Writers: A Room of Our Own

by Polly Whitney

The Loneliest Manual

If you’re feeling confused, or blocked, or just plain silly being a writer, this manual is for you. Herein, genres are defined and serve as reminders of what to do when you’re not doing anything productive but are, instead, shopping for really amazing bargains (amazing until the credit card interest starts to rise like steam from the Patriots’ locker room).

A note on COZIES: this definition has shown up widely on the internet. Tsk, Tsk. The fact is, I wrote it. The definition is now in the archives of Dorothyl, a listserv for mystery lovers. It’s mine, folks.

Part 1: Genres Defined — The Successful Killer is Flexible and Open-Minded

Cuddling Up With a Warm, Fuzzy Murderer

There was a time, during the so-called Golden Age of Mystery, when everyone knew what a “cozy” was. Not so anymore, what with women private eyes kicking bad guys through cement walls, even butlers carrying semi-automatic weapons to the door, and Quentin Tarantino quitting his job at the video store. It’s time to correct this ignorant state of affairs in the mystery world.

Cozies I Have Known

  1. A cozy must include at least one cat.
  2. The murder is usually a domestic crime. Example: bashing in your rich uncle’s skull is a much cozier activity than taking out 7-11 clerks with your Uzi.
  3. The sleuth is almost always an amateur. It’s much cozier for a pink-haired elderly lady to point her knitting needle at the murderer than to have the villain collared by the cops and read his Miranda rights.
  4. Tea is served in cozies (double entendre intended).
  5. Graphic violence is eschewed in cozies. Example: the murder is discovered, the ghastly deed having been done offstage. Some ill-mannered person might mention blood, but if so, characters overhearing the remark must either turn white as sheets or shudder deliciously. Nobody in cozies has ever seen blood before.
  6. The murder weapon in cozies is usually a blunt instrument, so as to avoid noise that might bother the neighbors. And also because always everyone has such weapons on his person.
  7. Poison is allowable as the agent of death in cozies but only if death is instantaneous. Prolonged suffering (much less nausea and vomiting) is not permitted. The ban on vomiting, I think, is in deference to the cat.
  8. The language of cozies does not permit the use of four-letter words. You can leave a cozy open on your kitchen table without fear that your ten-year old will adopt linguistic behaviors that will embarrass you before your bridge club.
  9. Cozies usually take place in country houses or small towns. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people are far more likely to hate each other if confined in a small area together. The same is true of rats. This phenomenon is called “the behavioral sink,” or “St. Mary Meade Syndrome.”
  10. You can read a cozy in front of your mother. However, you can read anything in front of a cat.

The Four Minute Detective

Hardboiled Novels I Have Known

  1. First and foremost, no cats.
  2. The protagonist is usually a professional crime solver, henceforth referred to as “the dick.”
  3. The dick is always a philanthropist who never earns a penny for work. The dick takes on cases because of the heart of gold under the obligatory trenchcoat. The rent on his/her one-room office with the pebbled-glass window in the door is paid as an Act of God, like the lilies of the field.
  4. The dick is properly licensed, carrying a wallet-sized credential that grants the dick no rights or privileges and fools no one.
  5. The dick is lazy, never working on more than one case at a time.
  6. Between spasms of detecting on that one case, the dick consumes quantities of booze that would have made Al Capone so much richer that he could have bought himself a better lawyer to beat that income tax evasion charge.
  7. The dick, unlike the amateur detective found in cozies, is armed. If a woman, the dick usually stores her gun in the glove compartment of her car and forgets to take it with her into dangerous situations. I a man, the dick carries his gun in a shoulder harness, and it is mandatory for the author to detail precisely and in ripe detail the amount of perspiration generated by the harness.
  8. The dick always has a medical degree. This is obvious because any dick worth a hoot can tell at a glance if the victim is dead. There’s none of that “Oh, my God, is he dead?” baloney in hardboiled novels.
  9. Blood.
  10. The dick must be injured by some relatively benign agency (a fall down a flight of stairs, a good smack on the thumb with the business end of a hammer while repairing the roof, sliding off the roof while cussing the hammer, getting pummelled by a girl gang that has nothing to do with the plot) early in the novel so that the dick’s ultimate triumph in the mandatory climactic fight scene is rendered all the more laughable.
  11. The rules of hardboiled fiction permit the dick to have active and frequent access to the vocabulary we all learned in fourth grade but have always pretended shocks us.
  12. Hardboiled novels take place in big cities. The urban setting is required because only in horrendously expensive inner cities could a dick survive while earning no money, suffering thousands of dollars worth of medical treatment per case, and buying enough booze to keep his/her head boiled. Thus the term (see The Big Concrete Apple Mystery).

Why History Is Necessary

Some mystery writers just don’t like cars and refrigerators. Such convenience machines make them nervous. So, these writers look to the past for material upon which to base a mystery. Also, these writers may be somewhat nauseated by the bloodiness of this century and turn to times past so they can bloody up our history by foisting more murders backwards in time. But, the rules governing time travel for mystery writers are rigorous and must not be violated or bent in any way. The penalty for doing so is that the writer could end up lost in the 14th century and outrunning the plague.

How Historical Mysteries are Done

  1. There can be no doubt that the map is the key to historical mysteries. These navigational aids are not present in cozies or hardboiled fiction — or, if they are, the author has perpetrated a cross-genre faux pas. The map is to show the dimmer reader where things are in relation to each other.
  2. The map must be, for all practical purposes, unintelligible. This creates suspense, particularly for the dim, as we attempt to decipher the tiny Old English typeface of the place names.
  3. A pond is required on the map, whether it has anything to do with the crime or not. The pond, ideally, will be named after a wealthy family featured in the book; i.e., “The Witherspoon Pond,” “Pembroke’s Water,” or “O.J. Simpson’s Pool.”
  4. The story itself must be preceded by at least five epigraphs. This device shows scholarship, especially if one of the epigraphs comes from a vaguely familiar source that makes the reader feel stupid for being such a clod and cultural outsider. A good example is from The Alienist — “These bloody thoughts / from what are they born?” (From Verdi’s Macbeth, and that’s really obscure but you feel you should have heard it.)
  5. The rules dictate that at least one of the jacket blurbs includes the word “atmospheric.”
  6. “The Rock” is not on the cover. That’s a different kind of book, and, besides, it only seems like Dwayne Johnson is everywhere.
  7. The first sentence of the historical mystery contains a reference to the corpse or corpses, as well as some word that is not in our modern vocabulary, some variation of “There were seven bodies ready to be taken out of the natron.” This device must not mislead you into thinking that you are reading science fiction. There is no science in historical mysteries — they didn’t know anything back then.
  8. The murder may occur in one of three ways:
    • a blunt instrument (thus making the Neanderthal mystery not unthinkable, although, what would one name the pond?)
    • drowning (water was always around back then in plentiful supply) justifies the pond, the only intelligible feature of the map.
    • a cannonball in the chest (although, nix for the Neanderthal mystery — I know that much history.)
  9. Mud.
  10. The dialogue sounds peculiar.
  11. No nudity or foul language is permitted — remember, those were the good old days before we became the wretches that inhabit modern fiction. Nobody knows how people reproduced in the past. Or, for that matter, how they let off steam, although the logical assumption is that the only steam valve was starting a 100 years war.
  12. The story takes place a long time ago.

