Mystery Minutes Archive
by ZJ Czupor
Don’t Gobblefunk Around With Words
Children who grew up on this author’s books continue to visit his grave in England and in a show of respect leave toys and flowers. When he died, he was mourned the world over. He was a British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, medical inventor, and ace fighter pilot. His writing blended fantasy, humor, horror, heroism, and folklore into books that enchanted his readers.
He was a master of inventing new words, which sounded like gibberish but made perfect sense. In the children’s novel, BFG (1982), short for “big friendly giant,” he wrote, “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”
Perhaps his most popular invented word is “Scrumdiddlyumptious,” which is still delicious to hear.
A personal tragedy in 1960 prompted him to invent a catheter which treats hydrocephalus in young children. The idea came to him after his 4-month-old son was struck by a taxicab in New York City. The accident left his son brain damaged. But the invention, named the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, helped save the sight of 3,000 children around the world.
I think this a good time to ask, why am I reading about a children’s author when this space is for mystery writers? Fair question. Because Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was also a British spy which set in motion his career as a writer, and furthermore, his mysteries earned him three awards from Mystery Writers of America. read more…
by ZJ Czupor
A Mystery Within a Mystery
In the canon of mystery novels lies an unfinished but published mystery—the last written by an iconic author—and the mystery is still waiting to be solved. American librarian and author Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) called it “the foremost problem in fiction.”
The unfinished novel in question is The Mystery of Edwin Drood written by that great Victorian author, Charles Dickens. Yes, that Dickens. The intriguing mystery was cut short by the author’s untimely death. How could this have happened? Let’s examine the evidence. read more…
by ZJ Czupor
The Tumultuous Life of an American Literary Icon: Shirley Jackson
With the approach of Halloween, I thought we should explore the tumultuous life of mystery and horror author Shirley Jackson and two of her most notable and terrifying works—”The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House (Viking, 1959).
The Haunting of Hill House is about four adults who investigate a reportedly haunted mansion. The protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a lonely, imaginative young woman, believes spirits have targeted her in the big isolated house she co-owns with her sister.
This chilling novel was Jackson’s fifth in which she uses terror to grab the reader. While the house doesn’t overtly have a ghost, Jackson said, “The house is the haunting…the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”
The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered not only one of the best ghost stories of all time but the Number One book that revolutionized the modern ghost story. (50 Best Horror Books of All Time, Paste Magazine, Aug. 30, 2018).
Stephen King listed it as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century. The New York Times called it “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic.” read more…
by ZJ Czupor
A Curious Incident
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1893, is a short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” in which an unusual line of dialogue becomes the title of a best-selling mystery published one-hundred and ten years later. read more…
by ZJ Czupor
Check in. Relax. Take a Shower.
One of the most iconic and terrifying murder scenes in film history takes place in a shower, at the Bates Motel. The scene I’m referring to, of course, is from the film, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock with screenplay by Joseph Stefano (1960).
The film is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by award-winning author Robert Bloch (1917-1994). read more…
by ZJ Czupor
Doppelgänger: Myth, Literary Device, or the Real Deal?
Unless you’re an identical twin, would it unnerve you to bump into your dead ringer…your doppelgänger?
Would your lookalike be your exact double, your evil twin, or just a mischievous spirit?
Authors often employ doppelgängers as a literary device to explore our human duality or the darker traits of our character.
When a doppelgänger emerges as a literary character, the author is playing with our sense of reality. When another duplicate self appears, doubts automatically surface. The main character questions the double’s identity (who are you?) and the main character questions him or herself (who am I?). read more…
by ZJ Czupor
The Writer with the Largest Audience in America
Not all successful mystery writers make best-selling lists, or become literary celebrities, or so wealthy they split their time between a sprawling ranch in Montana and a cozy apartment in Paris. In fact, many are hard-working writers who continue to create an amazing output of literature. Here’s one prolific writer you’ve probably never heard of—but you will now.
Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was an American author, playwright, and copywriter. He had a fertile and inventive mind for writing irony and endings with a twist in stories ranging from detective fiction, science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.
Slesar wrote more than 500 short stories, 55 radio plays, and six novels.
