Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Case of the Missing Corpse

When I submitted my new mystery manuscript to Billie Johnson, the publisher of Oak Tree Press, I was a bit nervous about something missing from the plot. Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery doesn’t have a dead body. It’s a mystery novel without a murder. No murder? How did I think I could get away with that? Doesn’t the reader expect somebody to get offed?
Well maybe most mystery readers expect murder most foul every time they curl up with a cozy, but it turns out Hooperman is not alone. Murder may be the most nefarious thing that can happen in a plot, but it’s not the only crime that needs to be solved, and murderers aren’t the only perps who need to be brought to justice.
 Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, published in 1868, is considered by many to be the first detective novel in the English language, and the crime in that complex plot was not murder, but theft. Theft was also crime solved by Detective C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” published back in 1845. We still honor Mr. Poe with the Edgars given out every year. The 1800s also gave us bloodless mysteries by a couple of literary giants, Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey) and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre); although to be honest I never thought of these two novels as mystery stories. But the Sherlock Holmes stories were certainly mysteries, and many of them did not involve murders.
 Moving forward into the Golden Age, we find that some of the greats wrote one or more bloodless mysteries. These include Agatha Christie (The Secret Adversary), Dorothy L. Sayers (Gaudy Night), and Josephine Tey (Brat Farrar).
 More recently we find many popular contemporary authors to have written at least one non-murder mystery each, including Donald E. Westlake, Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis, Laura R. King, Hallie Ephron, Ellis Peters, Carola Dunn, and the list goes on and on.…

 I don’t imagine myself to be in the ranks of any of these great writers, but I’m glad to know Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery is in such good company.
 Anyhow, murder or no murder, Hooperman is very much a mystery. Why? Because it has a crime to be solved: somebody’s stealing a massive number of books from the store. There’s a closed circle of suspects: the bookstore staff. There’s a hero: an amateur sleuth named Hoop, hired to snoop. Tension and the threat of violence: the bookstore is fire bombed twice. There’s a love interest, and of course the woman Hoop falls in love with is a prime suspect. There are red herrings, clues, even a weapon. There’s a showdown, the thief is brought to justice, and our hero is rewarded.
 So, unless you’re incurably bloodthirsty, I think you’ll enjoy Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


My new book, Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, scheduled for release next month,
is set in and near Maxwell’s Books, a fictitious store in Palo Alto, California during the summer of 1972. Palo Alto, back then, was not the epicenter of technology and business that it is today. It was still an upper-middle-class college town, although it was becoming more and more stirred up with important and divisive issues of the times.

Return with me now to those daring days of yesteryear.…

A lot is going on during the summer of 1972: Jane Fonda is touring North Vietnam, George Carlin gets arrested for obscenity, and Bobby Fisher battles with Boris Spassky over the chessboard in Iceland. Nixon is still president, although this is the summer of the Watergate break-in, which will spell the end of Nixon’s presidency.

This is a time of big social and political causes. The war in Vietnam is still raging, as is the anti-war protest, along with other movements, such as black power, gay pride, women’s liberation, and the human potential movement, not to mention the sexual revolution. Maxwell’s Books, the locale of most of Hooperman, feels like the meeting place for all these movements. It is a bookstore owned by a celebrity pacifist and staffed by artists, musicians, dopers, dreamers, and poets.

Some of that summer’s best-sellers are: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Joy of Sex, Be Here Now, The Pentagon Papers, Open Marriage, and Another Roadside Attraction. Customers who frequent Maxwell’s Books include Joan Baez, Ken Kesey, Stephen Stills, Jerry Garcia, and Wallace Stegner.

I invite you to climb aboard the time machine known as a historical novel, in this case Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, and travel back in time to the summer of 1972. I guarantee you a good ride!

