • Ellen Byron. Fatal Cajun Festival.
  • Donna Walo Clancy. Seashells and Christmas Bells.
  • Ellison Cooper. Buried: A Novel.
  • E.J. Copperman. Bones Behind the Wheel.
  • Annette Dashofy. Fair Game.
  • Vicki Delany. Silent Night, Deadly Night.
  • Hannah Dennison. Tidings of Death at Honeychurch Hall.
  • P.A. De Voe. No Way to Die.
  • Elizabeth J. Duncan. Remembering the Dead.
  • Kaitlyn Dunnett. Clause & Effect (Deadly Edits)
  • Sharon Farrow. Mulberry Mischief.
  • Mary Feliz. Cliff Hanger.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder At Royale Court.
  • G.P. Gardner. Murder at the Arts and Crafts Festival.
  • Eva Gates. Read and Buried.
  • Eva Gates. Something Read, Something Dead.
  • Victoria Gilbert. Past Due for Murder.
  • Debra Goldstein. One Taste Too Many.
  • Carol Goodman. The Night Visitors.
  • Alexia Gordon. Fatality in F.
  • Marni Graff. Death at the Dakota.
  • Lena Gregory. Spirited Away.
  • Sherry Harris. The Gun Also Rises.
  • Sherry Harris. Let’s Fake A Deal.
  • Sherry Harris. Sell Low, Sweet Harriet.
  • Jenna Harte. Death of a Debtor.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. The Things That Are Different.
  • Julia Henry. Pruning the Dead.
  • Julia Henry. Tilling the Truth.
  • Edwin Hill. The Missing Ones.
  • Aimee Hix. Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs.
  • Cheryl Hollon. Down in Flames.
  • Mary Ellen Hughes. A Curio Killing.
  • Leslie Karst. Murder from Scratch.
  • Tina Kashian. One Feta in the Grave.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Genuine Fix.
  • Thomas Kies. Graveyard Bay.
  • Kylie Logan. The Scent of Murder.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. The Subject of Malice.
  • Kathryn Long. Buried in Sin.
  • Alice Loweecey. Better than Nun.
  • Meg Macy. Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.
  • Catherine Maiorisi. The Blood Runs Cold.
  • Liz Milliron. Heaven Has No Rage.
  • Catriona McPherson. Strangers at the Gate.
  • Gigi Pandian. The Glass Thief.
  • Carol J. Perry. Late Checkout.
  • Carol J. Perry. Final Exam.
  • Leigh Perry. The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking.
  • Keenan Powell. Hemlock Needle.
  • Lissa Redmond. A Means to An End.
  • Barbara Ross. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody.
  • Barbara Ross. Sealed Off.
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan. The Murder List.
  • Alex Segura. Miami Midnight.
  • Terry Shames. A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. The House on Hallowed Ground.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. Murder on the Chopping Block.
  • Triss Stein. Brooklyn Legacies.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Wendy Tyson. Ripe for Vengeance.
  • Kathleen Valenti. As Directed.
  • Lea Wait. Thread and Buried.
  • LynDee Walker. Deadly Politics.
  • LynDee Walker. Leave No Stone.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me no Secrets.
  • Lynn Chandler Willis. Tell Me You Love Me.
  • Marty Wingate. The Bodies in the Library.
  • Erica Wright. Famous in Cedarville.

Best Historical [Note: pre-1960]

  • Rhys Bowen. Love and Death Among the Cheetahs.
  • Susanna Calkins. Murder Knocks Twice.
  • L.A. Chandlar. The Pearl Dagger.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Uncovered.
  • Peg Cochran. Murder, She Encountered.
  • Lyndsay Faye. Paragon Hotel.
  • Mariah Fredericks. Death of a New American.
  • Dianne Freeman. A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder.
  • Nancy Herriman. A Fall of Shadows.
  • Jennifer Kincheloe. The Body in Griffith Park.
  • Bonnie MacBird. The Devil’s Due.
  • Alyssa Maxwell. Murder at Crossways.
  • Edith Maxwell. Charity’s Burden.
  • Clara McKenna. Murder at Morrington Hall.
  • Allison Montclair. The Right Sort of Man.
  • Jess Montgomery. The Widows.
  • Catriona McPherson. A Step So Grave.
  • Sarah Shaber. Louise’s Crossing.
  • Cathi Stoler. Out of Time.
  • Vicki Thompson. Murder on Trinity Place.
  • Jeri Westerson. Traitor’s Codex.
  • Gabriel Valjan. The Naming Game.

Best First Novel

  • Nicole Asselin. Murder at First Pitch.
  • Connie Berry. A Dream of Death.
  • Kelly Brakehoff. Death by Dissertation.
  • Sharon Daynard. Murder Points North.
  • Nancy Good. Killer Calories.
  • J.C. Kenney. A Literal Mess.
  • Tara Laskowski. One Night Gone.
  • Richie Narváez. Hipster Death Rattle.
  • S.C. Perkins. Murder Once Removed.
  • Ang Pompano. When It’s Time for Leaving.
  • Cynthia Tolbert. Out from Silence.
  • Grace Topping. Staging for Murder.
  • Kate Young. Southern Sass and Killer Cravings.

Best Nonfiction

Best Short Story

  • Tina de Bellegarde. “Second Chances” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Micki Browning. “Revisions” in Writers at Work.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “A Death in Yelapa” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Leslie Budewitz. “Miss Starr’s Good-bye” in AHMM
  • Susanna Calkins. “Tea Leaf” in Trouble & Strife.
  • Dara Carr. “Emily and Elodie” in Black Cat Mystery.
  • Bruce Coffin. “Old-Fashioned” in Dark Yonder: Tales & Tabs.
  • David Dean. “Reyna” in Crime Travel.
  • T.Y. Euliano. “The Choices We Make” in The Society of Misfit Stories Present…(Vol. 1 Issue 3)
  • Tracy Falenwolfe. “Partners in Crime” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5.
  • Kaye George. “Grist for the Mill” in A Murder of Crows.
  • Barb Goffman. “Alex’s Choice” in Crime Travel.
  • Barb Goffman. “Punching Bag” in Flash Bang Mysteries.
  • Barb Goffman. “Power Behind the Throne” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Pig Lickin’ Good” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Debra Goldstein. “Nova, Capers, and a Shmear of Cream Cheese” in Fishy Business.
  • Peter W.J. Hayes. “Pretty Dreams” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Kristin Kiska. “Snowbirding” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Eleanor Cawood Jones. “O Crime, In Thy Flight” in Crime Travel.
  • Cynthia Kuhn. “The Blue Ribbon” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Joan Long. “The Extra Ingredient” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ramona DeFelice Long. “Moe’s Seafood” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, vol. 4.
  • G.M. Malliet. “Whiteout” in EQMM.
  • Edith Maxwell. “Sushi Lessons” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Ruth McCarty. “Killer Chocolate Chips” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Adam Meyer. “The Fourteenth Floor” in Crime Travel.
  • M.A. Monin. “Bad Ju-Ju” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Terrie Farley Moran. “Flamingo Road” in AHMM.
  • Richie Narvaez. “None of This Is On the Map” in EQMM.
  • Laura Oles. “The Deed” in Diamonds, Denim and Death: Bouchercon 50th Anniversary Anthology.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Secret Lagoon” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “A Study in Scarlett” in EQMM.
  • Josh Pachter. “Cremains of the Day” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Josh Pachter. “The Two-Body Problem” in Mystery Weekly Magazine.
  • Ang Pompano. “Stringer” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Ang Pompano. “Diet of Death” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Merrilee Robson. “Stealth” in The Desperate and the Damned.
  • Merrilee Robson. “A Locked Co-op Mystery” in Mystery Weekly.
  • Harriette Sackler. “Honor Thy Father” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Harriette Sackler. “If I Should Die” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Terry Shames. “Bring it” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Nancy Cole Silverman. “The Gourmand” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons. “The Last Word” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Earning” at Mystery Tribune.
  • J.B. Stevens. “Clean By” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Gerald So. “Fred” at Mystery Tribune.
  • Cathi Stoler. “That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It” in Mysterical-E.
  • Cynthia Sabelhaus. “Soup” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Art Taylor. “Better Days” in EQMM.
  • Gabriel Valjan. “Monsters Don’t Sleep At Night” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Heather Weidner. “Art Attack” in Deadly Southern Charm.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “New Energy” in EQMM.
  • Vicki Weisfeld. “The Ghost Who Read the Newspaper” in Seascape: Best New England Crime Stories.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Secret Blend” in Malice Domestic 14:  Mystery Most Edible.
  • Stacy Woodson. “The Retirement Plan” in EQMM.
  • Jeri Westerson. “Last Pole on the Left: A Santa Noir Story” Dragua Press.

Best Children/Young Children

  • Sheila Scobba Banning. Lockdown.
  • Mary Downing Hahn. Guest: A Changeling Tale.
  • Shauna Holyoak. Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers.
  • Karen MacManus. Two Can Keep a Secret…If One of Us Is Dead.
  • Rodman Philbrick. Wildfire.
  • Robin Stevens. Top Marks for Murder.
  • Matthew Swanson. The Real McCoys: Wonder Undercover.
  • Krista Van Dolzer. The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten.
  • Sherri Winston. Jada Sly, Artist and Spy.
Posted in American Writers, Mystery | Tagged , , | 89 Comments

Excerpt from Dirty Old Town: A Shane Cleary Mystery

Bait

The phone rang. Not that I heard it at first, but Delilah, who was lying next to me, kicked me in the ribs. Good thing she did because a call, no matter what the hour, meant business, and my cat had a better sense of finances than I did. Rent was overdue on the apartment, and we were living out of my office in downtown Boston to avoid my landlord in the South End. The phone trilled.

Again, and again, it rang.

I staggered through the darkness to the desk and picked up the receiver. Out of spite I didn’t say a word. I’d let the caller who’d ruined my sleep start the conversation.

“Mr. Shane Cleary?” a gruff voice asked.

“Maybe.”

The obnoxious noise in my ear indicated the phone had been handed to someone else. The crusty voice was playing operator for the real boss.

“Shane, old pal. It’s BB.”

Dread as ancient as the schoolyard blues spread through me. Those familiar initials also made me think of monogrammed towels and cufflinks. I checked the clock.

“Brayton Braddock. Remember me?”

“It’s two in the morning, Bray. What do you want?”

Calling him Bray was intended as a jab, to remind him his name was one syllable away from the sound of a jackass. BB was what he’d called himself when we were kids, because he thought it was cool. It wasn’t. He thought it made him one of the guys. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop him. Money creates delusions. Old money guarantees them.

“I need your help.”

“At this hour?”

“Don’t be like that.”

“What’s this about, Bray?”

Delilah meowed at my feet and did figure eights around my legs. My gal was telling me I was dealing with a snake, and she preferred I didn’t take the assignment, no matter how much it paid us. But how could I not listen to Brayton Braddock III? I needed the money. Delilah and I were both on a first-name basis with Charlie the Tuna, given the number of cans of Starkist around the office. Anyone who told you poverty was noble is a damn fool.

“I’d rather talk about this in person, Shane.”

I fumbled for pen and paper.

“When and where?”

“Beacon Hill. My driver is on his way.”

“But—”

I heard the click. I could’ve walked from my office to the Hill. I turned on the desk light and answered the worried eyes and mew. “Looks like we both might have some high-end kibble in our future, Dee.”

She understood what I’d said. Her body bumped the side of my leg. She issued plaintive yelps of disapproval. The one opinion I wanted, from the female I trusted most, and she couldn’t speak human.

