Mystery Minutes Archive

October 2019 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Money can be a motivating factor

In 1920, he was born to poor Italian immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. At the age of 12, he dropped out of school to get a job after his father deserted the family. He worked as a railroad switchboard attendant to help put food on the table. Later, he graduated from City College of New York and joined the US Army Air Force in WWII. Because of his poor eyesight, he was made into a public relations officer stationed in Germany and India. After the war, he attended the New School for Social Research and Columbia University in New York.

His first published work was a short story, “The Last Christmas” which appeared in American Vanguard (1950) and at the age of 28, he wrote his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955), which received fine reviews but only earned him $3,500. Ten years later, his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, got the same results, and only earned him $3,000.

He found work as a writer/editor for a line of pulp magazines like Male, True Action and Swank. Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics-fame, was writing just down the hall.

He was poor until he was 48. Never took a vacation. Money became very important to him.

His editor told him that his last novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, might have done better if it had more Mafia in it but he didn’t want to write about the Mafia. He wrote two more undistinguished novels before he decided to put his highbrow literary goals aside and set out to write a novel with commercial appeal.

Mario Puzo (1920-1999) wrote a ten-page outline for a novel—called The Godfather (1969) about the Corleone crime family; whose son Michael takes the reins after his father is murdered—but his publisher passed.

Later, a friend arranged a meeting at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, where Mario regaled the editors for an hour with Mafia tales. They gave him the green light and a $5,000 advance.

Fast forward to the late 1960s, we find Mario married with five kids in Long Island. He’s virtually broke. According to his eldest child, Tony, his father “liked to do things first-class even though we only had fifth-class money. He ran up a lot of debt.”

Eventually, Mario began to write his Mafia novel. He retreated to his basement nook, a broom-closet-like space that had enough room for a desk, typewriter, and little more. While he wrote away, his five children would come downstairs and play loud games. Tony said his father would say, “Keep it down. I’m writing a best-seller.”

He finished the novel three years later in 1968 because he needed the final installment of his $5,000 advance to pay for his family’s planned vacation to Europe. Even though he turned the novel into his publisher, he wasn’t happy with the finished manuscript and thought he’d do one more rewrite when he returned.

But he was in deep debt. Writing in his memoir, The Godfather Papers and Other Obsessions, he admitted that he owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. The Europe vacation would cost him more money than he had. His wife didn’t know that when they came home, they were going to have to sell the house. Fortunately, it never came to that.

Upon his return, he had lunch at the Algonquin Hotel with his editor Bill Targ and was stunned to learn that the publisher sold the paperback rights for $410,000 to Fawcett Publishing before it was released in hardback. Back then, the record for paperback rights was $10,000. Today, that $410,000 would equal more than $3 million. Puzo said he didn’t dare rewrite it then, figuring they wouldn’t like it and would take their money back.

The Godfather became a phenomenal success and remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for sixty-seven weeks, sold more than 20 million copies, and is still in print. Puzo then collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on the three screenplays that make up The Godfather film trilogy. The first two movies won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Puzo. The films made The Godfather a worldwide phenomenon.

The novel and films had a huge cultural impact in that this was the first time, Italian Americans were depicted as three-dimensional characters and not just cardboard foreigners who spoke in heavy accents. Even mob figures of the era liked the film and said it was “on the money.”

Mario Puzo was never affiliated with the Mafia. He based his story entirely on research. Incidentally, the word “Mafia,” never appears in the film script. He said, “I never met a real, honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all.”

He also wrote screenplays for the first two Superman films (1978, 1980) and The Cotton Club (1984). In a live interview, Larry King once asked him why do we like the family Mafia theme so much? Puzo said, “Well, because it’s wishful thinking. I think everybody would like to have somebody that they could go to for justice, without going through the law courts and the lawyers, you know.”

He said, “The Godfather was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel.” Mario Puzo wrote eleven novels: The Dark Arena (1955), The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw (1966), Six Graves to Munich (as Mario Cleri, 1967), The Godfather, (1969), Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984), The Fourth K (1990) and The Last Don (1996). His last two novels, Omerta (2000) and The Family (2001) were published posthumously. He also wrote three non-fiction books and ten short stories.