Locked Room Conventions, Visited

In its august history, the mystery novel has undergone great development in the hands of its practitioners. Any new development that other writers go on to imitate is called a “convention” (or con, for short).

One of the oldest of these conventions is the Locked Room Puzzle, dating back to Saint Edgar Allan Poe and never going out of style. The Locked Room convention is not an easy thing to do well, although it is done frequently. The following guidelines might be of help to those attempting this particular convention for the first time.

All Dressed Up and No Way to Go

  1. Only cozy writers may use this convention. What could be cozier than a locked room? And jail cells are supposedto be locked.
  2. All points of egress/ingress to the scene of the murder are, well, locked.
  3. The cost of the convention is usually no greater than $140, but that does not include hotel charges.
  4. The hallmark of the Locked Room Convention is the smashed timepiece. In the room, it is mandatory for the police to find and impound a timepiece that was smashed, thus stopping the hands of the timepiece at precisely the moment of the murder.

    This can mean one of three things:

    • The smashed clock is a good clue
    • The smashed clock is a red herring, cleverly conceived by the killer
    • It was not a Timex
  5. The Sisters in Crime Breakfast will be scheduled too early in the morning for everyone but those drunken authors who never went to bed the night before and are lined up at the door of the Presidential Ballroom, looking for Bloody Mary relief and a place to check their lampshades.
  6. The points of egress/ingress in the locked room must total at least 15, including windows, doors, chimneys, secret passageways behind revolving bookcases, trap doors, dumb waiters, and mouse holes. This is to keep the detective busy and the reader on his toes (on his own toes, that is, not on the detective’s toes.)
  7. The whole point of the Locked Room Convention is hidden behind one larger, more apparent, assumption:
    • The Assumption: it was impossible for the murder to have occurred.
  8. The Real Purpose: The murderer has been busy not only committing a grisly crime but also — the selfish bastard — establishing an alibi for him/herself.
  9. The alibis for the minimum of 6 suspects can include but are not limited to:
    • running down to London for an unexpected appointment with one’s solicitor
    • drunkeness
    • occupying a love nest
    • cooking the meal (proven by the condition of the meal, which is still warm on the table)
    • it’s too early to commit a murder, much less get out of bed for a Sisters in Crime Breakfast
    • being too old, too frail, or too female to wield the murder weapon (which will be discussed below)
    • blindness
    • advanced pregnancy
    • having one’s caddy swear that one was on the links at the time of the murder (remember the smashed
      timepiece) — and, the potential suspect shot three under par
    • chopping wood, which does not look quite right to the police because it’s as hot as blazes during a record heat wave and a cord of wood is already stacked neatly beside the manor house — the reader may be sure that the suspect having this alibi is not the murderer
  10. The weapon must be in the locked room, and it is essential that the weapon be monstrously heavy (see the “too old, too frail, too female” alibi, above).
  11. The weapon is usually an emerald-studded scimitar covered with lurid inscriptions in Latin, which only readers who are also classical scholars will be able to decipher as being absolutely filthy jokes perpetrated by the author for her own amusement. We can’t do it all for the reader’s sake. Scribo ergo sum.

  12. Lawrence Block will interview himself on the most heavily attended panel.
  13. The awards given out annually for the best locked room murders are called the “Beatles,” because, since every author wants one, the master of ceremonies must often repeat “GET BACK!”
  14. If the author has done the job properly, even when the solution of the crime is revealed (usually at a gathering of all the suspects, at which tea is served by a nervous maid who drops things), we simply don’t believe it and come away from the experience with the feeling of having had our legs pulled.

Know the feeling?

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who wants a Beatle.

The Big Concrete Apple Mystery

The New York mystery is one of the most important subgenres of spooky fiction. But, like living in the city that never sleeps, writing about it can be pretty darned intense. One big advantage, however, of writing this subgenre, is that, unlike other types of mysteries, you can do it at any hour of the day or night, and order takeout, even on Sunday.

What It Is

  1. The action must take place in Manhattan, although fleeting references to Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Queens are permitted. Staten Island must never be mentioned, at least not seriously.
    • the setting may be San Francisco, but only if plenty of concrete is presented as a backdrop to the action
    • the protagonists may not cross the river to New Jersey, because that would turn the novel into a police procedural, or even a horror story.
  2. Nicknames for the city are not only permissible, they are necessary to verisimilitude. These nicknames should include the standard batch (The Big Apple, Gotham, New Calcutta, etc.), but the narrator must also coin his/her own nicknames. Examples I have seen include The Big Burg, Hell on the Hudson, and The Gap Capital of the United States.
  3. Writers in this subgenre always give exact street addresses where scenes take place, but if you actually go to any of those addresses you will find, instead of the building described in the novel, a Gap store or the New York Coliseum.
  4. Wildlife is confined to three species of rats:
    • Eight million real rats (one per human inhabitant)
    • Pigeons (known as flying rats)
    • Cock Roaches (known as floor rats and often used as murder weapons when the victim has a heart problem)
  5. The New York Mystery lends itself to the development of amateur detectives. Problems that amateurs encounter in other subgenres (i.e., how come these librarians, art teachers, shoe salesmen, and housepainters keep stumbling over bodies?) do not arise for New York City amateurs.

    In the Big Apple, dead bodies can be found under every table, on every park bench, stuffed in all the mailboxes, riding in subway cars, occupying Gracie Mansion, at the perfume counter in Bloomingdales (in fact, that is the likeliest place to discover that a New Yorker has keeled over), stuck in traffic, in an off-off Broadway theater after a performance of “Everybody Loves Opal,” or on 34th Street just beside the Empire State Building — proving that if you drop a penny from the observation deck you probably will kill someone down on the sidewalk and that New York legends are true.