I scraped my face smooth with a tired razor and threw on a clean dress shirt, blue, and slacks, dark and pressed. I might be poor, but my mother and then the military had taught me dignity and decency at all times. I dressed conservatively, never hip or loud. Another thing the Army taught me was not to stand out. Be the gray man in any group. It wasn’t like Braddock and his milieu understood contemporary fashion, widespread collars, leisure suits, or platform shoes.

I choose not to wear a tie, just to offend his Brahmin sensibilities. Beacon Hill was where the Elites, the Movers and Shakers in Boston lived, as far back to the days of John Winthrop. At this hour, I expected Braddock in nothing less than bespoke Parisian couture. I gave thought as to whether I should carry or not. I had enemies, and a .38 snub-nose under my left armpit was both insurance and deodorant.

Not knowing how long I’d be gone, I fortified Delilah with the canned stuff. She kept time better than any of the Bruins referees and there was always a present outside the penalty box when I ran overtime with her meals. I meted out extra portions of tuna and the last of the dry food for her.

I checked the window. A sleek Continental slid into place across the street. I admired the chauffeur’s skill at mooring the leviathan. He flashed the headlights to announce his arrival. Impressed that he knew that I knew he was there, I said goodbye, locked and deadbolted the door for the walk down to Washington Street and the car.

Outside the air, severe and cold as the city’s forefathers, slapped my cheeks numb. Stupid me had forgotten gloves. My fingers were almost blue. Good thing the car was yards away, idling, the exhaust rising behind it. I cupped my hands and blew hot air into them and crossed the street. I wouldn’t dignify poor planning on my part with a sprint.

Minimal traffic. Not a word from him or me during the ride. Boston goes to sleep at 12:30 a.m. Public transit does its last call at that hour. Checkered hacks scavenge the streets for fares in the small hours before sunrise. The other side of the city comes alive then, before the rest of the town awakes, before whatever time Mr. Coffee hits the filter and grounds. While men and women who slept until an alarm clock sprung them forward into another day, another repeat of their daily routine, the sitcom of their lives, all for the hallelujah of a paycheck, another set of people moved, with their ties yanked down, shirts and skirts unbuttoned, and tails pulled up and out. The night life, the good life was on. The distinguished set in search of young flesh migrated to the Chess Room on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, and a certain crowd shifted down to the Playland on Essex, where drag queens, truck drivers, and curious college boys mixed more than drinks.

The car was warmer than my office and the radio dialed to stultifying mood music. Light from one of the streetlamps revealed a business card on the seat next to me. I reviewed it: Braddock’s card, the usual details on the front, a phone number in ink. A man’s handwriting on the back when I turned it over. I pocketed it.

All I saw in front of me from my angle in the backseat was a five-cornered hat, not unlike a policeman’s cover, and a pair of black gloves on the wheel. On the occasion of a turn, I was given a profile. No matinee idol there and yet his face looked as familiar as the character actor whose name escapes you. I’d say he was mid-thirties, about my height, which is a liar’s hair under six-foot, and the spread of his shoulders hinted at a hundred-eighty pounds, which made me feel self-conscious and underfed because I’m a hundred-sixty in shoes.

He eased the car to a halt, pushed a button, and the bolt on my door shot upright. Job or no job, I never believed any man was another man’s servant. I thanked him and I watched the head nod.

Outside on the pavement, the cold air knifed my lungs. A light turned on. The glow invited me to consider the flight of stairs with no railing. Even in their architecture, Boston’s aristocracy reminded everyone that any form of ascent needed assistance.

A woman took my winter coat, and a butler said hello. I recognized his voice from the phone. He led and I followed. Wide shoulders and height were apparently in vogue because Braddock had chosen the best from the catalog for driver and butler. I knew the etiquette that came with class distinction. I would not be announced, but merely allowed to slip in.

Logs in the fireplace crackled. Orange and red hues flickered against all the walls. Cozy and intimate for him, a room in hell for me. Braddock waited there, in his armchair, Hefner smoking jacket on. I hadn’t seen the man in almost ten years, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. His parents had done their bit after my mother’s death before foster care swallowed me up. Not so much as a birthday or Christmas card from them or their son since then, and now their prince was calling on me.

Not yet thirty, Braddock manifested a decadence that came with wealth. A pronounced belly, round as a teapot, and when he stood up, I confronted an anemic face, thin lips, and a receding hairline. Middle-age, around the corner for him, suggested a bad toupee and a nubile mistress, if he didn’t have one already. He approached me and did a boxer’s bob and weave. I sparred when I was younger. The things people remembered about you always surprised me. Stuck in the past, and yet Braddock had enough presence of mind to know my occupation and drop the proverbial dime to call me.

“Still got that devastating left hook?” he asked.

“I might.”

“I appreciate your coming on short notice.” He indicated a chair, but I declined. “I have a situation,” he said. He pointed to a decanter of brandy. “Like some…Henri IV Heritage, aged in oak for a century.”

He headed for the small bar to pour me some of his precious Heritage. His drink sat on a small table next to his chair. The decanter waited for him on a liquor caddy with a glass counter and a rotary phone. I reacquainted myself with the room and décor.

I had forgotten how high the ceilings were in these brownstones. The only warm thing in the room was the fire. The heating bill here alone would’ve surpassed the mortgage payment my parents used to pay on our place. The marble, white as it was, was sepulchral. Two nude caryatids for the columns in the fireplace had their eyes closed. The Axminster carpet underfoot, likely an heirloom from one of Cromwell’s cohorts in the family tree, displayed a graphic hunting scene.

I took one look at the decanter, saw all the studded diamonds, and knew Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would have done the set number of paces with a pair of hand-wrought dueling pistols to own it. Bray handed me a snifter of brandy and resumed his place in his chair. I placed my drink on the mantel. “Tell me more about this situation you have.”

“Quite simple, really. Someone in my company is blackmailing me.”

“And which company is that?”

“Immaterial at the moment. Please do take a seat.”

I declined his attempt at schmooze. This wasn’t social. This was business.

“If you know who it is,” I said, “and you want something done about it, I’d recommend the chauffeur without reservation, or is it that you’re not a hundred percent sure?”

I approached Bray and leaned down to talk right into his face. I did it out of spite. One of the lessons I’d learned is that the wealthy are an eccentric and paranoid crowd. Intimacy and germs rank high on their list of phobias.

“I’m confident I’ve got the right man.” Brayton swallowed some of his expensive liquor.

“Then go to the police and set up a sting.”

“I’d like to have you handle the matter for me.”

“I’m not muscle, Brayton. Let’s be clear about that. You mean to say a man of your position doesn’t have any friends on the force to do your dirty work?”

“Like you have any friends there?”

I threw a hand onto each of the armrests and stared into his eyes. Any talk about the case that bounced me off the police force and into the poorhouse soured my disposition. I wanted the worm to squirm.

“Watch it, Bray. Old bones ought to stay buried. I can walk right out that door.”

“That was uncalled for, and I’m sorry,” he said. “This is a clean job.”

Unexpected. The man apologized for the foul. I had thought the word “apology” had been crossed out in his family dictionary. I backed off and let him breathe and savor his brandy.

I needed the job. The money. I didn’t trust Bray as a kid, nor the man the society pages said saved New England with his business deals and largesse.

“Let’s talk about this blackmail then,” I said. “Think one of your employees isn’t happy with their Christmas bonus?”

He bolted upright from his armchair. “I treat my people well.”

Sensitive, I thought and went to say something else, when I heard a sound behind me, and then I smelled her perfume. Jasmine, chased with the sweet burn of bourbon. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw his smug face.

“You remember Cat, don’t you?”

“How could I not?” I said and kissed the back of the hand offered to me. Cat always took matters one step forward. She kissed me on the cheek, close enough that I could feel her against me. She withdrew and her scent stuck to me. Cat was the kind of woman who did all the teaching and you were grateful for the lessons. Here we were, all these years later, the three of us in one room, in the middle of the night.

“Still enjoy those film noir movies?” she asked.

“Every chance I get.”

“I’m glad you came at my husband’s request.”

The word husband hurt. I had read about their marriage in the paper.

“I think you should leave, dear, and let the men talk,” her beloved said.

His choice of words amused me as much as it did her, from the look she gave me. I never would have called her “dear” in public or close quarters. You don’t dismiss her, either.

“Oh please,” she told her husband. “My sensibility isn’t that delicate and it’s not like I haven’t heard business discussed. Shane understands confidentiality and discretion. You also forget a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. Is this yours, Shane?” she asked about the snifter on the brandy on the mantel. I nodded. “I’ll keep it warm for you.”

She leaned against the mantel for warmth. She nosed the brandy and closed her eyes. When they opened, her lips parted in a sly smile, knowing her power. Firelight illuminated the length of her legs and my eyes traveled. Braddock noticed and he screwed himself into his chair and gave her a venomous look.

“Why the look, darling?” she said. “You know Shane and I have history.”

Understatement. She raised the glass. Her lips touched the rim and she took the slightest sip. Our eyes met again and I wanted a cigarette, but I’d quit the habit. I relished the sight until Braddock broke the spell. He said, “I’m being blackmailed over a pending business deal.”

“Blackmail implies dirty laundry you don’t want aired,” I said. “What kind of deal?”

“Nothing I thought was that important,” he said.

“Somebody thinks otherwise.”

“This acquisition does have certain aspects that, if exposed, would shift public opinion, even though it’s completely aboveboard.” Braddock sipped and stared at me while that expensive juice went down his throat.

“All legit, huh,” I said. “Again, what kind of acquisition?”

“Real estate.”

“The kind of deal where folks in this town receive an eviction notice?”

He didn’t answer that. As a kid, I’d heard how folks in the West End were tossed out and the Bullfinch Triangle was razed to create Government Center, a modern and brutal Stonehenge, complete with tiered slabs of concrete and glass. Scollay Square disappeared overnight. Gone were the restaurants and the watering holes, the theaters where the Booth brothers performed, and burlesque and vaudeville coexisted. Given short notice, a nominal sum that was more symbolic than anything else, thousands of working-class families had to move or face the police who were as pleasant and diplomatic as the cops at the Chicago Democratic National Convention.

I didn’t say I’d accept the job. I wanted Braddock to simmer and knew how to spike his temperature. I reclaimed my glass from Cat. She enjoyed that. “Pardon me,” I said to her. “Not shy about sharing a glass, I hope.”

“Not at all.”

I let Bray Braddock cook. If he could afford to drink centennial grape juice then he could sustain my contempt. I gulped his cognac to show what a plebe I was, and handed the glass back to Cat with a wink. She walked to the bar and poured herself another splash, while I questioned my future employer. “Has this blackmailer made any demands? Asked for a sum?”

“None,” Braddock answered.

“But he knows details about your acquisition?” I asked.

“He relayed a communication.”

Braddock yelled out to his butler, who appeared faster than recruits I’d known in Basic Training. The man streamed into the room, gave Braddock two envelopes, and exited with an impressive gait. Braddock handed me one of the envelopes.

I opened it. I fished out a thick wad of paperwork. Photostats. Looking them over, I saw names and figures and dates. Accounting.

“Xeroxes,” Braddock said. “They arrived in the mail.”

“Copies? What, carbon copies aren’t good enough for you?”

“We’re beyond the days of the hand-cranked mimeograph machine, Shane. My partners and I have spared no expense to implement the latest technology in our offices.”

I examined pages. “Explain to me in layman’s terms what I’m looking at, the abridged version, or I’ll be drinking more of your brandy.”

The magisterial hand pointed to the decanter. “Help yourself.”

“No thanks.”