He used at least a dozen pseudonyms for short stories which appeared in publications like Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Imaginative Tales, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Playboy.
After he sold his first 200 short stories, he wrote his first novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud (1958), a murder mystery set in an advertising agency. It earned him the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel (1960).
Slesar was born in 1927 as Henry Schlosser in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents who were immigrants from the Ukraine. Later, he legally changed his name. Writing came easy to him, for at the age of 17, he was hired immediately out of school by Young & Rubicam, a prominent New York ad agency, and began a twenty-year career in advertising.
As a copywriter, he reputedly coined the term “coffee break,” in a national radio, newspaper and magazine campaign for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau (1952), which urged consumers, “Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You.” He was also behind the famous award-winning McGraw-Hill ad campaign called “The Man in the Chair,” which became one of the most printed ads in history.
In 1957, Slesar wrote a short story called “M is for the Many” which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Alfred Hitchcock read it and bought it for adaptation. That began a long and successful collaboration as nearly fifty of Slesar’s stories were adapted for the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Slesar also wrote teleplays for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Batman.
He then found a niche as a writer for popular TV soap operas: The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, and One Life to Live. In 1974, he won an Emmy as the head writer for The Edge of Night. The Soap Opera Encyclopedia called him a “…master of the serial format, creating a series of bizarre, intricate plots of offbeat characters in the spirit of the irreverent detective movies of the ‘40s.”
And TV Guide said he was “the writer with the largest audience in America.”
The Edge of Night was produced by Proctor & Gamble for CBS. Every plot and script was vetted months in advance by the sponsor and the network before episodes were taped. When Slesar was head writer his episode “Children of God,” about a charismatic cult leader, had been previously cleared.
Then, on a rainy and muddy day (Nov. 18, 1978), the Jonestown Massacre happened in Guyana. More than 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple movement died. The cult leader, Rev. Jim Jones, called a mass meeting at the encampment after some of his followers murdered U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members of the media, and others who were investigating inhumane treatment. Jones proposed suicide encouraging all to ingest a powdered-drink laced with cyanide and other drugs which had been prepared by his aides. At the time, it was the largest mass death in American history.
Incidentally, the expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid” originated from this tragic event.
As the massacre became national and international news, CBS and Proctor & Gamble panicked. They ordered Slesar to end his “Children of God” episode “fast.” So, he and his sub-writer worked overtime to re-write the story. They transformed their fictional cult leader into a society gigolo.
Slesar’s literary output has been translated into ten languages. He died in 2002, at the age of 75, due to complications from elective surgery.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
by ZJ Czupor
The Silence of the Author
This successful author has kept a low profile for the past forty years. He rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He does, however, answer his fan mail and poses for pictures when he’s recognized.
He has a Santa-Claus quality about him—big, bearded, and jovial and described as a soft-spoken southern gentleman. Aside from writing popular thrillers, he’s a nature lover and often takes orphaned squirrels and injured ibises to an animal rescue center on Biscayne Bay in Florida. While he’s volunteered there since 1999, no one realized who he was. The center’s director said, “We had no idea. He’s such a kind, gentle man.”
He draws, cooks gourmet meals, and often dines with friends. A retired Miami-Dade police sergeant said, “If you didn’t know who he was, you’d think he’s just a little old guy from Mississippi. He’s not impressed with himself, or anybody else.”
Writing by hand, he begins his day at 8:30 and finishes around 2 or 3. He has lunch and a nap. He describes his writing process as starting with a scene that appears in his head. He thinks through what came before and after. He describes “the very act of writing as a kind of torment…” But his agent, Mort Janklow, says his books never really need editing. “What he delivers has the quality of a precisely cut gem.”
Thomas Harris (1940 –) grew up in a small town in Mississippi where his family owned a cotton, soybeans, and wheat farm. He majored in English at Baylor University, rode a motorcycle, and worked nights as a reporter covering the police beat in Waco, Texas. In 1968, he took a job with the Associated Press in New York as a general assignment reporter and night editor on the city desk. While there, he and two other reporters (Sam Maull and Dick Riley) cooked up the idea for Black Sunday, a novel about a terrorist plot to commit mass murder during the Super Bowl game in Miami. He wrote the novel, sold it to Putnam in 1975, and he and his friends split the advance.
