Legal Eagles: Attorneys Writing Fiction (3)

Today on Legal Eagles, I’m featuring a crime author who also happens to be a fellow alumnus from the University of Colorado, School of Law. Manuel Ramos. I had the pleasure of speaking with Manuel recently at the Mysterious Bookshop, at an event to meet and greet the new board members of the Mystery Writers of America. Click here for a blog piece Manuel wrote about his new status on the national board.

As Manuel makes clear in his blog post, he is one of very few published Latino authors of crime fiction. I would venture to guess that he is also one of the few Latino crime writers with the distinction of having a highly successful law career, which included years of award-winning public service for Colorado Legal Services. He is now retired from the law.

At the Mysterious Bookshop, I picked up a copy of his latest novel, My Bad. I’m glad I did.

My Bad, by Manuel Ramos (Arte Publico Press)

My Bad, by Manuel Ramos (Arte Publico Press)

Many reviewers have written of Manuel’s talent for spare and vivid prose, bringing to life Denver’s Chicano culture and changing neighborhoods. I would add to these accolades that his legal background makes a significant contribution to his work. Those of you who’ve read the Dana Hargrove legal thrillers know of my interest in exploring the ethical dilemmas facing attorneys in the field of criminal law. Manuel enhances his work with plenty of them. How’s this one for a doozy? An ex-con employee of a criminal defense lawyer, tailing a client to investigate a civil lawsuit, unwittingly finds himself at the scene of a murder that implicates the client. Should the attorney report it or keep it quiet? What an impossible tug of competing loyalties! A dilemma of choice among the ethical duties owed in multiple capacities: as lawyer, friend, employer, and citizen. I love this stuff!

Subtitled “A Mile High Noir” in a nod to the mile-high Rocky Mountain city, My Bad is just as much a story of the relationship between attorney Luis Móntez and ex-con Gus Corral, as it is a plot-driven crime drama. Gus is adjusting to life on the outside after serving an unspecified number of years in prison for unspecified crimes. Under the watchful eye of his parole officer, Gus is perpetually on edge, second-guessing every step he makes for possible repercussions to his parole status. The legal mess that landed Gus in prison is the subject of a previous novel. Click here to watch a very cool video about the first Gus Corral novel, DesperadoI haven’t read Desperado, but am now driven to read it, to find out more about Gus. Like my Dana Hargrove novels, Manuel’s books are standalone and can be picked up in any order.

My Bad gives a real sense of place and community in its descriptions of city streets and buildings, Mexican food, family gatherings, social events, and references to music, mostly rhythm and blues. The author also sprinkles in a good number of phrases and words in Spanish. Porque lo entiendo un poquito this was not a problem for me, nor would it pose an obstacle for readers who don’t understand the language. The meaning is clear (or close enough to clear) from context, and you’ll enjoy the flavor that the dialog gives to scene and exposition.

In fiction, I appreciate creativity with language, mood, and scene, and you’ll get a lot of that here. The language is terse and, in some places, tough, but not so very tough. I’m a fan of suggestion, innuendo, clever twists, and leaving a lot to the intelligence of the reader—not a fan of graphic violence, blood and guts, or gratuitous cursing. This novel falls in place with these tastes. The characters are human, flawed, a mix of good and bad, their personal challenges relatable. For example, there’s a good deal of angst expressed by Luis Móntez as he prepares to wind down his law practice and retire, reflecting on his professional and personal life, attempting to come to terms. Does this sound familiar to me? Perhaps so. I won’t go into detail.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading more. Check out Manuel’s website for descriptions of all his works.

Legal Eagles: Attorneys Writing Fiction (2)

Re-blogging here an entry from the Kirkus blog by editor Myra Forsberg, entitled “Legal Eagles”!

“Through the ages, the works of playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers, from Shakespeare to Steven Spielberg, have gleefully skewered lawyers. In Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the first movie in the popular franchise, a discerning dinosaur chomps on a particularly sleazy attorney, delighting fans worldwide. But depictions of heroic lawyers also remain plentiful, particularly on TV, in classic series (Perry Mason) and more recent fare (The Good Wife).