“Those copies are from a ledger for the proposed deal. Keep them. Knowledgeable eyes can connect names there to certain companies, to certain men, which in turn lead to friends in high places, and I think you can infer the rest. Nothing illegal, mind you, but you know how things get, if they find their way into the papers. Yellow journalism has never died out.”

I pocketed the copies. “It didn’t die out, on account of your people using it to underwrite the Spanish-American War. If what you have here is fair-and-square business, then your problem is public relations—a black eye the barbershops on Madison Ave can pretty up in the morning. I don’t do PR, Mr. Braddock. What is it you think I can do for you?”

“Ascertain the identity of the blackmailer.”

“Then you aren’t certain of…never mind. And what do I do when I ascertain that identity?”

“Nothing. I’ll do the rest.”

“Coming from you, that worries me, seeing how your people have treated the peasants, historically speaking.”

Brayton didn’t say a word to that.

“And that other envelope in your lap?” I asked.

The balding halo on the top of his head revealed itself when he looked down at the envelope. Those sickly lips parted when he faced me. I knew I would hate the answer. Cat stood behind him. She glanced at me then at the figure of a dog chasing a rabbit on the carpet.

“Envelope contains the name of a lead, an address, and a generous advance. Cash.”

Brayton tossed it my way. The envelope, fat as a fish, hit me. I caught it.

Advance Praise for Dirty Old Town

“Valjan paints the town, and all the colors are noir.” —Tom Straw, NYT Bestselling author, as Richard Castle

“So come for the twisting plot and suspense, stay for the style.” —William Martin, NYT Bestselling author of Back Bay and Bound for Gold

Dirty Old Town hits every pitch out of the park: it’s smart, funny and consistently surprising. A great read!” —Dennis Palumbo, author of the Daniel Rinaldi Mysteries

“Fans of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie will love Shane Cleary. Dirty Old Town is fast, fun and first-rate!” —R.G. Belsky, author of the award-winning Clare Carlson mystery series

Excerpt provided with permission from Level Best BooksDirty Old Town release date is 14 January 2020. Available for Pre-Order at Amazon.

Posted in American Writers, Mystery, Noir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bouchercon 2019: Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor

Bouchercon 2019. Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor. Saturday, 2 November, 9:30AM in Landmark C. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Squeak, my cat who posed with my inscribed copy of The Murder List, passed away 27 November 2019.

LU: Guest of Honor Hank Phillippi Ryan, welcome.

HPR: I have to say, and then I’m gonna be really quiet. Ha. Ha. Maybe. Lisa stayed home with her darling daughter Ocean to go Tick-or-Treating on Halloween.

LU: Yes.

HPR: And Ocean was a…

LU: A vampire-kitty-mermaid. She’s a very creative type.

HPR: And you came all the way to do this for us, so this is great.

LU: I’m thrilled. Thrilled, and thank you all for being here. And so, this is Hank. She is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV. Does everyone know that about her? Does everyone know that she’s won…wait for it…36 Emmy Awards. How does that happen?

HPR: I’m old.

LU: No, stop. As well as, 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards for her work. That’s pretty amazing, but more importantly, her work as a journalist has resulted in new laws; in criminals sent to prison; homes rescued from foreclosures; and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers. Hank, basically as an investigative reporter, is a living, breathing, thriller heroine.

[Link to Hank’s Investigates via WHDH-TV, Boston]

HPR: I’ve never thought about that.

LU: You are. You could be the hero of your own books.

HPR: Do you have a pen? I just got some ideas.

LU: That would be enough for most people, right? You have work, but not Hank. She’s also the national bestselling author of 11 smart, twisty, gripping novels, which have earned her…wait for it… five Agatha Awards, three Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Did I miss anything?

HPR: No, I’m blushing like crazy now, but I could call you when I have one of those Bad Writing Days and say, “Can you read that list to me?”

LU: I’ll give this to you so you can put it on your den. So of course, there are too many reviews to list here, but Hank has been hailed as a master at creating suspenseful mysteries and a superb and gifted storyteller. Her novels—two series, one featuring Charlotte McNally, a Boston television reporter, and the other featuring a newspaper reporter Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan, as well as two stellar standalones, Trust Me and her most recent, The Murder List—all feature strong women, breakneck pacing, and twists you will never see coming. B. A. Paris said that The Murder List is “her best yet!” The starred Library Journal raved, “it is masterly plotted thriller with a twisted ending.” It’s hard to talk about The Murder List without talking about the ending. B.A. [Paris] went on to say that it is “a riveting character-driven story.” It really is. Has everybody read it? It’s fantastic.

HPR: My editor is back there, so thank you. That was great

LU: Hi, Editor.

HPR: If you haven’t read it, There’s still time. No pressure. It’s just my career.

LU: I can go on and on about Hank, but I reached out to a few friends.

HPR: I just noticed.

LU: She didn’t know this before I sat here before and I didn’t tell her a lot of things. They had a few things to say. Sara Blædel, who is like Denmark’s number one bestselling crime author, and she’s been here [at Bouchercon] many times as our guest. She said that from the minute she met Hank, she was so friendly and so warm, and felt that you were one of the people who truly welcomed her into our US crime fiction community which, as we all know, is a wonderful community of warm, loving people. Weirdly. We are all liars, plot murders, but love each other, so that’s good.

She said not only that, but when she was in Boston for her event, it was a super cold February night in Boston, and when she looked out in the audience she saw Hank and her husband Jonathan [Shapiro] in the audience. She said she felt so grateful for that. She mentioned that, and since besides being a brilliant writer, a funny and generous person, Hank is also a wonderful colleague.

Alafair Burke said, “Hank is not only a prolific and talented author, but she is also one of the biggest champions of other writers within the crime fiction community.”

Of course I also had to talk to Karin Slaughter, my bud, and asked if she had something to add. She did, and she mentioned that when she [Karin] accepted the Edgar for Gillian Flynn, and when you were posting pictures online, Hank had all the dirtiest ideas of how they might position Edgar for these photos

HPR: That’s not true!

LU: Do you have anything to say about this, Hank?

HPR: I do before we start the interview. I do remember this. We all went out to the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station after the Edgars. It was Meg Gardiner, and you, and Karin Slaughter.

LU: Me?

HPR: Yes, you, because you’re the one who had all the ideas. It’s true. Alafair took us there. Gorgeous. Secret bar. Beautiful. Don’t tell anybody. So, we had Gillian’s Edgar, the four of us in this bar, and it was actually you, Karin, and Meg who were thinking of what to do and—

LU: I’m 90 percent sure I wasn’t there. Okay, maybe 80 or 85.

HPR: It was like putting salt on the table and making lines of salt. I—because I’m the wild and crazy person—took the ‘I Voted’ sticker off my phone and put it on the Edgar. Karin said, ‘Oh my gosh, Hank, you’re such a wimp. Your idea of wild and crazy is to put an “I Voted” sticker on something. Okay, tell Karin I’m going to call her.

LU: Okay. I’d like to begin at the beginning because I think everybody’s favorite thing to talk about is the journey of the writer. For many of us, the journey starts in childhood, or for most of us, it does. You said in an interview that even as a child you loved the architecture of the mystery. I thought that was an interesting way to talk about it, so what I want to know is, Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction, and what was that moment for you? Tell us a little about your journey, which took you first to journalism.

HPR: Oh, yikes. How much time do we have here? I grew up in really rural Indiana, so rural that you couldn’t see another house from our house, My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library to get books. We did. We’d fill up the saddlebags with books.

LU: Is that true? That is so cool.

HPR: We saddle Cadet and Sable and go to the Zionsville Library. We’d read up in the hayloft in the barn behind our house, and that’s where I fell in love with storytelling. Nancy Drew. You read Nancy Drew? We’d read The Secret of the Old Clock. I read Clue in the Diary, which I thought was Clue in the Dairy.

My parents lost me for a month reading up in the hayloft reading every Sherlock Holmes short story and novella. Every single one. Sir Conan Doyle taught me how a mystery would work. You needed a character. You needed a problem. You needed clues. In the end, you needed to lure the reader along and, in the end, surprise them with something that was unexpected but perfect. One of those things where you say, “I should have seen that. I should have seen that.”

I was a kid, but I was understanding the structure of how a mystery would go step by step. Then I read all the Golden Age mysteries: Ngaio Marsh; Josephine Tey; Margery Allingham; Dorothy Sayers, and then I read Murder on the Orient Express. I think I was—how old? Eleven or twelve. I thought in the end, “Are you kidding me? Remember when you read that, and you thought, “Wait a minute. That was all there. All the clues were there.” So that is what I mean when I talk about the architecture of the mystery. Every single element of the story is there, but the clever author is saying, “Look at this. Isn’t this interesting? But when what you should be watching is really over here. It’s all there, all there for you to see, just you didn’t notice.”  I loved that.

I wanted to do something like that. The thing that about Nancy Drew that was cool, and the thing about Poirot is there was a problem and they solved the problem; they figured it out, and I loved the idea that you can figure something out. I thought at the time not so much to be a mystery author but to be a detective, that it’d be cooler to be Nancy Drew than to write about Nancy Drew, so I think that was what took me to journalism school although that was a winding path and a funny one that you could ask about. Well, that was what set my love of storytelling. That is what it was, how I learned the total immersion story. When you’re a kid and someone says ‘Once upon a time’ and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, tell me a story.’ We know this, when someone puts us on their lap and says, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’

LU: I wanted to jump ahead because it sort of touches on one of the big questions, and you talk about this a lot: the difference between—and I don’t like the current phrases—Plotters and Pantsers. I just had an online discussion with a couple of authors about Architect versus Gardener. The architect is the person who constructs an outline, the gardener is the sort of person who lets the story evolve. You are more of a Gardener, right?

HPR: George Martin said that. George Martin is one of my complete heroes, and I loved Game of Thrones, and I loved everything about it and the comment about Architect versus Gardener. I met him at ThrillerFest. I went up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Martin. I’m such a huge fan of yours, and I think about you every night.” He was like, “Huh?” What I meant and if I had been less whacked out over it, I would’ve been more artful about the question. What I wanted to tell him was, What a risk-taker he is. He will kill anyone. So, that is what I love about the gardening part of writing.

LU: And my theory is sort of that people who can write that way have been, if not writing since childhood, at least been reading since childhood because, like the avid reader who disappeared into the barn for a month and that was the kind of reader I was, it’s almost like you internalize the form of the novel, like it becomes the way you think about things.

HPR: Exactly. It’s a Beginning, Middle, and an End. It’s a story you have a rhythm of what you expect Once upon a time, and there’s a character, and there’s going to be a problem, and there’s going to be a setting. We understand that. We viscerally understand that. I think, from the standpoint of Gardener versus Architect, Lee Child and I have talked about this: that both come from journalism. As a reporter, I’m not looking for the story, I don’t know what the end of the story is, so I’m not fearful until it gets right down to the deadline. I’m not fearful that I’m not going to find the end of the story.

LU: You have to go out there and find it.

HPR: That’s how I write my investigative stories, and that’s how I write my novels.

I’m looking for the story to come to me. A person I met once on a plane had another wonderful way of describing this. You know how you love writing on a plane, because you’re in this bubble and nobody is going to bother you? Nobody is going to talk to you. This guy was sitting next to me, and he was going to talk no matter what I did. He was going to talk to me. I was like, “C’mon, Hank, be a person.”

He says to me, “What do you do?”

I said, “I’m a writer,” which was kind of a cool moment.

I asked him, being a person, “What do you do?” and he said, “I’m a consultant.”

I asked him what he consulted about. He said, “I teach ‘emergent design.’”

I said, “Emergent design? What is that?”

He said, “Well, as an author, do you know what the end of your book is going to be?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “Do you have faith when you start, a belief, that when you type Chapter One that you will eventually get to the end?”

