Mystery Minutes Archive

July 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

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


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

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

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

June 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Writer with the Largest Audience in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s your Mystery Minute.


May 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Silence of the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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

April 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Social Distancing Hampers Close-Kill Techniques for Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, that’s your Mystery Minute.

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March 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

The Year Without Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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

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

February 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

Tinker, Tailor, Author, Spy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

January 2020 Mystery Minute

by ZJ Czupor

A Dark and Stormy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2019 Grand Prize Winner wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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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.