Mystery Minutes Archive

October 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Tumultuous Life of an American Literary Icon: Shirley Jackson

With the approach of Halloween, I thought we should explore the tumultuous life of mystery and horror author Shirley Jackson and two of her most notable and terrifying works—”The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House (Viking, 1959).

The Haunting of Hill House is about four adults who investigate a reportedly haunted mansion. The protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a lonely, imaginative young woman, believes spirits have targeted her in the big isolated house she co-owns with her sister.

This chilling novel was Jackson’s fifth in which she uses terror to grab the reader. While the house doesn’t overtly have a ghost, Jackson said, “The house is the haunting…the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered not only one of the best ghost stories of all time but the Number One book that revolutionized the modern ghost story. (50 Best Horror Books of All Time, Paste Magazine, Aug. 30, 2018).

Stephen King listed it as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century. The New York Times called it “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic.” read more…

September 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

A Curious Incident

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1893, is a short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” in which an unusual line of dialogue becomes the title of a best-selling mystery published one-hundred and ten years later. read more…

August 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Check in. Relax. Take a Shower.

One of the most iconic and terrifying murder scenes in film history takes place in a shower, at the Bates Motel. The scene I’m referring to, of course, is from the film, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock with screenplay by Joseph Stefano (1960).

The film is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by award-winning author Robert Bloch (1917-1994). read more…

July 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Doppelgänger: Myth, Literary Device, or the Real Deal?

 

Unless you’re an identical twin, would it unnerve you to bump into your dead ringer…your doppelgänger?

Would your lookalike be your exact double, your evil twin, or just a mischievous spirit?
Authors often employ doppelgängers as a literary device to explore our human duality or the darker traits of our character.

When a doppelgänger emerges as a literary character, the author is playing with our sense of reality. When another duplicate self appears, doubts automatically surface. The main character questions the double’s identity (who are you?) and the main character questions him or herself (who am I?). read more…

June 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Writer with the Largest Audience in America

Not all successful mystery writers make best-selling lists, or become literary celebrities, or so wealthy they split their time between a sprawling ranch in Montana and a cozy apartment in Paris. In fact, many are hard-working writers who continue to create an amazing output of literature. Here’s one prolific writer you’ve probably never heard of—but you will now.

Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was an American author, playwright, and copywriter. He had a fertile and inventive mind for writing irony and endings with a twist in stories ranging from detective fiction, science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.

Slesar wrote more than 500 short stories, 55 radio plays, and six novels.

He used at least a dozen pseudonyms for short stories which appeared in publications like Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Imaginative Tales, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Playboy.

After he sold his first 200 short stories, he wrote his first novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud (1958), a murder mystery set in an advertising agency. It earned him the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel (1960).

Slesar was born in 1927 as Henry Schlosser in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents who were immigrants from the Ukraine. Later, he legally changed his name. Writing came easy to him, for at the age of 17, he was hired immediately out of school by Young & Rubicam, a prominent New York ad agency, and began a twenty-year career in advertising.

As a copywriter, he reputedly coined the term “coffee break,” in a national radio, newspaper and magazine campaign for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau (1952), which urged consumers, “Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You.” He was also behind the famous award-winning McGraw-Hill ad campaign called “The Man in the Chair,” which became one of the most printed ads in history.

In 1957, Slesar wrote a short story called “M is for the Many” which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Alfred Hitchcock read it and bought it for adaptation. That began a long and successful collaboration as nearly fifty of Slesar’s stories were adapted for the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Slesar also wrote teleplays for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Batman.

He then found a niche as a writer for popular TV soap operas: The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, and One Life to Live. In 1974, he won an Emmy as the head writer for The Edge of Night. The Soap Opera Encyclopedia called him a “…master of the serial format, creating a series of bizarre, intricate plots of offbeat characters in the spirit of the irreverent detective movies of the ‘40s.”

And TV Guide said he was “the writer with the largest audience in America.”