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “That is emergent design. Isn’t that cool?”

LU: I love that.

HPR: The book emerges as you work on it. He said, “Some people cannot do that. They need a structure.” He teaches people how to not be afraid to step off that tightrope, and just go for it with the belief that you will get to the end. He said artists, like painters—and I don’t know how to paint. I can make a horse.

LU: Must be all that pony riding as a child.

HPR: The idea that you believe that the story will come

LU: So, You talk to people on the plane, is that what you’re saying?

HPR: No. I’ve had my one cool discussion on a plane.

LU: I think that the universe gave you that moment to be the person, so you could have that information and give to me and all the people sitting here. That is how a story should evolve. Emergent design. So we were talking how you were in love with the architecture, your love of Nancy Drew, so let’s talk about your early life as a journalist. Before heading to Boston, you worked at Rolling Stone, and you did a lot of cool things while working at Rolling Stone. One of the extra-cool things you did was that you toured the country with Hunter S. Thompson.

HPR: I love that you know who that is.

LU: And he taught you an important skill involving lighter fluid.

HPR: You have looked me up.

LU: I’ve done my research.

HPR: I went to Washington DC. I was a radio reporter in 1970. Don’t forget to ask me about that because that’s a good story, too. Put that on your list.

LU: I don’t have a pen. Somebody remind us to ask us a question about 1970, if I forget.

HPR: I was a radio reporter in 1970, and I moved to Washington DC and went to work on Capitol Hill in the Administrative—actually, I was the press secretary to the congressman from El Paso for about a month, going to door-to-door handing out resumes. I think I was twenty-one and saying, “Does anybody need a person to do something?” They said “Yeah, I need a press secretary – I was just quitting”, and I should have realized it was a bad job when they said, “Yeah, we need a press secretary.” I said, “Yeah sure, I can do that.” I’d been a radio reporter for six months.

[Find Hank in the newspaper clipping]

And because of the way things work on Capitol Hill, I heard of another job opening. I got a job as a legislative assistant to the, as you say—wait for it—the Administrative Practices and Procedures Subcommittee to the Senate Judiciary Committee. And that was fantastic!

I worked on the Freedom of Information Act. I worked on the reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service—and it’s not my fault, none of it is my fault. I also sued the CIA to get information on the retrieval of the Glomar, the Russian submarine that was sunk in the Pacific [1974]. Remember that? The CIA had hired Howard Hughes with his Glomar Explorer to pull up this submarine from the ocean.

LU: See —She is a thriller here.

HPR: We sued the CIA. There’s a lawsuit captioned Harriet Ann Phillippi versus the CIA. We lost the lawsuit. The response from the CIA for our request for information was, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of this information.” And that was the first time the CIA or anyone had ever sent a letter saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny.” We were the first people to ever hear that phrase from a government official, and now that is what everyone says to everyone. We had no idea we were reading this thing that was history. I wish I had saved the letter because that would be kind of cool. When we got the letter, we were like, “Are you kidding me? What a thing to say” because we had never heard it before.

LU:  From there, how do you get into Rolling Stone? I’m trying to keep on track, and don’t forget about the lighter fluid.

HPR: One second for name dropping. The chairman of Administrative Subcommittee was Ted Kennedy, and he would have all his staff members assemble at Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s house, Hickory Hill, so we’d go there on the weekends and swim in the pool. One weekend there was Richard Goodwin, who was the speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Jann Wenner the editor at Rolling Stone had asked him to start a new magazine as part of Rolling Stone called Politics. I happened to be sitting there and he, Richard Goodwin, knew that I worked for the Subcommittee, and he said, “Do you want to be the assistant editor of the politics section of Rolling Stone?” I said, “Sure. I can do that.”

I remember my dad was in the Foreign Service, and I remembered having lunch with him in Washington DC and saying to him: “You know, Dad, I just don’t have any idea what I’m doing in this job. I just don’t know.”

He said “Sweetheart, nobody knows what they’re doing.”

I said “I’m making it up as I go.”

He said “Yeah, everybody is making it up as they go.”

It was a real revelation for me.

LU: Yeah. I remember you telling me that before, and when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m making it up as I go along. I think of you, and it makes me feel better.

HPR: See, Dad is still with us. One of the things I did for Rolling Stone was that I went on a national tour with Hunter Thompson. I had arranged his schedule for his coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign, so we’d travel and fly around and go to various parts of the country. Once in Florida we were covering a Jimmy Carter thing, and Jimmy Carter’s aide Pat Caddell was a great friend of Hunter Thompson. In a hotel room in Florida, they were practicing inhaling the lighter fluid. DON’T DO THIS. They were inhaling the lighter fluid, breathing it out and lighting it on fire.

Hunter Thompson, if you didn’t know this, was notoriously whacky and crazy. I never actually did the breathing fire with lighter fluid at all because it seems my hair would’ve gone up. It’s dangerous

LU: And you do have good hair, and you don’t need lighter fluid.

HPR: You should write that down. That’s a quote.

LU: And what else Hunter Thompson teach you?

HPR: Hunter Thompson was actually the nicest of guys. He bought me every Jimmy Buffett album. He was very expansive, very generous and very smart. He taught me not to be afraid, and that was what his gift was to me. Don’t be afraid in writing. Just go for it. Use your voice. Write what you feel. Just give it a try. Not everybody is going to love it, but some people will really love it. That was in the Seventies, and that has stuck with me so thoroughly. That bravery.

LU: Probably the most important advice you can give to an aspiring writer is, Don’t be afraid. There is really nothing else to know.

HPR: There’s a really great quote from Thomas Edison, and I think I can keep it straight. He said, “Remember, when you think you have exhausted all of the possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” Isn’t that great? It isn’t that you can’t come up with the answer, just that you haven’t thought of it yet.

And that moment of inspiration that we all hope we have every time, I always think if I can have one good idea day that is plenty.

LU: You’ve had this exciting early life as a journalist. You wound up in Boston. Is that where your investigative career took off, when you moved to Boston?

HPR: I started out as a reporter in Indianapolis. That was 1975, if you can imagine, and I was the political reporter, and then I was the weekend anchor. I also read the farm news. I seriously did: the agricultural report. I was also the movie critic because they didn’t have a lot of people. That was fun.

Then I was offered a job in Atlanta, where I worked for five years at WSB-TV as the political reporter. Then I got a job offer in Dallas, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Boston—all essentially at the same time, and I chose Boston. I went to Boston and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I started out as the features reporter. I was the funny one. They called us Something Out of Nothing Productions, and they’ll say, “If you don’t have a story, Hank will go out and find something.”

So, I was the funny one. I did poems and I did songs. My famous song was the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Anyway, one day I went to my news director and I said, “I can’t be the Funny One any more. I think I’m the Serious One.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll try you out,” so they had me covering the 1988 presidential conventions. When I came back, they said, “You’ve got this. You’re going to be the investigative reporter.” I started doing long-form journalism in 1988 as a result of that. I’ve been doing that ever since.

LU: Then, all this time, did you have your secret, beating heart of the novelist? Did you hold this dream of writing fiction, and when did that moment come for you? We hear, “I’ve been in love with these kind of stories since I was a kid, and now I want to write it.” Can you tell us a little about that?

HPR: Wouldn’t that be a good story, if that was what happened? I’m teasing you. It’s not that I thought about it all the time. From time to time, I would think, “Gee, I would love to write a mystery, and I would think, “What about…I wonder,” and then I would think, “I don’t know. I don’t have any ideas.”

But one day at Channel 7, I can tell: I was fifty-five when this happened, so that’s what? Fifteen years ago. I was fifty-five. This was back when spam filters were terrible, and you had to delete your own spam every morning, back in the day. And I opened one by mistake, and the subject line of the email said, ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You.’ When you opened the email, there was dialogue that looked like it was from a Shakespearean play. I majored in Shakespeare in college, much to my parent’s chagrin. There were like, ‘O sister, you’re never going to get a job.’ Anyway, I recognized it was not Shakespeare but it was from that era and I said to myself, “Why would someone send a spam email that is clearly going to be opened by millions of people, with the subject line ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You’ with the body as a message that has nothing to do with refinancing. Why would someone do that?”

My brain—and I remember this perfectly and I still get goosebumps when I say this—my brain said, “Maybe this is a secret message.” I thought, secret messages in computer spam is a great idea. I did. That’s a great idea. Could you do it? How would that work? What would be the point of it? Who would solve the murder? What would be the story? Who would solve the murder, because it was clearly going to be a murder-mystery?

I went home, and I said to my husband, “I’m going to write a novel. I have a great idea for a mystery. I’m going to write a mystery.” He was like, “G-r-r-r-eat.”

LU: That’s what everybody says the first time you say you’re going to write a novel.

HPR: He wanted to be supportive, but you can see what was going through his mind. He said, “Do you know how to write a novel?” I said, “No, but how hard can it be. I’ve read a million of them.” I know it sounds cliché but that’s exactly what happened. He remembers it so perfectly clear because it was so funny.

I was obsessed from that moment on. I was obsessed with writing this mystery about secret messages in computer spam, and that turned out to be Prime Time, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. That was the beginning of my crime fiction career, which is so crazy because it was again the universe saying, “Now, it’s your turn,” and you sort of have to be open to that moment. Serendipitous messages from who knows what writer universe there is, and I still wait, hope for, expect, am ready for those moments. Aren’t you? Sometimes, I’m like, “Okay, any time.”

LU: I’m right here. Absolutely. Speaking of moments, this is something I always like to ask because usually there are writers in the audience, of all levels, and at one point everybody, whether you’re a bestselling author or an aspiring writer, and there’s that moment when you are alone in a room, working on a novel that you weren’t sure was good enough. Every person who has achieved anything in the writing life has been inside that moment. I always like to ask about the first big Yes, that moment when the book is done and you’ve sent it out to agents and somebody calls and says, “Yes, I want to represent you, or Yes, I want to publish you.” This is a Big Moment for writers, the biggest moment, especially if it’s something you’ve had in your heart and dreaming about since childhood, something that gives you goosebumps. Tell us about your first Big Moment.

HPR: It’s interesting, and that was such a nice, lovely, connected question, and there is a moment in your life when the universe clicks into another mode. It’s fun to remember. I was such a newbie that when I wrote Prime Time, I had it on a floppy disk and I didn’t have a printer, so I took it to the Kinkos. My first draft. I went to Kinkos and I said to the guy, “Can you print this for me? and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “It’s my novel.” He was like, “Yeah. Yeah.”

I came back a couple hours later and I said, “I’m here to pick up my printing,” and he said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote the novel.” I honestly thought, he read it, and he loved it. Loved it. He says, “I have it for you,” and he reaches for a ream box, 500 pages, and he puts the ream box on the counter. I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “No, wait.” He goes down. Another ream box of paper, and put it on the box. It was 723 pages long. Kristin [Sevick Brown at Tom Doherty Associates], my editor is back there and is like, “I’m not surprised.”

I had to cut 400 pages.

LU: [unintelligible]

HPR: That’s interesting because I thought: No, all those 400 pages were stupid, derivative, trying to be a good writer, trying to show up, tangential, attempting to be funny, and all that stuff that is horrific, terrible, go, go, go, and it made me realize that I repeated things. Now I’m gonna say that I tell people things more than once, and that’s the same thing, and that was what the problem was. All that had to go, and that was a big lesson.

I sent the book out. On paper, with the three chapters and the query letter that you used to do with the self-addressed stamped envelope, and you’d wait every morning every day when we’d come back from work. I’d go up the driveway and I’d see that manila envelope with my handwriting on it in the mailbox, meaning it was another No, another rejection. This was the Charlie McNally book Prime Time. I said to my husband, “Charlie McNally is going to die! Nobody is ever going to meet her.”

