Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

About mbaconauthor

Mystery writer and journalist; former newspaper police reporter.

Agatha Christie and the history of the finger

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If you think writing a novel is challenging, try coming up with a title. Especially one with a finger in it.

The title is critically important to a book, even more than the cover.  I often agonize over my decision. Many years ago, the publisher of my first book changed its title.

My new book, Dark Ride Deception, focuses on the theft of mind-bending technology for theme park dark rides (indoor attractions), but it includes the discovery of a severed finger. It’s not what the story is about. It’s just clue, a loose finger.  But I became enamored with using that in the title, and I remembered an Agatha Christie novel, The Moving Finger.

Christie wasn’t referring to an unattached digit like the one in my book. In fact, she took the title from the translation of Omar Khayyam verse:

“The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The moving finger is vaguely referenced in her book, including a clue that anonymous threatening letters were typed by someone using one finger.

Immediately I thought about titling my book, The Unmoving Finger. That’s obviously the state of the finger in my book, and it would be an homage to that most famous mystery writer. But how many people would see the connection? The Moving Finger was published in 1942 and was not one of Christie’s most well-known works.

I thought my literary allusion might be wasted, so I aimed for something slightly less sophisticated. Getting the Finger was my first idea. Then I thought I could attract browsers’ attention even better with Giving the Finger.

References such as—to use the vernacular—flipping the bird, stretch farther back than Christie, even farther back than Omar Khayyam. According to Wikipedia, the middle finger gesture dates to ancient Greece and Rome. Also, there’s a story, probably apocryphal, that flipping the bird came into use at Battle of Agincourt between the British and French in 1415. The French supposedly planned to cut off the middle fingers of British archers so they couldn’t shoot.  When it didn’t happen, the British flipped their middle fingers in contempt.

Regardless of its occasionally obscene history, the finger is a popular word in mystery titles, often referring to, or pointing out, someone’s guilt. That was another of my great title ideas: Finger of Guilt. Author Paul Grossman beat me to it with his 2012 short story. The Amazon description of his Finger of Guilt says that star investigator Hans Fraksa claims the authorities have caught “Kinderfresser, the vicious child eater of Berlin.”

The finger is popular in titles for many, possibly less gruesome mystery/crime stories, including:

—  Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (2009) by Janet Evanovich
 — Finger Prints (2009) by Barbara Delinski
 — Fingerprint (2011) by Patricia Wentworth
— The Three Fingered Hand (2013) by Edda Brigitte Walsleben
— Fingered For Murder (2013) by Rodney Wilson, and
— The Finger: A Novel of Love & Amputation (2014) by David L. Robbins.

In addition to the publishing world, Hollywood keeps its finger on the pulse of its customers, and thus for decades a variety of crime and mystery films have used digital nomenclature in titles. Among the best known is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952). Based on a true story, James Mason stars as a British spy working for the Nazis and Michael Rennie as a British agent on his trail. Unrelated to the Mankiewicz film, Laurence Fishburne starred in a 2006 thriller called Five Fingers. In addition, a 1959 television series used the same name.

I ran my finger down a long list of similarly-titled films as I struggled to decide what to call my book. A sampling:

— The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) This spooky mystery/horror film takes place in an isolated Italian manor house and stars Robert Alda and Peter Lorre. Based on the trailer, the entire film happens at night.
— Fingers (1978) Harvey Keitel plays Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, a talented pianist who is also a part-time collector for his mob-connected father.
— Finger Man (1955) Frank Lovejoy goes undercover to finger a mobster.
— Finger of Guilt (1956) Richard Basehart, a happily married film executive, is stalked by a woman he says he does not know.
— Five Fingers of Death (1972) In the poster for this martial arts movie, a guy has hooked fingers that look like claws.

Probably the most famous movie of the batch was the 1964 film that forever cemented James Bond in the hearts of viewers: Goldfinger.

Finally, after research and rumination, I decided that, because it tells what the book is actually about, Dark Ride Deception would be my best title. Fingers crossed. 

Un-British viewpoint threatened to derail a new thriller

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By Kevin G. Chapman
Guest Writer

A bowler hat nearly sunk my newest thriller. All British businessmen don’t wear them, I discovered.

No writer is perfect, and once I have completed a second (or third) draft of a book which I think is pretty well finished, I look for help in the form of beta readers, people who agree to read a manuscript and provide comments and suggestions. This is feedback you can only get from the perspective of different eyes.

As I worked on book #4, Fatal Infraction, I had my usual batch of beta readers. But I also had a specific issue with which I needed help. I have a character in the story who is British – an investigator from a London insurance company sent to assess whether an NFL quarterback’s death occurred in connection with criminal activity (or was caused by the beneficiary – his team), which would void payment on a $20 million policy.

The character provided some comic relief because he was clueless about American football, which allowed the other characters to explain things to him – and by extension explain it to any of my readers who were similarly ignorant about football issues.

My British character seemed pretty simple at first. He would be very proper and buttoned-down. He would be a bit of a fish-out-of-water trailing along with my New York City homicide detectives. I pictured him as John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. I gave him a bowler hat and a series of pressed suits with matching silk handkerchiefs. He wipes the New York grime off chairs before he sits.

