Opening A Mystery

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V. I. Warshawski

In the 1980s, most, if not all, of the private eyes in fiction were men, loners mostly. With their macho brands of honor. Then, in 1982, Sara Paretsky introduced private investigator Victoria Iphigenia (V. I.) Warshawski in Indemnity Only to break the mold. Here was a protagonist  who was smart, confident, and strong with a touch, okay a heap, of snark. Much like Paretsky and her friends.

V.I. (also known as Vic) lived and worked in her hometown of Chicago. Her father was a Polish-American cop and her mother a Jewish opera singer who fled from Italy under Mussolini during World War II. While in high school, her mother passed away. Ten years later, her father died. After a rebellious time, when her mother died, Vic went to the University of Chicago on a basketball scholarship, then earned a law degree before working as a public defender. From there, she beaome a private detective specializing in white-collar crime.

Set on the gritty streets of Chicago, the atmosphere in the novels was very realistic, showing the citizens of a lower to lower-middle class part of the city. Paretsky lived in Chicago and showed us many areas and locations in the city.

A rabid Red Sox and Bears fan, Vic represented the true person of the street. She wasathletic, a fan of fine clothes, and a brunette whose chosen form of exercise is running. She stayed thin despite loving big meals which are often described in the stories. With experience in karate and a Smith and Wesson in her purse, she encountered little she isn’t capable of handling. Yet, she still seemedadept at getting herself in over her head.

While in law school, she married Dick Yarborough, who showed up in some of the stories. They divorced after nearly two years. He became a corporate lawyer. Their different outlooks on people and life showed up in many of the stories.

While she had several well-heeled clients, most of the novels concerned people who were unable to pay her regular fees. The cases often involved a murder that led to some type of conspiracy. In some of the stories, the person or persons behind the murders were so well connected that they are too powerful for her to bring to justice.

The V.I. Warshawski series has ran continuously since 1982. It includes 20 novels and four short-story collections. For most of the series, Paretsky let Vic age in real time until 2010’s Hard Ball.

Paretsky wrote her V. I. novels in first person, giving us a closer look into the detective’s life and personality. Her books usually came out every couple of years with many of them making best-seller lists.

Some of the recurring characters include Salvatore “Sal” Contreras, who lived downstairs. He was a World War II veteran who fought in Italy and was involved in militant trade strikes with his manufacturing union.

One of her closest friends was Charlotte “Lotty” Herschel, a Viennese physician who iwas often called on to treat Vic’s various illnesses and injuries. A refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria as a child, she acts as Vic’s surrogate mother.

Paretsky does not shy away from being political in her novels. Her character, Vic, detests the Republican Party, while not being all that happy with the Democratic Party. Her cases often involve ethnic minorities and social justice. Many fans and critics regard V. I. Warshawski as one of the few feminist detectives.

She also opposed the wars America fought in the Middle East, while being sympathetic to the soldiers who fought in them.

Paretsky has said that the idea for writing a detective novel came while she worked a CNA Insurance. She had been thinking about writing a book for about eight years. During one meeting on a particular dreary Chicago day, a male coworker (she called him Fred) had been droning on and on. She said, “Gosh, Fred, heck of an idea.” When what she really wanted to say was ’you expletive-deleted turkey bird.’ “That’s when V. I. came to me. Not Philip Marlowe in drag, but a woman like me and my friends, doing a job that hadn’t existed for women while we were growing up, but saying what was in the balloon over her head because she dealt with the turkey birds without fear or favor.”

That’s a good description for the character she created. A character whose influence is being seen in a lot of the heroines of mysteries who are being written about today.

Paretsky is one of only a few masters who have won the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association of the United Kingdom, the Edgar Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Gold Dagger by the Crime Writer’s Association.

Here is a link to an interview with the author about V. I. Warshawski

Here is a link to a list of her novels and date of publication.

An introduction to one of America's most popular private eyes. V.I.Warshawski by Sara Paretsky @OpenAMystery @TimSuddeth #mysteries Click To Tweet

The Hardboiled Mystery

Hard Boiled Detectives The classical mystery story came to its heyday in the 1920s and 30s. World War I had just ended, and the world was coming through the 1918 flu pandemic that infected a third of the world’s population.