The Edge of Night was produced by Proctor & Gamble for CBS. Every plot and script was vetted months in advance by the sponsor and the network before episodes were taped. When Slesar was head writer his episode “Children of God,” about a charismatic cult leader, had been previously cleared.

Then, on a rainy and muddy day (Nov. 18, 1978), the Jonestown Massacre happened in Guyana. More than 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple movement died. The cult leader, Rev. Jim Jones, called a mass meeting at the encampment after some of his followers murdered U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members of the media, and others who were investigating inhumane treatment. Jones proposed suicide encouraging all to ingest a powdered-drink laced with cyanide and other drugs which had been prepared by his aides. At the time, it was the largest mass death in American history.

Incidentally, the expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid” originated from this tragic event.

As the massacre became national and international news, CBS and Proctor & Gamble panicked. They ordered Slesar to end his “Children of God” episode “fast.” So, he and his sub-writer worked overtime to re-write the story. They transformed their fictional cult leader into a society gigolo.

Slesar’s literary output has been translated into ten languages. He died in 2002, at the age of 75, due to complications from elective surgery.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

 

May 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Silence of the Author

This successful author has kept a low profile for the past forty years. He rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He does, however, answer his fan mail and poses for pictures when he’s recognized.

He has a Santa-Claus quality about him—big, bearded, and jovial and described as a soft-spoken southern gentleman. Aside from writing popular thrillers, he’s a nature lover and often takes orphaned squirrels and injured ibises to an animal rescue center on Biscayne Bay in Florida. While he’s volunteered there since 1999, no one realized who he was. The center’s director said, “We had no idea. He’s such a kind, gentle man.”

He draws, cooks gourmet meals, and often dines with friends. A retired Miami-Dade police sergeant said, “If you didn’t know who he was, you’d think he’s just a little old guy from Mississippi. He’s not impressed with himself, or anybody else.”

Writing by hand, he begins his day at 8:30 and finishes around 2 or 3. He has lunch and a nap. He describes his writing process as starting with a scene that appears in his head. He thinks through what came before and after. He describes “the very act of writing as a kind of torment…” But his agent, Mort Janklow, says his books never really need editing. “What he delivers has the quality of a precisely cut gem.”

Thomas Harris (1940 –) grew up in a small town in Mississippi where his family owned a cotton, soybeans, and wheat farm. He majored in English at Baylor University, rode a motorcycle, and worked nights as a reporter covering the police beat in Waco, Texas. In 1968, he took a job with the Associated Press in New York as a general assignment reporter and night editor on the city desk. While there, he and two other reporters (Sam Maull and Dick Riley) cooked up the idea for Black Sunday, a novel about a terrorist plot to commit mass murder during the Super Bowl game in Miami. He wrote the novel, sold it to Putnam in 1975, and he and his friends split the advance.

In 1978, the film version was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture.

Harris’s second novel, Red Dragon (1981), introduced one of America’s most grisly villains—Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist turned psychotic. In the novel, Dr. Lecter appears as a minor character and is already in prison. Stephen King compared that book with The Godfather and later called Hannibal “the great fictional monster of our time.”

It was Harris’s third novel, Silence of the Lambs (1988), that became a pop-culture phenomenon and is considered a masterpiece of suspense. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film version (1991), which won five awards—only the third film in Academy Awards history to sweep the Oscars in major categories—(best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best director and best picture).

After his first novel (Red Dragon) was adapted into a film named Manhunter (1986), Harris was disappointed in it and in Hollywood in general. So, he didn’t watch Silence of the Lambs until two years after the Oscars. He liked it. His next two novels were sequels Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006). He wrote them on a $5-million-plus deal with Dell/Delacorte publishing.

While the last two novels were also adapted into films, audience reaction began to wane and journalists kept pestering him about where his twisted ideas came from, implying he held deep-seated psychopathic tendencies. His response was “I don’t make anything up. So, look around you. Because everything has happened.”

His novels have sold more than 50 million copies. His latest Cara Mora (2019), is his first in fourteen years and while it doesn’t feature Hannibal Lecter, he introduces a new evil villain who is hairless, owns a white latex plugsuit, and a liquid cremation machine.

