My Journey from Crime Fiction Lover to Crime Fiction Author

Growing up in New York, I read and revered The New York Times, which was one of a handful of papers in our house, but held the place of highest esteem.  And I remember classroom instruction in elementary school about how to fold it on the train or bus since it wasn’t a tabloid and the pages were so large.

I dreamed of being reviewed there at whatever point I became a published author.  But I never expected that it would be my mystery series that would open that door, and literally jumped for joy when it happened.

Let’s Get Criminal, the first Nick Hoffman mystery, is now back in print after a long hiatus and available on Amazon.

I had never set out to write mysteries, even though I loved crime fiction and started reading in it junior high school. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. Nick and Stefan teach at the same school, are happy together, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I relished the academic setting where you find bald men argue over a comb, as Borges put it so well.

At the time of my conversation with Denneny, I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

When I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has had more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  But that’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to crime fiction.  The latest review of his new mystery State University of Murder is at the Lansing State Journal. You can study creative writing with Lev one-on-one at writewithoutborders.com

 

“The Bookshop” is a Haunting Tale of Dangerous Dreams

If you’re thinking of watching The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy on Amazon Prime, wait. Read the short novel it’s based on first.  The movie adds touches of romance and intensifies Penelope Fitzgerald’s drama in ways that don’t betray the novel, but do make the story less subtle.  More than that, the dispassionate, incisive narrative is gone, with the exception of some voice overs.

This short novel contains a world of heartbreak and cruelty.   In the late 1950s, Florence Green decides to live her dream and open a book shop in a small English coastal town.  The building she chooses for her home and business is damp, decayed, and mournful.  Her courage seems more like naivety.

Though the shop seems to start off well, the portents are not good from the very beginning.  The town seems a dead end and suffers regular devastation.  Its name is warning enough: Hardborough.

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.  By 1850 the [river] had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away.  In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river.  In 1920 the old railway was closed….The great floods of 1953 caught the seas wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide.”

Later on we learn that new homes have been and washed out to sea by erosion, a force that works on Florence herself.

In a town this besieged and small, everyone knows every step Florence takes.  More and more it seems people are leagued against her, egged on by a wealthy doyenne who says she wants the house Florence has leased to become an arts center–that’s supposedly her dream.  But what this arbitrary, rich woman really wants is to deny anyone else a place of even minor honor and notoriety.  She dreams about power, not culture.  She employs rumor and worse to get her way and to ruin Florence, whose love of books is overflowing, but whose knowledge of the world is very flawed.

Fitzgerald excels at small, cutting descriptions of people, like this one about Milo North, someone vaguely employed by the BBC who worms his way into Florence’s life:

“What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to avoid trouble before it started…His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether.  Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.”

The movie gives viewers a sort of happy or redemptive ending, but the novel is hauntingly unsparing–and Florence’s home itself is haunted.  Though The Bookshop is quite short, there’s an epic feel to this rich and thoughtful novel that might make you want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

Lev Raphael teaches one-on-one online workshops at  writewithouborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

 

Why I’m Teaching Creative Writing Online

I come from a family of teachers. My mother’s father taught economics in Poland. My mother taught language and literature in Belgium. And in New York, my brother taught special education.

I picked my undergraduate college, the Lincoln Center branch of Fordham University, specifically because of one creative writing teacher I’d heard about as inspirational. It was a great choice. I ended up taking all her classes and didn’t just learn the subject matter, but also how to teach, how to orchestrate a class, and how to have fun doing it.

In senior year, she took me on as an unofficial apprentice because I told her my twin goals in life were to write and to teach. I watched what she did in classrooms as an observer, and she even showed me how she graded papers. When I started teaching, her model was always in my head. She was in my head.

Recently I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University. Like many colleges and universities, the powers-that-be have no idea what a good learning environment is for teaching literature or creative writing. They especially overcrowd the creative writing workshops, which means students can’t get the attention they need in class or out of it. That’s grossly unfair to the students, many of whom work more than one job to help pay their tuition.

Typically I’ve had twenty-five students in writing workshops, though once it was thirty. Yes, thirty. These class sizes not only made it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding made it harder for students to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing their work. But administrators don’t seem to care.

Luckily I’ve also been able to teach independent study students and supervise their senior theses, where individual attention is the critical foundation.  When you sign up for one of my workshops, you’re really doing an independent study.