Forsaken Oath“Kirkus recently reviewed three legal thrillers that focus on resourceful attorneys pursuing justice. In V.S. Kemanis’ Forsaken Oath, Manhattan prosecutor Dana Hargrove finds herself embroiled in three cases, including the murder of a fashion designer. In this page-turner, she must uncover the truth and save her career. “The author manages to compellingly depict many distinct areas of the justice system, from the cops on the street to the lawyers on both sides of the courtroom,” our reviewer writes. Jerri Blair’s Black and White, set in 1979,follows Florida public defender J.T. Lockman, who takes the case of an African-American accused of murdering a white car dealer. J.T. believes a Ku Klux Klansman committed the crime but must gather the evidence to prove it. Our critic calls the novel an “energetic tale that’s rife with drama and mystery.” A sinister figure kidnaps teenage girls in Brian Clary’s Amicus Curiae: the daughter of Texas attorney Michelle “Mickey” Grant disappears and the police soon arrest Willie Lee Flynn for one abductee’s murder. Although he’s convicted, Mickey harbors doubts and files an amicus curiae brief, seeking to retry Flynn and discover her daughter’s whereabouts. Our reviewer says, “Fans of crime dramas will find Clary’s suspenseful yarn a welcome addition to the genre.”


Stay tuned for the third installment of Legal Eagles! I’m currently reading a great legal thriller by attorney Manuel Ramos, soon to be reviewed.

Love and Crime, Stories

I’m pleased to announce that my new story collection will be released May 1, 2017!

Here’s the blurb:

Lovl & c renderes big and small… Crimes forgiven or avenged…

These are the themes that drive the eleven diverse stories in this new collection of psychological suspense from storyteller V.S. Kemanis.

Meet the husband and wife team Rosemary and Reuben, master chefs known to sprinkle a dash of magic into every dish.

Lucille Steadman, a dazed retiree who can’t explain why she’s left her husband, only to discover, too late, the meaning of love and commitment in the most surprising place.

Franklin DeWitt, an esteemed ballet critic who witnesses—or abets?—a bizarre criminal plot to topple a beautiful Soviet ballerina.

Rosalyn Bleinstorter, a washed-up defense attorney whose stubborn belief in her own street savvy leads her unwittingly into a romantic and criminal association with an underworld figure.

These are just a few of the colorful characters you’ll get to know in these pages, where all is fair in love and crime.

While the endings to these tales are not always sweet or predictable, and self-deception is rarely rewarded, the lessons come down hard and are well learned.


This collection includes stories originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Lynx Eye, The William and Mary Review, and Iconoclast.

Stay tuned for more news on Love and Crime!


Highlights: 2016

Dear readers, writers, editors, bloggers, friends, and dancers:

As the year comes to a close, regardless of what may have challenged, frustrated, or saddened us, we can be thankful for these enduring gifts we all share: imagination and creativity. The creation and enjoyment of art in any form enlightens and delights us, sustains and enriches us. I am blessed to have had another fulfilling year in my two favorite art forms, fiction and dance.

The highlights include the publication of my new Dana Hargrove novel, Forsaken Oath, and interviews about my work with bloggers Jeff Kivela of Buttonholed Books, Marika from Mystery Sequels, and mystery writer/playwright Nina Mansfield.VSKPaperbacks - Copy


My story “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt” (combining my love of dance and mystery!), was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, …Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt Aug 2016

and a story on the lighter side, “Ballet, Law, and Mystery,” was posted on EQMM’s blog Something is Going to Happen.


There were many interesting and enlightening events with my fellow mystery writers. To name a few:  The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 75th Anniversary Symposium, and MWA-NY’s Holiday Revels with Reed Farrel Coleman

I danced injury-free all year and enjoyed many wonderful classes with my favorite teachers at Gibney Dance, including (especially!) Diane’s four hour holiday class! dianes-class-12-22-16In 2017, I look forward to completing another short fiction collection and the fourth Dana Hargrove novel!

I wish everyone a healthy, happy 2017, with many creative, inspiring moments.


Ten Minutes with Reed Farrel Coleman

Last year at this time, I posted My Ten Minutes With Lee Child, so I’m just going to have to follow up and make this a tradition!  This year’s Guest of Honor at the Mystery Writers of America Holiday Revels was bestselling author Reed Farrel Coleman.

I’ve deleted “My” from this year’s title since the “my” part of it may have been more like five minutes—I’m grabbing an extra five from the short and sweet speech he gave to the packed room at the Salmagundi Club after MWA-NY chapter president Laura K. Curtis introduced him as our Honorary Santa.