Harris has written six novels, five have been adapted into films, one into a television series, with a new TV series in production. His estimated net worth is $73 million. Not bad for a quiet, unassuming southern gentleman who creates monstrous villains.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s Note: CBS recently announced the go-ahead on a new series for next season—a Silence of the Lambs sequel titled Clarice, which follows FBI agent Clarice Starling six months after the events of the movie. Rebecca Breeds takes over the Jodie Foster role from the 1991 film.

April 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Social Distancing Hampers Close-Kill Techniques for Writers

I’ve never killed someone—a real person that is—although I’ve often thought I sure would like to strangle so-and-so or knock some sense into my city council person’s head. That kind of thing.

But I admit I have knocked off a few shady characters, and good people, too, in my writing. Knowing this group, I’m certain most of you listening to this have done the same.

Supposedly, there are 101 ways (and probably more) to kill someone—including everything from slashing a body with paper cuts to shoving your victim into a volcano.

But in today’s new world, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic—where we must honor the notion of social distancing—and remain six feet away from each other—it presents new challenges for mystery writers. Most importantly, how do our bad guys and gals kill someone if they must stay six feet away?

Well, here’s some no-nos for up-close and personal killing:

  • For example, let’s say your killer is a wire expert. You know, he chokes his victims with piano wire. Sneaks up from behind and throttles the throat. Well, in today’s environment, that’s just too damn close for comfort, and will get you arrested by the social distancing police. And, by the way, is that piano wire a G-string?
  • The same goes for hanging by rope, or any other object. Just think, Jeffrey Epstein would still be alive today and probably singing like a canary.
  • Also, there will be no more cutting off of heads or limbs by axe. Just think, Andrew and Abby Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts (if they lived in modern times) would be alive because crazy daughter Lizzie would not be allowed to get that close to chop off her parent’s heads. This new rule might also have saved Jimmy Hoffa, and it for sure would have stopped Norman Bates from stabbing Janet Leigh behind the shower curtain. What a psycho!
  • How about stabbing a rusty knife through the liver? Sorry, but knife fighting requires close quarters. This just won’t do.
  • How about a series of paper cuts on the body and pushing the victim into a pool of hungry piranhas? Exotic, yes, but the killer can’t get that close. Sorry.
  • And, no more Kung-Fu fighting. You can set-up the “crane kick” like Ralphie in The Karate Kid, but that’s it. Hold that pose because you can’t move in for the kill. And if you can twirl and swirl like Bruce Lee and knock down a horse with your flying heel, well, sorry. While that’s pretty neat, it’s just too close.

But, don’t despair, mystery writers. We still have options:

  • Black widows can stealthily poison their eighth husbands by dripping strychnine into protein drinks;
  • Arsonists can still set houses ablaze while their victims are quarantined as they watch re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond; and
  • James Bond can still lock himself into his armored Aston Martin and machine gun the bad guys.

My guess is there’s still about 79 creative ways you can employ to kill your literary victim. Just, please,be considerate. Keep your distance. We still have guns, bows and arrows and hand-held missile launchers at our disposal.

After all…keeping our distance is the right thing to do in these trying times.

And, that’s your Mystery Minute.

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March 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Year Without Summer

On March 10, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic. But did you know that one of the greatest novels of all time was written during a pandemic?

In 1815, Mount Tamora in Indonesia, erupted choking the air with ash and dust. The eruption killed roughly 100,000 people and caused world-wide crop failures, famine, cholera and typhus outbreaks.

The next year, 1816, was known as the “Year Without a Summer.Instead of sunshine, most of Europe was covered in fog and frost. Global temps dropped and major food shortages were felt, especially in Europe which still suffered from the Napoleonic Wars. The volcano’s eruptions greatest effects were felt across New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of Western Europe.

Historians estimate that at least a million people starved in the aftermath of Tamora’s eruption, while tens of millions died from a global cholera pandemic.