Puzo was born poor and never felt like he had enough money. When he died of heart failure in 1999, his net worth was considered to be around $20 million.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

Some of Mario Puzo’s most famous lines are:
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”
“A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”
“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, lies in its loyalty to each other.”
“What is past is past, never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are, the world is what it is.”
“Behind every successful fortune; there is crime.”
“Actions defined a man; words were a fart in the wind.”
“Italians have a little joke, that the world is so hard a man must have two fathers to look after him, and that’s why they have godfathers.”

September 2019 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Art of the Red Herring

“Four little Indian boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were three.”

The above line is the seventh stanza from a longer American nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Indians,” (1869). The entire rhyme is written as the epigraph to Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, which foreshadows her story where strangers arrive on an isolated island off the Devon coast of England and die—one by one—as justice for their past crimes.

If you follow the original poem, Christie gives away all the clues you need to predict the crimes. The “red herring” in the seventh stanza suggests trickery in the murder mystery.

Christie (1890-1976) said her novel was the most difficult book to write for it concerns characters who die from choking, poisoning, bludgeoning, chopping, more poisoning, shooting, a bee sting, drowning, hit in the head by a bear statue, another shooting, and finally a hanging.

Red Herrings are a popular literary device in mysteries often used to throw off readers with a misleading clue and false conclusions. It also prolongs the mystery and suspense of the story’s heart.

Amy’s diary in the novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), is a recent example of a successful red herring in which every single step of the story leads us down a wrong path, but also helps the reader to understand her character.

Mystery writer Tana French is also a modern master of the red herring. She explains that as she writes she thinks about what clues would cause the most interesting series of reactions in her detective, rather than how various clues would fit into the solution of the crime. More on Tana French’s approach to writing red herrings can be found in this revealing interview.

How the term, “red herring” first appeared is open to debate. The first-known usage was in a 13th century poem in a line which reads, “He etep no ffyssh but heryng red.” Here the poet was referring to a heavily smoked kipper fish. Another idea is that the term referred to hunters who used a pickled herring (a very pungent fish with reddish meat) to distract their hounds during fox hunts. The herring was used to train the dogs to ignore the powerful scent and to follow the original scent of the fox. And in 1807, journalist William Cobbett criticized the English press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, comparing the press coverage to a “political red-herring.”  

Christie’s novel first appeared in the UK in 1939 (Collins Crime Club) with a title I won’t repeat here, for in today’s sensitive climate the title would just be plain offensive and is considered a racially loaded ethnic slur. But I will say the original title was based on a minstrel song. Even in 1939, the title was considered too offensive for American publication. The U.S. edition appeared in 1940 with the title changed to And Then There Were None. And in further capitulation to modern culture, Christie’s website, for And Then There Were None, has changed the nursery rhyme from Indian to soldier boy.

In her novel, the guests never knew their murderer and that has become the basis of many Hollywood films, although it is now somewhat of a cliché for modern audiences. But Christie was the first to do it. There were ten film adaptations; three stage versions; and several variations on the theme for television. The story also has inspired several video games, a graphic novel, and a board game—and even an episode on the animated TV series, Family Guy, titled, “And Then There Were Fewer” (2010).

The novel is considered one of the world’s best-selling mysteries, with more than 100 million copies sold in more than 50 languages. It’s also considered to be one of the “best-selling books” of all time.

And that’s your mystery minute.

June 2019 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Fingerprinting in Fiction

Picture Dawson’s Landing, a fictional Missouri frontier town, on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century.

It’s the setting for Mark Twain’s 1894 satiric crime novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, which revolves around two boys—one born into slavery (with 1/32 black ancestry); the other white. The boys, who look similar, are switched in their cribs and each grows into the other’s social role. The white boy grows up to be David Wilson, a young lawyer, who moves to town and makes a clever remark which is misunderstood. That causes locals to brand him a “pudd’nhead” or nitwit. A murder occurs, and Wilson solves the mystery in a courtroom scene where he announces the real murderer using fingerprints.

