Remembering their courage: The Great Escape

Steve McQueen on the Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike in The Great Escape. The dramatic fence jump was made by McQueen’s stunt double, Bud Ekins.

Celebrated Remembrance Day early by watching The Great Escape last night.

Loosely based on a mass breakout by Allied prisoners in a Nazi detention camp during the Second World War, John Sturges’ 1963 film is my favourite war movie, and one of my favourite movies period. Even though there isn’t a single woman in it. It’s a Boys’ Own adventure story about teamwork and loyalty, with an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, David McCallum and James Coburn.

Backed by Elmer Bernstein’s jaunty score, The Great Escape is great entertainment from its opening sequence right through to McQueen’s daring motorcycle bid for freedom, and its denouement following up the escapees outside the camp: hitchhiking, and on bicycle, bus, train, plane and rowboat.

McQueen’s iconic freedom jump and the movie’s other stunts are pure Hollywood, but The Great Escape is more than escapism. The determination of human beings to escape captivity is instinctual and makes a moving story. As senior British officer Ramsey (James Donald) tells the Nazi commander, “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can’t, it is their duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them.” The prisoners in Stalag Luft III organize themselves into teams, displaying amazing ingenuity in getting out of the camp and outfitting themselves to continue their flight outside. Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett says, “All this kept me alive.”

There is no sermonizing on the horrors or the futility of war. Just the single-minded focus of these men. And, above all, their courage.

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Celebrating Horror Season!

Got into the Halloween spirit last night with a double bill: The Thing From Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, The Thing. Despite its schlocky title, lumbering Frankenstein monster and mad scientist, I was surprised to find how well the 1951 movie has held up.

Based on the novella Who Goes There? (a much better title) by John W. Campbell Jr., the story focuses on a group of military officers and scientists at an Arctic research station who accidentally release a malevolent alien from a block of ice. It’s a Cold War allegory with the creature (played by Gunsmoke star James Arness in monster drag) representing the threat of communism in America in the 1950s. But it probes deeper than that by portraying chief scientist Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a man willing to sell out his fellow humans to partner the alien, as the real menace.

With almost no special effects, The Thing From Another World generates plenty of thrills and chills with its tight plotting and fast pacing. Snappy pacing and clever dialogue—also seen here in abundance—are trademarks of producer Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not), and some claim Hawks directed many of the movie’s scenes, allowing his protégé Christian Nyby to take screen credit.

Officers and scientists find a large object in the Arctic ice in The Thing From Another World (1951).

A bit of trivia: In the 1978 slasher film Halloween, the teens and the kids they’re babysitting are watching The Thing From Another World. And Halloween director John Carpenter went on to make another adaption of Campbell’s novella in 1982, titled—guess what?—The Thing.

The Thing is set in another icy outpost, this one a research station in the Antarctic, but it’s a very different movie. It is super visual, starting with a wonderful opening sequence in which a dog is chased by a helicopter over snow-covered tundra. Unlike the 1951 film, it is shot in colour and revels in gory special effects. But the real tension is generated by the high-stress situation: this alien is a shapeshifter that assumes the appearances of its victims. One by one, it devours the men on the base. Fear and paranoia mount as survivors wonder who among them are aliens.

The Thing bombed at the box office in 1982, and was denounced by critics. Roger Ebert called it “a geek show.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times dismissed it as “instant junk.”

But times and audiences have changed. The Thing’s gruesome special effects aren’t horrifying today; they’re camp. Suspicion and uncertainty are well understood. And the gay rights movement has noted a queer subtext to the all-male movie, claiming it’s about the straight community’s paranoia about gays and AIDS.

The Thing is now a cult horror classic.

It won’t scare you out of your boots, but it’s good entertainment for the Halloween horror season.

Movie poster for The Thing, 1982.

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A gala launch for In the Key of 13!

Yesterday, the Mesdames of Mayhem’s fourth crime fiction collection, In the Key of 13, was launched with great fanfare at Toronto’s Sleuth of Baker Street book store. Fourteen of the 19 authors were on hand to give short readings from their stories. Here they are!