I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching in a very focused way. I get to coach and mentor writers at all stages and offer the kind of individualized attention that learning to write requires. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, sharing your work with someone requires trust and an atmosphere of safety. That’s what I saw my college mentor create over and over. Teaching online, I can truly share what I learned from her, and carry on a family tradition in an exciting new way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres, including a guide to the Writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can find his creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Guest Blog: How Should Women Authors Write About Crimes Against Women?

Women crime writers have reacted in outrage to the Staunch Book Prize, a UK award for “a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Internationally acclaimed author Val McDermid’s comment: “Baby, bathwater.”

One of my first thoughts was that if you eliminate fiction about crimes against women, you’re left with male on male violence—war stories are the ultimate example—and crimeless fiction. That’s not true. The 2018 prize went to Australian writer Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge, described as a “literary political thriller” that presents an “anguishing portrayal of world refugee crises.” It sounds like a fine book. Reviewers also called it “dystopian,” a “novel about sibling rivalry, family, masculinity, and the game of cricket,” and a “noir tour de force.” In other words, it’s the kind of book that male writers write that absolutely must be balanced by crime fiction in women’s voice about women’s experience.

This is precisely the reason I decided readers needed my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories. The subject—crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Full disclosure: I needed such an anthology, because neither my usual short story markets such as Ellery Queen’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines nor the noir e-zines that published darker fare were likely to want my latest story, “Never Again.” Why not? Because the first-person protagonist is a molested child, a fourteen-year-old girl whose father has been raping her since she was four. As a therapist for thirty-five years, I can assure you this is not uncommon.

What we need to object to is the graphic, lovingly depicted presentation of violence toward women—the serial killer’s point of view, the description of a rape, the beauty of blood spatter and a victim’s terror. Instead, e-zines whose guidelines invite submitters to bring on the horror, crudity, and gore, have a single caveat: No child abuse. (Oh, and no animal abuse, but that’s another story.) Noir editors seem to think avoiding the topic of child molestation entitles them to a white hat in the matter.

The Me Too Short Stories call for submissions—to women authors only, because I wanted maximum authenticity of voice—mentioned only “crimes against women.” Yet almost half of the stories in the anthology involve children. It’s not surprising, considering that child abuse is the seed from which adult violence grows in the form of both abusers and victims. Children are vulnerable by definition. Their protectors may be absent or neglectful or impaired. Or these protectors may themselves be at the mercy of those who have physical, emotional, social, or economic power over them.

When I added a second protagonist to my “Never Again” story, I made her an adult married to an abusive alcoholic. But her secret “me too” story started at age nine, when the preacher’s son molested her. Now he’s a deacon in the church the whole town attends, and her shame is expressed in fat and compulsive eating. This too, all of it, happens in real life.

Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology was created to give me and the other contributors the chance to write about violence toward women and girls not with loving emphasis on our pain and helplessness but by making them the protagonists, giving them a voice, showing the reader their courage and survival. That is how I think crime writers, men and women, can contribute to new attitudes toward violence against women.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the editor of Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology. She is also author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga, a Jewish historical series, and editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her short stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha awards and have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine among others. Her author website is http://elizabethzelvin.com. Liz is a psychotherapist who lives in New York and treats clients online at LZcybershrink.com.

For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

I fell in love with Agatha Christie and crime fiction back in junior high and read every one of her books available at our local public library.  I was captivated by her mastery of plot even then, and now, when I re-read her, I feel an even deeper sense of awe.  She was a superb story-teller, subtle and devious and delightful.  No wonder she’s been so wildly popular for nearly a century–only the Bible and Shakespeare have surpassed her in sales.

Just in time for Halloween, William Morrow has a sweet treat for Christie fans: a collection of almost two dozen creepy and ghostly tales.  It opens with a bang.  The title story revolves around Simone, an enervated medium in Paris fearful of her last séance before marriage.  Why do these séances make her so weary?  Why is she afraid of her client, a woman grieving for a lost child?  The answers are suitably shocking and grotesque.

There’s a wealth of fun reading after that.  Christie offers a neat twist on inheritance stories in “Wireless.”  “The Mystery of the Blue Jar” deftly deals with a WWI veteran’s shell-shock–or does it? “The Blue Geranium” is one of several stories where dreams play an unusual and possibly supernatural part.