In American fiction, Samuel Langhome Clemens, (Mark Twain 1835-1910), was the first to introduce fingerprinting into fiction. In his memoir, Life on the Mississippi (1833), he wrote a chapter entitled, “A Thumb Print and What Came of it.” Twain claims to have gotten the idea from an old French prison keeper who told him there was one thing about a person which never changed from cradle to grave—the lines on the ball of the thumb—and they were never exactly alike in the thumbs of any two human beings. From that notion grew Pudd’nhead Wilson, a detective story based upon identification of fingerprints.

Scotland Yard’s first case, other than murder, based on fingerprint evidence, was one of burglary in June 1902. The accused had left an impression of his left thumb on a newly painted windowsill.

In the same year in France, the Henri Scheffer case is the first instance where fingerprints led to the arrest and conviction of a murderer. Scheffer, the murderer, had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed months before. His prints were found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead.

In 1903, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote a short story, The Norwood Builder, featuring his celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes in which the discovery of a bloody fingerprint helps him expose the real criminal and free his client.

The British detective writer R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) wrote a series of medical-legal detective novels featuring Dr. John Thorndyke. His first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark (1907), features a bloody fingerprint left on a piece of paper together with a parcel of diamonds inside a safe box. Dr. Thorndyke investigates and defends the accused whose fingerprint matches that on the paper, but after the diamonds had been stolen.

As an aside, literary critics didn’t think The Red Thumb Mark was Freeman’s best work. But his 1912 novel, The Singing Bone, is considered the first “inverted detective story” and had a significant influence on novels written during the “Golden Age” of detective fiction (1920-1945).

The inverted detective story, also known as a “howcatchem”, is a murder mystery structured so that the crime is described at the beginning and usually identifies the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective’s attempt to solve the mystery. There may also be detoured puzzles, such as why the crime was committed and they are explained or resolved during the story. This format is the opposite of the more typical “whodunit“, where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story’s climax.

Human fingerprints are unique, hard to alter, and stay with us over our lifetimes—making them long-term markers of our identities. Even identical twins have different prints. Police and other authorities use fingerprints to identify criminals, or to identify incapacitated or deceased individuals.

Since 1924, the FBI has managed a database which contains an estimated 51 million criminal fingerprints and more than 1.5 million non-criminal fingerprint records. US Visit, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection management system, has a repository of more than 50 million non-US citizen fingerprints.

Louise Harnby is an editor who writes an excellent blog, “Fingerprint forensics for beginner crime-fiction writers,” in which she offers tips to help you get the science right when it comes to using fingerprints in fiction, as well as a list of valuable resources. By the way, our member author Jeff Carson, highly recommends her. You can find her blog here:

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

May 2019 Mystery Minute

THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY: The Pioneering Author and The Omnipresent Title

Helen Worrell Clarkson McCloy (1904-1994) was a prolific writer of mystery novels and a major influence on the genre.

She wrote under the pseudonyms Helen McCloy and Helen Clarkson. She was born in New York City to Helen Worrell McCloy, also a writer; while her father William McCloy was the managing editor of the New York Evening Sun. She was educated at Brooklyn’s Quaker Friends School; studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris; worked as a journalist for Randolph Hearst’s Universal News Service; as an art critic for International Studio and other magazines, and as the London art critic for The New York Times. She also was a free-lance contributor to the London Morning Post.

She began writing mysteries in the 1930s and in 1946 she married another novelist, Davis Dresser (1904-1977), who wrote as Brett Halliday and gained fame with his hard-boiled Mike Shayne private eye novels. He wrote more than sixty mystery novels and was a founding member of Mystery Writers of America in 1945. There were twelve Mike Shayne films and five of them starred Eugene Hugh Beaumont, who is most famously known as the TV father, Ward Cleaver, in “Leave it to Beaver.” (CBS: 1957-58; ABC: 1958-63). She and Dresser founded the Torquil Publishing Company and the literary agency Halliday and McCloy (1953-64). They divorced in 1961.

Her most famous series character, Dr. Basil Willing, debuted in her first novel Dance of Death (1938). He appeared in twelve novels and several short stories. He was a Freudian psychoanalyst and believed that “every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints, and he can’t wear gloves to hide them.”

