Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writers Born Today - Natsuo Kirino

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Natsuo Kirino, born October 7, 1951 in Kanazawa, Japan.  She obtained a law degree after college but couldn't find a job in her profession. Various jobs followed, including stints as a magazine writer and movie promoter. She began writing in her thirties in the romance genre. But as she put it, "there was no market for it". When that didn't work out she turned to mysteries with an emphasis on hard boiled suspense.

Here she found her footing, and wrote several mysteries that focus on the psychological undercurrents of criminal behavior. Her first novel to be published in English, Out, was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2004, the first translated work by a Japanese writer to achieve that milestone. It tells of four working class women who struggle to maintain their families and finances until one woman murders her husband. She seeks help from the other three to help cover up the crime. Their actions lead to disaster.

When she published her ground breaking novel Out, it was a shock to Japanese readers. The idea that a wife could kill her husband was still new in Japan due to its traditional culture. As a result, it got a lot of attention. That it was written by a woman was another surprise. It became a best seller and won the Best Japanese Crime Fiction of the Year and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. She has won six awards for her crime novels.

Her work has been described as 'feminist noir' because many of her female characters live ordinary lives yet become capable of extraordinary action to protect themselves, actions which include murder.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Writers Born Today - Nedra Tyre

It's the birthday of Nedra Tyre, born October 6, 1912 in Offerman, Georgia. She was a social worker for most of her life and she used her experiences to create some of the best suspense fiction of the post war era. She produced six novels and over forty short stories, according to Sarah Weinman's website biography on Domestic Suspense.

Anthony Boucher referred to her as not just a mystery writer, but a novelist. He said that she "brings to the mystery novel a richness of human warmth, sympathy, and insight comparable to Dorothy Salisbury Davis or Margaret Millar...".

She read voraciously and squeezed her writing in between work and caring for an ailing mother.  In the 1970s she lost her hearing and became absorbed by the charity work she was doing for the poor. Her work fell out of print. She stopped writing.

One of her best short stories, A Nice Place To Stay, was republished in 2013 in the critically acclaimed anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman. The story examines a woman's struggle to support herself with the menial jobs available to her, and the solace she finds when her final destination gives her a measure of security and stability in a prison cell.

"Some of the finest writing ever done has been in mysteries --even your precious Henry James tried them."

             - Nedra Tyre, Mouse In Eternity 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Writers Born Today - Edward Stratemeyer

It's the birthday of Edward Stratemeyer, born October 4, 1862 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The youngest of six children, he grew up in a family of hard-working immigrants. But he preferred to spend his time reading the Horatio Alger Rags-To-Riches stories. Soon he started writing stories for his friends. His father thought Edward was wasting his time. But he sold his first story at the age of 26 to a popular boy's magazine for $75.00 (over $1,940.00 in today's dollars). When he showed the check to his father, the elder Stratemeyer replied "You'd better write a lot more for them."

And write he did. Most of his stories were geared toward the children and young boys market, and he produced numerous stories with titles such as "Dashing Dave, the Every Ready Detective." He went to work for Horatio Alger, his boyhood hero, and even completed some stories for the ailing author (they split the royalties as per their agreement).

As public education took hold in America, it produced millions of new educated readers, and printing advances made the dime novel a reality. Stratemeyer wrote dozens of novels. His series about three schoolboys and their adventures, The Rover Boys, was a big success. But he could not keep up with the demand for stories. He decided to launch a company, and called it The Stratemeyer Syndicate. He hired writers to produced novels based on plots that he would dictate, and had the writers use a pen name that was owned by the company (in case a writer of a successful series left, the author's name would stay behind). He even created fake biographies for his ghost writers.

During the roaring 20s Stratemeyer thought mystery stories would broaden the company's reach from adventure and success stories. He created two of the most popular children's series of the 20th century. In 1926 he created The Hardy Boys. He followed up this successful series with another geared towards the growing market for female readers. Thus was born Nancy Drew.

These stories followed an outline created by Stratemeyer and he required they contain certain standard features, such as cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Characters rarely "said" anything...instead they "cried", "exclaimed", or "declared". But readers gobbled them up.

To date, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series have sold over 100 million copies. Even today, they sell millions of books each year and have admirers among many of today's crime writers. Both Sara Paretsky and Nancy Pickard have credited Nancy Drew stories in part with inspiring their interest in mystery writing.

You have my personal thanks, Mr. Stratemeyer.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mystery History - Edgar Allan Poe Reappears

On the evening of October 3, 1849, a magazine editor and physician in Baltimore Maryland received this hastily written letter.

Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849 
Dear Sir,

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste, 
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

Snodgrass, along with one of Poe's relatives, arranged to have a carriage take the writer to Washington College Hospital. Poe was obviously ill and in distress. Some thought he was drunk. Doctors could not determine his illness. Four days later, he was dead.

The true cause of death for the greatest writer of the 19th century has never been determined. But almost as great a mystery surrounds his appearance in Baltimore. He had left Richmond, Virginia a week earlier, destined for Philadelphia. Poe never arrived. He had been missing for several days when discovered outside Gunner Hall, a public tavern, by Joseph Walker, the man who alerted J E Snodgrass. 

Friends and observers who tried to piece together where Poe had been for several days didn't get far, but several strange facts did emerge. Poe left Richmond wearing an expensive wool suit, but upon arriving at the hospital, he was wearing someone else's clothes. They were filthy and didn't fit him. His attending physician, Dr. Moran, described Poe as wearing "a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat." Very strange attire for a man who had a reputation for dressing well.