  6. The biggest problem faced by the author of this kind of novel is explaining not HOW the amateur stumbled across a body but rather WHY, after stumbling, the amateur didn’t simply curse the inconvenience and move on.
  7. The crime in a New York Mystery may NOT be a crime of passion. New Yorkers are all entirely accustomed to hating each other, and a crime of passion would indicate faulty research on the part of the author. When New Yorkers hate each other, they use their fingers, not their guns. Unless the Mets are involved.
  8. The motive for murder will be Big Money, Ego, simple annoyance with a tourist, ticket scalping that goes beyond what even New Yorkers will tolerate, or a parking place.
  9. Chase scenes always involve taxis with rigged meters.
  10. The jacket art always includes the most famous skyline on earth. Otherwise, the reader might think he/she is in the presence of Science Fiction.
  11. Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill must write one of the jacket blurbs.
  12. The book will eventually appear in a courtroom, where the experts will testify that it inspired an actual murder. This is known as the “Barnes & Noble Discounted Defense.”
  13. Conversations in elevators cannot be avoided.
  14. No character may be seen jogging beside Lake Michigan.
  15. The neighborhood bartender always knows something.
  16. Finally, there must be such an overwhelming amount of descriptive passages regarding concrete that part of the suspense derives from the feeling that the continent will at any moment tip into the Atlantic.

The Clues Are Blowin’ in the Wind

One of the oldest of mystery subgenres, dating back to Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” but not usually as dirty, is the had I but known school of sleuthing. This school is problematic, as we shall see. And remember: I said it was old; I never said it was venerable.

The Answers are Blowin’ Through Her Head

  1. The protagonist is always a female, for who could possibly find it credible for a man to do all the dumb things the heroine does?
  2. The are many, many signs that point to the murderer (some of them done up in neon with flashing yellow arrows), but the heroine never sees them.
  3. Lots of really bad stuff happens around the heroine, but she never worries that she, herself, is in danger. Here are some examples of bad things that don’t make her skip town:
    • She comes home from work to find that her nightgown has been put through the meat grinder and a note has been left on the kitchen counter, saying “Sorry I missed you.”
    • Her chihuahua is tied to the ceiling fan, barking its head off. Our heroine wonders vaguely how the dog learned to tie square knots.
    • A car with no license plates veers onto the sidewalk and knocks her through the window of the Baskin-Robbins, and the flavor of the day is “Rocky Road.”
    • Her subscription to Cosmopolitan runs out without a renewal reminder.
  4. Her friends have all done time.
  5. She has a smart mouth, a trendy job, a high IQ, a college degree, but, unfortunately for her, blood tests reveal that she does not have even a healthy paranoia level. She’s also been short-changed in the adrenaline department.
  6. She thinks “mace” is a medieval war club with a spiked metal head.
  7. Her best friend, a man who works for the Psychic Hotline, tells her she is in grave danger, so she hurries to Radio Shack to buy a surge protector for her computer. When she gets home, her dog is stuffed in the blender, and, on the kitchen counter, is a note saying “Your treat next time.”
  8. Her brother, her boss, her accountant, her dry cleaner, her mail carrier, and her hair dresser all die under suspicious circumstances, and she is slightly irritated that she will have to transfer her business to the dry cleaner a block farther away from her apartment.
  9. You know the climax is just around the bend when she goes for a walk in the park, with her Psychic Hotline friend, and starts wondering aloud about certain “odd” feelings she’s had lately.
  10. He knocks her to the ground on the bridle path, and, woozily, she spots a burning cigarette lying beside her on the cinders. She’d really like to have a drag, so she picks it up and accidentally stabs her assailant in the eye with the lighted end. He confesses to the murders, and she apologizes for the second-hand smoke.
  11. His motive for trying to kill her is — well, wouldn’t you?
  12. She goes home, none the wiser, and her chihuahua is bound and gagged with duct tape in the bathroom medicine chest, signalling to the smart reader, but not to the heroine, that there will be a sequel.
  13. The dog lives. There has to be at least one intelligent character who grows and develops through troubling experience during the length of the series. And, remember, he can tie square knots.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who owns a dog with fur.

A Learned Disquisition on Police Procedurals

The rules for police procedural mystery novels, unfortunately, are very strict, allowing for almost no license on the part of the author; so, the following may strike readers as somewhat cold-hearted or even poetically stingy. Tough!

A Law Enforcement Manual

  1. The protagonists are cops.
  2. The cover art of procedurals always features a “unit,” customarily rendered in blue and white, with a bubble gum machine and flashing lights on top. The backdrop is a cityscape. At night. You can see your own grubby fingerprints plainly on the shiny cover and realize it’s too late to return the book to the shelf. You sheepishly buy it and slink out of the store.
  3. The jacket of the procedural must include one blurb that fairly shouts “FRESH AS TODAY’S HEADLINES.”
  4. The word “unit” has no sexual or anatomical connotation in these novels, as in “calling all units, we need backup on Astoria Boulevard.”
  5. The squad room must be populated by what is known as the “Rainbow Shift” or “Doppler’s Revenge.” The cops ideally will represent every ethnic group under the sun. To omit even one minority is to break the rules of the procedural, and you will find that you have produced a book that does not fit this category and may be eligible for a National Book Award.
  6. The cops do not mind that the crooks are all wealthy, even though the goods are ill-gotten. Cops don’t care about tainted money because they have something even better: Mastercards.
  7. The cops in procedurals do not use their units, as sex is not allowed in this subgenre. At least, not good sex.
  8. Despite rule #6, at least one cop must be corrupt, accepting bribes, or sifting through evidence bags for a roach or two, or moonlighting as a schools superintendent.
  9. The cops drink to excess: the results are precocious paunches and the kind of hangovers historically only produced by Cecil B. DeMille. You’d drink, too, if you had only two years to go until retirement and the new Republican mayor is balancing the municipal budget through cutbacks on the force.
  10. Procedurals take place in big cities because small towns lack criminals worse than aluminum siding salesmen.
  11. Readers of procedurals have the right to remain silent.
  12. Reviewers of procedurals have the right to representation by a public defender who was once a hotshot courtroom lawyer but who is now making his way slowly back into the legal field after a bout with alcoholism or repeated sexual misconduct with the jury pool. These losers, who must wear threadbare brown suits, almost never win their cases. That last sentence fails to make it clear if the “losers” are the public defenders or the reviewers.
  13. It is essential that the crime be a big one. A single murder or DUI is beneath the squad room’s attention and is handled by “uniforms.” The big crime typically involves the “syndicate,” or labor racketeering, or narcotics, or loan sharking, or extortion, or point shaving in the NBA, or following a fire apparatus too closely. In other words — anything that will cause Internal Affairs to stock extra Tums. The hideous irony is that the sub-plot being worked by the lowlife uniforms always provides the key to the final solution of the big crime.
  14. Before the hideous irony is revealed, the cops attempt to solve the crime through the use of procedures: wiretapping, cross-dressing, the chain of evidence, off track betting, MO’s, makes, police brutality, stool pigeons, disobeying one’s commanding officer, rap sheets, sirens, eating doughnuts, talking about the “perp,” marrying the Don’s sister, and driving a Ford Crown Victoria with radiator problems.
  15. The language of procedurals is impossible to understand if the reader has not graduated from a decent police academy. Often, numerals do the work of words, as in “86,” “Ten-Four,” “That’s a .357 Magnum,” “I’m calling from a pay phone outside a 7-11,” and “Unit 41 to dispatcher — we’re going on a 10-91A.” (I looked it up, and a 10-91A is a “noisy animal complaint.”)
  16. Finally, readers do not take these books seriously if the books appear to have been written by a woman. Therefore, women wishing to write procedurals adopt the practice of using their initials instead of their given names, especially if those initials are particularly masculine. (I can only think of one set of really masculine initials, and that’s Y.A.)