In 1978, the film version was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture.
Harris’s second novel, Red Dragon (1981), introduced one of America’s most grisly villains—Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist turned psychotic. In the novel, Dr. Lecter appears as a minor character and is already in prison. Stephen King compared that book with The Godfather and later called Hannibal “the great fictional monster of our time.”
It was Harris’s third novel, Silence of the Lambs (1988), that became a pop-culture phenomenon and is considered a masterpiece of suspense. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film version (1991), which won five awards—only the third film in Academy Awards history to sweep the Oscars in major categories—(best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best director and best picture).
After his first novel (Red Dragon) was adapted into a film named Manhunter (1986), Harris was disappointed in it and in Hollywood in general. So, he didn’t watch Silence of the Lambs until two years after the Oscars. He liked it. His next two novels were sequels Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006). He wrote them on a $5-million-plus deal with Dell/Delacorte publishing.
While the last two novels were also adapted into films, audience reaction began to wane and journalists kept pestering him about where his twisted ideas came from, implying he held deep-seated psychopathic tendencies. His response was “I don’t make anything up. So, look around you. Because everything has happened.”
His novels have sold more than 50 million copies. His latest Cara Mora (2019), is his first in fourteen years and while it doesn’t feature Hannibal Lecter, he introduces a new evil villain who is hairless, owns a white latex plugsuit, and a liquid cremation machine.
Harris has written six novels, five have been adapted into films, one into a television series, with a new TV series in production. His estimated net worth is $73 million. Not bad for a quiet, unassuming southern gentleman who creates monstrous villains.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
# # #
Author’s Note: CBS recently announced the go-ahead on a new series for next season—a Silence of the Lambs sequel titled Clarice, which follows FBI agent Clarice Starling six months after the events of the movie. Rebecca Breeds takes over the Jodie Foster role from the 1991 film.
by ZJ Czupor
Social Distancing Hampers Close-Kill Techniques for Writers
I’ve never killed someone—a real person that is—although I’ve often thought I sure would like to strangle so-and-so or knock some sense into my city council person’s head. That kind of thing.
But I admit I have knocked off a few shady characters, and good people, too, in my writing. Knowing this group, I’m certain most of you listening to this have done the same.
Supposedly, there are 101 ways (and probably more) to kill someone—including everything from slashing a body with paper cuts to shoving your victim into a volcano.
But in today’s new world, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic—where we must honor the notion of social distancing—and remain six feet away from each other—it presents new challenges for mystery writers. Most importantly, how do our bad guys and gals kill someone if they must stay six feet away?
Well, here’s some no-nos for up-close and personal killing:
- For example, let’s say your killer is a wire expert. You know, he chokes his victims with piano wire. Sneaks up from behind and throttles the throat. Well, in today’s environment, that’s just too damn close for comfort, and will get you arrested by the social distancing police. And, by the way, is that piano wire a G-string?
- The same goes for hanging by rope, or any other object. Just think, Jeffrey Epstein would still be alive today and probably singing like a canary.
- Also, there will be no more cutting off of heads or limbs by axe. Just think, Andrew and Abby Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts (if they lived in modern times) would be alive because crazy daughter Lizzie would not be allowed to get that close to chop off her parent’s heads. This new rule might also have saved Jimmy Hoffa, and it for sure would have stopped Norman Bates from stabbing Janet Leigh behind the shower curtain. What a psycho!
- How about stabbing a rusty knife through the liver? Sorry, but knife fighting requires close quarters. This just won’t do.
- How about a series of paper cuts on the body and pushing the victim into a pool of hungry piranhas? Exotic, yes, but the killer can’t get that close. Sorry.
- And, no more Kung-Fu fighting. You can set-up the “crane kick” like Ralphie in The Karate Kid, but that’s it. Hold that pose because you can’t move in for the kill. And if you can twirl and swirl like Bruce Lee and knock down a horse with your flying heel, well, sorry. While that’s pretty neat, it’s just too close.
But, don’t despair, mystery writers. We still have options:
- Black widows can stealthily poison their eighth husbands by dripping strychnine into protein drinks;
- Arsonists can still set houses ablaze while their victims are quarantined as they watch re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond; and
- James Bond can still lock himself into his armored Aston Martin and machine gun the bad guys.