Though Snodgrass thought Poe was drunk after going on a wild bender, Moran was convinced his patient was sober and suffering from severe head trauma. Moran also stated that Poe had repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" before he died. Subsequent attempts to find this mystery man were fruitless. 

One witness claimed Poe had left Richmond with a large sum of cash (over 1,000 dollars) for magazine subscriptions. But he was penniless upon discovery in Baltimore, leading some to theorize that Poe had been mugged and his clothes stolen by ruffians. Other theories include mercury poisoning, a brain tumor, or rabies. One credible theory suggests Poe was kidnapped, disguised, gotten drunk and forced to vote at several polls for a favored candidate (election fraud was common in the mid 19th century and voters were often given alcohol as a reward for their votes). But the truth still eludes us.

"Maybe it’s fitting that since he invented the detective story, he left us with a real-life mystery."

- Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia

For a look at Poe's Baltimore, including the spot where he was discovered by Walker, click on the blue balloon links in the map below.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Writers Born Today - Tapani Bagge

It's the birthday of Tapani Bagge, born October 2, 1962 in Kerava, Finland. He has written dozens of novels in several genres, including children, Young Adult, espionage and historical. In addition he has written for television, the stage and even comic books.

But he is best known for his crime novels (18 and counting), which lean towards hard-boiled noir. They contain considerable black comedy and have won numerous awards, including the The Finnish Whodunnit Society’s annual award in 2007 for his novel Black Sky. Some of his historical crime novels (Black Vortex and Red Shadow) explore the tension and conflicts which arose from the Finnish War with Russia and its effect on a nation struggling to maintain its freedom in the shadow of the Russian bear. Despite their historical setting, they speak of the same crises that trouble Europe today.

As a crime writer he counts among his important influences Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Joe Lansdale . He was 10 years old when he read his first hard-boiled novel, The Lady In The Lake by Raymond Chandler. "That book really started my never-ending love story with tough guys and dangerous dames, at least in fiction," he said in an interview with FinPop, a website devoted to Finnish culture and the arts.

Bagge's work can be hard to find, but Thrilling Detective has posted two of his short stories on their website, The Face in the Concrete, which features Onni Syrjänen, a drunk lawyer forced by lack of funds to do his own detective work. Another story featuring his protaganist Onni is One More Shot.

You can read an entertaining interview with Bagge where he is interviewed by...Tapani Bagge. It's entitled Dancing With Myself.

Based on the limited number of stories I've read, I can say this is a writer worth getting to know. His novels aren't yet available in English. That's a crime that needs to be solved, and soon. Justice delayed, after all, is justice denied.

Bagge on Writing:
"The best part comes when the characters take the story and run, and leave you wondering if they really know where they are heading. That's the most high I've ever gotten, and it leaves no hangover whatsoever."

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mystery History - The Salem Witchcraft Trials End

It was on this day in 1692 that seven men and women were hung after they were convicted of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Used as inspiration by dozens of artists, musicians and writers, the events stun us even today. How did the town descend so rapidly into chaos and madness?

The town of Salem had seen an influx of refugees from the devastation of King William's War in 1689. The strain on resources among the town folk caused a great deal of conflict between the established wealthy and powerful families and the newcomers. By the time the trials ended, the hysteria surrounding the accusations had claimed twenty innocent lives.

 It began when some of the teen-aged girls became to bark and yelp like animals and reported seeing strange things. They soon accused their afflictions on three women, one a slave, one a beggar, another an impoverished old spinster. A panel of male judges declared them witches and held them for trial. A declaration of innocence did the women little good. When some of them spoke, the girls broke into convulsions, and this was seen as proof of the accusations. One confession was even extracted from a four year old child!

Some victims were accused simply because they declared that the did not believe in witches, such as Martha Cory (she was one of the women hanged this day). Her husband, Giles, defended her and was also accused. Refusing to enter a plea or recognize the authority of the judges, he was punished by being slowly crushed to death.

After the Governor of Massachusetts received news of the trials he put a stop to them. He barred further trials, released the remaining accused and disbanded the court.

Today, the Salem witch trials have come to represent hysteria and xenophobia at their worst, and the events inspired numerous works of literature.

Arthur Miller used the trials as inspiration for his play The Crucible. Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery, is said by some to have been inspired by the trials. And elements of teenage angst and hysteria are prominent in Megan Abbott's novel, The Fever (although the author points more directly to strange events in an upper New York state town as her direct inspiration).

A complete list of cultural references to the Salem Witch trials in art, music and literature would be enormous and beyond the scope of this blog, but a partial list is featured here.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Writers Born Today - Barbara Callahan

It's the birthday of Barbara Callahan, born September 20, 1934 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating college she became a teacher and later a technical writer. Most of her energy went into raising a family (she had five children). But she began to write in the spare time she could find.

Her contribution to the mystery genre was small in quantity, but not quality. She published 22 short stories during her life. Many of them appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. She's recognized as an important contributor to the mystery genre now known as Domestic Suspense.

Her second story, Lavender Lady, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. It was published in EQMM in April 1976. The haunting tale made such an impression on editor Sarah Weinman that she included it in her 2013 anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

My Mother's Keeper, also published in EQMM, was published in 2009 and nominated posthumously for a Barry Award the following year. It was the last story published before her death. You can read it here.

Note: Special thanks to Sarah Weinman, whose research and help made this posting possible.