Mystery Minutes Archive

August 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Fame, Fortune, and Misfortune

In the 1970s, he was the most popular read and critically acclaimed novelist. Literary critics considered him the heir apparent to Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and critics included him in the “holy trinity” of hardboiled crime writers.

He admittedly created plots which were semi-autobiographical as he drew upon his own traumas and personal tragedies. He gained fame and fortune, rising from poverty and abandonment, gained critical literary acclaim, and yet suffered deep misfortune.

The author is American Canadian Kenneth Millar (1915-1983), who is better known by his pen name Ross Macdonald and his series of hardboiled novels featuring detective Lew Archer. read more…

June 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Imposing Order on a Chaotic World

This award-winning, best-selling author gravitated toward crime writing because of certain events she experienced as a child and young adult. For example:

  • Her dentist shot and killed his wife and child…
  • A favorite high school teacher (and mother of a friend) was brutally murdered by her husband…
  • A friend’s father was killed when the airliner on which he was flying exploded in midair by a bomb…
  • A college friend who lived in the next dorm room committed suicide…and
  • Another college acquaintance was murdered a killing that was never solved.

She said, “Terrible things may happen, people may die, but in the end there is an explanation as to why these events occurred and justice is meted out. Unlike in real life, both the reader and the writer are presented with answers and closure. I naturally gravitated to crime writing as a way of making sense of these seemingly random events. The detective story imposes order upon a chaotic world.” read more…

May 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Before There was Stephen King…There was…

You may not know this author’s name, but you’ll certainly recognize his works.

He only wrote seven novels, and they were all made into films. He wrote tense, taut plots in multiple genres including mystery, Gothic horror, and science fiction weaving futurism or the supernatural into best-selling thrillers.

He also wrote ten plays including the longest running comic thriller on Broadway. And he was a songwriter.

He won two Edgars and in 2003 was named Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America.

Ira Marvin Levin (1929-2007) was born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a toy importer. He attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and New York University, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in philosophy and English. He also served in the Army Signal Corps from 1953-1955. read more…

April 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

She created the first Black female amateur sleuth

The first published African American mystery is credited to Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930). She was an African American journalist, playwright, historian, and novelist. Born in Portland, Maine, she wrote four novels and numerous short stories.

She made history when she penned a short story called “Talma Gordon,” which appeared in the October 1900 edition of The Colored American Magazine, which was also America’s first monthly periodical covering African American arts and culture. Hopkins also edited the magazine and addressed Black history, racial discrimination, economic justice, and women’s role in society.

Her short story concerns the murder of Puritan descendant Jonathan Gordon. At trial, his blonde and blue-eyed daughter, Talma, is implicated. Despite being declared innocent, the townsfolk believe Talma killed her father after he discovered her mixed racial heritage.

However, it would be another 92 years, 1992, before the first Black amateur female sleuth would appear in an American novel.

The author is Barbara Neely (1941-2020). read more…

March 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Rage of a Writer

If you stopped to chat with this famous author on the street, you might decide he had few redeeming qualities and keep walking. And you might, on second thought, think that with his sketchy past, he was a lost cause. Just look at his early record:

  • As a student at Ohio State University, he spent more time with prostitutes and pimps than he did in class. He took some students to a whorehouse where a fight broke out and after word got back to the dean, he was expelled.
  • He was arrested for using a fake ID and for cashing a bad check.
  • Out on bail, he stole a car, drove to a wealthy neighborhood, and robbed a couple at gunpoint. He stole four rings worth $5,000.
  • The next day, he was caught at a pawnshop, found guilty, and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
  • In the blink of an eye, at the age of nineteen, he went from being a college student to a prisoner in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

While in his cell, he began writing short stories on a typewriter he bought from his gambling winnings and did so while sitting on a convict’s bunk, with a folding table, next to a urinal. One of his cellmates, Prince Rico, whom he said had a Mona Lisa smile, also encouraged his writing, and became his love interest. In later years, he confessed that he wrote to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates and to avoid violence. He never considered himself to be homosexual and was honest with his later female partners about what happened in prison.

More importantly, his writing in prison changed his life. read more…

January 2022 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Nightmare Life of William Lindsay Gresham

At the end of 2021, a disturbing film was released to the public. Tagged as a neo-noir psychological thriller and directed by Guillermo del Toro, it quickly won nine major awards and received forty-two nominations. The film is Nightmare Alley, a remake of the 1947 film both of which are based on the crime novel by William Lindsay Gresham.

Gresham’s novel (Rinehart & Company, 1946) and the two adapted films observe shady characters from a two-bit carnival in 1930 populated by grifters, hustlers, femmes fatales, alcohol, and repressed desire. Like any well-crafted noir, the novel follows the protagonist, Stan Carlisle, in his ascension toward greatness and his descension into the abyss.

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda said, “It’s more than just a steamy noir classic. As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.” (2010). read more…

November 2021 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

A Mystery Within A Mystery

In the canon of mystery novels lies an unfinished but published mystery—the last written by an iconic author—and the mystery is still waiting to be solved. American librarian and author Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) called it “the foremost problem in fiction.”

The unfinished novel in question is The Mystery of Edwin Drood written by that great Victorian author, Charles Dickens. Yes, that Dickens. The intriguing mystery was cut short by the author’s untimely death. How could this have happened? Let’s examine the evidence. read more…

October 2021 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Versatile and Ahead of Her Time

This mystery author was born on Christmas Day, 1907 in San Antonio, Texas. She was the daughter of W.H. Robbins and Myrtle Statham. In addition to the fifty novels she published in her lifetime, under four different names, she has enough first and last names to fill a short paragraph. Along with her six given names at birth, her mother’s two additional marriages, and her own two marriages she officially is known as Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robbins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens.

If you’re keeping score: Norton and Birk are from her two stepfathers and Olsen and Hitchens are from her two marriages.

This prolific American mystery writer is better known as Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973) whose novels appeared during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Her contemporaries were the better-known mystery and suspense authors Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993), Margaret Millar (1915-1994), and Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995). read more…

September 2021 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

In the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, late one Thursday night in Melbourne, Australia, a drunken gentlemen wobbles down a dimly lit street. Another gentleman sees the drunken man and hails a cab for them both. While in passage, the sober man kills the drunken man with chloroform, hops out of the cab, jumps into another cab, and vanishes.

Thus begins the novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, (1886), which became the best-selling mystery novel of the Victorian era. John Sutherland, a British journalist and author, called it “the most sensationally popular crime and detective novel of the century.” (1990). It was so popular, it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write A Study in Scarlet, (Ward Lock & Co.,1887) which introduced the world to his famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. read more…

August 2021 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

He’s a Complicated Man — No One Understands Him But his Woman — Shaft

Fifty years ago, on June 23, 1971, a New York City private eye debuted on the big screen at the Palms Theatre in Detroit. His name was “John Shaft,” a tough and cool Black detective. The film starred Richard Roundtree in his first movie role and gave Gordon Parks (1912-2006) his directorial debut.

Shaft (MGM, 1971) was an American crime action film about a Black private detective who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian mobsters who kidnapped her. The film also explored themes like the Black Power Movement, race, masculinity, and sexuality.

Due to Shaft’s popularity, new opportunities were created for black filmmakers, actors, and technicians. The movie set off a movement known as “Blaxploitation” which dominated cinema for the next several years. read more…