In May 1816, incessant rainfall encouraged Mary Godwin to find a sunnier vacation spot. But when she arrived in Switzerland, she was forced to stay inside most of the time. She traveled with her lover, the radical poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792-1822), their four-month-old baby and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with a child by Lord Byron (1788-1824). Bryon, who is today considered one of the greatest English Romantic poets, had then recently divorced his wife, and according to rumors of the time, was having an affair with his half-sister.

When they arrived, they rented properties along Lake Geneva and during frigid evenings gathered at the Villa Diodati, a stately three-story mansion on a hillside overlooking the lake. Lord Byron had rented the mansion with his doctorJohn Polidori (1795-1821). While the skies boomed with thunder and lightning, they sat around a log fire, reading morbid poetry and German ghost stories to each other, and talked late into the night. They also argued about the occult and the major debate of the day: whether human corpses could be galvanized, or re-animated after death.

Mary had to fight off sexual advances by the doctor Polidori, while her stepsister tried to seduce Lord Byron. Percy, meanwhile, became depressed. After three days of being trapped inside, conflicts began to erupt like Mount Tamora.

One night, Lord Byron gave them a challenge: write a ghost story that was better than the ones they had just read.

Polidori immediately wrote his first work of fiction, a novella, called The Vampyre, (1819). It became the first piece of fiction to include a blood-sucking hero. Historians believe the story was modeled on his friend, Lord Byron.

After a sleepless night, punctuated by thunder and lightning, Mary had a vision. She said, “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, incorporated the Villa Diodati as a setting and the morbid conversations of her friends. She was eighteen. The book was published, anonymously, in 1818 in London (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones) when she was twenty. Five hundred copies were published in three volumes. Her name first appeared in the second edition published in Paris in 1823 in two volumes (G. and W.B. Whittaker) following the success of the stage play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake.

Mary’s story, which is considered a Gothic novel that employs mystery, secrecy and unsettling psychology, revolutionized literature and over the years has inspired more than one-hundred-thirty films, plus numerous television programs, plays, radio dramas, video games, comics, parodies, satires, and music.

But all did not end happily for the group who gathered at Lake Geneva:

  • Polidori committed suicide in 1821. He was twenty-six;
  • Percy drowned, with two others, in his sailing boat during a freak storm in 1822. He was twenty-nine;
  • Lord Byron took the daughter he had with Claire away from her mother and sent her to a convent. She died there at the age of five.
  • Byron died in 1824 after contracting a fever. He was thirty-six.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) wrote several other novels, twenty-one short stories, a travelogue and several biographies. During her lifetime, she was a professional writer, but history remembers her as the author of one novel, written during the “Year Without Summer.” She died of a brain tumor at fifty-three.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s note: The Gothic novel emerged as a literary genre in the 1750s and characterizes supernatural elements, mysterious and secretive events. The mystery of Mary Shelley’s novel is not where the monster came from, but what he wants. In addition, the novel is considered to be one of the first examples of science fiction.

According to Greek legend, Prometheus was a deity who could create a human from clay, hence Shelley’s subtitle to her novel. 

February 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Tinker, Tailor, Author, Spy

He was a complicated cat and a skilled obfuscator. He was an author, a movie script writer, a suave cigar-smoking spymaster, a defender of the law—and a breaker of the law.

Journalist James Rosen called him a “passionate patriot; committed Cold Warrior; a lover of fine food, wine and women; incurable intriguer, wicked wit and superb storyteller.”

As an author, he was prolific. He wrote eighty novels, mostly spy thrillers. They were published in paperback with covers that featured women in various stages of dress, or undress. But he didn’t like the covers for he thought they “cheapened the contents.” He was published by such pulp fiction houses as Dell, Signet, Lancer, Gold Medal, Phantom, and later by Knopf, Putnam, and St. Martin’s.

He said he followed James M. Cain’s diction of “slapping the reader in the face within the first ten pages.” The writers who most influenced him were Hemingway, Raymond Chandler and John Dos Passos.