Mr. Coleman is so personable and approachable that, okay, I’m just going to start calling him Reed.  Is that okay, Reed?  I want to be on a first name basis with you, a man known as the “hard-boiled poet” and “noir poet laureate.”  His accomplishments are many and impressive. At the podium, Laura went through the list.  When she got to his three Edgar Award nominations—Best Novel, Best Paperback Original, Best Short Story—Reed was making the shape of an “L” with thumb and index finger on his forehead, a little smile on his lips, setting off ripples of laughter through the audience.  Here is a photo from his website:

I have to say this: Reed looks better in real life.  How many of us can say that we look better than our author photos in real life?

After the three “Losers,” Laura mentioned the winners, and there are many of them: he’s a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year, and has received Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards.  His novel, Where It Hurts, is on NPR’s list of Best Books of 2016 in the Mystery and Thriller category!  I can say it’s now at the top of my to-read list.

Reed is a longtime member of MWA and former executive vice president.  Have I said how happy I am to be a member of this organization?  Such talented, interesting writers at every meeting, new friendships forged.  Reed’s five-minute speech was peppered with one-liners, a few of them about MWA.  On being chosen the Honorary Santa: “I couldn’t be more honored… yes I could—buy the books!” and “Lee Child was too tall and has too much hair so they had to get me this year!”  On his stint as executive vice president: “I was forced to join MWA, and then they made me king or something.” (He advised us to head for the hills if ever asked to fill that position.)

Later, of course, I was itching to go up to him and introduce myself.  I had to wait until the crowds of friends and fans dispersed.  I told him how much I enjoyed his speech and his writing.  “Do you write a book a year?” I asked.


“Is that stressful?”

“Is it ever.  200,000 words a year!”  He laughed and rolled his eyes heavenward.

(To myself: the stress of being under contract as a bestselling author? Maybe I’d trade in my current stress as a lawyer for some of that.)

“Well,” I said, “if the writing ever stops being fun, you could be a comedian. Have you ever thought of that?”

“I’m related to Henny Youngman, you know. ‘Take my wife … please!’”

No wonder!  It runs in the family.

Reed was born in Brooklyn and lives on Long Island.  I told him where I work in Brooklyn, and he related that he had a job in the same neighborhood years ago.  We spoke of ideas for characters, and writing what we know.  Before becoming a full time writer, Reed had several jobs, including driving a cab, and he draws on these experiences for the characters and locations in his novels.  Many of his characters are everyday people from neighborhoods on Long Island—not the well-known areas where the rich people and tourists flock.where-it-hurts

It was a pleasure meeting you, Reed!

Now, go out and buy his books!

The Long and the Short of It: Writing Style and Reading Experience

We Were the Mulvaneys and TransAtlantic: Book reviews

Years ago, an editor of a major lit mag sent me a “nice” rejection note, extolling the beauty of my story before delivering the kicker: “Your sentences are too long.” I spent the day grumbling about the unfairness of coming “this” close to getting in (sliver of air between thumb and index finger), and then I got to work on the sentences. Months later, when I read the story again, I discovered the improvement. The editor was right. The story I speak of is “Tidal Waters,” which appears in my collection Dust of the Universe.

The obvious lesson here for any writer is to accept criticism, act on good advice, and strive for improvement. The second lesson is to pay attention to sentence length. (As a side benefit, this happens to be a truly fun topic for any language and grammar geek!)

Paragraph-length sentences are commonplace in the flowery prose of 19th century novels (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) We wouldn’t want to change a word of Dickens or the Brontës. But for contemporary fiction, which do you prefer: a sentence of 210 words or a three-word fragment? You’ll find plenty of the former in We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, and an abundance of the latter in TransAtlantic by Colum McCann.

mulvaneysIn The Mulvaneys, near the end, a 210-word sentence describes a family softball game, with vivid depictions of five characters, the pitcher, batter, umpire, first baseman and third baseman. I’d venture to guess that the novel contains hundreds of sentences this length or longer, jamming the many page-length paragraphs that rush headlong toward elusive end points. I didn’t stop to count the words. I was too busy reading, too enthralled. After closing the last page and drying my tears, I took a moment to mourn my personal loss of the Mulvaneys, as my real-life living room slowly came into focus—a world without them. After getting through all of that, I remembered the sentence about the softball game, went back, and counted the words.