Hercule Poirot uses his little gray cells to uncover a murder in “The Dream,” a story that veteran mystery readers might find a bit too easy to unravel.  But watching him amaze a room of suspects by his ratiocination is always a treat.  In “the Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” Miss Marple profits from decades of observing human nature under a microscope in her village.  She deftly explains that a ghost story she hears over dinner is actually a tale of murder.  And what a murder!  The planning is fiendishly clever.

That indomitable village sleuth also appears in “The Idol House of Astarte,” a classic story of the supernatural with a femme fatale at its center, and told by a clergyman.  It raises the age-old question of whether a place or home can be “imbued or saturated with good or evil influences which can make their power felt.”  Miss Marple handily dismisses the many bizarre possible solutions to a strange set of crimes at a house party, but doubts still linger.

In “The Fourth Man,” a nighttime conversation in a train compartment about a famous split personality case turns very dark when one of the four men in the compartment claims to have inside information about the people involved.  What he reveals shatters the complacency of the other three–a doctor, lawyer, and minister–who discover that their view of reality is more limited than they imagined.

Christie explores that idea in more than one story, as when a “doctor of the soul” says that he doesn’t believe that spirits can be earthbound and haunt a particular place, but he has more than once seen “a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end. . .”

Justice is served throughout the collection, most deliciously in my very favorite story, which is also one of the shortest.  “The Wife of the Kenite” follows a German veteran of WW I to his unexpected destiny in South Africa.  It’s chilling fiction, gorgeously written and perfectly wrought.

The shadow of that war looms over many of the tales. Even though they explore the supernatural and dark themes like avarice, jealousy, and revenge, they’re often quite funny. Poirot’s complaints when he gets to Egypt in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” are priceless.  And then there’s Christie’s satire of inarticulate English gentlemen “who dislike any form of emotion, and find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.”

Flashes of lovely character assessment like that and quickly evocative description are just some of the many delights in a collection that offers entertainment, suspense, deep human interest–and mystery, of course. Mystery of more than one kind, that is, since the eerie last story suggests that the “supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including nine Nick Hoffman mysteries, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Singapore Sapphire is Classic Crime Fiction

Memoirs can be difficult to write, and in Sir Oswald Newbold’s case in 1910 Singapore, writing a memoir turns deadly.  As befits a classic mystery, he’s found dead in the first chapter, and the hunt is on to track down the murderer and find out what Newbold could have written that guaranteed his savage murder.

Newbold retired in Singapore to escape England’s “miserable weather and miserable people.”  What secrets was he going to reveal in his book?  Whom would he expose, and why?

Taking the field to find out the truth are dashing Inspector Robert Curran and intrepid Harriet Gordon, a stenographer and typist who has left England under a cloud. Gordon has suffered deep personal loss and abuse.  Part of the enjoyment in this mystery is watching her rise above her grief to find new meaning in life.  We also experience the difficulties and beauties of living in a tropical climate mainly through her eyes, and the vision is never less than fascinating.

The cast of minor characters is as colorful as those you find in Christie’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  Like Christie, Stuart makes them all vivid and unique.

The author also has a terrific eye for detail.  Because she’s lived in southeast Asia and her father served there in the British army, Stuart can evoke last-century’s Singapore with great skill.  She makes you feel the heavy humidity and lashing rain, you smell the frangipani and mangroves, you can see the glorious heavy blooms of Bougainvillea.  This Singapore is truly “a place of extremes.”

But Stuart doesn’t just paint scenes to perfection, she honestly portrays a colonial society with its prejudices and blind spots.  It’s matched by an  England where women were denied the right to vote and suffragists in prison were tortured by being force fed during hunger strikes.  Bringing those two worlds together is part of what makes Singapore Sapphire so compelling.

Mysteries are sometimes derided as “escape fiction” or “escapist,” but all literature, from Tolstoy to P.D. James, helps you escape your own life and time to travel somewhere fascinating.  If it’s well executed, of course.

With just the right touch of romance, Stuart has written the ideal mystery for armchair travelers and for fans of the genre in its classic form.  Her heroine is bright, resourceful, compassionate; her hero a sterling and indomitable character; the villains are as devious as they should be.  But nobody is a caricature or paper thin.

Singapore Sapphire is clever, well-paced, complex, and deeply moving.  It has everything needed to make a splendid TV movie or even a miniseries.  This is a book to revel in for its local color and its crafty plotting.  No doubt there’ll be more Harriet Gordon adventures, and she’s a welcome addition to the current roster of sharp-eyed amateur sleuths.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  The former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, he’s the author of nine mysteries and fifteen other books in many genres.