The New York Times called his novel East of Farewell, “the best sea story of WWII.” At the age of 28, as a reward for his first two books, he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing (1946) beating out Gore Vidal and Truman Capote.

Because he was a CIA employee, he wrote under several pseudonyms including Robert Dietrich, P.S. Donoghue, David St. John, Gordon Davis and John Baxter. Most of his novels were characterized as “predictable concoctions of espionage and sex in exotic settings.” He earned $20,000 a year from his writing. But he also wrote twenty-five novels under his own name, E. Howard Hunt.

Born in Hamburg, New York in 1918, Everette Howard Hunt, Jr., better known as E. Howard Hunt, graduated from Brown University proficient in Latin, Greek, and Spanish, and a degree in English. During WWII, he served in the U.S. Navy, The Army Air Force, as a war correspondent for Life magazine; and the Office of Strategic Services, (OSS), in China. The OSS was a cloak and dagger unit—the forerunner to the CIA, where he prided himself on being part of the CIA’s upper echelon. He became the station chief in Mexico City and recruited and supervised William F. Buckley, Jr. They became lifelong friends and Buckley became godfather to his first three children. He also served as Chief of Covert Action in Japan and Chief of Station in Uruguay.

In the span of thirty years, between 1942 – 1972, he wrote thirty-six novels, of which twenty-three were published by paperback houses. He said, “I had just married and needed more than my government salary, so I began writing for Gold Medal. Money was the motive, plus my own pleasure in writing for an appreciative mass audience. I could do a book in two to three weeks, working part time, so it was no strain at all, and the rewards were prompt.”

After he retired from the CIA in 1970, he worked as a writer for the Robert R. Mullen Company, a public relations firm and CIA front company. From there he was hired as a $100/day consultant by Chuck Colson to work on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, where he joined the White House Special Investigations Unit.
Most famously, in the Spring of 1972, he organized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. where he and his fellow operatives G. Gordon Liddy, and five other burglars were arrested. The night of the burglary, he bought them all a lobster dinner. Three months later, the gang, aka, “The White House Plumbers,”was indicted on federal charges. The break-in led to the greatest scandal in American political history and the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

He then pressured the White House and the Committee to Re-Elect Nixon for $120,000 in cash to cover their legal fees, for family support, and expenses. As a result, large amounts of money were passed to Hunt and his accomplices to ensure their silence, and for them to plead guilty. That December, his wife, Dorothy, was carrying $10,000 in $100 bills but was killed in a United Airline plane crash along with forty-three other passengers. Foul play was suspected but never proved.

The Washington Post and The New York Times investigations broke open the payoff scheme, which resulted in the beginning of the end of the cover-up and what we now know as “The Watergate Scandal.”

In 1973, Hunt was convicted of burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping which got him thirty-three months in thirteen federal prisons, where he was beaten, robbed, suffered a stroke, and worked hard labor on a cattle farm. While in prison, his boys turned to drugs and his daughters became estranged from the sons.

His daughter Kevan Hunt Spence, who grew up to be a lawyer, said, “Our life as we knew it came to an explosive end. Our home was lost. Our financial security was lost. Our mother was dead. Our father was in prison.”

Among the many novels Hunt wrote, his favorite was The Berlin Ending (Berkeley/Putnam, 1973) for it allowed him the opportunity he said to fictionalize several espionage cases of which he was aware. And the book helped him to externalize his own Watergate plight just before imprisonment.

Some books and articles related to the Kennedy assassination, claim that Hunt was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and implicated him in a conspiracy to kill JFK. In 1978, Hunt denied knowledge of any conspiracy to kill Kennedy and said “no comment” when asked if he was in Dallas on that day. He sued media outlets for libel, prevailed, and was awarded $650,000 in damages. But in 1983, the case was overturned on appeal due to an error in jury instructions. See more on this below.

His many adventures inspired the character Ethan Hunt, the protagonist in the Mission Impossible films.