Perhaps you know the Mulvaneys. They comprise that large, noisy clan inhabiting a farmhouse on several acres in upstate New York. The decade is the seventies. They lead exemplary lives, a father and mother, three boys and a girl. The parents are demonstrably in love to the point of embarrassing their kids, every one exceptional: a high school star athlete, a sweet and popular cheerleader, a class valedictorian, and the youngest, an observer of life who grows up to become a newspaperman. Horses, sheep, chickens, cats, dogs, parrots, rabbits, and deer keep the Mulvaneys company up there on the “farm,” although they don’t seem to be doing much farming. The father runs a roofing business and the mother buys and sells antiques. Daily life includes cooperative work rosters, family dinners, a tumultuous togetherness, Christian values. The manic wonderfulness of this life primes us for the hinted-at fall from grace. It’s coming. The catalyst is an unspeakable crime. An act of mere minutes defines a life. One Mulvaney falls, then another. Impotence, futility, revenge. A slow unraveling. Separation. Everyone ruined. Finally, the denouement. A small redemption.

You’ve noticed that, in the paragraph just concluded, I slipped into short, compact sentences and fragments. More on that when we come to TransAtlantic. For now, let’s return to The Mulvaneys.

I don’t mean to say that every sentence in this book is long. That familiar bit of advice for writers—to vary your sentence length—is properly on display. But the writing is extremely busy, complex, and chock-full of detail. For example, we’re treated to an itemization of the myriad objects that accumulate on the edges of the staircase in the Mulvaney home, from thumbtacks and stray gloves to a necktie stained with spaghetti sauce and two blue ribbons from 4-H projects. Some readers, judging by their reviews, are not fans of this kind of detail. Why do we need to know every single nickname for each family member, dog, cat, and horse?

Certainly, Oates is known for her prolixity, but is that a good or a bad thing when it comes to The Mulvaneys? Completely good, I say. I loved this book with its messy writing, the emotional intensity, and urgent tone. Every rule of “good” writing is broken. Besides the run-on sentences, you’ll find overuse of italics and exclamation points and dashes and parentheticals, abrupt changes in point of view from first person narrator to third person omniscient observer, and most delightful of all, abundant non sequiturs. (Are these thoughts, and if so, who is thinking them?) Taking a hatchet to this in the name of good grammar would have stripped the novel of its emotional impact. The very busyness of the writing imparts the chaotic flavor of this household, bringing the reader straight into its heart. Having grown up in a boisterous household within a family larger than the Mulvaneys, I felt right at home. The novel also explores a few of my favorite themes in psychological fiction. Self-deception, and the inability to understand how one’s behavior affects another. The ways in which lives are forever changed by a single, fleeting interaction.

[Note to those of you who’ve read this novel: Didn’t you love the firefly story and Corinne’s implied admission about it at the end?]

transatlanticOn to TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. The construct of this novel is unique. McCann takes three fact-based story lines about men in history who’ve made transatlantic crossings and links their stories—albeit tenuously—with the personal stories of women who’ve played tangential roles in these events. The first part of the book takes history out of order: 1919, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean by aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, Newfoundland to Ireland. (This was my favorite, but unfortunately, the shortest, at 31 pages.) 1845, freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, on a lecture tour for his autobiography in Ireland. 1998, Senator George Mitchell brokering peace talks in Northern Ireland. The women and their families, spanning five generations, provide the thread linking these events. The second part of the book takes these generations in chronological order, in four sections dated 1863-1889, 1929, 1978, and 2011.

This is a lot of territory to cover in a novel of 300 pages, and the thread takes some effort to follow. We meet the progenitor in the second chapter, Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass. Lily’s daughter and granddaughter, Emily, a writer, and Lottie, appear in the first chapter about Alcock and Brown. Lottie, as an old woman, and her daughter Hannah make a brief appearance in the chapter about Senator Mitchell. The second part of the book expands on the lives of the women, weaving in brief references to the historical figures and their influence.

The writing is full of short sentences and fragments. At times, it was like reading a telegram. Take this paragraph, for example: “News comes later in the morning. A murder in Derry. A member of the paramilitaries. The statements are out. The press releases. The men of violence. Pointless retaliation. Trevor Deeney. Sitting in a car beside his wife. Shot point-blank. For what reason? Is there ever a reason? There will be retaliation. Already promised.” After this, seven more short sentences finish up this paragraph!