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who has read exactly two police procedurals in her life.

Not So Cocksure About the Legal Thriller

The legal thriller may well belong to the honored canon of mystery writing. On the other hand, it may belong in the Gardening Section. Nobody is really certain about the legal thriller, and the following definition should demonstrate why that is so.

  1. This type of book is invariably written by an attorney looking to earn some spending money. (See what I mean? Attorneys already have spending money.) Speed reading is essential to the consumption of these books, as, in addition to the $24.95 you lay out for the hardcover, you are billed $145.00 per hour as you read.
  2. Protagonists in legal thrillers come in two brands:
    • The squeaky clean, highly idealistic assistant D.A., who is trying the case out of sincere belief in seeing justice done.
    • The cynical, down-and-out shyster, who drinks too much, couldn’t care less about the Constitution, thinks the Supreme Court is a Motown group, but is suddenly stricken with remorse/greed/botulism and takes the case to relieve the condition.

    Question: Which of the two protagonists is more credible?

  3. The point of view in a legal thriller is quite fluid. What point of view would you like and how much are you willing to pay?
  4. The author of the legal thriller is never actually himself or herself. The author is always either “the next John Grisham” or “Scott Turow’s heir.”
  5. The jacket must include a blurb by John Grisham, or forget it.
  6. The critics, themselves troubled by this genre, say odd things like “intrinsically interesting,” “a complex novel about a painful, confusing topic,” and “So-and-so is improving as a writer.”
  7. These books are all 676 pages long.
  8. The cover art looks good even across an Olympic-size pool at any hotel in Cancun, Mexico. And, you can read the title at a distance of up to six miles.
  9. Very little courtroom activity is presented. The attorney/protagonist spends most of his time on airplanes, making calls from those neat phones on the seatbacks, or in the Cayman Islands laundering money, or in his office scouring for wiretaps or bugs.
  10. The plot must turn on some obscure legal precedent, such as The Baker/Jones Disclosure Act; The Antediluvian Loophole; The Itching Jury; or The Let’s Finish the Story by Having the Hero Simply Bolt for the Cayman Islands. That’s what happens when you wait for 675 pages before you stop worrying about your billable hours and start making sense.
  11. The bottom line is that everybody cheats, even the squeaky clean prosecutor who can’t make his case any other way. The only question about the cheating is “To what extent?”
  12. If the attorney/protagonist is the lawyer for the defense, he has no defense. This attorney might as well wear a T-shirt that says “The Express Checkout Lane is Open.”
  13. A lawyer writing a book makes about as much sense as an NFL player’s wife signing autographs.
  14. You can’t tell if what you are reading is a novel or a screenplay.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, whose attorney charged her $145.00 to advise her not to write this definition.

We Bill Separately, The Stockroom Managers

Like the signs of the Zodiac, the months of the year, the Apostles, inches per foot, the days of Christmas, the original tribes of Israel, and the number of players the Dallas Cowboys have on the field when they are penalized for an extra man, the number of obligatory stock characters in British mystery fiction is finite, being exactly twelve. While the origins of this sacred number are lost in the mists of antiquity, scholars believe that these stock characters may once have had mystical associations for pantheistic cultures and are hangovers from older, more savage forms of literature. Or maybe that’s just a bunch of hooey invented for a dissertation. You be the judge.

Yes, We Have That Item in Stock and Can Ship Today

  1. The Butler. He may be tall, cadaverous, and dour, with a prim attitude toward alcohol, or he may be chubby, friendly to a fault, and chatty, with liberal attitudes concerning the grape (he may even have passed out). But he may not be the guy who did it. If he knows anyting of significance about the murder, he’ll either zip his lip out of loyalty to The Family or he’ll gossip with the police, completely content for the first time in his employment.
  2. The Vicar. Same character options as the Butler. The only differences are that he doesn’t answer the door and he writes sermons. Plus, although this part is not obligatory, his vocabulary is usually not as good as the Butler’s.
  3. The Woman in Red. The color may manifest itself on a convertible, a dress, or the debit side of the ledger. She is irrelevant to the story, but not to the tradition.
  4. The Police Officer. He is so dimwitted, oblivious, or consumed by arrogance that, without the assistance of the amateur detective, he cannot see the murder weapon glued to the drain pipe, with a note that says, “Hey, somebody tell that copper this is a CLUE!”
  5. The Deceased’s Attorney. For years he’s been waiting to unload the will’s nasty little surprise, with a coiled spitefulness of unique purity.
  6. The Nervous Nephew. Being British, he’s never been really comfortable with the Fifth Amendment, and he goes around saying the most remarkably stupid and self-culpatory things. We wish he were the murderer; alas, he rarely is. But, we can always hope gets run over by a lorry.
  7. The Dithery Old Lady. She spouts a running commentary on the strange “goings on” at Smithfield Manor and how such behavior would not have been tolerated in her day (never specifying when that was exactly), and it turns out that when her garden of verbiage is weeded at the end of the story she’s the only one who spotted the uncouth mannerism that clearly labelled the killer, thus proving we should listen to our elders.
  8. The Rake. He slithers through the story, uttering poisonous and highly erudite insults while sipping cocktails and smoking expensive French cigarettes. He is always a red herring, for no court in England would hang a man who expresses himself better than Alexander Pope.
  9. The Siren. She speaks with an unidentifiable foreign accent and flirts with everyone in sight, including the Dithery Old Lady and excepting only the Butler and the Policeman. She turns out to be a thrice-divorced American social climber who could not possibly have done the murder because the deceased was not taken out with a semi-automatic gun the size of a cannon and purchased in the Bronx.
  10. The Sensible Englishwoman. She rides to hounds, can tell rye grass from timothy, and smells like a beagle. She’s fishy from the start because no seasoned reader likes completely healthful living, tweed, and dullness.
  11. The Male Secretary. He reeks of ruthless competence and is the younger son of an Irish Earl. He’s in love with the Sensible Englishwoman, so we suspect he’ll turn out to be the killer because it’s so obvious that the Rake will marry the Beagle, er, the Sensible Englishwoman, after he crushes her in his arms and tells her she’s just the sort of bitch he’s been looking for.
  12. The Awful Young Poet. He embarrasses everyone but the Siren by composing verses to her that include metaphors about lanterns and being lost at sea on her alabaster skin.

*These items are available by catalogue order only and are on sale until the end of this month. Send a cheque with your order to:

Dr. John Worthing
6 Lon Caron
Swansea SA2 OTW
Great Britain

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who’s inviting everyone over to her house to see the 3,000 color slides she took during her last visit to the British Isles, including a really good one of a Chinese laundry in London that was once the home of Daniel Defoe.

Part 2: You, Too, Can Be a Cold-Blooded Killer!

What To Do Until The Cops Arrive

Oftentimes, the most difficult part of a mystery, both for the suspects and for the author, is the nerve-racking and overly tactful lacuna between the discovery of the corpse and the arrival of the representatives of official detection. In sum, nobody knows what to do. Now, all that can be changed, by following the simple directions given below.

Etiquette for Murderers with Time on Their Hands

  1. Ditch your DNA.
  2. Faint (If this does not eliminate you as a suspect, at least you’ll get a much needed nap, particularly if the title of the book is Murder Most Tiring).
  3. Offer to comfort all the other suspects to the point where they begin to look at you as if the wrong person bought the farm.
  4. Surreptitiously set fire to the blackmail notes in your pocket. Lean indifferently against a Doric column to extinguish the blaze.
  5. Be really annoying and keep repeating that you don’t see why you have to hang around. Whine that you’re going to miss a dental appointment.
  6. Casually expose everyone to your second-hand smoke and your biting remarks on the dead person’s character and sexual habits, thus rendering yourself both the least likeable and the least likely suspect. Either that, or you’re just an idiot.
  7. Leave. The cops aren’t there yet, so what’s stopping you?
  8. Pretend you like the vicar.
  9. Offer to make tea, but don’t overcharge.
  10. Offer to make drinks so that, by the time the cops do arrive, all the suspects will be so sloshed that it won’t matter that three of them saw you stash the blunt instrument up the back of the vicar’s coat when you were buddying up to him.
  11. Start thinking of the wages of sin and about prison showers.
  12. Remove those surgical gloves, Stupid!

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who would choose option #7.

No-Nos At The Crime Scene, The Basics

Following our previous discussion of what to do before the police arrive to investigate a death, it would be well to consider the yang for this particular ying. Authors and suspects, after the discovery of the body, you must on no account do any of the following:

It’s Hard to Restrain Oneself, But Do Not . . .

  1. Say “I did it.”
  2. Say “I did it. Hey, that’s a joke, guys.”
  3. Fail to find an excuse to apply your fingerprints all over the murder weapon.
  4. Destroy evidence by upchucking on the corpse.
  5. Provide evidence by upchucking on the corpse if you have swallowed the murder weapon.
  6. Sing “If I had a Hammer” in the presence of death brought about through the agency of a blunt
  7. Take this opportunity to reveal that you have a valid hunting license.
  8. Mention that you are a professional hit artist for the local chapter of the Mafia.
  9. Neck with the corpse’s spouse.
  10. Admit that since you grew weary of Chanel No. 5, you’ve been wearing “Eau d’Arsenique.”

  11. Put a notch on your gunbelt.
  12. Er, break wind if you are in a locked room mystery.
  13. Cry and lose the power of speech. Nobody does that in a mystery novel — at least, not simultaneously.
  14. Start knitting the shroud, especially not with black yarn you just happen to have handy, as well as the correct size needles.
  15. Suddenly recall that you are the heir and scream “I’m rich! I’m rich!”
  16. Tidy the room.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, from an extremely tidy room.

Even Poisoners Have Bad Days

Victims get their fair share of sympathy. Murderers usually just get hisses and boos. But, murderers are human, too, and they have their ups and downs. It’s not easy to speak up on behalf of killers. Nevertheless, I’ve gathered up my courage to report on the following icky things.

Nasty Stuff A Poisoner Says When He Is Not Feeling Well

  1. “What do you mean you’re prescribing a little something for me?”
  2. “If I felt like swallowing that filthy medicine, I wouldn’t have been here complaining about a sore throat, now would I?”
  3. “You taste it first, and no funny stuff.”
  4. “Get away from me! I’ve got my own pharmacy.”
  5. “Would you like to borrow my beaker?”
  6. “Well, you can tell the warden I don’t like the color of this stuff, and I don’t care if he transfers me from the infirmary to solitary confinement — I’m not putting that in my mouth.”
  7. “Oh, no, that medication will not be particularly efficacious against the common cold. It will, however, stop a linebacker dead in his tracks.”
  8. “What do you think this is? The Olympic trials? Just hand over the codeine, the steroids, and the eye of newt, and I’ll be on my way.”
  9. “I wish I’d let the nurse fluff my pillows before I slipped her the strychnine. I’d ring for the butler, but I think I gave him the arsenic. Darn this flu bug, anyway — I just can’t think with such a headache. I can’t even remember if the gardener has been given the weed killer yet.”
  10. “125 dollars for an office visit?! Open your mouth and say ‘Ahhhh.'”

Submitted by Polly Whitney, with many thanks to Dr. Crippen for his cruel inspiration.

Where Were You When The Victim Got It?

Someday, your turn will come, and you will be a murder suspect. It happens to everyone in the course of a normal life. We understand. The following will act as a true public service should you ever find yourself in need of an alibi. Print this out and memorize it. Do not keep it on your person or consult it when the inevitable arrest occurs. That would look fishy

Unassailable Alibis

  1. You were at a party, surrounded by Arkansas State Troopers, asking them if they knew any girls.
  2. At the exact time of the murder, you called in to the Larry King Show.
  3. Unless the corpse met its Maker through the agency of being kicked through the uprights in Irving, Texas, both of your arms are broken. You just haven’t seen your doctor yet.
  4. You were reading the L.L. Bean catalogue and fell asleep in the windbreaker section.
  5. You were at Miami International Airport, waiting for your luggage to arrive on carousel #4.
  6. You were watching Monday Night Football and can tell the cops precisely when the Jets stupidly called a draw play on third and 17.
  7. “Take an X-ray, Pal. I haven’t got a mean bone in my body.”
  8. You’re Tonya Harding, and, while you knew something was going on and will be perfectly happy to finger your former husband and a few goons, you’re skating for Jesus Christ.
  9. “Are you kidding? With this much marijuana in my system, it’s all I can do to find the fritos.”
  10. You were busying murdering someone else.
  11. You were online in a chat room. You have thousands of virtual witnesses.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who is saving the best alibi for herself. I don’t want it to become old hat by the time I need it.