Stay tuned to this station, and I’ll let you know when the book is published. Meanwhile, you might enjoy meeting a couple of the older members of the Maxwell’s staff:

Hooperman worked at the store almost a week before he caught another shoplifter, a teenager who had stuffed a Zap Comix under his Steely Dan concert tee shirt. The comic book was priced at half a dollar, so Hoop earned an extra twenty-five cents that day. Elmer was good about paying him his five dollars a day, and Hoop was still having a good time, so he decided to continue working at Maxwell’s Books as long as he could afford it.
It was easy work, although it was boring as dust except when he played like a customer and actually got interested in the books he was guarding. Hoop made friends with more of the staff, including a couple of Elmer’s old conscientious objector cronies from WWII, Pete Blanchard and Jack Davis, who squabbled over the right to take care of the Political Science section. Pete was a socialist, Jack was an anarchist, and their arguments stopped traffic all over the store. Neither one of them wanted anything to do with the section that Charley David had named The Times They Are A-Changin’. Kids’ stuff, they called it. Kids don’t know beans, they said. Charley was a painter whose jeans looked like a used palette.
“Kids these days,” Pete muttered one day when he and Jack were elbowing each other in the Politics aisle. Hooperman stood by, supposedly doing his job, mainly eavesdropping. Pete wore a jacket and tie to work and looked like a rumpled professor.
“Aaaah, give it a rest,” Jack countered. “You political dinosaur.” He hitched up his overalls and lit a Lucky Strike.
“No smoking in the store.”
“Says who?”
“Can’t you see this place is a tinderbox, Jack? You want to burn the store down?”
Jack turned to Hoop, raised his eyebrows, wiggled his cigarette, and said, “Now there’s an idea.”

Saturday, October 12, 2013


You’re in for a treat this week, I promise you. I take great pleasure in introducing a writer I highly admire. Thom Atkinson tells real stories, stories with change, choice, conflict, and consequence, plus structure and style. His stories are so simply good they hurt, they spell-bind, they make you want to copy his plain-spoken style. Thom also happens to be a funny and friendly man, so I knew he’d have something entertaining to say about “The Joy of Story.” I was right. Here it is:

I’m a little nervous talking about “The Joy of Story.” As a matter of fact, I’m more than a little nervous talking about writing in general, because, even though it’s what I’ve been doing most of my life, there is a superstitious alchemy to it which I don’t fully understand and don’t want to mess with. And I hope I never fully understand the process, because that would suck much of the joy out it for me. But I can tell you a little about that mysterious alchemy and how it happens to manifest itself in my peculiar brain. Think of it as the story of a story.…

My most successful story to date is called “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” and it’s about a young man who runs away from Ohio because he may, or may not, have caused an accident which cost his co-worker a hand.  I should probably mention that his face is horribly disfigured from a meth explosion, his pickup breaks down in South Dakota, and a Native American family adopts him and takes him to see the Crazy Horse Monument. Everyone back home calls him Grimace after that purple thing in the old McDonald’s commercials and the Indian girl who takes him to Crazy Horse has a poorly-repaired cleft palate. It’s harsh and brutal and beautiful—so yeah, it’s a love story.  It was published in The Sun magazine (#439), received two Pushcart Prize nominations, won an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Fiction, was taught in English 11 & 12 AP classes in San Diego, and prompted a slew of comments from readers and other writers.

How did it happen? You tell me. I’ve been working on a short story collection, Standing Deadwood, and the stories are all free-standing, but also linked by common characters, geography, shared history, etc. Grimace is a secondary character in several of the stories (his real name is Paul). For reasons too complicated to explain, I’d been taking one of my sons to an inventory job, which involved an insane schedule and driving long distances at all hours. So one night, after months of sleep deprivation, at 3:00 in the morning, Grimace knocked on the inside of my skull, woke me from my fitful sleep and demanded his own story. He literally came to me in a dream. I covered three yellow Post-It notes in tiny scrawl and headed out the door for a two hour road trip to pick up my son.

I know that much of the detail in the story came from a trip we took out West a year earlier, that we did see Crazy Horse, that we were in a grocery store in Rapid City, and that there were two Indian girls who may (or may not) have been sisters. And I’ve worked on my share of broken-down pickups. It’s not that I remember specific details, it’s that I cannot not remember the details. So basically, and mostly unbeknownst to me, Grimace and all of those mental snapshots from that trip out West got dropped into a burlap sack, beaten with a heavy stick in some dark corner of my mind for month after month, and when I emptied that sack onto the page, I got “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills.”
Any questions? Yes, you there in the back.

Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. This summer, he was the 2013 Ohio Arts Council/Fine Arts Work Center Writer-in-Residence in Provincetown, MA, awarded each year to one writer from the state of Ohio based on "exceptional merit." His story, “Red, White & Blue” was a finalist for the Danahy Fiction Prize at Tampa Review and will be appearing in their next issue (47/48). His short story, "Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills," received two Pushcart Prize nominations after appearing in The Sun magazine, and won an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence award in Fiction for 2012 and was taught in English AP 11 & 12 classes in San Diego.

His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, The Tampa Review, The Moon, City Beat and Electron Press Magazine. His short play, Dancing Turtle, (based on his awarding-winning short story) was one of six winners of this year’s 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival and will be published in two different anthologies: Off Off Broadway Festival Plays 38th Series and Piper Plays: Smart Plays for Young Actors.

Some of his full-length plays include: Clear Liquor & Coal Black Nights (Playhouse in the Park), Copperheads (Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati), and Cuttings (ETC, Theatre Conspiracy, Culture Park Theatre). He has won numerous honors and awards for both fiction and drama, including four Ohio Arts Council grants. His first novel, Strobe Life, is currently available on Amazon for Kindle, and he has just completed his second novel, Tiki Man, and Standing Deadwood, a collection of short stories (he needs a good agent if you know one). He lives in southwest Ohio with his wife and two sons. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

BOO! The shocking, surprising, scary power of language

At the end of last month’s post I sent out the challenge for my October invitational: “I want you to send me a story that shows the power of language to shock, surprise, and scare. Don’t be timid! Take chances!” Well, I got some shocking, surprising, and scary stories; but they didn’t all demonstrate the shocking, surprising, scary power of language.
Ah well. A good story is a good story, and I’m pleased to present them here. Also below you’ll find a few words by me about shocking language and a short but unsettling snippet of my forthcoming book, Hooperman.
And of course at the end of this post is my challenge for the November invitational post.
Onward with the guest writers and their scary stories!


by Phyllis Povell

Leaves all over the lawn like a patchwork quilt. “Don’t worry Ms. J. I’ll bag them for you.” Snow covering my car and driveway shoveled by Jason, too. Since I became a widow, he hasn’t let a holiday pass without remembering me; chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Easter bunnies wrapped in foil, flowers from his garden to celebrate spring.
“You are the sweetest most sensitive young man I know, Jason.”
“Thanks, but I love the cookies you bake.”
Are those police cars I hear next door? Peering outside, I ask, “What happened?”
“Jason’s been arrested for shooting up the school.”


by Jill Evans

“I’m a certified iMacholic,” Zoe said as she tapped on her iPad.
 Jan sipped her hot chocolate. “What does that mean?”
“iPad, iMac, iPhone, iPod.”
“Grapevine says you found a new guy and you’re dating.”
Zoe barely glanced up. “I dumped him.”
“I’m shocked and surprised. Why?”
“Let’s just say he wasn’t my type. Don’t get me wrong. He was smart, funny, and handsome. We were really attracted to each other.”
Jan put down her cup and tried to get Zoe’s attention. “So what’s the problem?”
Zoe stopped tapping and looked up. “He’s a Microsoft fan. End of story.”


by Christine Viscuso

“Oh, it’s you, Harry. Great Vampire costume. Just in time for Halloween.…
   …Why are you pushing me into the chair? Is your tooth bothering you again? Is that why you’re not talking?…
     …You’re smothering me with your cape. You’d think the costume rental store would clean it. It smells like a damp, dank cemetery.…
        …I’m getting chills from the feel of your lips against my neck.....Oh.… That’s the sexiest hickey you’ve ever given me in forty years of marriage. I feel completely drained.…
            …Look at me, Harry. I want to kiss you. Wait.…
                  “You’re not my Harry!”


by Pat Shevlin

Even as terror gripped her heart, his words still ringing in her head, Nora dismissed Eric’s morning greeting as frivolous, responding with a peck on the cheek as she handed him a cup of coffee.
Why did he have to go there?
Maintaining safe emotional distance in her relationships with men was fallout of love gone criminal. Being desirous enough to be in this position was something she had avoided successfully—until this morning.
The simple phrase “I love you” conjured up so much more than shared intimacy.
How long could she bar the door to her heart?