For me, the whiplash from constant starting and stopping detracted from the theme of continuation and linkage. The characters are not fully rendered, and I wanted to know them better. On the plus side, the writing is full of beautiful and startling images, unique metaphors, and unlikely juxtapositions of words. The craft and talent in this are awe-inspiring for any writer. “The Great War had concussed the world.”  “Europe was a crucible of bones.” “The sky lifts the hem of Belfast.” “The damp white loaf of his body shuddered.” “The old hieroglyphics of violence” (referring to a scorch mark under a new square of wallpaper).

To contrast: How did the two writing styles affect my enjoyment of the novels? The difference was this. In The Mulvaneys, the writing does not care about itself and simply carried me along. In TransAtlantic, the writing acquired a self-importance and became the prominent feature, drawing me away from the story.

I close with this, a thank you to Colum McCann for an apt metaphoric description of a writer’s labor, taken from the viewpoint of his character Emily: “The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.”

Reflections on the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

On a dismal, drizzly afternoon in Manhattan, an array of editors, authors, artists, and crime fiction aficionados jammed a large meeting room at the Butler Library to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Appropriate to the occasion were several surprise visits from beyond the grave (an eerie, other-worldly screeching from the HVAC system), and a chilling reading by Joyce Carol Oates from her story “Big Momma,” a creepy tale from The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.  Shivers!

In a publishing environment where magazines and journals of short fiction easily come and go, EQMM can be proud of its longevity. The secret (or mystery) of this success was one of the topics explored during the afternoon of panel discussions by notable authors and editors.  Some shared fascinating personal experiences about working with the founders of the magazine, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who collaborated as Ellery Queen. The distinguished panelists included Otto Penzler (proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop and founder of The Mysterious Press), Sarah Weinman (author, editor, and expert on women crime fiction writers), Jeffrey Marks (biographer of Anthony Boucher, at work on a biography of Dannay and Lee), Russell Atwood (ftomrobertsormer managing editor of EQMM), and award-winning authors Jonathan Santlofer, Joseph Goodrich, Josh Pachter, and Charles Ardai.

Especially fun was the slide show of several EQMM covers from different eras of the magazine, along with interior black-and-white illustrations of the stories. Janet Salter Rosenberg, the daughter of cover designer George Salter, gave insight into her father’s creations. Artists Laurie Harden and Tom Roberts discussed their respective works and their appreciation of the artistic freedom EQMM affords them in bringing their visions of the stories to life. Here is an evocative cover by Roberts from the July 2011 issue. The cover for the very first issue, and a clever story about it by Arthur Vidro, can be found on the EQMM blog, Something is Going to Happen, posted on August 31.

The symposium was capped by our trip up to the sixth floor, enticed by the promise of a glass of wine and (the real inducement) an exhibit of EQMM artifacts displayed in a small alcove of the rare book and manuscript library. Of particular interest to me were the yellowing pages of manuscripts, typed out on an old Remington or some such, with Dannay’s edits marked in pencil. Those of you who know of my life as an editor will guess at my delight in seeing Dannay’s flourishes and variances of the universal copyediting symbols and his spot-on word choices!  The exhibit is on display through December 23.

Why has EQMM endured?  The panelists and current editor Janet Hutchings agreed on a few key ingredients: a commitment to quality and a wide variety of stories of different styles within the mystery genre.  Wait a minute:  I’m going to ban that word “genre”!  It’s thrown around far too often and stirs up preconceptions that limit a reader’s horizons.  As an author who resists a pigeonhole for her own work, I would do the same for EQMM, unless you take the most expansive view of the term “mystery” as an essential element of compelling writing.  As stated on EQMM’s website, when founders Dannay and Lee were “deciding how to orieeqmmallnationsnt their new magazine, there could not have been any question that its outlook would be global. Both men had cosmopolitan tastes and a knowledge of world literature. It has become part of EQMM lore that Dannay, who soon took over the editing of the magazine, aimed to prove, in its pages, that every great writer in history had written at least one story that could be considered a mystery.”