Hey! Get A Brand New Social Life, With Minimal Effort!

Dating has never been easy. Just look what happened to Adam and Eve. And Helen of Troy. And that woman who hangs out at David Letterman’s house. But dating gets even more difficult if you let yourself get rusty. Now is the time to dust off your smile, give your eyelashes some exercise, and have those new partners beating down your door. And tap into a pool where you won’t have much competition.

Advice About Getting Back into the Swim of Dating Killers

  1. If your date’s first name is Hannibal, wear armor.
  2. If your date has a reputation as a poisoner, suggest going ice-skating instead of the romantic little dinner he mentioned.
  3. If you must go out with a chain-saw artist, drain the fuel from the appliance before agreeing to a tango.
  4. If he’s sporting expensive leather gloves and driving a white Ford Bronco, wear a body mike and keep uttering his name. Ask him what his favorite football team is.
  5. If your date shows up brandishing his sword, be sure to ask him if he brought “protection.”
  6. Pass if his nickname is “the Ripper.” Stay home and wash your hair. Live a little.
  7. If your date likes to wear capes, has long teeth, and prefers Calvin Coffin Cologne, schedule your date for dawn.
  8. If you’re Jessica Fletcher and your date suggests a picnic, don’t forget to pack your hunch.
  9. If your date’s name is Hamlet, don’t hide behind an arras.
  10. If the Terminator asks you out, pack an 1800 liter tank of propane in your purse.
  11. If your idea of a fun date is swimming with a great white shark, bring enough chum for your friend. Show him that you care.
  12. If your name is Sherlock Holmes — while you’re disguising yourself as an elderly street sweeper, snort enough coke to kill a medium-sized linebacker. Bring your violin. But leave Watson at home.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, a romantic at heart who carries a semi-automatic pistol on her social outings, proving you can be romantic without being stupid.

Part 3: So You Want To Be A Writer? Or Are You Just Having A Bad Day?

In the Big Inning

I am still in the process of cleaning out my files and have come across the following piece, written early in my career but still a good reference tool for me.

Notes to Myself on How to Begin a Mystery Novel

  1. The doorbell rang.
  2. It was a dark night. Not too stormy.
  3. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was pay day.
  4. Before I entered the courtroom, thirteen years of twisted, abusive, tender love flashed before me like an emotional molotov cocktail, and I knew that, both for her sake and for mine, I could never put Tiffany Lammp on the witness stand.
  5. You had to be there.
  6. Hi. My name is Betsy Detective, and I have the sweetest little ole job in Franklin Mint, Tennessee.
  7. The doorbell rang again.
  8. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  9. Martha, the “tweenie,” was dusting the rich scarlet brocade curtains just before the members of the house party were awakened for chocolate when she happened to glance out the second story window and spotted the pyjama-clad body of Sir Charles, face down in the ornamental lake, floating softly as a caress of down feathers in the Thornburn Estate chicken coop.
  10. I always leave the phone off the hook when I’m not working on a case; makes potential clients think I’m busy and in demand.
  11. Last night I dreamt I was at Fire Island again.
  12. Will somebody get that #$%##@*& doorbell?

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who wishes there were twelve sides to a coin so she could simply flip one and decide how to begin her seventh book.

Are You Qualified? A Quiz.

I have been polishing my filing system and have come across an item stuffed inside my copy of Many Minds, Many Disasters. I pass this along to you, as I think it gives a large clue to what it means to be a mystery writer.

Have You Got What It Takes to Write a Mystery?

This is a multiple choice quiz. The scoring will be explained when you have finished the quiz. Do not read the explanation until after you have completed all questions on this quiz.

  1. Your knowledge of guns can best be described as
    a. rudimentary, but I’m willing to do anything I can to learn.
    b. superior: I have a marksmanship badge from the local shooting academy and can dismantle and reassemble an Uzi in three minutes, seven seconds.
    c. nonexistent: Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Did you ever hear Hercule Poirot say, “The little grey cells tell me that the murderer of the vicar was a Colt Gold Cup MK IV National Match (series 70)”?
  2. Your interest in writing mysteries arises from
    a. a sincere love for the genre
    b. a desire to get rich quick
    c. a masochistic streak as wide as Alaska, as deep as
    the Titanic’s grand ballroom, and as long as Willie Nelson’s charity deductions.
  3. Complete this sentence: A carnival is a good place to . . .
    a. enjoy the rides
    b. eat cotton candy
    c. hope for somebody to fall off the ferris wheel so you can time the process and measure the dispersal pattern of the victim
  4. In your opinion, the ideal vacation includes
    a. golfing
    b. swimming
    c. drinking yourself silly, getting thrown in jail for disorderly conduct, badmouthing the insensitivity of the local police force, and writing off the cost of the experience on your taxes as “research”
  5. Alien beings from an advanced civilization visit the Earth and you are the first human they encounter. They ask you to name the single most important problem facing humankind. You answer
    a. cancer
    b. the endangered environment
    c. royalty statements
  6. A chainsaw is
    a. a power tool that has made life easier
    b. a dangerous machine that should be used with caution
    c. fun
  7. What activity is more powerfully attractive to you than writing?
    a. Well, I guess only sex.
    b. Nothing matters more than writing. Writing is my life.
    c. It doesn’t have to be very attractive. I’ll do anything
    to avoid writing, including shredding and braiding my shoelaces.
  8. Did you
    a. read the part above that said the scoring of this quiz would be explained AFTER you complete it?
    b. obey the part that said not to read the scoring explanation until you have completed the quiz?
    c. you cheated, didn’t you?
  9. When it comes to dialogue, you would always
    a. Use erudite synonyms for “said.”
    b. Design most conversations to take place among at least seven characters.
    c. Rather hang yourself by your tongue from an oak tree.
  10. What, in your opinion, is the most reasonable explanation for the fact that the colonies won the American Revolutionary War?
    a. Paul Revere’s ride
    b. the introduction of guerilla warfare
    c. The Boston Tea Party was brilliant satire on English cozies.
  11. The hero of “Operation Just Cause” was
    a. George Bush, for ordering it
    b. The American Troops
    c. The Papal Nuncio’s guards, who removed all dangerous objects from the room where General Manuel Noriega holed up, so he wouldn’t harm himself — but it has occurred to you that Noriega could have clubbed himself to death with a chair.
  12. You consider a novel that includes a fool-proof murder method
    a. a great puzzle and a neat way to pass the time in an airport
    b. a vicarious thrill
    c. an instructional manual.

The Scoring Explained: This is like asking the clerk at Tiffany’s how much the sapphire and emerald-cut diamond necklace costs. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who can’t afford it.