Caro Soles, “Moonlight Sonata”: I have never lived in such an elegant place as this. It’s like being in another world here, with the gold-braided doorman and echoing black-marble vestibule. Up we go, Mother and I, in the golden cage to the fourth floor where more marble awaits.

Caro Soles, reading from "Moonlight Sonata."
Caro Soles, reading from “Moonlight Sonata.”

From my story, “Farewell to the King,” in which four young Montreal Elvis fans travel to Memphis for the King’s funeral: Then we were in front of the famous metal gates. Police officers were holding people back. I glimpsed the white mansion fronted by four pillars and two stone lions.

“Graceland, the King’s home,” Virgil, our bus driver, said.

“C’est extraordinaire!” Cécile’s voice was filled with reverence.

“Can we get off and take photos?” Mai-Lei called out.

“No, ma’am,” Virgil said. “Private service in there in 10 minutes.”

“I don’t care,” Toni shouted. “I’m livin’ my dream just seeing Graceland.”

Myself, reading from “Farewell to the King.”

Blair Keetch, “A Contrapuntal Duet”: Even as the music fades and I look back through the years, I wonder if the chime of the triangle had, in fact, been a warning bell.

Blair Keetch, reading from “A Contrapuntal Duet”.

Lisa de Nikolits, “Hit Me With Your Pet Shark”: Who’s That Girl by the Eurythmics wailed through the speakers, hitting the nail on the head.

Emma patted the sofa and beckoned to me. I was still standing there, the village idiot, and I forced myself to move, me, a muddy moth drawn to an acid golden flame. 

Emma reached up and pulled me down next to her and I lost my balance, nearly falling on top of her. An electric current jolted though me and I tried to shift to a more graceful position, flushing with embarrassment. She handed me the snorter and I took it with trembling fingers. I vacuumed a line, Joe handed me another shot and I threw it back. 

Thank God for Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine.” The bass helped calm me a bit, but I was a cornered mouse. I saw Joe watching me and there was a look in his lizard eyes that told me to run away, run as fast as I could, but cool fingertips brushed my neck, and I closed my eyes, trapped by pleasure, a dumb creature unable to move. The sofa took the weight of another body, and I opened my eyes to see Emma rubbing Joe’s balls. I thought okay, so that’s how it’s going to be.

Lisa de Nikolits, reading from “Hit Me With Your Pet Shark.”

Jane Petersen Burfield, “Requiem”: I first encountered death when I was not quite four. After our old dog, Blackie, was put down, my mother took me to the garage to see him, collapsed in a wooden crate. I was sickened by the smell of damp cement and rotten fruit. I said a weepy goodbye, hugged my mom, and went upstairs to think.

Jane Petersen Burfield, reading from “Requiem.”

Madona Skaff’s “Soul Behind the Face”: The Great Leonard sat motionless on the wooden chair, his arms rested comfortably on the Plexiglass table before him. He controlled his breathing and the relentless need to scratch at the electrodes attached to his chest and scalp.

Madona Skaff, reading from “Soul Behind the Face.”

M.H. Callway’s “Brainworm”: Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…

Fiona huddled over her rapidly cooling coffee. Maman‘s damn tune wouldn’t stop. Even shock and awe couldn’t blast it from her mind. Her heart still hammered like a drum.

M.H. (Madeleine) Callway, reading from “Brainworm.”

Rosemary Aubert’s “The Beethoven Disaster”: To be successful in any encounter, you have to do three things: You have to focus. You have to make sure the person or people you are working for are 100% reliable. You have to stick to what you yourself know best.

Doug Purdon, reading from Rosemary Aubert’s “The Beethoven Disaster.”

Marilyn Kay’s “Her Perfume”: Despite the bright August sun, a chill wind swept through the ruined castle’s grounds and ruffled Julie’s chestnut hair. Shivering, she hugged her denim jacket close.

Marilyn Kay, reading from “Her Perfume.”

Rosalind Place’s “Bad Vibrations”: “I don’t know, Chris. Can’t the board do something? I’m thinking of packing it in.”