My guess is there’s still about 79 creative ways you can employ to kill your literary victim. Just, please,be considerate. Keep your distance. We still have guns, bows and arrows and hand-held missile launchers at our disposal.
After all…keeping our distance is the right thing to do in these trying times.
And, that’s your Mystery Minute.
# # #
by ZJ Czupor
The Year Without Summer
On March 10, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic. But did you know that one of the greatest novels of all time was written during a pandemic?
In 1815, Mount Tamora in Indonesia, erupted choking the air with ash and dust. The eruption killed roughly 100,000 people and caused world-wide crop failures, famine, cholera and typhus outbreaks.
The next year, 1816, was known as the “Year Without a Summer.” Instead of sunshine, most of Europe was covered in fog and frost. Global temps dropped and major food shortages were felt, especially in Europe which still suffered from the Napoleonic Wars. The volcano’s eruptions greatest effects were felt across New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of Western Europe.
Historians estimate that at least a million people starved in the aftermath of Tamora’s eruption, while tens of millions died from a global cholera pandemic.
In May 1816, incessant rainfall encouraged Mary Godwin to find a sunnier vacation spot. But when she arrived in Switzerland, she was forced to stay inside most of the time. She traveled with her lover, the radical poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792-1822), their four-month-old baby and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with a child by Lord Byron (1788-1824). Bryon, who is today considered one of the greatest English Romantic poets, had then recently divorced his wife, and according to rumors of the time, was having an affair with his half-sister.
When they arrived, they rented properties along Lake Geneva and during frigid evenings gathered at the Villa Diodati, a stately three-story mansion on a hillside overlooking the lake. Lord Byron had rented the mansion with his doctor, John Polidori (1795-1821). While the skies boomed with thunder and lightning, they sat around a log fire, reading morbid poetry and German ghost stories to each other, and talked late into the night. They also argued about the occult and the major debate of the day: whether human corpses could be galvanized, or re-animated after death.
Mary had to fight off sexual advances by the doctor Polidori, while her stepsister tried to seduce Lord Byron. Percy, meanwhile, became depressed. After three days of being trapped inside, conflicts began to erupt like Mount Tamora.
One night, Lord Byron gave them a challenge: write a ghost story that was better than the ones they had just read.
Polidori immediately wrote his first work of fiction, a novella, called The Vampyre, (1819). It became the first piece of fiction to include a blood-sucking hero. Historians believe the story was modeled on his friend, Lord Byron.
After a sleepless night, punctuated by thunder and lightning, Mary had a vision. She said, “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, incorporated the Villa Diodati as a setting and the morbid conversations of her friends. She was eighteen. The book was published, anonymously, in 1818 in London (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones) when she was twenty. Five hundred copies were published in three volumes. Her name first appeared in the second edition published in Paris in 1823 in two volumes (G. and W.B. Whittaker) following the success of the stage play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake.
Mary’s story, which is considered a Gothic novel that employs mystery, secrecy and unsettling psychology, revolutionized literature and over the years has inspired more than one-hundred-thirty films, plus numerous television programs, plays, radio dramas, video games, comics, parodies, satires, and music.
But all did not end happily for the group who gathered at Lake Geneva:
- Polidori committed suicide in 1821. He was twenty-six;
- Percy drowned, with two others, in his sailing boat during a freak storm in 1822. He was twenty-nine;
- Lord Byron took the daughter he had with Claire away from her mother and sent her to a convent. She died there at the age of five.
- Byron died in 1824 after contracting a fever. He was thirty-six.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) wrote several other novels, twenty-one short stories, a travelogue and several biographies. During her lifetime, she was a professional writer, but history remembers her as the author of one novel, written during the “Year Without Summer.” She died of a brain tumor at fifty-three.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
# # #
Author’s note: The Gothic novel emerged as a literary genre in the 1750s and characterizes supernatural elements, mysterious and secretive events. The mystery of Mary Shelley’s novel is not where the monster came from, but what he wants. In addition, the novel is considered to be one of the first examples of science fiction.