In England, the classic mystery had already been established by Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The stories showed the reader a very upper society, very proper, with tea being served often. The detective often had a tie to police, but were intellectually superior. They were often given a reluctant acceptance by the local law enforcement officer. Sometimes, the police would call them in because they couldn’t solve the case, but more often the detective burst onto the scene, showing up the helpless officer.

But in America, we saw the emergence of a different type of detective in the hardboiled detective mysteries. In another kind of society, Dashielle Hammett and Raymond Chandler introduced us to the private eye. Often a lone wolf, who tried to dispense his own style of justice in a world with few rules.

[bctt tweet=”The hardboiled American detective was much more cynical than his English counterpart. It wasn’t a game or puzzle to him, but a more personal battle against evil, even of life or death. ” username=”httpstwittercomTimSuddeth”] Continue reading

2021 Edgar Award Nominees

The 2021 Edgar Awards nominees were announced yesterday by the Mystery Writers of America. The Edgar Awards take their name from Edgar Allan Poe, considered to be one of the inventers of the detective genre. The winners will be presented in New York City later this year.

The nominees come from usually around 2000 submissions from publishers and writers, representing the best in mystery fiction in novels, young people books, short stories, and television.

This year the Grand Masters are Jeffery Deaver and Charlaine Harris.

You can find the link to the nominees here.

Josephine Bell

Calling Josephine Bell a writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction does her a disservice. Although her books were first published in 1936, she continued to write until 1983. She wrote over 40 mystery novels, as well as radio plays, short stories and magazine articles. (Go here for a list of her books.)


Josephine was born Doris Bell Collier on December 8, 1897, in Manchester, England. She was a doctor and married Dr. Norman Dyar Ball in 1923. They had a son and three daughters. They practiced medicine in Greenwich and in London until Dr. Ball was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1935.

From 1954 to 1962, she was a member of the management committee at the St. Luke’s Hospital. Continue reading

What Is A Cozy Mystery?

Cozy Mystery Cover

Black Magic Kitten cover

Mystery fiction is a genre, or category, of fiction that usually involves a murder or crime. Within the category of mysteries are a number of evolving and developing genres bridging true crime, fiction, supernatural, paranormal and others. One of the fun things for a writer is to discover new ways to expand the envelop of a genre, although this may not be so comfortable to the reader.

One of the most popular genres in mystery fiction is what are known as cozy mysteries, or cozies. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite genres.

Continue reading

Dashiell Hammett

The Golden Age of Mystery refers to the period between World War I and World War II. In America, writers created the hard-boiled detective. They portrayed the detective, a male, usually as a loner, facing the violence and nihilism of the post-WWI world. Often cynical, tough, hard-boiled, they lived with an internal code of right and wrong. Unlike the English detective, the American private eye is from the common people. They don’t use their great minds to solve puzzles. Instead, they use hard work and a willingness to get dirty to catch their criminal, or not.

This hard-boiled detective fiction is also called noir. Because of the time period, I always think of the films as being in black-and-white.

Although Dashiell Hammett only wrote five novels, he is known as one of the pioneers of detective fiction. He brought us Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op. Many of the best-selling mystery writers, including Raymond Chandler, say that they were influenced by his style and stories. Continue reading

What’s Your Genre?

Shelf of mysteries

So many books to get to.

Every year, over 650 million books in print are sold. So, how can you find a book similar to the one you just enjoyed? If you have ever tried to find a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you know what an impossible task it seems as you glaze at the rows and rows of bookshelves. Most of them spine out, which is a pet peeve of mine. Even after you learn where the mystery/suspense section is, you are still looking at a large section of the store. And that isn’t even talking about shopping on Amazon, where you can’t even see how the books grouped together.

Say, I like the The Cat Who books, but I’ve read them all and I want someone a little different. What should I do?

This is where it is helpful to break a large category, like mysteries, into smaller sub-categories or genres. A genre is a category of artistic composition, like literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. It allows us to group similar books or separate books by their differences.

I can look at the book’s category, Cozy with cats, and then look for another book in that genre, say one by Rita Mae Brown in her Mrs. Murphy series. Or if, instead of cats, I would rather have dogs, or llamas, I can look for those, too.