My husband said, “Honey, Charlie McNally is not going to die.”

I said, “How do you know? You don’t know.”

Finally, people started saying, “Yes.”  I can tell you a fast writing thing. How many of you are writing? How many of you are writing your first book?

Here’s what I did. My first query letter was, “Prime Time is a mystery about a smart, successful television reporter in Boston, who is worried she is getting too old for her job, and wonders what happens when somebody is married to a job in television and the camera doesn’t love her anymore.” And it was Nope, Nope. We don’t hear you. We don’t care. Go away.

So I started writing query letters that said, What if that pesky computer spam clogging up your computer is really secret messages. Everybody said, “Yes” and that was how it started. Once I told the story, people were interested, and that was terrific. One more thing: my agent at the time, who isn’t my agent now but whom I love and was fabulous said, “I love that you’re writing a story about a heroine who is a little bit older. It’s just great. People are tired of 21-year-old girls with their first job and their first expensive shoes. You’ve written a women of the world, who is confident, savvy and smart and funny in Charlie McNally,” then said, “People are not ready for an older heroine. How old is she? How old is Charlie really?”

I said, “I made her my age; she’s 55.” My agent said, “Oh, that’s too old.”

You’ll be happy to hear this, words to the wise. I said, “What if I made her 46? Is 46 too old?”

“No, 46 is not too old,” so now you know.

LU: I’m going to skip through all my other questions. I’m very prepared. Let’s talk about The Murder List, so we can have time for everyone to ask questions. The Murder List is actually impossible to talk about. Literally can’t talk about it, because those of you who read it know, and those who have not read it will soon know. There is no way to talk about it, but I’d like to talk about Rachel North, who is the heroine of the novel and she’s different from Charlie and Jane. So different. Maybe you want to talk about her just a little bit. How is she different, and how is she the same from your two characters in your two series?

HPR: Good question. Can I start with a little about where she came from?

LU: You can do whatever you want.

HPR: Nobody has ever said that to me. My husband is a criminal defense attorney, and one day at breakfast he was talking to me about this unfortunate, grisly murder case that he was working on, and he’s defending a client charged in a pretty horrible murder. It’s good to have in-house counsel.

With one track of my mind, I was thinking about the evidence, this case, I was thinking about the story, about how he might handle it and with the other track in my mind, I was thinking what a good guy my husband is, as criminal defense attorney, because he’s standing up for the little guy. He’s protecting the individual and he’s making sure the jury understand it’s innocent until proven guilty, and that the power of the prosecution doesn’t hammer this guy into oblivion. What a good guy he is.

And then I thought about the prosecutor’s wife, sitting across town, listening to her husband and talking about exactly the same case, and was she’s thinking, what a good guy he is, He’s protecting the public, he standing up for all of us, and keeping law and order and keeping criminals off the streets; he’s standing up for the Constitution and making sure our lives are safe. What a good guy he is.

And then I started to think about Good, and what does Good mean, and what does being a good guy mean and how can everyone believe that they’re the good guy, and I started thinking that it depends on, What do we mean by good? If you’re working for Justice and there are different elements of Good, How does that work? How does Justice exist in that kind of a world where there is such a conflict? Then I thought about every young lawyer who decides to go into the law has kind of a mindset of what kind of lawyer they want to be. Are you a defense attorney, or are you a prosecutor? And you can make a wonderful case for either one.

I thought about a young woman, who is in law school and having to decide whether to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney, and what would go through her mind. Rachel North is a young law student. She calls herself ‘the world’s oldest law student’ because she’s thirty-something. She’s at Harvard Law School, in her third year, and she is married to Jack Kirlkland who is Boston’s best defense attorney, a powerful, smart, determined and faithful—we think—defense attorney. She is working her summer internship with Margaret Gardner, who is a powerful, strong, determined and manipulative prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney. Now, Rachel, who is beautiful, is on her second career as a lawyer, married to the defense attorney, working for the prosecutor, and in this triangle, How will she decide what to do? What do all those people want from each other? And what do they need, and how far will they go to get it? Who will be trampled along the way? And who is next on The Murder List?

Rachel is the apex of the triangle and what effect will these people on her. Rachel, Jack and Martha.

LU: You do a masterful job, in telling everyone’s different perspective. You start out feeling one way about certain characters and at the end of the book, feeling a completely different way about the same characters.

HPR. I know that readers of The Murder List and books, like ours, are smart readers. You have expectations, and you’re trying second-guess us all the time and third-guess us all the time. My goal in The Murder List was to have you feel a certain way at the beginning, like a juror might, and you have all this figured out, and then at some point it’s, “Hold on, reader. What if it is this way?” and you’re, “Oh, that’s got to be right. You’re right. You’re right.” Then I’d say, “Wait a minute, a little bit later. Wait a minute. What if it is really this way? Everything you thought was true is not true.”

My goal is to have you go back read the book a second time, and look at it through the perspective of the second read to have you see what you didn’t see before.

Oh, and again for the Architect and Gardener part…I didn’t know the ending, and I have the little piece of paper that I had thought just in the nick of time. I thought: Oh, my gosh, can that be what happens on there? I have that piece of paper. Much to the delight of my editor, and everybody at Forge was like, “Are you going to figure that out, honey?”

LU: I’m going to ask a few more questions, and then I’m going to open it up to floor. Quickly, what do you love about the writing life? What do you find the most challenging?

HPR: I worked 43 years as a reporter, and everything I do as a reporter is collaborative. We are always working together. I learned to work together. I learned about deadlines. I learned how someone else could have a good idea, which is a powerful thing to learn. The writing life, now that I’m at Channel 7 part-time, I’m juggling both of those things.

On my writing days, when I get to get up and put on sweatpants and have my morning coffee, and nobody is telling me to do something, except for me. I am the boss of my own life. I realize we all have bosses, and we try to please the boss. I love the idea that I am the boss on my writing days, and I can make my life work however I want it to work. I love that freedom.

LU: What do you wish that all aspiring writers knew?

HPR: Oh gosh, nothing is bad as it seems at the time.

LU: That is so true.

HPR: We all have disappointment, we all have things we wished, we hoped that would happen and doesn’t happen and we think, “I’m doomed. I’m never going to be happy again” and right after that you say that, something wonderful happens that wouldn’t have happened if the bad thing hadn’t happened. It shows every time that we don’t even know what we should hope for, because the thing we’re hoping for might not even be the thing that is the good thing.

My book Prime Time was turned down by the publisher I loved. They didn’t want it, and I was so upset about it. A couple months later, that publisher went out of business, the imprint went out of business and I would’ve been an orphan author. The one thing I wanted so much would’ve been the worst thing that could have happened, so now I try to think, “Plot twist. Let’s see what happens. I always think, “We’re going to laugh about this later, so why not laugh sooner.” That’s my little motto: laugh sooner.

LU: I’m going to do a speed round. Red or white?

HPR: Red.

LU: Mac or PC?

HPR: Mac.

LU: Gardener or Architect?

HPR: Gardener, with the wish to be an Architect. Someday, I’ll grow up and be an Architect.

LU: No. No. Don’t. Chocolate or vanilla.

HPR: Toughie. Depends on what. I’m a Libra. We could do a test later. I’m gonna say both

LU: Go-to comfort food.

HPR: Pizza. And You know the pop corners that you get on Jet Blue.

LU: What was your first, first fictional character love?

HPR: My first fiction love was Henry V. In college, I used to dream about Henry V, and then when I was writing mysteries, Lord Peter Wimsey and Morse.

LU: Now, an Oprah moment. You are a successful award-winning journalist, an acclaimed bestselling and award-winning author, a devoted wife, a giving and wonderful friend, and beloved in everything you have touched, what do you know for sure?

HPR: Now, you’re going to make me cry. I think I know for sure that all there is is Now, and to be whatever happy is and open, not judgmental and to be optimistic. I think if we look forward with just a belief that everything will be okay, how can that be wrong? Because it will eventually be okay, in a way that we can’t even understand. We just don’t know. I think all of us want to know, and I’m a reporter, I want to know and, as a reader, we want to know the end of the book. There’s this condition as humans that we want to be certain, and if you can let go…and you know this, my husband and I don’t celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day before we met, and we call it ‘You Never Know Day.’ You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner, and that is the one thing I know: you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner.

Questions

Q: What is a murder list?

HPR: There is a real Murder List. My husband is on it. As is in all my titles, this one of the real meaning, among other meanings. The murder list in real life is a list of lawyers who are experienced, wise, and benevolent enough to take on cases of accused murderers who can’t pay for a lawyer. In Massachusetts, we believe that everyone deserves a great attorney no matter whether they can pay for that or not. The murder list is a list of lawyers who have been approved to handle murder cases of indigent clients, and my husband Jonathan is on the list. That’s where the title came from, although, like I said, it’s not the only meaning, as you know.

Q: Radio Seventies

HPR: You get the brain.  My producer had this plastic brain in our office. Whoever has the best idea of the day, or asks the best question gets the brain. In 1970, I started out in politics in Indianapolis as an activist, and sadly none of the candidates I worked for ever won. Nobody won, so you’d think, “Should I do something else?”

I went to the biggest radio station in Indianapolis. I talked to the News Director and I applied for this job as a reporter. I knew they had a reporter opening. The News Director says, “Great. We do need someone. When was your last radio reporter job?”

I said, “Well, no. I’ve never been a radio reporter.”

“Television?”

“No.”

“Newspaper? Magazines?”

“No.”

“Did you go to journalism school?”

“No.”

“Have you ever done an interview, or written a story, or written an article that has anything do with anything with the reporter’s life thing?”

“No.”

You could see this job was just going away.

And finally he says, “When you were a little girl, do you have that mimeograph paper door-to-door?”

“No” and I really wanted this job, so I thought I’m not going to get it.

Finally he says, “You seem like a very nice young woman.” I was twenty. “You seem like a nice young woman, but you are supremely unqualified for this job. Can you tell me one good reason why I should hire you?”

I said, “Well, yes I can. Your license is up for renewal at the FCC right now, and you don’t have any women working here.” And then, I just smiled, and the next day I had my first job in broadcasting.

I tell this story when I speak to journalism classes. I tell them about this, because this won’t work now. My boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman. Jane Pauley calls us the Class of 1970, those of us who didn’t just start in broadcasting, but anyone in any career at that time really made a difference in how our world works. I see that as part of breaking the gender barrier in broadcasting, the Class of 1970, and my first job I got by threatening my potential employer with a lawsuit, which is not something I would suggest to any of you.

One last question. Jungle Reds

HPR: She is talking about Jungle Red Writers, a blog I’m on, along with some wonderful mystery writers, and Career Authors is another blog I do. She says when she’s ready but I want to tell you that when you are ready to jump, you will be jumping into open arms of other authors who are waiting to lift you up.

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Bouchercon 2019: Not a Diversity Panel

Bouchercon 2019. Not a Diversity Panel. Friday, 1 November, 11AM in Reunion G-H. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Some photos include Squeak, my cat who passed away 27 November 2019.

L-R: Steph Cha (Cha), Shawn Cosby (SC), Cheryl Head (CH), Michael Nava (MN), and Carsen Taite (CT) as Moderator.

CT: I’m going to go down the line and introduce my panelists. I have Michael Nava, on my right, Cheryl Head, Shawn ‘S.A.’ Cosby, and Steph Cha. I’m just going to start out by asking you to tell me, brag a little, about what you write, and all the glory that has come to you from your writing. Michael, let’s start with you. Tell me the kind of books you write.