Writer’s (Not Lawrence) Block

Something we must all confront from time to time is the ugly mug of Mr. Writer’s Block. Some laughable psychologists have suggested ways to overcome the horrors of this encounter, but they are full of beans.

The truth is, only time can mend the damage of meeting Mr. Block, but writers need not despair. What they need, while suffering the throes of a date with Mr. B., is a list of harmless activities to occupy themselves until Mr. Block goes away. Here are the best exercises for whiling away the tedium of the unwelcome guest’s visit.

Activities for the Blocked Writer

  1. Play solitaire on your computer until you start hoping for a low score because you’re so sick of all the cards working out in such neat little annoying stacks.
  2. Encourage one of your dogs to eat one of your other dogs.
  3. Pretend that you don’t have writer’s block, that you’re thinking.
  4. Pretend that you don’t have writer’s block, that what’s really going on is that you’re conducting research.
  5. Sit in your chair and make believe that your keyboard is a piano. Try to play “The Hallelujah Chorus” on the number keys.
  6. Take your computer in to the repair shop to be dusted and have the cat hair removed from the hard drive. This is good for about ten days of not having to make excuses.
  7. Get out all your old address books and phone every person listed in them, even if you don’t remember who they are or if they are your former mechanics and plumbers you still owe money to.
  8. Watch all those episodes of “Jeopardy” you taped. After a while, you’ll be getting the answers (phrased in the form of a question) before the contestant picks the category.
  9. Put Sesame Street Bandaids around each of your fingers and act like you’ve been working them to the bone and you deserve a rest.
  10. Soak your head in a bucket of red wine vinegar. Tell yourself that this is much more conservative than trepanning your skull.
  11. Read the dictionary to see if there are any words that look familiar.
  12. Get fitted for a bowling ball, even if you can’t stand the sport. This will keep your fingers occupied and explain to your conscience why you can’t even play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on your pretend piano.
  13. Put on thick gardening gloves and try to type the following sentence: “Well, no wonder my prose reads like it was typed by someone wearing thick gardening gloves.”
  14. Play with Super Glue. Self explanatory.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, who has suffered a visit from Mr. Block and believes in being prepared.

A Day In The Writing Life — It’s Work, Folks

Almost anyone can write a mystery novel. The problem is, even with all the advice manuals on the shelves of bookstores, nobody tells you how to live your life after you’ve made the decision to be a mystery novelist. It’s one thing to read about characterization and plotting and all that peripheral stuff. It’s quite another to read what writers actually do with their time.

Because I’m a mystery writer, I don’t have time to write a manual for new authors on how to live their lives, but I will, as a service, provide a short list here in the hope of providing quick spiritual guidance. You’ll see why I don’t have time for extra writing as you make your way through the following . . .

How to Stay Active While Bound by Duct Tape to a Chair That Is Chained to a Desk and Wired to Emit 50,000 Volts of Especially Nasty Electricity If You Try To Escape

  1. Stare at the ceiling and wonder if Svengali really ate bacon with chocolate cake.
  2. Call your agent and ask what the weather’s like in New York. He’ll appreciate hearing from you.
  3. Flop around like an eel on a fiberglas boat if a family member turns on the TV or asks you what’s for dinner.
  4. If you’re John Grisham, type the following sentence, but don’t revise it. “The law firm of Kravitz, Englander, MacIntyre, and Butch had almost 500 lawyers coexisting under the same roof in Memphis, 491 to be exact, and they had all been recruited as bright third-year students with high marks in kangaroo trials, but even with offices in eight cities, the firm billed only third in Memphis because, much to the chagrin of the older partners, the letterhead did not have a single Paris address, and although there was a nice small unit for personal injury work, good stuff from which they took 75 percent and allowed their clients the remainder, all the really big clients took their business elsewhere when they saw the detailed map of the Cayman Islands on the wall of the reception room in the old building on the river.” (See The Legal Thriller).
  5. Turn down the volume on your computer and surf the Web.
  6. Do everything in units of ten. Promise yourself ten times that you will write ten pages. In about ten minutes, tell yourself that you will definitely write about ten paragraphs. Well, okay, write the ten words you like best. If you can’t think of ten, recite the alphabet out loud and choose ten letters that sound cool.

    Or see if there are ten different ways to spell the letter “Q.” There are! Cue, queue, kew, c’you, chue, kyoo, The 17th letter of the English Alphabet, Q.(abbr.), the first part of the phrase that ends with “and A.”, a typo for “clue.”

  7. Nap.
  8. Study the advantages of using a pseudonym.
  9. Imagine what it would be like to have a postage stamp with your face on it.
  10. Switch the words around in your title, assuming you’ve gotten that far in the novel.
  11. When you need a respite from the grueling labor already described above, write a long dedication. See if you can get it to rhyme.
  12. When you finish the dedication, write an exercise paragraph in which you kill your own protagonist, just to see if that does anything to relieve the itching caused by the duct tape.
  13. Starve.
  14. Which reminds you that you have already spent the publisher’s advance on lottery tickets. Write the book.

Submitted by Polly Whitney, insert the date yourself. Use this moment as a creative exercise — figure out what the date would be on Mars.

Part 4: Everyone Gets in on the Act, Because Murder is Fun!

From The Desk Of A Vacationing Critic

As a person who writes mystery novels, I am naturally curious about how the critics operate. As a writer of mystery novels, I also know how to find out a bunch of stuff. One night I sneaked into the editorial offices of a major metropolitan newspaper — and, imagine my surprise at what I discovered! It was on the editor’s desk, and I snatched it. I here reproduce my little find in full, just so you can see things from the inside, as I have done:

Dear Alex:

As you know, that time of year has arrived when I pack my snorkel and sunblock and head out of the newsroom. While I am away, please use the following form for my book reviews. All you have to do is fill in the blanks and circle your decisions in the multiple choice areas. Don’t worry. Your decisions are not vital. One mystery is much the same as another. I’ll see you in about a month. And, Alex, this time, when I return, lay off the Noxema jokes, okay?


P.S.: Make sure you get my byline right on the reviews. What you did last year wasn’t funny.

Mystery Novel Review Form

_______________, the (second, last, newest, worst) entry in the _______________ series written by _______________, made me

a. think
b. remember my wife’s birthday
c. sweat bullets
d. mad.

The plot of _______________ is tremendously

a. complex
b. overwrought

c. thin
d. senseless

and the characters have

a. continued to develop
b. become wearisome
c. grown mustaches
d. not aged
e. taken to cross dressing and bridge.