Over the next few months, we will look into many of the different genres that mysteries have been broken int. We will, also, discover representative writers and classics within them. Because there are so many types of mysteries, there is no one standard list of genres. Some lists break them down by time period, type of sleuth, type of investigation, location, and a myriad of other ways.

Some of the more popular genres are classic, hardboiled, police procedural, true crime, noir, Scandinavian, and cozies. As you can see, there can be a lot of overlap in many these.

Like a pecan pie, there are many ways you can cut it. I look forward to studying the different genres with you and, maybe, discovering some new favorite writers and books.

Critical Review of The Last Mile

The Last Mile by David BAldacci

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

The Last Mile is the second entry in David Baldacci’s Amos Decker series.

Amos Decker is a former NFL football player who, just as his pro career started, received a traumatic brain injury. The injury not only knocked him out of football but, also, left him with a disorder in which he remembers everything, including the painful events he would rather forget like the murders of his wife and daughter.

The Last Mile begins with Decker headed from Burlington, Ohio to Quantico, VA to take a position with a newly-formed team at the FBI. The team combines combining FBI agents with civilians who have their own special gifts.

Fate intervenes when Decker turns on his radio and listens to a PBR broadcast. He hears the story of Melvin Mars who had been on death row for twenty years for the grisly murder of his parents. Some of the details of the case reminds Decker of his own life. As Mars was on the way to be executed, he learns that he has just received a pardon. A man in another state has confessed to the murders. The catch is he is to be executed within a few days.

Decker asks an obvious question. After twenty years, why should the real killer come forward now?

He convinces the new team to investigate the case, only to learn that there is much more involved than first thought. When the case begins taking some unexpected turns, the FBI team is told to drop the case and return to Quantico.

Leaving Decker determined to continue without the FBI.

David Baldacci leads us on a captivating adventure with many thrills and twists. The characters are diverse and well written.

Some Takeaways to Consider in Our Stories

The Last Mile left me with a couple of thoughts about the choices a writer has to make about their characters. It is hard to give someone a special gift like Decker’s memory and make the reader appreciate both its strengths and weaknesses. We don’t see him struggle with unwanted thoughts coming at the wrong time and hampering the case. That might be wise because it could have bogged down the story. But if you give a character a gift, like Superman’s strength, you can lose the tension of how he will get through this.

Decker’s reticence also plays to this. Readers like the quiet, strong guy. But like his frustrated girlfriend, the reader can have a problem knowing and connecting with such a character.An author has to find the balance between being strong and being vulnerable. You can have both. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the determination to slog through it.The tough, quiet guy can have a big following, like Lee Cobb’s Reacher, John D. MacDonald’ Travis McGee, and, I am sure, Amos Decker. Showing more vulnerability, on the other hand, might increase the tension and help the reader identify with the character.

The Last Mile is a strong entry into what I hope is a long series. Amos Decker is a character who leaves us wanting to get to know him better.


How Scott Turow Got His Start

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

It is always interesting to hear how a bestselling writer worked their way into their career. Some writers knew they wanted to write in grade school. Others didn’t pick it up until much later. And often there are many starts and restarts as a writer struggles to find their niche.

In My First Thriller on the Crime Reads blog, Scott Turow tells about how he became the author of multiple best selling novels, capped off by his blockbuster hit, Presumed Innocence.

Turow had dreamed about being a writer in school, even having some articles published in college. Then life happened. He became a lecturer at Stanford before going to law school and becoming the Assistant US Attorney in Chicago. Part of that time, he worked on a novel during his thirty-minute commute to work.

We are glad he can now make more time to write stories that thrill, entertain, and make so many of us think.

Here is Rick Pullen’s article on his interview with Scott Turow. I hope you find it as informative and encouraging as I did.



Ellery Queen-a mystery himself

Whether it’s from his novels, films, radio, short stories, or TV, Ellery Queen is one of the premier names in the world of mysteries. He has been read, watched, or listened to all over the world. But answering who Ellery was, that is a little more complicated.