MN: I write a series of crime fiction that features a protagonist, who is a gay Latino criminal defense attorney named Henry Rios. Initially the books were published between 1986 and 2000, then I took a nineteen-year break, to pursue my other career. I’m also a lawyer, or was a lawyer until I retired. Just this year I returned to the series, I wrote this book, Carved in Bone, bringing Rios back. That’s what I have to say.

CH: I write a series called the Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries, set in Detroit in the mid-2000s, when a time when Detroit was a scary place and a good time to write about mischief and mayhem. The first book in the series [Bury Me When I’m Dead] was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. I’ve put out two books and I’m up to four this year, and they are available in the bookstore.

I started off writing historical fiction, and it was so hard, so much research involved that I decided I’d write a mystery series, which comes naturally to me because I love the genre. I whipped the first book in about four months, so that’s all I want to say.

SC: Hi, I’m S.A. Cosby. I started out writing sci-fi and fantasy, but I wasn’t very good at that, so I switched over to crime. I write southern crime fiction, primarily featuring African-Americans. Someone said, ‘I’m the black David Joy’, and I said, ‘No, he’s the white Shawn Cosby.’

I have a novel out now that is called My Darkest Prayer, which is a southern crime mystery, and I just got signed to a two-book deal with Flatiron Books. I can’t believe it either. The first part of that deal will be Blacktop Wasteland, coming out July 14, 2020. In my spare time I deal with my cantankerous squirrel named Solomon that lives outside my window; he’s my writing partner.

Cha: Hi, I’m Steph Cha. I have three books in a PI series: Juniper Song series, which came out [Follow Her Home], in 2013, [Beware Beware] in 2014, and [Dead Soon Enough] in 2015, back to back. Then I took what looked like a hiatus, but I was working on one book the entire time, like a masochist, and that just came out earlier this month and it’s called, Your House Will Pay. Thank you.

MN: Which is widely praised everywhere.

Cha: Thank you. It’s not a PI novel, not quite a mystery but it is a crime novel; it’s a book about blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, stemming out of the tensions of early 1990s, and that connects very directly to present-day America.

CT: I’ll start with you, Steph. Your House Will Pay is a definite departure from your Juniper Song Series. Was it harder to write a non-series book, as opposed to a book in a series, and why?

Cha: I don’t think it was the standalone nature of the book that made it harder to write. I do think that the second and third books in my series were the easiest of my books, because I was going in with a lot of the blanks filled in already. I had my protagonist, I had her voice down, I had the form—the structure roughly down, and so switching over to this and not having the mystery structure is tough because you don’t have the built-in drama conventions to play within the same way , and also it is third-person, with two close POVs and half of it is told from the point of view of a 27-year old Korean woman, which is something I’ve been in the past, and [the other half of the POV] a 41-year old black man, which I’ve never been and never will be.

Figuring out Shawn, the name of the black man, that protagonist point of view, I will say took a lot of time, but that again doesn’t have anything to do with the standalone nature of it. I’ve had characters with other backgrounds in all my books by necessity because they are about Los Angeles. I think writing from a point of view, I only had Juniper as my point of view character for the first three books and occupying a different kind of point of view was harder than writing a side character.

CT: Are you going to go back to Juniper Song?

Cha: I might, but not any time soon. I want to give her a break. She’s been through a lot.

CT: Juniper rests. Shawn, the book deal you signed. Is that a continuation?

SC: No, it’s a standalone.

CT: Do you plan to make a series out of it?

SC: I would love to make a series out of it, if the stars align and Nathan [Wannamaker from character from My Darkest Prayers] talks to me again.

CT: So, you were nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story Award.

SC: Yes, thank you. Was anybody at the bar [Noir at the Bar reading] last night? I read the story [“Grass Beneath My Feet”, published in TOUGH (editor: Rusty Barnes)]. Anybody have a hangover? I do.

CT: Tell us a little about your story. [The story received the Anthony Award for Best Short Story at Bouchercon 2019].

SC: Basically, the story is about a young man coming to a funeral home. He’s been incarcerated for a number of years, and he gets what is called a ‘hardship pass’. I’m from Virginia and in Virginia, if a loved one, a direct relative, passed away, if you’re incarcerated you can sometimes get a pass to see them at a funeral home to view them. You have to do it by yourself because there might be other family members that might help you escape. My wife and I—my wife owns a funeral home and I work with her.

The inspiration for the story is that we had a young man, who was viewing his mother. She had died and he had killed his father in self-defense. The father was beating him and the mother, but he was prosecuted as an adult. He went to prison at seventeen. Seeing him, seeing the ways he reacted to his mother, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, it stuck with me; wouldn’t leave me alone. I decided to write a short piece about it for another Noir at the Bar event in North Carolina and after I read it, a couple of people came up to me and were crying. I felt bad because I thought they really hated my story. They were ugly crying. Snotty nose and stuff. They were like, ‘You should try and get this published’ and I was like, ‘Oh, alright. I hadn’t thought about it.’ I sent it to Rusty Barnes at TOUGH, a crime blog, online only. He loved it and he published it, and about six months later my friend Kellye Garrett hits me up and said, ‘Hey, have you been to the Bouchercon web site?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been working on this other book.’ She said, ‘You should go on there and look at it.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ She was like, ‘Just go on the web site!’

I was in my office, and I saw that I was nominated for Best Short Story. I scared the hell out of my wife because I screamed. I have a deep voice, so she had thought that I had some kind of seizure, so she comes running into the room. ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’

And I was like, ‘I was nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story.’

‘Wait, what’s that?’

So, that’s how that story came about.

CT: I want to jump to Michael. You mentioned a 19-year break from Henry Rios. What made you come back to him after all this time? I’m touching on what you and Steph said about revisiting the characters and letting them rest for a while.

MN: I felt like I put him to sleep. What happened is the books were being kept in print by Open Road Media, which is part of this large conglomerate, and then the reprint rights and then our license expired and they wanted me to renew them for another five years. I thought, ‘No, I want the books back’ so I took the rights back. I set out to revise and republish them all with my own small press.

The first book, Lay Your Sleeping Head, is set around 1980; the next book, Howtown, around 1988. I realized I’d missed a crucial moment for queer history, which is the advent of AIDS; and that [realization] coincided with the 2016 election, so the day after the presidential election I sat down and started writing this novel, which is set in San Francisco in 1984, about the advent of AIDS before there was a resistance, an activist resistance, when people were just stunned—there wasn’t even a test to determine whether you were infected or not.

I wanted to write about another time that was dark and hopeless, and gay men thought they were going to be physically exterminated; that was what I did and that was what my inspiration was to write the book.

CT: Cheryl, you write Charlie Mack. Do you still hear her voice?

CH: Charlie is an African-American private investigator, who also happens to be bisexual. I thought about black women as natural private investigators.

SC: Yes, they are.

CH: I thought, ‘Wait a minute, shouldn’t she be one, too.’ She’s sort of an overachiever. She works with a diverse group of partners, and I really like those secondary characters; they help bring out her flaws and also, too, to move the story forward. I like all of them, and each of their voices is a little bit of me.

I have the most fun writing the white middle-aged guy who is her partner, Don Rutkowski, who is a little bit of an Archie Bunker-meets-Mr. Rogers sort of guy. He just blurts shit out, and I have the easiest time writing him. I don’t have to think about it at all.

Charlie also has a mother with early onset Alzheimer’s. I became fascinated with Alzheimer’s when I worked in public broadcasting. We funded a program called Forgetting about how the caretakers have such a hard time with Alzheimer’s, and how it is such a lingering and mean disease. I wanted to look at their relationship, Charlie and her mother, in the context of the care; they’re both independent women. I’m keeping the series close to the time period they’re in, because I love the mother character and I don’t want to see he deteriorate. I’m having conversations with my editor about how fast to move my series along.

CT: Do you have an end in sight?

CH: I don’t have an end in sight. I have a book 5, and I’m working on that. There’s a through-line in the relationship Charlie has with her new partner Mandy; they now have a house and a dog. I’m having fun writing some of the domestic stuff, relative to the crime, fiction, and mystery portions of it.

CT: Well, you definitely have the threads there, and carry for a while now. Steph, I want to go back to you. Your book is literally ripped from the headlines. Was that harder to write than making it up completely?

Cha: It’s based on a 1991 murder of a 15-year old girl named Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean grocer and liquor store owner who accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Most of the book takes place in 2019 and I fictionalized that event. I had to fictionalize that event because I wasn’t really writing about the actors in that murder, I was writing about the family members in present-day.

I knew I was going to take so many liberties with this story and, in doing so, I wanted to honor that initial story. That’s a fine line, right? In one sense, I’m literally erasing that story from history and replacing it with my own version. As I was doing it, one of the things I had decided that was very important to me was that at least the background in spirit I kept very close to what actually happened, so it was immediately recognizable to anybody who is picking up the book. I also have it on both ends in that both epigraph and Author’s Notes talk about the actual history. Everything in present-day departs because these are made-up characters. I would say there was one exception, Latasha Harlins’s aunt, Denise Harlins, who passed away this past December. She was this very devoted woman who became an activist after her niece’s death, and really kept Latasha’s memory alive and went really hard on defending black children. She took this up as her cause, in a way that I found extremely admirable. There is a character in the book that is loosely based on her, on that part of her life at least.

I do think there were challenges, but most of those challenges were not getting it wrong, and paying respect while also creating a work of fiction, and taking my own liberties as an artist. I spent a lot of time trying to balance that, and I’m happy with the way it turned out. I feel that as an artist you’re constantly stealing, constantly taking liberties, but as much as I could, I put a lot of thought into it.

CT: The book feels a little like a calling. What inspired you to write it?

Cha: I grew up in a LA and I was not really aware of this history growing up because I was born in the Eighties, and so when all this was going on, I was a little kid. I also lived in the suburbs. The character Grace is, in part someone I have actually been, which is the kid who grows up in suburbia in a tight-knit community that becomes its own bubble. Learning about all this history as an adult brought out all these feelings in me that were complicated. I am Korean-American but I care very deeply about issues of social justice. Hearing about the murder of Latasha Harlins, I felt immediately all of these strong emotions like rage and grief, but also guilt and shame because I’m Korean like Soon Ja Du [the shooter in real life], who could’ve lived in my community and we probably know people in common.

I think there’s something about being a part of a minority group, especially in the US, where you are often treated as one and the same, as part of the same monolith as other people who look like you. I think there is this tendency to adopt these same emotions as your group members. I was interested in exploring that, and also how much the story of Latasha Harlins and also the story of Rodney King—how much these stories and tensions look the same in 2019 in the US. I had started writing the book in 2014, which was when Michael Brown was murdered, and the stories are startlingly similar.

CT: That kind of harkens back to what Michael had said about revisiting in today’s America, the social and political climate, which causes us to draw analogies. Michael, I was looking at your book jacket and the LA Times said, ‘Nava’s mysteries are faithful to the conventions of the mystery genre, but they are set apart by their insight, compassion and sense of social justice.’

I’m going to throw this out to the whole panel, Do you feel responsible to address issues of social justice in your work, and how do you do that in balance with storytelling?

MN: I don’t think you can be a member of any kind of minority group in this country without carrying the burden of that identification. I’m friends with Alicia Gaspar de Alba at UCLA. She teaches a class called Mystery with a Mission. I know that because she taught one of my book and I went to talk to her class, and I willingly accept that moniker. I write these books, in part because I when I was a terrified little gay boy in school in Sacramento, California, the site of next year’s Bouchercon, I could have used a character like Henry Rios: a gay, confident Latino, a professional man. In a sense I am writing these books to my younger self. I’m also writing them to members of my two communities. By the way, I’m wearing pink, which is the tribal color of both Mexicans and queer people. The issue—and I think Steph touched on this, too—is, I am not a journalist, a historian, or a sociologist. I am a storyteller. I write mysteries because I love mysteries. I love Raymond Chandler; however problematic he is. Joseph Hansen was my mentor, who created the first gay mystery series. My obligation to my readers is to tell a well-crafted and well plotted story with compelling characters, and to slip some other stuff in.

CH: Yes, slipping the other stuff in. I don’t know if it’s a responsibility of doing it, but I will always write about the things that are important to me that may have my perspective on justice. I just came in from panel on justice. I think minority folks see justice in a slightly different way, so does Charlie [Mack]. I think that we know justice is not always on our side and the laws are not always on our side. There is some gray area. I know that I’m writing the truth, so I take it as it is.

I write my books for white people because I know the black people already know the stuff I’m talking about. The nuance that is there, the introductions that are there, the point of view, the way of looking at the world that is there, and looking at different events that are there are things that I think all of us can benefit knowing about. Those stories that we don’t see in traditional mysteries or have not been there up to now. When we think of Los Angeles, we’re thinking about Raymond Chandler but I think of Steph Cha and Naomi Hirahara and Walter Mosley. Those are all stories about Los Angeles, but come at the sensibility of that city, the oeuvre of that world in a different way. I think it benefits us all to be able to do that.

SC: I’m from the south and so when I first started writing Darkest Prayer, I did it with the intent of writing about black Americans in the South. There is an idea with some people that southern heritage means rebel flags and Confederate statues. Southern heritage is so much varied, so much more nuanced and so much richer than that. I really wrote it as a way to reclaim that title. Certain people may feel that, some white people may feel that way, but as soon as you meet black people in the north, who have this idea we are all down there in bib overalls, drinking Soma [drink given to the masses in A Brave New World], and keeping ourselves submissive, it’s not like that.

I had a conversation with a gentleman from Chicago and he was like, ‘I don’t know how you can live down there, in the south and taking all that crap.’ I said to him, ‘You know what? I’ve been called the n-word 6 times in my life, and every time I whooped somebody’s ass.’ And I was telling him, ‘Because you grew up in Chicago, in this bastion of black excellence, you didn’t have to deal with that in a way that I did, so it doesn’t make you tougher than me or stronger than me, just means we’ve had different experiences.’ And so when I write, I write for southern whites and southern blacks to show them that nobody has a monopoly on the rural experience. When I wrote Darkest Prayer, I was heading that way but my next book Blacktop Wasteland really jumped into that, because I also talk about black male identity and what it means to be a man, and a black man in America, and trying to be a good man and good father when the deck is almost stacked against you. Sometimes the character in that book is a wheelman. He drives for a heist and he’s literally forced back into that lifestyle. I was very interested in answering those questions. There’s a term ‘toxic masculinity’ but I also believe in ‘tragic masculinity’. Sometimes, when you are a black man, you have tragic masculinity and there is a anger and a rage you can’t verbalize because of the things you have to deal with, slight microaggressions and overt aggressions. Sometimes we translate that to our boys, our sons and daughters. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t set out with the intent of writing a socially conscious novel but I’m a walking social conscious issue. When I write, it’s going to come out, even if I don’t intend it.

Cha: I don’t think writers of color have any responsibility to write about heavy social justice-y topics. Like white writers, I think we should be allowed free range, and write about whatever we feel like. Sometimes it happens to be books that address issues such as racism in America, or other things we may have direct access to than white writers. I don’t think it’s a responsibility. I think it’s an area of interest that I keep coming back to. Crime fiction and social justice, I think, a are a perfect match because when you think about the stories you read about in the paper that touch on social justice in the US. How many of them deal with crime? Children in cages? That’s crime. People being murdered by cops? That’s crime. All these stories lend themselves naturally to the genre because they already involve murder. Already involve criminal oppression. It’s such a natural fit that I find it interesting and pretty rewarding to explore.

CT: The thing that is really unique about your book, and you touched on it earlier was that you were exploring it from both sides in Your House Will Pay. Why did you choose to do that?

Cha: When I started this book, it actually started as a short story for a collection called Asian Pulp that was an anthology of stories by Asian-American writers or about Asian-American characters. That short story was only about the Korean family, or a version of a Korean family. When I decided to expand that into a novel, I realized that I couldn’t do it from the point of view of the Korean family. It was this decision point where I was realized it would be much harder if I did it with both families involved, but I also thought that if I do it with just Korean characters then it’s going to be a Korean-American POV novel, where any involvement of the black characters I would have to flatten them into these angelic archetypes in order to get into the nuance of it without getting into the POV would have been difficult, I think, as a non-black writer.

I decided that to get some balance into the story I needed to have Shawn’s point of view and his family (my Shawn and not Shawn here). I knew going in that I would have to do that. I wanted to write a story that was about racial tension and this big city but that largely didn’t involve white people.

I actually think Korean-Black tension in early 90s Los Angeles has been in the cultural mainstream consciousness for a very long time, but you don’t see or read that much about it in popular culture. I think there are all these interesting stories with fascinating characters, and none of them are white. Storytellers haven’t been given until very recently the chance to write those stories on a platform that is large and mainstream. I definitely wanted to portray these people who were very varied and who have collisions that are very American, but that don’t really touch on the usual black-white racial politics in America.

SC: I wanted to jump in there really quick. When I wrote My Darkest Prayer and the book that follows, Blacktop Wasteland, I wanted to include the full range of people I grew up with, which are black, indigenous Americans, white Americans, good ol’ boys, frat boys, and what we call Bougie Black People, and I wanted to create a world where all those people could have voice in the conversation. In the next novel I wrote about one black man and two white guys, and they are all poor, and I wanted to write about the universality of poverty, and how things are the same for people and how things are different, depending on their background. Everyone understands pain and everybody understands poor. [Image: script from Hell or High Water movie]

Stephen King has this great quote, ‘You can never be too thin or too rich. And if you don’t believe it, you were never really fat or really poor’ [Skeleton Crew]. Being poor translates across all racial and nationality backgrounds. I wanted those people to have a voice, so that we can experience it from different perspectives. It is different being poor being a black man in the south versus being a white man in the south, yet there a lot of similarities there, too. Being similar is something that people don’t want to acknowledge. When I worked on it, I wanted to give that perspective.

CT: Cheryl, can you talk a little bit about perspective. You include a vast array of characters, which you touched on earlier.

CH: I think of Detroit as one of the bellwether cities of America, like Chicago and lots of other cities. Its history is rich in creation and innovation. Henry Ford was a racist but he was also a genius at manufacturing. Eminem comes out of there, but so does Motown.

I wanted to play off of the rich, creative culture that’s there but see it from different perspectives. Detroit once had the largest Polish-American population in the country; it had, at one time, the largest Muslim population in the country, mostly from Iraq and Lebanon, and maybe it still does in Detroit, in the outskirts.

Charlie works with a group of partners who are diverse. Mexican-American. Don Rutkowski, who is Polish. A middle-aged white woman. You don’t see white middle-aged woman in mystery books that much. She is smart, and she’s capable, and helps them solve crimes in a way that you wouldn’t think about.

I really wanted to pay homage to Detroit and what it has but also to, as Shawn has pointed out, cast this group of characters, who are very diverse and very different, and yet will seem familiar to you in a lot of ways. Does that answer your question?

CT: Actually, I made a new question while everyone was talking. In writing Carved in Bone, you said that you wanted to touch on this part of American history, the AIDS crisis, but you choose to tell that through Henry Rios. Why did you make that choice, as opposed to writing a standalone?

MN: Because in the trajectory of the series, it was a natural step. The original 7 books were written between 1988 and 2000, and every gay male writer writing at that point became a de facto AIDS writer, we could not not write about it. In the book series, the great love of Rios’s life is HIV-positive man. It was a theme and appropriate to go back and talk about the origins.

CH: Michael told me he was inspired to write this book because of our current political crisis; that was his inspiration.

CT: We all have inspiration from today’s political crisis. Let’s jump to a different topic entirely. Is there a book you wished you had written and why? Whoever wants to jump in first.

CH: I wish I had written Steph Cha’s book.

SC: I would say Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide because it is so different from what I write. It’s so funny and fast-paced. It’s breezy but not inconsequential. My calling card in my writing is someone is going to get hit in the face with a wrench. At some point, someone is going to be tortured by having the hand slammed in a car door.

It’s an incredible experience to read about Day and her whole merry band of Scooby Doo folks, who are running around LA, solving crimes and looking fabulous and beautiful and fully expressing Black Girl Magic while solving these mysteries. Reading that book was like a revelatory experience for me because it was like, ‘Wow, man. This is not something I would’ve picked up on my own, but I love Kellye so much and she’s such a great person, that I’ve got to read this book.’ I fell into it. I don’t know if I could write that kind of book. No – I know I couldn’t write that kind of book.

Cha: I would say The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. I’m trying to think of a book of a Korean-American author who comes to mind…oh, and I would take Harry Potter.

SC: And Harry Potter money.

MN: I knew this question was coming and I thought about it. It’s so damn hard to write my own books.

Cha: That’s actually a great answer.

CT: Does anyone in the audience have a question?

Audience: If you’re going to write about LGBTQ or persons of color, then how do you do that if you’re not in that group? How do you do that and be sensitive to stereotypes, and if you are indeed in that group, how do you be sensitive to stereotypes of yourself?

SC: I’ll say to that first part of that question is, ‘Always write a character and not a caricature.’ If you don’t have a LGBTQ friend or person in your life, then talk to someone you know is LGBTQ.

I’m working on a book right now about two fathers in the south, one black and one white, whose sons were gay, in a relationship and were murdered. These two men, who were ex-cons and hyper-alpha male men, decide to investigate the crime and they have to go into the LGBTQ world in the south. There’s a long-standing tradition in the south, especially in the black south, that your LGBTQ status is accepted if you could sing, play an instrument, or do hair but other than that, nobody wants to hear from you. I wanted to explore that.

My friend PJ Vernon, who is sitting over there, did me the solid of reading my first draft of my novel and making sure that I was telling the story appropriately, that they were fully-formed characters and not caricatures, and that they were people and not stereotypes and not just plot devices. People always get up in arms about a ‘sensitivity reader.’ A sensitivity reader is research. If it makes you feel better, then just call it research if that is what you have to do at the end of the day. You wouldn’t write about an FBI agent unless you did research about the FBI, so you’ll spend money and go to Quantico and talk to John Douglas. Do that if you’re going to write about people of color.

On that second part, as a person of color that doesn’t absolve me from the same traps that anyone else would fall into. I’m not an LGBTQ person but I’m going to make sure I write – If I’m going to write them, to write an indigenous American, and Asian-American, I’m going to try my best to make them a character, so that their ethnicity or sexual orientation is not a parlor trick.

CT: Anybody else want to weigh in?

CH: I do. You hit on a good point. A person’s quality of diversity is not their personality is the first thing I would say. There’s also this notion, or concept of cultural humility. For instance, I’m a big fan of westerns. I like Tony Hillerman, so Tony Hillerman is a white male who wrote about Native American people, and I think—and I hope you don’t disagree because I know you have Native American blood in you—that he did a good job of bringing cultural humility to his series about Joe Leaphorn and I forget the name of his secondary character [Jim Chee]. To that point, the Navajo Nation gave him an honor. They understood that he not only wrote about the culture but he liked the people. Cultural humility suggests that your never done with the research, and that you’re constantly engaging with the community, that you respect the community, and you want to know more about them, and that you like that community and it comes across in your writing when that is the case.

To the second point, I have a trans person in my third book [Catch Me When I’m Falling]. I’ve worked with trans men and women and I thought I had a pretty good idea about who they are, but I felt a little bit bare naked out there so I certainly got a sensitivity reader who I could say, ‘Am I getting the right tone? Are there other tropes I’m stepping right into?’ It really helped me to have that advice. The feedback changed the writing I did around that character.

Cha: I spent a few years working and getting to know Shawn and his family. I have some thoughts on the matter. On the front end, ask yourself Why? And what you’re trying to get out of these characters, because if it’s just going to be for a little color and a little diversity, then that’s how it’s going to come off. I would say also to go into it knowing what a huge responsibility it is because you’re not writing sci-fi. You are writing about people who exist, and make sure you’re not writing a book that you would be ashamed to share with a reader who is from that group.

I would also say that it is an enormous amount of work. I think you have to be committed to doing the work. In this book [Your House Will Pay] in Grace’s point of view, it came out of me a lot easier and a lot of the work in this book was fleshing out Shawn’s family, and I had early drafts of it that my husband and agent were reading. My husband said, ‘Grace seems like someone you know and Shawn seems like someone you read about.’ And that was what it was like in the beginning because it was true. It was because I’d approached Shawn’s character from a sociological point—trying to understand his background, what someone from central LA who now lives in the ex-burbs, what his experience would be, and it took a lot of detailed brushwork to get him to the point where he felt vivid as the main character. It took time, it took effort, and I’m glad I put it in, but it took a long time. You have to be committed to doing the detailed work. Practical advice? Figuring out his relationships, what he cared about and why he cared about them, and detailing what his home life was like—that was really effective for me, and how I got to know him. One easy way to get know a character—you have a family, you have your relationships with them, and you have your friends—think about those dynamics, and you can layer them in and make people seem real without going into, ‘What is it about them, the African-American experience that is going to make this person pop?’ Ask, ‘What is this person like around his aunt versus his cousin?’ Think about these things and that could add a lot of texture to a character.

I also had sensitivity readers, though I didn’t call them sensitivity readers because they were friends of mine who were kind enough to offer to read the book. I had black friends who read the book for me, and that was helpful, too. I think doing the work, doing the research is very key. If you’re not ready to do that, then I’d say don’t bother.

CH: I just wanted to say one thing. Steph said ‘black friends’ plural. Black people are not monolithic. Get a couple, get more than one. One more LGBTQ friend.

SC: You mean, we can’t all dance.

CH: There’s a great resource in Sisters in Crime called ‘Frankie’s List’ that is a list of people, writers in various categories, who are open and willing to being contacted to be sensitivity readers.

Cha: By the way, I wanted to add, if you were, for example, writing about black Los Angeles, having one reader who is a black Virginian is not very helpful. You have to be mindful of these differences, too. I had a friend who ended up being a gold mine for me. He’s a small-press publisher in LA, and he went to Latasha Harlins’s school a couple years after her. He heard me read my short story and he offered to look at it and talk to me. I had someone help me on the front end. I had him read it and then several other people read it on the back end.

CT: The question is in two parts. Part 1 is the difficulty of publishing when you are a person of color, or a queer writer. And then [part 2] is whether we need to stay in our lane and only write about our personal experiences.

MN: So, my problem is not with Tony Hillerman. I like his books and I think he is respectful of the people he is writing about, and I also think writers should write anything that they want to write about. My problem is that Tony Hillerman gets published, but a Native American mystery writer doesn’t. That’s not Tony Hillerman’s issue, that is an issue with the publishing industry which is still—I gave a speech about this—is still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and overwhelmingly east coast. The people who are involved in what I call the ‘literary establishment’—I know them, I’ve worked with them, and they are lovely people, but they are infected with white supremacists beliefs about the rest of us, and that comes out in who they choose to publish and which kind of books they choose to publish by non-white, non-straight writers. For example, I think that for Latinos the notion is that a NY publisher wants to publish that la familia story because we are still regarded as a simple race of gardeners and maids.

My character is a Stanford-educated criminal defense lawyer, but that is not the first thing that comes to mind if you ask someone in New York. Mexican-American, what comes to mind? They’re thinking, those immigrant children down at the border. The stereotypes run so deep in publishing that I actually despair of it changing, which is one reason I took back my books. Now, on the other hand, the fact that Steph’s book was published and to such great acclaim that’s heartening. Very heartening.

SC: When I first started trying to get published, my first novel which, like I said, is set in the south, was sent to sixty-three publishers, and it got rejected sixty-three times. Every one, somewhere in that rejection letter said, ‘We don’t think it’s black enough’ or ‘Could you move it to Chicago?’, ‘Set it in Philadelphia?’, ‘Could there be more drug dealers in there? More violence?’, and I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that’.

And to Michael’s point, it’s a wonderful experience when you read someone like James Patterson and I love Alex Cross, but there’s an issue when James Patterson writing Alex Cross getting published and there isn’t an African-American man or woman, or a person of color writing an Alex Cross type book.

I just got a deal with Flatiron [Books] and I’m maybe one of 7 or 8 black men with a top 5 publisher. I’m not saying that to brag, but that is the situation. That being said, I resist any external pressure about what I can and what I can’t write. My first published story was about two white redneck brothers fighting over an inheritance, and so I think you can write whatever you want, but there will be pushback; there will be resistance. There’s a long way to go, but if you persevere and stay true to who you are, then maybe one day somebody will recognize it, and even if they don’t you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you did the best you could.

Cha: I do think the industry is still overwhelmingly white, agents and other gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white, and these are all kinda liberal, progressive people who want to see change but as long as their jobs stay occupied by exclusively white people their tastes are still going to dictate what you get as a reader, and I think those are related problems. The ‘stay in your lane’ mentality around writers of color, that if you are of that race that you ought to be writing about that race that comes from that. I think the idea of the mainstream reader (by which everyone means ‘white reader’) is that their appetite for writers of color is for stories about slavery, for example, if you’re a black writer, or the immigrant experience if you are an Asian-American or Latino. There are kinds of stories that are expected and that sell. I think the last few years have been a boom time for writers of color in the literary sphere, if you look at who is winning prizes and selling really well.

Colson Whitehead wrote a bunch of weird-ass books before he wrote Underground Railroad. That was his break, that was this huge runaway book that dealt with slavery. Percival Everett writes a slave novel. It’s just harder for writers of color to write weird fiction, or fiction that’s harder to classify because we don’t get that FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] treatment. I happen to be very comfortable in my lane because I don’t feel like there are a lot of people swimming in it. I don’t feel the need to stop writing about Korean Americans in Los Angeles because if I leave, then it’s ‘Who else is hanging out there?’ But that’s just fortuitous for me.

SC: One more thing to that point, to what Steph was saying. I challenged myself a couple of months ago because I got into an argument with a friend of mine, who said I couldn’t write a cozy mystery. He said, ‘Everyone gets shot in the face, or run over with cars in your books, and I bet you that you couldn’t do it if you had to and if your life depended on it.’ I said, ‘I’ll take that bet.’

I wrote it [King’s Gambit] and I had no expectation of it doing anything, and it got picked up by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [the story is out in Spring 2020]. You can write whatever you want to write, if it’s a good story. There is the sense that if you’re black that you’re going to write the long-suffering ‘Woe is me and the swing low sweet chariot’ story. Like Michael said, if you’re Hispanic or Latino, you’re going to write the la familia story. If you’re a LGBTQ woman, you’re going write this sort of romance, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ bullshit. That’s the expectation, but I think this panel is proof that you can defy that expectation.

MN: I want to make a point about readers. I think that publishers really underestimate readers, especially mystery readers. Mystery readers embraced Henry Rios. I was reviewed everywhere, from the Times to People Magazine. Mystery readers are usually intelligent, open-minded, and broad-minded, and that if you give them a good story and compelling characters, they will go with you. I think publishers do an injustice not to just writers but also to readers.

Cha: You forgot to mention that Garth Greenwell wrote a New Yorker piece [link to A Gay Mystery Novelist Who Chronicles the Aftermath of AIDS] about the Henry Rios series. That’s pretty cool.

Question to CH.

CH: On this point, and I think about it a lot. Do I have a responsibility to write about social justice? No. Do I have a responsibility in any industry I work to help the gatekeepers see the benefit of having diverse creatives in their midst. I totally feel that responsibility. I worked in public broadcasting, did a lot of work around that, the rooms in public television are whiter than this one, and there’s a case you can make that is economically, morally, and logically to them. You talk about readers who have a thirst and a curiosity about the world, especially mystery readers. I think when we present our diverse and varied stories about how we see the world and justice, you’ll see readers flocking to them and to us. We deserve to give them those authentic stories.

CT: Absolutely, and I promised to get back to you. This is our last question.

MN: I’m actually one of the judges for the LA Times Book Award in the Mystery/Suspense category this year, so I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. I’m actually finding that is not the case. I’m finding that many writers, including white writers are tackling these issues. If you’re writing about contemporary America, they are unavoidable. I feel that maybe it’s perhaps the books we are selecting to read. I’ve been really impressed. T. Jefferson Parker is a SoCal noir writer. His new book [The Last Good Guy (Roland Ford Book 3)] is about white supremacy. Michael Connelly’s new book [The Night Fire (Renée Ballard Book 3)]…I think people are engaging in those issues.

SC: I was going to say, don’t make a presumption about anyone. I’ve met some former police officers who are writers who are tackling those issues. They are talking about rooting out the bad cops. Frank Zafiro in the Pacific Northwest writes about that. Mark Bergin from DC writes about cops dealing with other bad cops and the pressures of being a police officer. I sometimes think that the more we try to divide ourselves along hierarchical lines, it makes writing harder. I started in sci-fi and it’s not very welcoming. Mystery genre is the one genre where if you’re writing a good story and telling a good tale, people will give you a chance. Like Michael said, if publishers and agents and other readers see that, then that will open up a whole new world of experience of stories and different people. If you don’t make any prejudgments about anybody, you may find a new author who may change your life.

CH: I think it’s also about making pathways of entry for creatives who are different easy and accessible. There’s a trainer in diversity in Baltimore [Verna Myers] who has a quote that says, ‘Diversity is inviting someone who is different than you to the party. Inclusion is inviting that person to dance.’

Cha: I wrote about this recently online. I think the genre is improving and I find that very heartening. I think there is a tendency—mysteries have to wrap up in the end. There is a natural tendency towards order and resolution, which you don’t always see in the real world and especially when you’re talking about social justice and the American justice system where you are seeing a lot of messiness that in order to translate it into crime fiction has to be done with a lot of nuance and engagement. I don’t think every writer wants to do that, or that every writer has to. I think that there is a natural division in the crime genre, just from an aesthetic point of view, like the books that trust that order will be restored and the books that don’t at all.

CT: We have one minute. Literally. I want to go down the line and everybody tell what book is their most current, and all the authors will be signing in the Marsalis room downstairs. Make sure you buy their book because that is how they get to eat and keep writing for you. Steph, let’s start with you.

Cha: Your House Will Pay. I have a copy here because it’s Michael’s copy.

SC: [Holds up copy of My Darkest Prayer]. Unfortunately it’s not in the book room. There were only 5 copies, but I’m glad all 5 are gone. It’s available on Amazon, and my next book is Blacktop Wasteland next year. If you bought a copy, I will sign it.

CH: And mine is Judge Me When I’m Wrong, the fourth book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series.

MN: Carved in Bone. I’d like to make a pitch. I’ve read all the authors here, and they are brilliant, and you really need to get their books.

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