Amy ran her fingers through her hair as she sat down, flattening half of her carefully managed curls. It gave her the appearance of a crested bird, an image reinforced by her black sweater, black jeans and high-heeled black boots, now tapping anxiously against the auditorium stage floor. She felt nauseous and angry, as she often did after one of Neil’s so-called motivational meetings.

Rosalind Place, reading from “Bad Vibrations.”

Melodie Campbell’s “Death of a Cheapskate”: Dad died years ago, but I remember it clearly. Looking back, it seems remarkable that no one but me realized it was murder.

The phone call from my sister came late at night. “He’s dead,” Elaine said. “Finally.”

Melodie Campbell, reading from “Death of a Cheapskate.”

Lynne Murphy’s “Let the Sunshine In”: “I think someone is killing the residents in this place.”

Charlotte was well aware of cases that had been in the news: murders in nursing homes by caretakers. But people were watching out for that now. Weren’t they?

Lynne Murphy, reading from “Let the Sunshine In.”

Catherine Astolfo’s “Gentle Rain From Heaven”: Mersey hands her form with her ID to the policeman blocking the door. He examines the document closely, but does not look at her.

Finally, the policeman raises his eyes to look at her. He has discovered the only unique thing about her.

“Mer-zee?” he asks, saying her name like the famous river.

“No, Mer-see. As in, ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.'”

Catherine Astolfo, after reading from “Gentle Rain From Heaven.”

Sylvia Maultash Warsh’s “None Shall Sleep”: Galina’s mistake was to tell her understudy a stupid little joke. She whispered in the girl’s ear: When we are finally paid our wages, I will splurge and spend it all on a tin of herring. Her understudy, recognizing the opportunity, relayed the conversation to the committee head, who informed the police. It turned out to be treason to imply that the government had not paid its artists for months, or that government-run stores were empty. Galina was sentenced to five years in a labor camp for anti-Soviet activity, while the understudy was promoted to Galina’s role.

Sylvia Maultash Warsh, reading from “None Shall Sleep.”

Donna Carrick’s “Solace in D Minor”: As a child, I was fully aware of how special our father was. He was a superstar, the proverbial “whole package,” loved by millions, and he was my hero.

Dad was a real father, one who spent time with us, as precious as that time was. He blessed us with genuine love and a unique outlook on life.

I remember the day he gave us “the talk”–the one about our family’s wealth and privilege.

“Money,” he said, “is a fortress. It protects us from the outside world. It shields us from the consequences of our actions.”

“But never forget, girls, it’s also a prison.”

Donna Carrick.

Ed Piwowarczyk’s “The Ballad of Will Robinson”: My name is Will Robinson, same as that kid on that ’60s TV show Lost in Space. My fictional counterpart had a robot who warned, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” Too bad that robot wasn’t around when Rose Connelly entered my life.

Ed Piwowarczyk, reading from “The Ballad of Will Robinson.”

Thank you to our host, the lovely Marian Misters, co-owner of Sleuth of Baker Street book store!

Marian Misters of Sleuth of Baker Street.

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In the Key of 13: crime fiction stories to celebrate!

The Mesdames of Mayhem’s fourth collection of crime fiction has been released by Carrick Publishing. In the Key of 13 is now available on Amazon. And, for those of you in the Toronto area, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating the collection’s print launch at Sleuth of Baker Street book store at 2 p.m. October 26.

The 19 stories in the anthology range from cozy to noir, and all are on the theme of music. Many of the authors are winners of or finalists for major crime writing awards. Blair Keetch is the winner of the Mesdames’ 2019 contest for emerging crime writers. His story, “A Contrapuntal Duet,” is his first published story.

Jack Batten, the Toronto Star‘s crime fiction reviewer, gave the collection a fabulous review today. Here’s the link to it!

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Sharpen your pencils! New collection set for 2020

Judy Penz Sheluk has come along way in the four years since her debut novel, The Hangman’s Noose, was published by Barking Rain Press. The Canadian author now has two Amazon bestselling mystery series, and she has set up her own publishing company, Superior Shores Press. This June, Superior Shores released a multi-author short story collection, The Best Laid Plans. I was delighted to have my 2013 story, “The Sweetheart Scamster,” reprinted in it.