Jeffrey Marks notes in his essay in the September/October issue that EQMM has published such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, and E.M. Forster, as well as several Pulitzer winners.  This year, in the May issue, we were treated to a reprint of Borges’ iconic story exploring alternate realities, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was originally published in EQMM in 1948.

Another masterpiece, Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” is reprinted in the current issue. Beyond these prize reprints, the range of writing that appears monthly in EQMM’s pages includes something for everyone, whether light or dark, police procedural or private eye, cozy or locked room. My taste runs to stories of psychological suspense and intellectual challenge, and I can always find them here. Janet Hutchings has maintained Dannay and Lee’s expansive vision for the magazine and the tradition of high quality. I’m grateful that my own writing, which bears absolutely no resemblance to Agatha Christie’s, has been printed in two issues of EQMM eqmm_sept-oct2013and its e-book anthology, The Crooked Road Volume 3.  I’m also fortunate to have been welcomed into this community of amazing authors. As one of the panelists noted, mystery and crime writers are a really nice bunch of people because we’ve transferred every bit of aggression and nastiness to our fictional characters!

*     *     *

Slightly off-topic, on the subject of anniversaries, I note here that October 26 marks a milestone for me.  A year ago, the print editions of my first two novels, Thursday’s List and Homicide Chart, were released.  To help celebrate, I’m running giveaways for signed copies of the two novels on Goodreads.  Be sure to enter for a chance to win!

New Short Story!

Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt Aug 2016

I’m proud to be a contributor to the August 2016 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This is an important year for EQMM, celebrating 75 years as the preeminent mystery magazine. In this ever-changing world of publishing, EQMM’s longevity is a significant accomplishment, undoubtedly due to the quality of the magazine and the enduring appeal of mystery fiction.

The mystery field covers many genres, including cozy, police procedural, noir, historical, legal thriller, hard boiled, locked room, psychological, and private eye, to name a few. Every issue of EQMM includes a wide range of writing styles and genres, so there’s always something in the magazine to interest virtually every taste.

Here is the description of my story on EQMM’s website: “Enter the world of Cold War era professional ballet dancing in V.S. Kemanis’s moving classical whodunit Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt.” You will also find suspenseful stories in this issue by authors Joseph Goodrich, William Burton McCormick, Scott Mackay, Dave Zeltserman, Jonathan Moore, and others.

This issue is also dedicated to EQMM’s past editors Eleanor Regis Sullivan and Frederic Dannay (who was half of the Ellery Queen writing team with his cousin Manfred B. Lee). The articles about these editors give fascinating anecdotes and insights into the history of the magazine.

All in all, a great issue. Pick up a copy and enjoy!

Thrilling Thriller News!


Exciting!  My third and latest Dana Hargrove legal thriller, Forsaken Oath, has been selected as a semifinalist in the Mystery/Thriller category of the 2016 Kindle Book Review Awards.

Click here to see the list of all semifinalists. Finalists will be announced in the fall.

Wish me luck!

Ballet, Law, and Mystery

I was a guest recently on Something is Going to Happen, the preeminent blog of Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  I share the post with you, below, and you may also click here to view the entire post with Janet’s comments.  Mystery lovers: take the time to scroll through the blog entries on the site: some interesting articles!

Also, check out the exciting July issue of EQMM.  My story, “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt,” will appear in the August issue!

Ballet, Law, and Mystery

Before writing fiction, I was a dancer and a lawyer. Still am, both. Oxymoron? You’d be surprised how many attorneys I meet in ballet class. Maybe it’s because law books and toe shoes are both hard—dancing attorneys are gluttons for punishment. On a positive note, ballet and the law share many nicer attributes. An idealized world, perfectionism, intellectual puzzles, exacting discipline, technical precision, and personal expression. The expressive medium of ballet is the more artistic, you might say, but I could debate the point (sounding like a lawyer here, even if we swap “point” for “pointe”).

My experience in the courtroom informs my fiction more often than my experience in the dance studio (although the protagonist in my novels, prosecutor Dana Hargrove, does take a weekly dance class with her sister Cheryl, a Broadway performer). With pleasure, I dove into the world of professional ballet in writing “Journal Entry, Franklin DeWitt,” for EQMM. Memories from the time I owned a dancewear shop came in handy for this story. It could take hours fitting those potential instruments of torture, pointe shoes, on the feet of persnickety ballerinas—always a Cinderella-esque exercise in frustration.