While I have no automatic

a. beef with
b. preference for
c. bias of any kind against
d. first-hand knowledge of

death, I found I was able to

a. relate to
b. ignore
c. marvel at
d. vomit during

the graphic scenes depicting

a. the excruciating serial laptop cuisinart murders
b. the final agonizing tea party
c. the ultimate bloodbath arranged by the mustachioed sleuths
d. the innocent victims hung like so many used party dresses in the closet.

The core of this new mystery, which

a. includes commentary on six serious social problems
b. pretends social problems do not exist
c. is a social problem
d. talks too much about feminine hygiene,

is a

a. bold stroke
b. tiresome tic
c. spectral echo of the time when authors were paid by the word
d. thrill-a-minute for even the most jaded reader.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be to say that

a. Mars has entered Neptune’s orbit
b. I have lost my mind
c. I have grossly understated my belief in this author’s scope and vision
d. I enjoy sleeping with asps.

Be sure to

a. avoid this book like Sylvester Stallone’s Hamlet
b. wait for the paperback
c. get in the long line that will be forming at your local superstore
d. read this one while sober.

Your summer will not be

a. complete
b. disgusting
c. really trendy
d. of ’42

if you do not buy this mystery novel. I expect to see it

a. nominated for an Edgar Award
b. get under your skin like a tattoo artist on jet fumes
c. on the bestseller list
d. fade out of decent memory like a poodle crossing 57th Street at Sixth Avenue, against the light.

The author has simply

a. lost her touch
b. exceeded my wildest hopes
c. been buying her research by the pound
d. set her computer on automatic pilot and taken off for parts unknown.

I give it

a. four stars
b. three stars
c. two stars
d. a snowball’s chance in hell.

Harry Whinealot

Submitted by Polly Whitney, a pretty good detective when something big is at stake.

Letter to the Editor from Boiling Mad

I’ve discovered some shortcuts for the mystery writer that have saved me valuable time,
time I can spend on useful activities like pulling out my hair and gargling with ammonia. Sometimes \
the mystery writer may feel obligated to complain about certain reviews but really doesn’t have the time, what with self-torture being so all-embracing.

As we all know, time is money, and I hope that I will have saved you a few quarters with the following. Just circle the appropriate letters in the multiple choice areas, insert into envelope (you’ll have to do the addressing part yourself — I’m busy!), and affix stamp. Presto: instant author ire.

Oh, The Injustice of It All

Dear editor:

While I am not the sort of person who normally writes letters to the editor, I must inform you that your reviewer

a. is dead wrong about
b. didn’t understand
c. didn’t read
d. never received

my book. Where does he get off saying

a. “She writes like her hands were stapled to an enraged bull.”
b. “She writes like she never completed third grade.”
c. “She writes like a 747 landing on boulders.”
d. “She writes just like Herman Melville, only without the whale.”

It simply isn’t true, as your reviewer suggested, that

a. I “learned creative writing from SurePass University or by correspondence courses mailed to the author from a post office box number.”
b. I “wouldn’t know a character from a sewing machine.”
c. My “material has been around since the Upper Paleolithic Era.”
d. “A box score has more originality and pathos than this author’s plots.”

And, it is particularly outrageous for your reviewer to indicate that

a. “There’s some bad DNA somewhere on this author’s family tree.”
b. “Bulwer Lytton once wrote a book just like this one, but, by God, he threw it out.”
c. “The author should have taken a machete to the galleys.
d. “The author better hope for a great many appearances on talk shows, because she sure can’t write.”

The lowest blow, however, and what proves the utter lack of professionalism by your so-called reviewer, was his statement

a. “I didn’t get past page two, but it only takes one sniff to tell when the milk is spoiled.”
b. “I read parts of this book aloud to some friends, and they all thought it was written by an ostrich on LSD.”
c. “Even the quality of this book’s binding is rotten: the darts I threw at it penetrated the thick prose and then fell limply to the floor in my office.”
d. “There’s going to be a lot of landfills pushed past capacity by this trash.”

Finally, I have consulted my attorney, and she feels that your reviewer went far beyond the license permitted to critics and it is actionable that he wrote:

a. “I returned part of my salary because you couldn’t pay me to finish this book.”
b. “I tried to burn my copy, but the writing style is so damp and slimy that I couldn’t ignite the mess.”
c. “Thank God this book will die a natural death by virtue of its own diseased and tormented sentences, and nobody will ever read it. And I’m speculating, as well, about the author’s health.”
d. “My dog wrote a better novel on the fire hydrant across the street.”

To suggest that I was switched at birth with the offspring of an oppossum is the last straw, and convinces me that your reviewer is in serious need of medical attention. You’ll be hearing from my attorney.

Boiling Mad,

_____________ (Fill in your name.)

Submitted by Polly Whitney, gargling with my hair and pulling ammonia out of my head in clumps.

Sins Of The Reader

I have my own little quirks, and I wonder if others are guilty of the same sins I have been known to commit with mystery novels and mystery novelists. Search your consciences. Do you indulge in any of the following?

Spoiling the Experience

  1. Lend a mystery novel to a friend. Lie about whodunit and the fact that the book is lousy.
  2. Lend a good mystery novel to a friend. Casually mention the one thing that will give away the plot.
  3. Borrow a mystery novel from a friend. Lend it to a neighbor who still has the dual control electric blanket she borrowed from you in 1987, and she hasn’t washed it.
  4. At any resort hotel, steal a mystery novel from a lounge chair while the owner is away getting a pina colada. Hide the book in a potted palm.
  5. S

  6. In the usually secluded mystery section of Waldenbooks, while no one is looking, rip out the last page of all the Agatha Christie novels.
  7. With a laundry marker, cross out the author’s name on all Sue Grafton books available at Barnes & Noble. Write in “Mr. Rogers.”
  8. With any mystery novel, skip to the end and see if you like the solution before wasting your time with all that character and setting and plot stuff.
  9. Read John Grisham.
  10. Develop and loudly proclaim a philosophy that any mystery novel containing more than 196 pages is “padded.”
  11. At a mystery convention, offer to buy drinks for every author in the bar. Be sure to wear a disguise and slip out the side entrance before you get the bill.
  12. Smoke at author signings. Try to puff as close to the author’s hair as possible. If you determine in advance that the author is herself a smoker and can’t light up in a bookstore, offer her a drag.
  13. Hack into the New York Times database and fool around with the bestseller list. That’s what James Waller did, and look at all the fun he’s had at our expense with The Bridges of Madison County.
  14. Go to a mystery convention, and, during remarks by Patricia Cornwell, pretend you’re dead. See if she can figure out what killed you.
  15. Tell your favorite mystery authors that you really admire the way Anne Rice does signings, because she has plenty of imagination and arrives at the store dressed as Elvira and in a horse-drawn hearse.
  16. On jury duty, bring and display prominently a copy of K is for Killer. Use a stopwatch to time how long you last in the jury pool.

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