Judy has now put a call out for submissions for Superior Shores’ second crime fiction collection. The title will be Heartbreaks & Half-Truths: 21 Stories of Mystery & Suspense, and it will be released June 18, 2020. This is another great opportunity for crime fiction writers to see their work in print!

The theme of “heartbreak and half-truths” must be an integral part of the stories’ plots — which would seem to give authors plenty of scope. The collection will feature cozy, locked-room, noir, historical and suspense stories; speculative, sci-fi, fantasy and paranormal tales will not be considered. Submissions can be previously published, although they can’t be currently available online, and preference will be given to new material.

Length should be approximately 1,500-5,000 words.

Deadline for submitting is Jan. 15, 2020. Send entries to JUDY@JUDYPENZSHELUK.COM with “Heartbreaks & Half-Truths” in the subject line.

Judy Penz Sheluk.

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Agatha sets a Cozy example

Agatha Christie, whose books bring in handsome royalties 43 years after her death.

Forty-three years after her death, Agatha Christie is still a best-selling author. Her books alone bring in more than £5 million in royalties every year, then there are royalties from her plays and the movies that are based on her novels.

Her novels, collectively, have sold more than four billion copies. And Christie is the world’s most translated author; her fiction has been released in more than 100 languages. There is also a continuing output of books about Christie. She is not just a literary figure; she’s a cultural phenomenon.

But Agatha Christie did not invent the detective story. That was done by Edgar Allan Poe. His “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841. Then came Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White in 1859, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. 

Poe and Conan Doyle established several conventions for the detective novel:

  • the brilliant, eccentric detective.
  • the less-brilliant associate who narrates the story.
  • bumbling police officers.
  • the Power of Reasoning that’s used to solve the mystery.

Christie rose to fame during the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, the era of classic mystery novels released between the First and Second World Wars. They were written by Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.

But Christie was not an instant success as an author. She completed her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in 1911. She shopped it around, only to receive rejection after rejection. It was never published. Her second novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was rejected six times before it was published by Bodley Head in 1919.

What makes Agatha Christie’s stories stand out?

  • She’s considered the greatest PLOTTER in fiction writing. Her books are puzzles, an advanced form the board game Clue.  Yet Christie was upfront with the fact that she often had no idea who her Killer was when she began a novel. She relied on the clues she created, just as her reader would, to piece together a solution to the mystery. But doesn’t this sound like a pantser, rather than a plotter?
  • She also created two memorable characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.

A lot is known about how Christie wrote from the notebooks she kept. We know that she liked to plot her crime stories from the MURDER itself.

  • She planned the type of murder, the Killer, and the motive.
  • She factored in the various suspects and their motives.
  • She pulled readers in different directions with clues, red herrings and double bluffs.
  • She relied heavily on dialogue to vary the pacing and heighten suspense.

We also know that she disliked Poirot. While many readers love her larger-than-life Belgian private investigator, Christie grew to dislike her literary creation intensely. She once called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Maybe that’s why she killed him off in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The novel was written 35 years before her death, but it was only published in 1975, shortly before she died. And The New York Times gave Poirot a front-page obituary!

Given her feelings for Poirot, it must have been a relief to write about Miss Marple, the spinster who spent her entire life the village of St. Mary Mead. Miss Marple is a dramatic departure from the detectives of Poe and Conan Doyle. Her wisdom is feminine. She relies on her knowledge of the domestic sphere and close human relationships, on intuition and common sense. With Miss Marple, Christie does not turn her back on the spinster stereotype: that old, unmarried women are nosy and spend their time eavesdropping. Rather, she embraces it and expands upon it.

Miss Marple shows us that Christie inherited as much from Jane Austen as from Conan Doyle.

The Miss Marple mysteries—12 novels and 22 short stories—mark the beginning of the COZY sub-genre, and modern Cozies follow standards developed by Christie.

  • no graphic sex, swearing or violence.
  • an amateur sleuth
  • a closed community.
  • a charming setting.
  • a satisfying resolution.