He was fun to write and was a hit with my early readers. But one of them, originally from London, flagged some issues. You see, my ear for British dialogue is based on watching movies, mostly comedies. It seemed that I had neglected to consider the language a posh English insurance inspector would actually use in dialogue. If I wanted to keep my UK readers from rolling their eyes at the stupid American author, I needed help.

Kevin G. Chapman
Author

I sent the manuscript out to three fellow authors in the UK and asked them to critique the dialogue – to let me know if anything sounded off. Boy, did I get back a lot of comments! It turns out that my character was a total caricature of an Englishman–and an offensive one at that. I got so much wrong, from his title to his wardrobe to his word usage. To an English reader, he was a joke – and not in a good way. It was an education.

As an example, there is a scene in Fatal Infraction where my detectives and my British inspector are watching security cam video as the suspected murderer puts a body in an elevator, then transfers it to a delivery truck and drives away.

It never occurred to me that an Englishman would never say elevator – he would say lift. And he wouldn’t say truck, he would call it a lorry. Small issues, perhaps, but it would drive an English reader crazy, and likely result in a negative impression of my writing (and a negative review).

Those little details can really make a difference and I was totally blind to them.  At one point I had my inspector putting milk in his cup of Earl Gray tea. Egad!  (Brits use milk in tea, of course, but not in Earl Grey.) There were a dozen (or more) such errors in my draft. Thankfully, I had time to fix them. (And when I narrated the audiobook, I had one UK listener tell me that my British accent did not make her laugh – which was high praise!)

The lesson here is that as much as I like to think I have a good ear for dialogue, my personal experience is limited—especially when it comes to British English.  So, admitting what you don’t know, and getting help, can keep you from being gobsmacked.

————-

Kevin G. Chapman is the award-winning author of the Mike Stoneman Thriller series. Perilous Gambit, the fifth book in the series, will be out this winter. Chapman is an employment lawyer for a major media company.  In Fatal Infraction, controversial quarterback Jimmy Rydell’s body is found naked—on New York’s Central Park carousel. Who killed him? How did he get there two days after he disappeared? Rydell’s football team just wants to move on, but NYPD homicide detectives must find answers to the bizarre facts of the case.

Flash fiction: 100 words of crime

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It’s been a long time since I’ve written about flash fiction here. I’m reminded because my local writer’s organization, High Sierra Writers, asked me to judge its annual flash fiction contest.

This fiction genre is defined generally by length.  But few authorities seem to agree on how long a flash fiction story should be. The 100-word limit I use is common, but a variety of print and online magazines and print anthologies restrict flash fiction stories to 500, 1,000, 2,500 or even 5,000 words. SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal founded nearly 20 years ago, takes its name from the notion that “reading a piece of flash fiction takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette.” The editors limit their fiction to 1,000 words—and note they do not condone smoking.

Twitterature, says Wikipedia, is literature limited to 280 characters, the maximum length of posts on Twitter.com. Writers and editors who try to define or explain flash fiction often cite a six-word story reputedly—although not likely—written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Regardless, Hemingway did actually write some longer flash fiction, so has Lydia Davis and Margaret Atwood, among many others.

Obviously, the shorter the word limit the greater the challenge to tell a complete story.  Some of the shorter flash stories are more collections of thoughts, emotions or observations rather than a traditional beginning-middle-and-end fiction. The best tell a complete story, but require you to think, to fill in some blanks—sometimes obvious ones, sometimes not.  Among the finest of the shorter genre appear in the online journal, 100 Word Story.

My flash stories tend to be more literal than literary, philosophical at times, but more frequently with a punch-line or twist ending.  I write cop stories and other dramas.

Here are two samples.  The first is one of my favorites. It’s buried on my website toward the bottom of the “flash fiction” tab.  Both are taken from my book, Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words—Revised Edition. Each story contains exactly 100 words.

   

On the House

Starting her workday baking before sunrise always made Sophie’s concentration sag by 9 a.m., but looking across the counter at a gun barrel got her immediate attention.

“Gimme the money,” the gunman said.

Sophie glanced over the man’s shoulder, moved toward the cash register—then ducked.

The cop standing behind the robber threw him against the counter, as another officer grabbed the gun.

“You gotta be the dumbest crook I ever met,” said the first cop. “Okay, maybe you didn’t see our car in the lot, but really…”

“Thanks, Kelly,” Sophie said. “From now on, doughnuts are on the house.”

 

Just an Accident

Tim flipped a dashboard switch and a red light blinked. When Larry got in the car, Tim pulled out.

“So,” Larry growled, “whadda want now?”

“You’re abusing her. First, cuts and bruises. Now broken bones?”

“Just an accident. She wants to leave, it’s her choice.”

“She won’t. She’s terrified.”

“Then you stay out of it.”

Tim’s speedometer said 45 mph. He glanced in the mirror, saw no one, then swerved into a concrete wall.

Minutes later, bruised and aching but otherwise unhurt, Tim looked down. “He was my son-in-law. Didn’t believe in seatbelts.”

The policeman nodded. “And his airbag malfunctioned.”

– – – – – – – – –

Links mentioned above:

SmokeLong Quarterly     Twitterature

100 Word Story    Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words

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