In his later years, he lost his left leg to arteriosclerosis and suffered from lupus, cancers of the jaw and prostrate, gangrene and loss of hearing. He died of pneumonia at the North Shore Medical Center in Miami in 2007. He was 88.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

January 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

A Dark and Stormy Night

In the “Peanuts” cartoon strip we see the almost human-dog Snoopy sitting on his doghouse, hunched over a typewriter, writing the Great American Novel. And he begins typing: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Then he gets stuck and he types the words over and over.

Charles Schulz, who created the strip, said he didn’t know the phrase was specific to any one author. He said he used it because “it was a standard pot-boiler opener that was always out there.”

This dark and stormy opening line has been called “florid,” “melodramatic,” “antiquated,” and “purple prose”—among other invectives and certainly a style to be avoided at all costs. Today, these words are a much-maligned cliché.

Those famous, or infamous, words are the beginning of a long sentence (58 words to be exact) and read like this:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scenelies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The original author of those famous, mocked and most-maligned words is Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, (1st Baron Lytton), who, in his day, was a popular poet, novelist, playwright, and politician. He was friends with Charles Dickens and even convinced him to revise the ending of Great Expectations in a way that was more acceptable for the reading public. In Dicken’s original version of the novel, Pip and Estella do not get together.

Interestingly, the same words “It was a dark and stormy night,” also form the first sentence of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Medal-winning young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962); and appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1831 short story, “The Bargain Lost,” although not at the very beginning.

Writer’s Digest described the sentence as a “literary posterchild for bad story starters” (2013). On the other hand, the American Book Review ranked it as No. 22 on its “Best first lines from novels” list (2013).

In 1830, “a dark and stormy night” was not a cliché in the opening lines to Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Paul Clifford. The story is about a highway robber during the French Revolution. The robber doesn’t know he’s the son of a well-heeled judge—and he only learns it just in time to be sentenced to death by that very same judge. But all ends happily as he breaks free and runs away to America to marry his cousin.

If you’re interested, the novel is available to read free online. It’s only 950 pages long.

Lytton (1803-1873) was a prolific writer. In one twelve-year stretch he wrote thirteen novels, two long poems, four plays, a history of Athens, numerous essays, and edited New Monthly magazine. He wrote science fiction, historical fiction, horror, romance, on the occult, and mysteries. His psychological crime thriller Eugene Aram (1832) was controversial because the hero was a murderer. He also, at times, published works anonymously. Another of his novels, Strange Story (1862) carried a supernatural theme and was a great influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In his lifetime, Lytton wrote a total of twenty-nine novels, two series, three books of poetry, and eight plays. His works were translated into ten languages and several of his novels were made into operas—one, Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes(1835), was adapted by German composer and conductor Richard Wagner. The opera became more famous than the novel.

As a politician, Bulwer-Lytton was elected to the British Parliament; was named Secretary of State for the Colonies in British Columbia; was offered the Crown of Greece, which he declined, after King Otto abdicated; and offered a lordship of the British Admiralty, again, he declined for fear it would interfere with his activity as an author. He was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.

In addition to penning his most famous opening line, he’s also noted for writing, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which appeared in his play Richelieu, as: “…beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”

He also popularized the phrase, “pursuit of the almighty dollar” from his novel The Coming Race (1871); and is credited with the term “the great unwashed,” which also appeared in his novel Paul Clifford.

But alas, his name lives on in the annual tongue-in-cheek Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University, in which contestants think up terrible, deliberately bad, openings for imaginary novels. The contest attracts well over 10,000 entries. Notable sentences not bad enough to merit the Grand Prize are awarded “Dishonorable Mentions.”

The 2019 Grand Prize Winner wrote:

Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.

Opening lines from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.

From Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Bargain Lost” (but not the opening line)

It was a dark and stormy night. The rain fell in cataracts; and drowsy citizens started, from dreams of the deluge, to gaze upon the boisterous sea, which foamed and bellowed for admittance into the proud towers and marble palaces. Who would have thought of passions so fierce in that calm water that slumbers all day long? At a slight alabaster stand, trembling beneath the ponderous tomes which it supported, sat the hero of our story.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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