Think about how closely today’s cozies follow these hallmarks!

Those of you writing cozies may want to follow elements of Christie’s formula with the novels you’re writing.

  • Set up. Christie’s novels open by establishing the world her characters inhabit—usually a well-ordered closed community (and the community doesn’t have to be an English village; in Murder in Mesopotamia, the small community is an archeological dig in the Middle East). Christie uses a lot of description in her setups, and this gradually drops off as dialogue and interaction between characters take over. You’ll want to go lightly on description for today’s readers.
  • Murder occurs. Christie usually waits a fairly long time to bump off her first victim. The murder in Death on the Nile occurs half-way through the book; Murder in Mesopotamia, a quarter of the way through; Endless Night, two-thirds through. For Christie, the murder had to be built up to; it wasn’t the beginning of the story, it was the middle. She’s skilled at hooking her readers and building suspense with other crimes and goings-on before the first murder takes place.

But you may not be able to hold readers’ attention as well as Christie, and you could risk losing your readers if you don’t have something exciting up-front.

  • The First Victim in Christie’s novels is often an unlikable character, often a rich, nasty old person who enjoys taunting his heirs that they wish him dead so they can collect their inheritances. And the old coot is usually right about that. Or the murder victim may be an outsider who no one in the community knows or cares about—as in A Murder is Announced and They Do It With Mirrors. This means that these First Murders don’t touch readers’ hearts. A SECOND murder later in the book usually kills off a nice, blameless character who just happens to know too much.
  • The Narrator. The best-known Christie narrator is Captain Hastings, the “Dr. Watson” to Hercule Poirot, who narrates several—not all—of the Poirot stories. Miss Marple only narrates one short story, “Miss Marple Tells a Story,” because she does not usually enter the story until later in the book.

You’ll need to decide who will narrate your novel. This will be a crucial decision for you story.

  • The Sleuth. Miss Marple was Christie’s reprieve from working with Poirot. She’s an elderly busybody, yet she is extremely likeable. Make your Sleuth likeable—this is essential for Cozies, although other sub-genres can have seriously bent protagonists. Give Sleuth flaws, but flaws that don’t offend the reader. Miss Marple is the village busybody, but readers love her.
  • Sleuth’s Motivation for getting involved. Why does the Sleuth get involved? As a private investigator, Poirot is usually called upon for help. Miss Marple isn’t officially in the investigation business, but she is often called upon for help as well. In 4:50 from Paddington, The Body in the Library and Nemesis, by friends. In A Murder is Announced, her reputation has grown and police Inspector Craddock involves her.

BUT it’s often just Marple’s curiosity that pushes her into action. In A Caribbean Mystery, another guest at the resort starts to tell her the story of a man who got away with murder more than once, only to break off his tale when he realizes other are listening. When the storyteller is murdered in his room that night, Miss Marple is on the trail.

Give your Sleuth a good reason to get involved, more than just curiosity—such as wanting to protect a friend who is the prime suspect in the investigation. Your Sleuth will also need a goal that will propel her on.

  • Keep your Sleuth on Track. Once the Sleuth has a goal and decides to act on it, she launches into the main part of the novel. She interviews multiple suspects with motives. And she attacks any obstacles that get in her way.

And don’t let other characters do your Sleuth’s work. Christie got away with it in 4:50 from Paddington. Miss Marple was elderly and her strength was failing, and she had a young friend, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, work at the manor house near where she believes a murder took place. Lucy uses golf practice to search the grounds, and eventually finds a body hidden in the stables. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple ultimately solves the mystery, but she is not always the driving force of the investigation.

Christie got away with this, but you won’t. Keep your Sleuth front and centre, always driving the investigation forward.

  • The Villain. The best mysteries have well-rounded villains, not cardboard characters, with backstories, motives, and plans for the future. And in Cozies, villains are often likeable characters. most of Agatha Christie’s are. And she must have mistrusted the medical profession because there are a good number of killer doctors in her mysteries. Your Villain needs to be smart, but not as smart as your Sleuth. And don’t reveal the Villain’s identity until the end.
  • Suspects. Christie often used the “Closed Circle of Suspects” literary device—a limited number of suspects, each with the means, the motive and the opportunity. In other words, one of the people in the closed fictional community is the murderer. No character in Christie’s novels should be considered exempt—not even a child, the narrator or the Sleuth!
  • Subplots. A good novel often has a subplot—or two. In Christie’s mysteries, the main thread is the murder. A second thread is often a romance OR a suspicious-looking character—not the murderer—who has a vendetta against the group or one of the other characters.

But don’t let your subplot compete with your main story. If it does start to compete, you probably have another novel that you’ll need to develop separately. And no sex scenes in those romantic subplots, please!

  • Clues. Christie provides clues, but she doesn’t always play fairly with her readers. She was skilled at misdirection. Red Herrings—misleading clues—are her best device for confusing readers. The challenge for readers is to separate the real clues from the Red Herrings. The real clues are often given at the beginning of the book, but are so underplayed it’s easy to miss them. Christie often used the word “interesting” to describe a clue with little relevance, but she never used this word referring to a vital clue.

Another trick is the Double Bluff, an attempt to deceive the reader by saying exactly what she will do—knowing that the reader will assume she’s bluffing. An example is the first suspect, who is ruled out early in the story (Murder in the Vicarage) but who turns out to be the Killer after all.

And Christie sometimes withholds vital information. The solution is often part of the Backstory, and the Reader is not privy to this until close to the end of the novel.

And sometimes everything is exactly as it appears.

  • The Midpoint comes half-way through the novel, a scene that changes the direction of the plot. It could be new information, or a new understanding by the Sleuth. The Midpoint is often a setback called a Reversal, and all clever plots should have reversals. The Sleuth realizes she was going in the wrong direction and has to come up with a new plan. In Christie’s novels, the Midpoint is often the Second Murder, as in A Murder is Announced.
  • Cause and Effect. Remember that all the action, all the Sleuth’s progression toward the Climax, builds, not randomly, but through cause and effect.
  • Climax. At the Climax, the Sleuth confronts the Villain, usually with words rather than weapons in Cozies. Many of Christie’s Climaxes involve a Big Reveal, a scene in which Poirot or Marple gather all the suspects together, list the clues and the red herrings, and then reveal the murderer. There’s usually COMEUPPANCE in these gathering scenes, with the Sleuth publicly embarrassing characters who have secrets.

BUT occasionally Christie’s Sleuths put themselves in real danger at the Climax. In 4:50 From Paddington, Miss Marple arranges to be alone with the Killer so her friend can come in and identify him as the man she saw strangling a woman on the train. In Nemesis, Marple allows the Killer to visit her in her bedroom in the middle of the night.

  • Disguises. Christie frequently uses disguises. Characters physically disguise themselves as someone else (After the Funeral) or take on fake identities (A Murder is Announced).

Readers should also pay attention to characters who appear frail or disabled; they’re often not. And characters whose lives appear to be in danger should be looked at closely. Also, pay attention to scatter-brained characters; they’re prone to make off-handed remarks that seal their fate.

You might want to use a few disguises in your stories.

  • Servants. Their input can be vital (Mitzi in A Murder is Announced) because they see and hear things as they blend into the background. But Christie’s servants are rarely killers, although killers sometimes disguise themselves as servants. Characters in modern Cozies may not have servants, but there may be other characters who blend into the background in their worlds: waiters, shop clerks, letter delivery people, hydro workers.
  • Social Issues. Understanding Christie’s historical period is essential to appreciating her stories. Her characters speak about the changing social classes, the arrival of immigrants in their villages, and the heavy taxation in England after the First World War. Christie pokes fun at her countrymen who have trouble coping with social change, and at the landed gentry whose privileged world is upset by the corpse in the library or on the lawn.

Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia also turn up in Christie’s books. I like to think she intended this as part of her satire of the insular English: their obsession with their gardens, their cucumber sandwiches, and the status quo. Here’s the narrator of Murder in Mesopotamia’s initial take on Poirot: “I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was.”