But her literary debut was in a short story published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in September 1948 called “Through a Glass, Darkly” which she later expanded into the 1950 novel by the same title (Random House). The story also features Dr. Basil Willing in a somewhat locked-room story in an elite girl’s school close to New York. The story has a supernatural twist, where the heroine keeps thinking that people are encountering her Doppelganger, or double, in two places at the same time.

In the novel, she describes this as: “You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and – you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only—there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die…”

Some critics have suggested that Through a Glass, Darkly is among the top twenty best detective stories ever written. Anthony Boucher recommended the novel as “an excellent treatment of the Doppelganger theme.”

In 1959, the story was adapted into a teleplay as part of the Saturday Playhouse series that aired on the BBC from 1958 to 1961.

Through a Glass, Darkly is considered to be written in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story “The Image in the Mirror.” (“Hangman’s Holiday” 1933), which features her famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, and introduces the notion of a man seeing his identical evil twin committing crimes.

The title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” comes from the Bible (King James Version), 1 Corinthians 13:12 – in which Paul, the Apostle, says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Basically, what the verse means is that when we see things head on, face-to-face, everything is clear, and when we see other things in part, they are imperfect, like a mystery.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that the philosopher Plato (428/427-424/423 BC) also said these words long before they appeared in the New Testament. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, he’s telling the last days of Socrates in which Socrates talks about the dark realities that lie behind all that we see. He said we see true realities, “through a glass darkly.”

There’s some confusion about the literal translation from the Greek in both Plato’s version and the King James Version but we’ll leave that to other scholars to sort out.

The same title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” was used in Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 noir film which was a completely different story about schizophrenia and hearing the voice of God. The film won an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

The title is also the title of four other novels (all different) by four other authors written in 1955, 1965, 1999 and 2006. There are four non-fiction books with that title; and four poems, one of which was written by General George S. Patton, Jr. (1922). In addition, numerous musical albums, songs, and television episodes carry the same title.

Even Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov got into the act. In 1934, which preceded McCloy’s famous novel, Christie wrote a short story with that title which appeared in Collier’s Weekly, and in 1939 published it in her collection of short stories, The Regatta Mystery. It is the only story in the collection that does not feature one of Christie’s famous detectives. The story is told by an anonymous narrator who invokes the supernatural and its allusion to the Biblical reference. Asimov wrote a collection of four short stories but twisted the collection’s title, slightly, as “Through a Glass, Clearly.” (1967).

Helen McCloy was one of the pioneers of psychological suspense. Her writing has been characterized as graceful, subtle and well written with morbid psychology, obscure historical facts, powerful plots and with literary allusions which unsettle the reader from “unease to downright panic,” (Noah Stewart).

She wrote 30 novels in her lifetime and in 1950 became the first woman president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA). In 1953, she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from MWA for criticism. Her contributions to the genre are recognized today by the annual Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship for Mystery Writing.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

April 2019 Mystery Minute

The Butler Did It

By ZJ Czupor

Tonight, we’ll examine the origins of the phrase, “the butler did it.”

But first, let’s consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859 – 1930) “The Musgrave Ritual” an 1893 detective story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Though the butler was not the central villain, the butler in this tale is found dead beside the Musgrave family treasure.

In 1921, the British novelist Herbert George Jenkins (1876—1923) in his novel The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, mentions a criminal butler.

Agatha Christie’s (1890 – 1976) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) lets suspicion fall on a man named Parker who was Ackroyd’s butler. Parker, of course, had a criminal past.

But the phrase is most commonly attributed to Pittsburgh native Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)—known as the “American Agatha Christie.” Interestingly, she preceded Christie by fourteen years and was one of the most successful American mystery writers of the early 20th century.

Mary was a popular writer who authored more than 50 novels, many of which were best sellers. And she was a playwright. At one point, three of her plays ran simultaneously on Broadway. She wrote everything in longhand.

And what was the impetus for her writing – it was the stock market crash of 1901, in which she and her husband lost all their savings and wound up $12,000 in debt. Or about $347,000 in today’s dollars. She had been a nurse, a doctor’s wife and mother to three sons. She took up writing to earn income. Her first novel, The Circular Stairs, was published in 1908 and it sold 1.25 million copies. She was 31 at the time.

It was in 1930 that her novel The Door was published in which (spoiler alert) the butler did it. However, the words “the butler did it” do not appear in the book. When her novel was adapted into a musical called, The Butler Did It, Singing,” is when the phrase was attributed to Mary.

After a while the trope became so popular it was considered a cliché and often satirized. For example, in 1933, Damon Runyon (1880 – 1946) published the satirical story, “What, No Butler?”

Mary was also the first writer to use the device where the story’s narrator is the “once naïve but now older and wiser woman.”

In 1920, she created a super-criminal character called The Bat—in a play that was a smash on Broadway. It combined elements of mystery and comedy and featured a masked criminal whose calling card was a black paper bat that he tacked to doors. Life Magazine claimed that more than ten million people saw the play and it grossed more than $9 million. The novel of the same name is cited by Bob Kane (1915 – 1998) as one of his inspirations for the famous DC Comics superhero we know as Batman.

Her novel The Bat was released in 1933 by RCA Victor as one of the earliest talking book recordings.

Mary’s style had a lot in common with the hardboiled school of detective fiction and is part of the American school of scientific detection. Her most memorable tales combined murder, love, ingenuity, and humor in a distinct style. The New York Times said, “She helped the mystery story grow up.”

After Mary published her last novel, A Light in the Window (1954), she was crowned with a Mystery Writers of America Special Award. She died at 82 in New York City. She and her husband are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At the time of her death—1958—her novels had sold over 10 million copies.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

March 2019 Mystery Minute

Writing the Hardy Boys series was “hack work”

By ZJ Czupor

After he graduated from high school in Haileybury, Ontario, Leslie McFarlane (1902 – 1977), spent the next fifty years as a writer. He produced hundreds of short stories for pulp magazines, novellas and novels, radio plays, as well as ghost-written books.

He was a newspaper reporter, editor for Maclean’s magazine, and produced and directed for the National Film Board of Canada. One of his documentaries was nominated for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. In the 1960s, he wrote for the hit television series Bonanza at the suggestion of his actor/friend Lorne Greene.

He wrote two autobiographies, eight stand-alone mystery novels, four Dana Girls Mystery Books, and under the pen name, Franklin W. Dixon, wrote more than twenty Hardy Boys novels. The novels, which debuted in 1927, (Grosset & Dunlap), are considered one of the most popular juvenile book series of all time, spawning numerous spin-offs, nonfiction books, board games, TV shows, and internet sites. It featured teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy, where the young brothers solved mysteries in the fictional town of Bayport.

Franklin W. Dixon was the collective pseudonym of a stable of ghostwriters who wrote the Hardy Boys series. The writers were assembled by Edward Stratemeyer(1862-1930), a publishing tycoon, who also launched Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. But it was McFarlane who is widely credited for creating the literary style and character’s personalities that made the books successful.

The original Hardy Boys “canon” included 58 volumes. By mid-1929, over 115,000 books had been sold and as of 2008, more than a million copies a year were sold. Worldwide, over 70 million copies have been sold and translated into 50 languages.

Sadly, McFarlane earned no royalties. He was paid a flat fee of $100 per book but during the Great Depression that fee was reduced to $85. He considered writing the Hardy Boys, as “hack work.” He cursed having to write another of those books, in order to earn another $100 to buy coal for the furnace. He once told his son, Brian, “Don’t tell your friends that I write that nonsense.”

Writing the Hardy Boys was a means to an end for McFarlane, but his legacy is that he hooked millions of kids, including me, on reading.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

February 2019 Mystery Minute

Sweetheart Sleuths: A Valentine’s Mystery Minute
By ZJ Czupor
Feb. 14, 2019

The “mistress of mystery” Janet Rudolph blogging in “Mystery Fanfare” (Feb. 11, 2019), claims there are roughly eighty authors who’ve written about “sweetheart sleuths,” couples who either solve crimes together, or have a compelling or complicated relationship. You may recognize some of these luminary authors: Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Robert Parker, S.J. Rozan, and Dorothy Sayers.

One of the earliest writers to create “sweetheart sleuths” was Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) in his 1934 novel, The Thin Man, (Alfred A. Knopf), about the wickedly sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles—a married couple of equals who solve murder mysteries with as many cocktails as clues while exchanging sharp repartee.

The story originally appeared in the December 1933 issue of Redbook and was published in book form the following month. Hammett started the novel in 1932 when he was nearly broke. While it was his fifth and final novel, it was not considered his best, but it became one of his best known because of film, radio, and TV adaptations. There were six “Thin Man” movies, a long-running radio show, and a 1950s TV series.

Hammett, as you may recall, also created one of the most famous detectives of all time, Sam Spade, in his best novel, The Maltese Falcon.
As “sweetheart sleuths,” Nick and Nora Charles’ relationship centered around drinking, flirting, fun and a deep intellectual affinity. Nothing could get in the way of their bond—not life, not children, or society. The writing style embodies no-frills, spartan and bawdy language, hard-drinking, funny and loving human beings.

Nick is an alcoholic former private detective who retired after he married the rich and beautiful Nora. Hammett reportedly modeled Nora’s character—along with boozy, flippant dialogue– on his relationship with his longtime partner Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), to whom he dedicated the novel. Hellman was a playwright and memoirist best known for such Broadway plays as The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour and more.

The novel brims with clever dialogue. For example, after Nick is wounded, he opens the newspaper and says, “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora says: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
To which Nick responds: “Not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

Hammett’s granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett,* called the dialogue “a rare blend of silly and cynical, sloshed and smart.”

The novel also mentions that Nick was once a Pinkerton detective, as was Hammett. By the way, Nick preferred his martini shaken—decades before we learned about James Bond’s preference.

Hammett’s The Thin Man was seminal in that it departed from the hardboiled mystery novels of the time and distinguished itself with lightness, humor, homicide, and whispers of sex—a formula that fiction, film and television are still trying to duplicate.

The same year the novel was published, The Thin Man film was made starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Although it was a summer release, the movie is set during Christmas with murder and mayhem. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. After the film came out, people assumed (incorrectly) that Nick Charles was the Thin Man. In fact, the Thin Man is the murder victim in the novel.

After Hammett wrote treatments for the second and third Thin Man films, MGM bought all rights to the characters Nick and Nora Charles so the studio could develop the series without Hammett. He was paid $40,000, which in today’s dollars would amount to about $750,000. For “sweetheart sleuths” that’s a sweetheart deal.

Hammett later said, “Maybe there are better writers in the world, but nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can’t take that away from me, even for $40,000.”
And that’s your Valentine Mystery Minute.
_______________________
*Rivett with Richard Layman, co-edited, The Return of The Thin Man (Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious, 2012).

January 2019 Mystery Minute

A MYSTERY MINUTE
By ZJ Czupor

And They Were Spies

In a sense all mystery writers function as spies. We observe people around us, we study character types, we create plots and then we uncover them. Even the most boring luncheons can be fodder for our craft. I think it’s interesting to note that several successful mystery and thriller writers were at one time also spies.

For example:

English novelist Henry Graham Greene, better known as Graham Greene (1904-1991), author of The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana and more, said, “Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector. It encourages a man to be expansive, even reckless, while lie detectors are only a challenge to tell lies more successfully.”

Greene would know. When he was wasn’t writing, he worked as an agent for MI6, the British intelligence service in Sierra Leone under the famous Soviet mole, Kim Philby. Greene’s sister, Elizabeth, worked for MI6 in Cairo. Greene was short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966 and 1967.

English author Fredrick Forsyth (1938 – ) is famous for writing The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Fourth Protocol and more. For 20 years, he covertly passed along information and packages for MI6 but claims he was never paid. As a journalist, he covered French affairs and the attempted assassination of French President Charles de Gaulle, hence the novel, The Day of the Jackal, which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 1972.

English author Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964) is best known for his James Bond series of spy novels and the children’s story Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. He worked for British naval intelligence in WWII and helped plot several espionage missions against Nazi Germany. He held an encyclopedic knowledge of guns, geography, trees, flowers, wine, food, clothes, and women. And he spoke English, French, German and Russian.

David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré

(1931 –  ), is the British author of such successful spy novels as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and more was MI5 and MI6 during the Cold War. Soviet mole Kim Philby blew his cover, so Cornwell left the service and became a full-time author. He once said, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

Peter Matthiessen (1927 – 2014) joined the CIA out of Yale University. He won the National Book Award three times and founded the Paris Review, literary magazine, as a cover for his intelligence duties. While he was writing his first novel and checking on certain Americans in Paris, his contact man said, “Anything else you can do while you’re here?” That precipitated his founding of the Paris Review. His most famous novels are The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Shadow Country and more.

American Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), noted for The Old Man and The Sea, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and more, is reported to have spied for the Soviet Union’s NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. Recruited in 1941, he patrolled the Caribbean in search of German submarines, but rather unsuccessfully. The Soviets codenamed him “Argo,” and hoped he might influence public opinion through his writing. Alas, they decided his information was useless and lost interest in him by 1950.

British playwright and novelist William Somerset Maugham better known as W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965), authored Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence and more. He worked for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in Switzerland in 1915-16 and again during WWII. His first boss told him, “If you do well, you’ll get no thanks…and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help.” He used his spy experiences to write Ashenden: Or the British Agent, as a collection of short stories. This character is considered to have influenced Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels.

There are many more authors who didn’t necessarily write spy thrillers who served in intelligence work, i.e. Roald Dahl (children’s author) and Julia Child (cookbooks). In today’s modern world, there’s a larger handful of authors writing mysteries and thrillers who did intelligence work for agencies known only by their initials.

So, look around. Beware. The author you’re having wine with might be a spy.

And that’s your mystery minute.

Forensic linguistics is an investigative technique which helps experts determine authorship by identifying quirks in a writer’s style. Thanks to advances in computer technology, forensic linguists can now analyze text with finer accuracy.

Some analyses can be completed in about half an hour. Amazing when you consider that in the early 1960s it took a team of two statisticians and a high-speed computer at MIT three years to figure out who wrote twelve unsigned Federalist Papers. Turns out they were written by James Madison who rarely used the word “while” but instead used “whilst,” and rarely used the word “upon” but rather “on.”

According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian.com (March 2014), Robert Leonard, director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University, has been an expert witness in 13 states and six Federal District Courts and in U.S. District Courts (including Denver). He worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case, where he eliminated John Mark Karr as the killer after Karr falsely confessed to the murder. Leonard also presented evidence in cases like that of Christopher Coleman, who was arrested in 2009 for murdering his family in Waterloo, Illinois.

Leonard testified that Coleman’s writing style matched threats he had spray-painted at his family’s home. Coleman was convicted and is serving a life sentence.

Side note: While working on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Leonard sang in the rock ‘n roll band Sha Na Na and performed at Woodstock.

Interestingly, it was forensics linguistics in 2013 that outed an internationally famous author who also writes mysteries under a pen name. The test, conducted by Patrick Juola, a Duquesne University computer scientist, examined sequences of tens of thousands of adjacent words, while another zeroed in on sequences of characters. A third test tallied the most common words, while a fourth examined the author’s preferences for long or short words. The results revealed a linguistic fingerprint—or in other words, the author’s stylistic quirks.

This particular author is the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time (estimated 500 million copies sold). Writing under a pen name, this author has also written four acclaimed mystery novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Career of Evil, The Silkworm and the newest, Lethal White, all which feature private detective Cormoran Strike.

Who is this famous author of four acclaimed mystery novels? The forensic linguistic tests revealed that it was Robert Galbraith, better known by her real name—J.K. Rowling—author of the Harry Potter series.

After consulting with Peter Millican, an Oxford University linguist, and receiving a concurring opinion, England’s Sunday Times confronted Rowling, who confessed.

Juola said in his computer analysis some of the giveaways were Rowling’s fondness for Latin quotes and her distinctly feminine way of describing women’s clothing.

When it became public that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her mystery novel rose from 4,709th in position on the Amazon sales chart to number one.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

Mystery Minute

A MYSTERY MINUTE
By ZJ Czupor

Forensic linguistics reveals identity of famous author

Forensic linguistics is an investigative technique which helps experts determine authorship by identifying quirks in a writer’s style. Thanks to advances in computer technology, forensic linguists can now analyze text with finer accuracy.

Some analyses can be completed in about half an hour. Amazing when you consider that in the early 1960s it took a team of two statisticians and a high-speed computer at MIT three years to figure out who wrote twelve unsigned Federalist Papers. Turns out they were written by James Madison who rarely used the word “while” but instead used “whilst,” and rarely used the word “upon” but rather “on.”

According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian.com (March 2014), Robert Leonard, director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University, has been an expert witness in 13 states and six Federal District Courts and in U.S. District Courts (including Denver). He worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case, where he eliminated John Mark Karr as the killer after Karr falsely confessed to the murder. Leonard also presented evidence in cases like that of Christopher Coleman, who was arrested in 2009 for murdering his family in Waterloo, Illinois.

Leonard testified that Coleman’s writing style matched threats he had spray-painted at his family’s home. Coleman was convicted and is serving a life sentence.

Side note: While working on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Leonard sang in the rock ‘n roll band Sha Na Na and performed at Woodstock.

Interestingly, it was forensics linguistics in 2013 that outed an internationally famous author who also writes mysteries under a pen name. The test, conducted by Patrick Juola, a Duquesne University computer scientist, examined sequences of tens of thousands of adjacent words, while another zeroed in on sequences of characters. A third test tallied the most common words, while a fourth examined the author’s preferences for long or short words. The results revealed a linguistic fingerprint—or in other words, the author’s stylistic quirks.

This particular author is the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time (estimated 500 million copies sold). Writing under a pen name, this author has also written four acclaimed mystery novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Career of Evil, The Silkworm and the newest, Lethal White, all which feature private detective Cormoran Strike.

Who is this famous author of four acclaimed mystery novels? The forensic linguistic tests revealed that it was Robert Galbraith, better known by her real name—J.K. Rowling—author of the Harry Potter series.

After consulting with Peter Millican, an Oxford University linguist, and receiving a concurring opinion, England’s Sunday Times confronted Rowling, who confessed.

Juola said in his computer analysis some of the giveaways were Rowling’s fondness for Latin quotes and her distinctly feminine way of describing women’s clothing.

When it became public that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her mystery novel rose from 4,709th in position on the Amazon sales chart to number one.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

 

October 2018 Mystery Minute

An Operatic Mystery of Mass Murder

Jeffrey A. Lockwood 

Consider that: mysteries are an extremely potent form of storytelling; opera is a powerful means of dramatic expression; and science is in desperate need of connecting with the public.  So, what could be more obvious than a scientific mystery formulated as an opera?!  That’s exactly what I did as the librettist (the fancy term for the person who writes the lyrics) for Locust: The Opera which premiered at the National Wildlife Art Museum outside of Jackson, Wyoming, on Friday, September 28.  The voices included a Scientist (Todd Teske, tenor); Rancher (Erik Angerhofer, baritone), and Locust/ghost (Cristin Colvin, soprano)—along with the Colorado Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Blomster.  The response of opera buffs, music critics, and neophytes was remarkably enthusiastic.

Scientists have begun to understand that stories are central to communicating their work—and this approach drove a collaboration between myself, a composer (Anne Guzzo), and a visual artist (Ashley Carlisle) to craft the epic tale of the Rocky Mountain locust.  People engage, understand and remember what they see or hear in a narrative context—and no storytelling framework is more darkly enchanting than a murder mystery.  The tale of the Rocky Mountain locust, which formed a swarm covering nearly 200,000 square miles in 1875, was ripe for transformation into a commensurately grand art form.  Perhaps even more remarkable than the breathtaking scale of its outbreaks, was the locust’s sudden disappearance with the last living specimen being collected in 1902.

We promoted the opera as an “environmental murder mystery” in which the ghost of the Rocky Mountain locust haunts a scientist until he can crack the case of how a creature that once blackened the skies of the West vanished.  The opera is based on my book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic, 2004).  To get a sense of how the greatest whodunit in the environmental history of the West opens, watch the video below of the initial encounter between the Locust and the Scientist (complete with swarm sounds generated by the audience using tissue paper) during which she demands answers to the mystery of her extinction.