Mystery Minutes Archive

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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November 2019 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

A Funny Author with a Big Heart

He’s a successful mystery author you may never have heard of. An ordinary guy with a great sense of humor and an even bigger heart.

After he graduated from New York University, he decided to work in the film business. He claims that after a brilliant interview at United Artists, he was
hired—even though he interviewed with his uncle, who was president of United Artists. He worked his way up in the business and became president of marketing for Tri-Star Pictures.

After leaving the corporate world, in the nineties, he wrote screenplays. He sold ten feature scripts and eight TV movies. Unfortunately, none of the features were made, but three were produced for TV. In an interview in Criminal Element magazine he said, “It’s fair to say that they did not have a great impact on American culture.”

One of his “spec scripts” was called “Snapshot,” –a legal drama starring Andy Carpenter, a wise-ass lawyer from Paterson, NJ, who also loved dogs. But no studio wanted it.

A year later, actress Tyne Daly read his script and wanted to play Andy Carpenter, but only if he would change the character to an overweight woman named Andrea. He claims no artistic integrity and agreed. Even with Tyne Daly attached, all the networks turned it down.

Eighteen months later, his script gained new life when actress Cheryl Ladd fell in love with it. After he met with her, he deleted all the overweight jokes. Even with Cheryl Ladd attached, the networks, again, passed. He said, “A pattern was forming. If God had come down and ordered the networks to make this movie, I believe they would have refused.”

A few years later he decided to write a novel—a courtroom drama, starring his character Andy Carpenter. He made some changes to his original script, including the title which went from “Snapshot” to “Open and Shut.” The process—from gathering dust in a drawer to agent—took about six weeks.

That debut novel, Open and Shut (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) was a page-turning finalist for the Edgar Award and won the Shamus Award for best first novel. Publisher’s Weekly called Open and Shut an homage to Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series of mysteries with his self-deprecating sense of humor.

He’s gone on to become a national best-selling author with 21 novels in this series which features his main character Andy Carpenter. He’s been called a cozy mystery author who laces his work with humor and animals—but with some adult scenes and language. He’s also written six stand-alone mysteries and three novels, a spin-off series from Andy Carpenter; and three nonfiction books.

When he started dating his soon-to-be wife, she had a Golden Retriever named Tara which he fell in love with. After Tara passed, they started the Tara Foundation, named in honor of their Golden Retriever. They rescued almost 4,000 dogs, many of them Goldens, and found them loving homes. He said their own home quickly became a sanctuary for those dogs that were too old or sickly to be wanted by others.

He lives in Maine with his wife and an ever-changing number of rescue dogs—from twenty to a high of forty-two, and many which share their bed. He says, “The trick is for us to pretend we’re out camping, and think of it all as communing with nature.” He even wrote a book titled, “Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World’s Most Brilliant Dog (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

The author’s name? David Rosenfelt. His newest Andy Carpenter novel, a Christmas-themed mystery is Dachshund Through the Snow.

And, that’s your Mystery Minute.

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.