Ellery Queen the Character

Ellery and His Father on teh 70s TV Series

Ellery and Father from the 70s TV series

Ellery Queen was the main detective character in over thirty crime novels and short story collections from 1929 – 1971. He first appeared in The Roman Hat Mystery in 1929. He was the adult son of Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Homicide Squad and was an author who spent most of his time with his nose stuck in a book. His father leaned on him to help solve the murder.

It is hard to describe Ellery with one description as he changed over the course of the series. He began as a bookworm assisting his father in New York. His mother had passed away and there was no interest in women, in fact they both lived a decidedly bachelor lifestyle wanting only to spend their evenings in the apartment they shared.

In the late thirties, Ellery, like his authors, moved to Hollywood to begin writing movie scripts. He no longer assisted his father on police cases. And he found time for women. In Hollywood. Who would have guessed. The cases became less police procedurals and took on more psychological elements.

Beginning in 1942, Ellery Queen moved to a fictional New England town called Wrightsville. This let them loosen the structures even more and allowed more emphasis on relationships and less on the details of the case.

Ellery Queen the Author(?)

In 1932, Ellery Queen was invited by Columbia University to present a lecture on mystery writing. The catch was that Ellery wasn’t a person, but a pseudonym for two cousins and they didn’t want to reveal that Ellery wasn’t a real person. To decide who would address the school, they flipped a coin. The loser addressed the college wearing a mask.

The brains behind the great detective were two cousins from Brooklyn, New York. Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were close cousins. They were both born in 1905, bore a close resemblance to each other, and often finished each others sentences during interviews. Together, they edited collections of short stories under the Ellery Queen name and founded the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that still comes out bimonthly. Manfred was the loser of the coin toss and continued in the guise of Ellery Queen, wearing a mask.

Dannay and Lee were prolific writers. Not only did they produce over thirty Ellery Queen novels. They also wrote nineteen plays, a screen play, radio plays from 1939 to 1948, and numerous short stories. They wrote four novels about the detective Drury Lane under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross.

They were early pioneers in franchising when in the sixties they commissioned more than twenty-five crime thrillers from other writers. These were published as paperbacks under the Ellery Queen name. Many of them were outlined by Dannay.

The Ellery Queen Style

Ellery Queen mysteries fit the style commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Other writers of the style include Agatha Christie, Philip MacDonald, and Dorothy Sayers. It was very popular before World War II. Afterwards, the stories became grittier, less gentile.

Ellery Queens stories were looked at as games, puzzles. The writers were careful to give all the clues to the reader that the detective would have. A crime, usually a murder had to happen early. The murder had to be presented near the beginning of the book. Although there would be numerous ‘red herrings’, the clues could point to only one person as the criminal. “Fair play’ was important and taken very seriously. If other writers thought another cheated, say by introducing an identical twin at the last moment, they would be called out in reviews.

With many of the Ellery stories, the reader would find the following elements: a geographic title, an unusual crime, complex set of clues, and multiple possible solutions until the climatic reveal. In the early books, there would be a page near the end declaring that the reader has all the clues and challenging them to give the answer. This disappeared as the public became less interested in a puzzle and more interested in the characters and relationships.

Review of The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery QueenThe Roman Hat Mystery introduced us to Ellery Queen. Inspector Richard Queen is given the case of a murder in a crowded theatre during the play, Gunfire. Everyone was so intent on the actions and sounds from the stage that no one knew that a man had been killed until the police stopped the play. When the Inspector fails to come up with an answer, he is happy to see Ellery come in the door. The most suspicious thing about the crime scene was what wasn’t there. Where was the man’s hat?

In this day of men wearing shorts, jeans, and tee shirts, we don’t usually think of going to the theatre in formal wear. And the best most men can do is a work suit and their suit they wear to funerals. But a hat? This was a different time and Ellery immerses us in it totally. Back then, anyone wearing formal wear would have to have a top hat. But after turning the theatre over, they couldn’t find it. And they were careful to make sure no man left with two.

So, where was it? And why was it important?

The Roman Hat Mystery revealed a different time for policing. This was in the early days of forensic, toxicology tests, and fingerprints. The characters were diverse and well developed. Watching the Queens wade through the suspects lies was a lot of fun. We can see why the series lasted so long.

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