As for this blog piece, I thank Janet Hutchings for humoring my obsession and allowing this small offering, a short-short mystery. The style is not my usual, but like every word buff, I look for any excuse to have fun with language—here, the beautiful language of ballet. Consider, for example, this direction for a lovely petit allegro enchaînement: “Glissade précipitée en avant, temps levé, tombé, saut de chat.” If the ballet instructor were to say it like this—“Quick steps forward, hop, fall, and leap like a cat”—I might just walk out of class.

You will find, at the end of the story, a glossary of the less obvious ballet terms.

Doctor Coppélius Meets an Untimely Death at the Opera House

As the only child of two physicians, Sylvia Musette was destined for a future in the healing arts. So it seemed, until destiny took a detour on the occasion of her eighth birthday, when she was treated to a matinee at the National Ballet. From that moment, every step she took was a chassé toward her dream.

At seventeen, she signs with the company. Passion is no guarantee of talent, and Sylvia’s passion falls short of artistic distinction, her grand jeté an inch below soaring, her port de bras heartfelt but uninspiring. Ever hopeful, she languishes in the corps, one of many cygnettes, sylphs, and Wilis.

In her fifth spring season, the light of good fortune shines upon her. Ballet master Stanislav Gliadilev, towering over the diminutive Sylvia, twirls a waxed end of his mustache and declares: “Friend!” She fights to remain à terre. It’s her first supporting role! One of Swanilda’s six Friends in the comic ballet Coppélia. Her heart nearly sautés from her leotard before the impresario qualifies the offer: “Understudy!” Sylvia wilts.

An exhausting rehearsal schedule fails to wilt Les Amies, who remain remarkably healthy and uninjured while Sylvia shadows them, unnoticed, a fly on the studio mirror. With too much time on her hands, she is, quite unintentionally, on a gradual pas de bourrée couru toward her true calling in life. Nothing escapes her eye.

She studies the principals: prima ballerina Peony Torne in the role of Swanilda, Enrique Dagloose as her fiancé Franz, and Morton Avunculario as Doctor Coppélius. Peony is known for the delicacy of her petite batterie, Enrique for his ballon, and Morton for his danse de caractère. What is the secret of their success? They’re strong and beautiful, Morton the most powerful, a favorite of Gliadilev who always gives him what he wants. Fifteen years older than the others, Morton is made to look 85 on stage with a painted face and a wig of scraggly gray hair, stooped and teetering with the aid of a cane.

Hmm, Sylvia thinks, did this help Peony make it to the top? Perhaps if I cozy up to Morton the way she does, gazing droopingly at him while Enrique scowls with glints of daggers in his slitty eyes . . . ? The whole thing is backward from the story in the ballet. Swanilda isn’t attracted to that crotchety, diabolical inventor, Doctor Coppélius, a disturbing figure with a toyshop full of spooky, life-size mechanical dolls. And Swanilda is the jealous one, not the faithless Franz. He’s duped and smitten by the lifelike doll Coppélia, sitting on the balcony of the toyshop, reading a book.

On the eve of opening night, an hour before full dress, company class is held on stage with portable barres. Peony, Morton, and Enrique plié center stage, and the others fan out from center, the Friends, the Dolls, the townspeople, and finally the understudies, lining the dark edges. Sylvia is a useless appendage, she feels. At least she would like to observe the greats, but they’re barely visible behind all the bodies executing les exercices à la barretendus, dégagés, ronds de jambe and finally, battements en cloche.

A small commotion erupts. Rats! What’s happening over there? Enrique mutters something to Morton, who gives an audible harrumph and stumbles away in the hunched posture of Doctor Coppélius, hand at the back of his neck. The dancers disperse to dressing rooms, wishing each other “merde.” The maître de ballet spies the understudies and shrieks: “Get off the stage!” In the midst of chaos, Sylvia slithers behind a wing, unnoticed.

Second act, it’s the dead of night, and something is astir, a menace of unknown origin. Swanilda and Friends break into the toyshop, setting the mechanical dolls to life. The Troubadour executes a stiff tour en l’air, the Spanish Doll a sharp coupé fouetté raccourci, the Scottish Doll a nervous pas emboîté en tournant. The Doctor bursts in! Friends scatter, Swanilda hides, Franz sneaks in through a window and is caught! Intending mockery, Doctor Coppélius produces two tankards, and they drink heartily to Franz’s love for Coppélia.

Franz is passed out when Swanilda appears, impersonating the mechanical doll Coppélia. But the Doctor is not quite himself. Deathly pale, he staggers off stage, totters and collapses behind the façade of the toyshop. With a brisk brisé volé, Swanilda runs to him. The music stops. “Morton, darling!” She cradles the gray-wigged head in her lap and looks up, searching blindly. “Please, somebody, help!” The Doctor needs a doctor. The maître drops to her knees, frantically feeling for a pulse. It appears that Morton est mort.

From center stage, Gliadilev quiets the crowd. “Remain calm! I’ve called for an ambulance.” From behind the curtain, Sylvia discerns, in the tensing of muscle, the pain that the impresario feels for the loss of his friend. Or maybe he’s remembering the inferior quality of Morton’s understudy. Opening night will be a disaster.

“How can this be?” The tear-stained Peony stands, bras croisé, mindlessly stabbing piqués en croix with her right foot. “There!” She points to the tankards. “He’s been poisoned!” She whirls in renversé. “He did it!” Enrique is fingered. But Peony pirouettes anew, unable to make up her mind. “No . . . it has to be him!” She points at the mousy little props man, scratching his head in confusion.

“Wait! You’re wrong.” Sylvia chaînés swiftly out from the wing. Quickly, before Gliadilev can banish her, she grabs the tankards, one at a time, and drinks from each. “It’s water.” She licks her lips. “Maybe a bit of iron oxide.”

Dumbfounded, the company awaits Sylvia’s next move. Like magic, a path to the body is cleared. Sylvia kneels, removes the wig, and palpates gently. “Basilar skull fracture, occipital bone, subdural hematoma likely. Suffered a blow with a blunt instrument. He’s been dying slowly before our eyes.”

There’s a communal gasp amid darting, wary glances. Was it the Troubadour’s lute, the Scottish Doll’s bagpipes, the Spanish Doll’s fan, or that little hardcover book Coppélia was reading? Maybe the assailant used the Doctor’s own cane, or a dismantled section of the barre? Sylvia examines the shape of the injury, mentally calculating height and velocity. She stands to face Enrique, his head drooping en bas. For weeks now she’s been studying him, getting to know every habit and quirk of technique. “You were standing behind Morton at the barre. It was your battement en cloche, wasn’t it? Directed straight to that nice little groove between neck and skull.”

“But,” Enrique protests, “I didn’t mean for him to die!” The suspect attempts an échappé sauté, but Gliadilev seizes him before he can run.

Intentional, reckless or negligent? A question for another day, a question for a jury. With a joyful sissone fermé, the case, for now, is closed. Sylvia is arisen from the corps.

A Literally Figurative Glossary of Ballet Terms

ballon: lightness, the ability to remain suspended in the air.

battements en cloche: beats like a bell. Basically, you swing your leg front and back, very high, like the clapper of a bell; it’s fun and relaxing.

bras croisé: arms crossed.

brisé volé: broken, flying. A beautiful light step with a small beat of the legs.

chaînés: chains, links. These are fast turns in a line, spotting your destination. Really fun to do and a good way to get dizzy if not done properly.

chassé: chase. Slide forward, one foot chasing the other.

coupé fouetté raccourci: literally cut, whip, and shorten. Does this give you any sense of what it looks like? Too difficult to explain.

échappé sauté: escape leap. As you jump, the feet “escape” from fifth position into second.

merde: I don’t need to tell you what this really means. It’s a dancer’s “good luck” wish.

pas de bourrée couru: a series of tiny rapid steps on pointe. When ballerinas look like they’re floating across the stage, this is what they’re doing.

pas emboîté en tournant: a springy, boxed-in step in a circle.

petite batterie: small battery in the sense of beating. There’s a lot of beating in ballet terminology, although it’s far from a violent art form.

piqués en croix: sharp piercing taps with the toe, front, side, back, in the shape of a cross.

renversé: reversed. You wouldn’t think this word is enough to describe the actual movement. It’s a turn with a pitched body and a high, circling leg.

sissone fermé: a leap from two feet into a split, landing on two feet in a closed position.

tour en l’air: turn in the air. Jump straight up, do a full revolution like a pencil, and land. Harder than it looks.