After the Second World War, many American readers were not amused by Christie’s characters’ views on ethnic or religious differences. Her publishers received letters, including one from the Anti-Defamation League. Her agent probably figured that these letters would seem ridiculous to her; in any case, he didn’t forward them to her. He simply gave Dodd, Mead, her American publishers, permission to delete any potentially offensive references to Jews or Catholics or Blacks. She apparently didn’t notice the changes.

You’ll probably want to explore social issues in your novels, but remember—as Christie did—your aim is to entertain, not to preach. As Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union. All I want is a story.”

  • Resolution. Once the conflict is over and all the ends are tied up, show readers what your fictional community is like now that order has been restored to it. Thrillers can end at the Climax, but Cozy readers want to see how these characters are doing once Evil has been vanquished. Not pages and pages, but enough to give readers a satisfying ending. And remembers that Endings are what readers take away with them…and talk about. A satisfying ending will sell your book to other readers.
  • Humour. Humour is a big part of today’s Cozy mysteries…and this goes back to Christie’s mysteries. Her stories are shot through with sly humour. The comedy is there to tame the evil.

In 4:50 from Paddington, a corpse is found in the stable on a great estate. The family’s grandson, Alexander, and his friend come tearing up to the stable on their bikes in hope of seeing it.

“Oh please, sir, do be a sport,” Alexander says to the police officers. “Here’s a murder, right in our own barn. It’s the sort of thing that might never happen again. Do be a sport, sir.”

“Take ’em in, Sanders,” Inspector Bacon said to the constable. “One’s only young once.”

  • Series. Cozies today are often part of a series, just as Christie’s were. Today we have Elizabeth Duncan’s Penny Brannigan mysteries, Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy cat series, the late Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman mysteries, and many more. Publishers and readers love a series. When you have a popular leading character, you’ve already sold your next book.

As you can see, Christie’s mysteries, even the Miss Marple mysteries, do not always fit snugly into the Cozy mold.

  1. The murders often occur later in the stories than we like to see today.
  2. She didn’t always play fairly with readers in providing clues, etc.
  3. Miss Marple doesn’t always have a good reason to get involved in the investigation.
  4. Miss Marple sometimes lets other characters do her Sleuth’s work.

But keep in mind that Christie was breaking new ground with her mysteries. And she could get away with a lot just because she was Agatha Christie. You, however, can’t.

Ten clues to writing mysteries:

  1. What kind of Sleuth do you want to work with? Amateur? Professional?
  2. If an amateur, what is her reason for getting involved in the investigation? 
  3. What are your Sleuth’s special skills? If she’s a cook or a baker, her knowledge of food must help her solve the crime. And a financial planner should recognize the red flags of financial crime.
  4. What kind of crime stories interest you? Murder, theft, white collar (financial) crime, dark psychological?
  5. Who will be your first murder victim? Why does he/she have to die?
  6. Who is your Villain?
  7. What is your Villain’s goal?
  8. Who are your secondary characters? Your Sleuth will need a sidekick—such as Poirot’s Hastings or Holmes’s Watson. What will be the sidekick’s motivation for getting involved? Who will your suspects be?
  9. Police source. If you have an amateur Sleuth, you will need a character who gives information only the police would have: time of death, what the weapon was, etc.
  10. Where and when do you want to set your mystery? Season and climate? Setting is a key element in Cozy mysteries.

THEN it’s just a matter of organizing all this in a logical fashion so the reader can solve the mystery along with your Sleuth.

(From an address to Sisters in Crime Toronto, Sept. 19, 2019.)

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Word on the Street tomorrow!

WOTS 2018, with three Mesdames of Mayhem: Lynne Murphy, Cathy Dunphy and Sylvia Warsh in profile.

Tomorrow, Sept. 22, Toronto celebrates the written word at Word on the Street. The 30th annual literary festival will be held at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visit me from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Mesdames of Mayhem’s table, booth WB3 in the main Harbourfront building. And I’ll be at Crime Writers of Canada’s table, booth WB4, from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m.

More than 250 book and magazine exhibitors will be at Harbourfront. Admission is free!

Check out the WOTS website.

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