by Jerry Giammatteo

We worked with Gina for months. She was nice, but skittish.
She was terrified of mice. We’d crumple paper and roll it in front of her as she walked. She’d scream and we’d laugh.
I was the chief culprit. She started watching me to be sure I was always in sight.
We were working in a warehouse. I saw my chance. “I’m getting coffee,” I announced, but instead hid behind an aisle of boxes.
My boss, in on the scheme, asked her to help find something. She approached my aisle. I jumped out.
“YOU!” I yelled.
Gina screamed.


by Lynn DiGiacomo

It’s one a.m. The phone rings.
“This is the Piermont Police.” Pause. “Do you own a ‘78 Chevette?”
I am upright. Tense.
“It has been in an accident. The driver fled the scene. You need to come immediately.” CLICK. Silence.
Alert, mobilized, I dress and am out the door.
My teenage son has the car. He is hurt and left for help. Or has struck and killed a pedestrian and panicked. Or an accident, people strewn across the road, and they can’t identify him.
On the drive I see him running. Running?
He is okay, but what has he done?



Generally I feel shocking language is overused and exploited to death in our culture and in our society. One of the sad effects of this casual cussing is that the words, which are supposed to be strong (expressing anger, or fear, or threat, for example) are weakened from overuse. So I try to keep language under control in my fiction.
But there are times when honesty compels me to write words I wouldn’t say at a tea party. I don’t write about gangsters, so my characters don’t spout profanity like Joe Pesci in a Scorsese film. But sometimes tempers can reach the boiling point even among peace-loving, law-abiding folks, and let’s face it: people mouth off. Especially in situations involving crime, danger, and death. So there are occasional bombs in some of my dialogue. So far nobody, even in my prim family, has complained.
A special case has come up in my new book, Hooperman—A Bookstore Mystery. There’s a frightening character in the novel named Martin West. He’s the shipping and receiving clerk, and he works all day alone in the shipping room, behind closed doors, where he can’t scare or offend the customers. It’s not just that Martin’s huge, or that he scowls, or that he has a disturbing facial tic. Martin has a special problem, a neurological disorder that makes him insert a certain cussword over and over into everything he says. This disorder, which resembles Tourette Syndrome, makes poor Martin appear aggressive, malicious, and stupid. In fact (okay, this is a bit of a spoiler, but who cares) Martin West is gentle, moral, and highly intelligent. Also, he and his speech impediment are highly important to the mystery, but I won’t tell you why.
Here, I’ll let you meet Martin just as Hoop meets him for the first time. I remind you that Hooperman has a speech disorder of his own…

Hoop knocked.
No answer.
He opened the door and walked into the Shipping and Receiving department, where he saw rough pine shelves loaded with tidy bundles of assorted books and a long Masonite counter neatly arranged with piles of new titles. The far wall was occupied by a thrift-store desk and a dented green filing cabinet. The floor was arranged in rows and columns of unopened cartons, and empty cartons were nested and stacked to the ceiling against the far wall. The room was lit by a flickering fluorescent ceiling fixture and one open window, which allowed a spotlight of sunbeam to shine through a ballet of dust motes.
Then the hulk standing at the counter turned to face Hoop, a twitching snarl on his kisser. He nodded his head, then shook it. “What the horse**** do you want?” he asked. “Can’t you read, in the horse**** pig****? Staff only.”
Martin looked about fifty. He was a few inches taller than Hoop, he outweighed Hoop by at least fifty pounds, his head was shaved bald, his gray beard was a briar patch, he wore oily jeans and a gray tee shirt, and on his feet he wore dirt. “Horse**** pig**** cow****,” he added through the snarl. He nodded, then shook his head again. His face was a dance of twitching creases.
Hoop tended to get politer than he felt, whenever he was confronted with a cross between a grizzly bear and a time bomb. He held out his hand and smiled. “Hoop Juh,juh,dge…ohnson. I’m new on the stuh,tuh,sst…aff.”
Martin nodded and shook Hoop’s hand. His grip was huge but gentle. “What do you want?”

Now, for next month’s invitational post, here’s your challenge. Following up on this month’s topic, for November I want you to send me a story that involves a failure to communicate. Make it comic or make it sad, but show what can happen when communication breaks down.

Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month. All writers are welcome.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, characters, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: