Thursday, January 6, 2022

Three Writing Tips That I Don't Often See Elsewhere

It is easy to find a lot of guidance regarding writing. Choose strong verbs. Avoid adverbs. Swap out commonplace and indefinite words. These are valuable bits of advice, but they are spoken everywhere. Below, I present recommendations that I have encountered or developed over the years that I don't see at other writing sites. 

Never say yes. Never say no.

The following exchange of dialogue in the film L.A. Confidential changed my writing.

Bud White: The Night Owl case made you. Do you want to tear all that down?

Ed Exley: With a wrecking ball.

I'd seen the movie before and this time I watched in my writer's frame of mind. The question asked Ed Exley was yes or no. If he had answered, "yes," the screenplay would have missed a great opportunity to reveal character and add to the drama. 

The rule is: Given a yes/no question, don't have your character respond with "Yes" or "No."


Another example from L.A. Confidential.

Captain Dudley Smith: You'll do as I say, and ask no questions. Do you follow my drift?

Bud White: In technicolor, sir.

Isn't that so much better than answering yes or no? Even the brief appendage of "sir" adds to the character.

Did you know they tried to make it into a TV series?

Here are a couple of examples from my recent writing. Garret Belmont is a private eye, posing as a mold inspector. Ava Wellington isn't buying it.

Ava: "I notice you have handcuffs in your inside pocket," she said. "Mold inspector?" 

Garret: "I've had to handle some pretty tough fungi."

The same pair, shortly after.

Ava: "Are you the sort who prefers to play with words to other forms of recreation?"

Garret: "Crosswords don't bite."

Ava: "But I do."

Of course, this rule is not absolute. Sometimes I will have a character answer yes or no if that character has a motive to say the least possible. And you don't want to simply substitute a fancy word that means yes, like "indubitably"—unless you are writing a comic piece set in an Edwardian tearoom.

Fun fact: Say indubitably three times and you will grow a top hat.

Use the Thesaurus in Advance.

When you know you are going to write a scene with a specific setting or time, do your thesaurus work in advance. A graveyard at sunset. (These lists are incomplete, just here to give you an idea.)

Graveyard: burial grounds, churchyard, necropolis.

associated: grave, crypt, tomb, sepulcher, sarcophagus, catacomb, shrine, vault, tombstone, gravestone, grave marker. 

Sunset: dusk, nightfall, evening, eventide, gloaming, twilight, sundown.

associated: darkness, duskiness, dimness, gray, gloom, murkiness.

Having a cloud of words helps me create.

As a general rule of thumb: don't repeat the same word often, especially if they are weighty words that attract a lot of attention to themselves. The thesaurus choices help with that. Related rule: don't cycle through synonyms just for the sake of variety.

Learning how to use and tame the thesaurus is one of the talents that separates a novice writer from an expert. The word choices are the keys of the piano. Choose the right ones to construct your melody. Do not dump every complicated word into your text. 

End with a Bang.

Finish your sentences with a punch. You should place, at the end, a single word that delivers your message. Beyond the last word in a sentence, this should also be employed in the moments a sentence pauses through punctuation such as comma or semi-colon.

Here is the last word (or two) of the first seven lines of Hamlet's soliloquy (To be or not to be. . .). The final punch in each line delivers the theme and gravity, one reinforcing the next.



outrageous fortune


to sleep 



. . .

Or this from Macbeth:


day to day

recorded time


brief candle

poor player





Here are my own sentences: two versions.

That looks like a Ponzi scheme on steroids to me.


That looks like a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

I often find that when one of my sentences sounds flaccid, I can reorder the words to end with a punch. It might be too much if every sentence ends with a whammy, but try out this recommendation when you want your writing to jab like Jake LaMotta.

For the above paragraph: flaccid (comma), punch (period), whammy (comma), Jake LaMotta (period).

Similar to this:

Put the punch-line at the end. This rule is derived from performing comedy. Don't finish a joke and then add words that the audience has to listen to when they should be laughing. Similarly, in mystery, if you are delivering a punch in a story, put the vital detail at the end of the statement (sentence, paragraph, or even chapter) so the reader has a moment to digest the startling revelation. 

This joke, attributed to various comedians, is classic and edgy.

When I go, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like the passengers on his bus.

It isn't until the final word that the mystery and the lethal edge are revealed. Compare this to the same joke, badly-constructed.

When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not like his passengers who were screaming when his bus swerved off the road and killed them. 

The reveal comes early in the sentence, nevertheless, we are compelled to keep on reading.

If you have a little-known writing tip, please include it in the comments.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Reviewing Cha's The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021

In my first three installments I looked at culture wars in history and literature, how they have popped up in mystery writing resulting in the schism of the year's best mystery stories into two very different volumes, and then went on to review Otto Penzler's The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021. 

Here, in the final installment, I look at Steph Cha's The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021. Cha was selected to officially take over the Penzler's series. She promised to include a more diverse authorship. Indeed, Penzler's 2021 anthology was composed of 21 white (and no Latinx among these) authors. His 2020 anthology had 20 white authors (and, again, no Latinx). Cha's first anthology had stories from 8 white non-Latinx, 4 Latinx, 5 black, 1 Latinx black, 1 South Asian, and one for whom I could not find background 

Penzler is 79 years old. Cha is 35. They have different views as to what represents the best in mystery fiction. Penzler's anthology lean heavily on old school detective and police narratives. I had to think hard as to whether even one of his story selections did not have violence at its core (there were two).  

This brings me to a general strength of Cha's collection: the variety of crime. Being an illegal immigrant, victimization by con artists, faking an application to get a child into a better school, stalking: these are weighty issues with important stories to tell. 

Cha chose Alafair Burke as her guest editor. Burke has published 18 mystery novels. She is Asian-American and the daughter of the famous author James Lee Burke (who had a story in Penzler's anthology). Or maybe people will begin saying James Lee is the father of the famous Alafair Burke.

In my previous post I railed against the Introduction by Lee Child in Penzler's anthology. While Child asked what is a short story? Burke asked what does it mean to say something is the best? The notion that the best is subjective is fairly basic and I wanted to sneer at the simplistic conclusion she made but, going over the stories in these anthologies I related deeply to the statement.

As Burke notes, people argue over the Academy Award as though the Best Picture is some kind of magic dart that lands on its target, that which is, indeed, the best picture. It is an imperfect opinion. When James Cameron visited the deepest part of the ocean in a bathysphere, I fantasized about keeping him down there until he agreed to give his Oscar to Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential.

I present my judgment on these stories. Why should anyone care about my opinion? The answer is that as a reader I am an audience member. As a writer I strive to make the audience cheer, to think, or to empathize in a way that splits their chests open to synchronize our beating hearts. Of course, I cannot do that for everyone. Not even if I was the greatest writer ever. So, as an author, I do my soft shoe shuffle and bow. Then my readers applaud. Or they don't. Hell, not everybody loves Fred Astaire, a hoofer from Omaha.

Burke goes on to review Kurt Vonnegut's rules for what makes a story great and in doing so, introduces each of the stories in the collection with love. A classy introduction. 

Cha's entry into the Best Mystery Stories series

The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, a Review

Again, the stories are presented in alphabetical order by the author's surname. I suppose this is to avoid the appearance of favoritism. I wonder if I would be Ortiz or Hill Ortiz in such a set. (Hill Ortiz is my preference. In Puerto Rico, the father's surname is appended by the mother's surname. I am the son of two families.)

First up is Jenny Bhatt with Return to India, a complex story, told from the point of view of imperfect witnesses, of an immigrant worker who snaps. Strong emotional examination of isolation.

Christopher Bollen, SWAJ. The title is Jaws spelled backward. A young man in Amity Island, New York, witnesses the events in a town under siege by a shark. I really didn't like this piece. It was Jaws without any of the on-the-ocean parts. For me it was clever but unengaging.

Nikki Dolson, Neighbors. A study of a neighborhood destroyed by con artists. Sharp details, well-written, bittersweet.

E. Gabriel Flores, Mala Suerte. Two friends have bad luck trying to dispose of a body. Excellent writing.

Alison Gaylin, Where I Belong. A homeless teen becomes prey to those who would rescue him. Has the feeling of James M. Cain. Gaylin made it into both anthologies.

Gar Anthony Haywood, With Footnotes and References. A great, twisty (and twisted) story about selling school papers to rich kids.

Ravi Howard, The Good Thief, is a bittersweet story about the unusual gift a mother gives to her son on the evening of his execution. Excellent. One of my favorites.

Gabino Iglesias, Everything Is Going to Be Okay. In the background of the COVID lockdown, a father wants basic health care for his child. An insider's eye for details. 

Charis Jones, Green-Eyed Monster. A killer recounts the final evening with his successful wife and what envy drove him to do. Not one of my favorites. The characters seemed stock.

Preston Lang, Potato Sandwich Days. I have to recuse myself from judging this story about a man who would do anything to get his favorite sandwich from a fast food restaurant. In the early 90s, I was at a Burger King in Miami Beach when a man blew up over this sort of thing. The Nazis were in town protesting the local holocaust memorial and I suspect he was one of them. No violence occurred, still I get post-trauma stress disorder over this. I can't handle the fast food scene in Michael Douglas's Falling Down, either.

Aya de León, Frederick Douglass Elementary. A black woman falsifies her address to get her child into a better school, but is the school really better? This well-done story is helped along if you know the account of the woman who was jailed for this offense. 

Kristen Lepionka, Infinity Sky. A well-written, comic-manic piece about the misadventures of a woman who wants to take in the view from a penthouse suite. One of my favorites.

Laura Lippman, Slow Burner. The discovery of a burner phone leads a wife to discover her husband's secrets, culminating in murder. Masterfully told.

Joanna Pearson, Mr. Forble. A mother is frantic: her son is not quite normal. A birthday party turns violent. Well-written and disturbing.

Delia C. Pitts, The Killer. In a small town in Georgia, a private eye is shepherding a mother and a child who have been targeted by the mob. A killer comes to town looking for them but they get by with a little help from some friends. Vivid and atmospheric.

Eliot Schrefer, Wings Beating. A father goes on vacation with his thirteen-year-old son where the son encounters prejudice. The father takes revenge. "Take revenge" pieces mostly fall flat with me, especially in cases where the response exceeds the provocation. 

Alex Segura, 90 Miles. Cuban exiles take a perilous journey to America, made worse by the faithless human smuggler who helped launch them. Strong atmosphere and poignant.

Brian Silverman, Land of Promise. A local hero has to live with the knowledge behind what really happened. Emotionally gripping. 

Faye Snowden, One Bullet, One Vote. In the segregated south, a black woman stands up for her right to vote. Powerful and I found myself constantly rooting for her.

Lisa Unger, Let Her Be. Unger knows how to perform psychological autopsies on the living. (Autopsies without the ick.) Mesmerizing. My favorite story of either anthology. 

The strength of the Cha/Burke anthology is the variety of human experiences. Here are stories of crimes big and small. Switching between such a range of viewpoints keeps each store fresh. My review of this work uses terms like emotional involvement far more frequently than with the Penzler collection which had more gut punches. These stories were vibrant and reflected on today's issues. I did miss having some of the older school stories such as the Paretsky piece from the other work. 

The strength of the Penzler/Child anthology is that classic crime fiction, when well done, is thrilling. However, when it is mediumly-well done, it feels repetitive. 

I was convinced by these two anthologies that there are more than 40 best pieces out there. Even the ones I didn't like had merit. Furthermore, I've read a few worthy pieces during this past year that were not included. I suppose a reviewer always feels this way. I read the five stories up for the past year's Edgar for Best Short Story and all of them were top-notch. I suggest the anthologists expand their honorable mention lists.

Both books are worth the price of admission and an avid mystery fan will have much to enjoy. I would say about 10 of the pieces in Penzler's work represented great classic mystery stories, something I always love to read. However, I would have to give the nudge to Cha's anthology. The wonderment of the range of the stories kept every story fresh, even the ones that did not particularly thrill me.

The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021


Jenny Bhatt, Return to India

Christopher Bollen, SWAJ. 

Nikki Dolson, Neighbors

E. Gabriel Flores, Mala Suerte

Alison Gaylin, Where I Belong

Gar Anthony Haywood, With Footnotes and References

Ravi Howard, The Good Thief

Gabino Iglesias, Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Charis Jones, Green-Eyed Monster

Preston Lang, Potato Sandwich Days

Aya de León, Frederick Douglass Elementary

Kristen Lepionka, Infinity Sky

Laura Lippman, Slow Burner

Joanna Pearson, Mr. Forble

Delia C. Pitts, The Killer

Eliot Schrefer, Wings Beating

Alex Segura, 90 Miles

Brian Silverman, Land of Promise

Faye Snowden, One Bullet, One Vote

Lisa Unger, Let Her Be


I have several short stories coming out soon, including ones in Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. A science fiction story has been accepted in El Porvenir ¡Ya! Chicano Scifi Anthology. It has a Kickstarter page now, a new experience for me. My late mother, a Chicano activist, would be proud.

Martin Hill Ortiz is a Professor of Pharmacology at Ponce Health Sciences University and has researched HIV for over thirty years. He is the author of four novels and numerous short stories and poems.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Reviewing Otto Penzler's Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

In my first entry to this series, I presented the broader picture of how a culture war is playing out in America as to who gets to tell history and what history is told. I showed how these battles have extended in the past decade to the science fiction writing community. 

In the second entry, I looked at a schism in the mystery-writing field between Otto Penzler, author and editor of the annual Best Mystery Stories series and Steph Cha, author and mystery reviewer for the Los Angeles Book Review

Although the war of words began over the matter of Linda Fairstein, author and former prosecutor involved in the Central Park Five case, it continued on to question the diversity, or lack thereof, of the authors whose works were recognized for the annual mystery anthologies.

Through 2020, Penzler had edited the Best Mystery Stories for 24 years. For 2021, he was replaced by the publishers with Steph Cha. Penzler responded by putting out his own anthology with Lee Child as the guest editor. 

In this post, I will review Penzler's anthology. Being a review, it is the personal opinion of a mystery consumer. In my next post, I will review Cha's anthology.

Penzler's 2021 entry to the best mysteries.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

Twenty mystery stories plus a bonus story by 19th century author Ambrose Bierce. Introduction by guest editor, Lee Child.

The Introduction.

Oy vey.   

I don't want to pick a fight with Lee Child. I've heard he is a genial guy and I know he gives back to the literary community. That said, his introduction to The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021 is cringeworthy.

"I was delighted when Otto Penzler asked me to be involved in this new short-story project. I felt the request implied he thought I had something worthwhile to offer on the subject. I'm always delighted to create that impression. But sadly, on this occasion, an impression is all that it is. I don't know much about short stories, or their true origins, mechanisms, or appeal. My only consolation is I'm not sure anyone else does either."

I ground my teeth when he confessed to not know much about short stories, origins, or mechanisms. I wanted to scream when he said he didn't know much about their appeal. Really? Your every reader knows their appeal. That's why we bought the book. And then Child goes on to insult everyone else by suggesting we share his ignorance.

Sigh. Okay, so he's assuming some sort of humbly-grovelly, self-deprecating voice. I kicked myself so now you don't have to. No. Not good. I want confidence in my editor. If you don't know much about short stories, keep it to yourself. Or maybe you shouldn't be here. At least tell me you know their appeal and appreciate them.

His second paragraph:  

"What is a short story? Clearly there's a clue in the name. A short story is a story that's short. A story is an account of events -- in this context almost certainly made up -- and the adjective short acts to separate the form from other types of accounts that customarily tend to be longer."

Now we're in Bart Simpson book report territory. Perhaps he is leaning on some post-modern irony here: all we can say is about a short story is that it is a story and short. It comes across as putting no effort to his writing. Why is he slapping us in the face?

After a time he goes into a painful-brainful description of how the short story must have developed from the mind of early man. This event, he says, must have taken place sometime after man developed the non-fiction narrative. Non-fiction came first for practical reasons, like describing how to hunt. He treats this matter as though language developed instantaneously and a choice between non-fiction and fiction was made. He says that because no verbal (or written record) is available, we don't know what went on. Of course we do know some things. We have painted images of hunts, that is, stories. (Were they fiction or non-fiction?) We have records of early man's tools and their practicality. We have unpractical depictions of night skies and early idols. The presence of idols equals stories equals fiction.

Child makes the observation: "Scientific advances in the field of human origins have been spectacular, but scientists don't like to speculate."

I am a scientist and I can tell you: scientists love to speculate. When it comes to speculation, you can't get them to shut up.

This is my speculation: by the time humans could linguistically tie together a non-fiction story, they could tie together a fiction story. If I had to pick between the two, I would guess fiction came first. What is that round ball of flame in the sky? (The answer at the time was not non-fiction) Let me tell you a tale of my father who punched buffaloes: Ogg Reacher.

As for their practicality, you can teach a lesson in fiction as well as you can teach a lesson in non-fiction. History tells us people employed fictional explanations of real world phenomena long before we had non-fictional explanations.

As I have put forth already: I was disappointed by Child's introduction. He could have talked with archaeologists. He could have spoken with those who know about the progression of the short story. Even without delving into its literary definition, short stories are much more than stories that are short.

Child recognizes the underwhelming aspect of his introduction:

"I bet they [many of the authors who appear in the anthology] think this foreword is crazy. I bet they don't agree with a word of it. . . . I bet they're going to quote from my first paragraph, right back at me: I don't know much about short stories, or their true origins, mechanisms, or appeal." Well, I did.

Child is a great entertainer. Entertainment, done well, enriches our lives. He is a par excellent storyteller who has thrilled millions. I don't hold a candle to that. I don't want to be the author who makes enemies, but I feel he snubbed the short story. The glibness of his introduction, even with its wincing self-deprecation, came across as a slight to a great art form.

The Stories

As I mentioned in the last post, the 21 authors in Penzler's anthology were white. They averaged 67 years old.

The stories in Otto Penzler/Lee Child collection are written for the most part by authors who have earned ridiculously long credits. How can you turn down Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Paretsky, or the final short story by Sue Grafton? Even many of the selected authors who are not household* names have been highly prolific with hundreds of stories to their credit. 

*The thriller writer Geoffrey Household was not part of this anthology.

The stories are, as they have been in past anthologies, presented in alphabetical order by the authors' surnames. I don't understand this. If I was presenting a series of stories, I would choreograph their order. I often see this in authors presenting their own collections. A grand flourish at the beginning. An intriguing impossible leap for the second story. A thoughtful third piece followed by a joyous high-kicking chorus, and so on. That jolting novella at the end.

Nevertheless, alphabetical is the tradition, so Doug Allyn is first with 30 and Out. Unfortunately, this was one of my least favorite of the anthology. It is the story of a police officer who has eight days to retirement and yet involves himself in a big case. And, spoiler alert—and it deserves to be spoiled—he is murdered. He is killed by a ridiculously long sniper shot to the neck, estimated on the scene to be 700 to 800 meters. The rest of the story is spent trying to redeem these clichés.

Jim Allyn, brother of Doug, has the next story, Things That Follow. I enjoyed this much more. It set up a by-the-books straight-line police narrative and then tied in knots.

Michael Bracken has had 1300 stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I already hate him. He left no room for me! His story, Blest Be the Ties that Bind, was well-told, however I found the theme that a holy man of God sometimes has to involve himself in multiple murders to be depressing.

James Lee Burke cannot write badly. Okay, I've only read about twelve of his novels and a half-dozen short stories, so I am not a complete authority. His entry, Harbor Lights, doesn't disappoint. His stories are worth it for the atmosphere alone. And the characters. And the action.

Martin Edwards, who authored a definitive non-fiction book about the golden age of mysteries, provides a superb piece of golden-age-style fiction, The Locked Cabin. I'm a sucker for a murder aboard an old-timey passenger liner (or aboard a train, for that matter).

John Floyd, Biloxi Bound. A mob assassin has moved into town. Enjoyable, atmospheric.

After six male authors in a row, we get three female authors. All right, alphabetical, the vagaries of chance. 

Jacqueline Freimor, That Which Is True. A fine story of a jury held hostage with the lead character getting beyond her history with a bully. 

Alison Gaylin's The Gift fell flat. A child goes missing in the glamorous world of celebrities. The razzle didn't dazzle me. I enjoyed the character of the psychic.

Up above, I asked how can you turn down Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Paretsky, or the final short story by Sue Grafton. This is part of the problem: this anthology leans hard on the big names. Some of them disappoint. Sue Grafton's final short story, If You Want Something Done Right . . ., was not among her best work.

Paul Kemprecos, The Sixth Decoy. A strong story using classic tropes, a P.I. on the run from his previous life, an eccentric millionaire, and valuable art.

Stephen King, The Fifth Step. This story didn't work for me, covering too familiar territory for King and leaning too hard on its twist. In contrast, right now, I am reading King's If It Bleeds and it is marvelous.

Janice Law, The Client. Well-done. A lawyer learns the truth about her sweet old client. Has an Alfred Hitchcock Presents feel to it. (That's a good thing.)

Dennis McFadden, The Truth About Lucy. An old crime haunts a town. A well-told tale.

David Marcum, The Adventure of the Home Office Baby. I love a good Sherlock Holmes' pastiche. This is a good pastiche and I do love it, but, among Sherlock pieces this past year, I thought The Twenty-Five Year Engagement by James Ziskin was more deserving of anthology.

Tom Mead, Heatwave. In 50s LA, a PI seeks a missing 17 year old. Also seeking the kid are two hitmen. Well-told, steeped in noir. One of my favorites of this anthology.

David Morrell, Requiem for a Homecoming. During homecoming, friends recall an old murder from the year of their graduation. I don't know why, but I didn't get involved in this one. With apologies to the author, (taste is arbitrary), I had to read it a second time to remember it for this review.

Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA. Joyce Carol Oates is a great author, I've loved many of her stories, including her mysteries. This one didn't work for me. I suspect this is a story that will work for some people, a love-it or hate-it piece. I felt like it jack-knifed between clichés and gushes of invective and emotion with little for me to hang on to.

Sarah Paretsky, Love & Other Crimes. This story was my favorite of the anthology, and may be my favorite from Paretsky. The story-telling is masterful and I loved the accumulation of the clues in small details. 

Joseph S. Walker, Etta at the End of the World. This was the only story in the group that I had previously read. I'm a 50 book-a-year reader, not one who is as omnivorous as my book-crazed friends. Maybe that's why I read year's best anthologies, to catch up on what I missed. This story was nominated for the Edgar award this year and deserved the recognition. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine offers an audio presentation of the story as part of their podcast, read by the author.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Path I Took. Wonderful, atmospheric tale of a small town in Ireland. Welsh-Huggins knows how to immerse the reader in a place and time. 

Bonus Story: Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, My Favorite Murder. I don't agree with the rationale to include a 110-year-old story at the end of the collection. Better to add one from the honorable mentions. 

In his own way, the inclusion of Bierce makes a fine commentary on the topic of the old and the new. I enjoy Bierce: a mystery writer who became a mystery. I consider the time he disappeared in late 1913 as being the dividing line between early period and modern short stories. Many of the great 19th century/early 20th century short story writers had died in the past ten years including Twain, O. Henry, Chekhov, Jules Verne, Leo Tolstoy, and Kate Chopin. In 1914, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence would publish their first story collections, ushering in a new age of short fiction. In 1915, they would be joined by Franz Kafka. 

Bierce also provides a final commentary on men and women. He was the author of the intentionally subversive, The Devil's Dictionary. Under the definition of woman he writes: "The woman is lithe and graceful in its movement, especially the American variety (felis pugnans*), is omnivorous and can be taught not to talk." Under "man" we find Bierce is also critical and demeaning, but for his definition "man" is humankind. By Bierce's standards: Women are something bad, but men are everything. 

*Latin for fighting felines.

In summary, the Penzler/Child anthology provided me with a heaping helping of classic mystery stories. As do most mystery readers, I love classic stories when they are well-told: they are one of the reasons I entered the mystery field. Some of these stories are very well-told, others have the feel of entries by authors who have passed their peak. 

I was disappointed by the general lack of variety in stories and was shocked at the complete absence of minority writers (or should I have been?). With few exceptions, these stories fulfilled Cha's criticism of white male protagonists, tough cops, tough PIs, or good guys who resort to murder. To Joyce Carol Oates's credit, her piece took chances and fit none of these tropes.

In my next post, the final of this series, I look at Steph Cha's anthology of the year's best mystery stories.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021

Otto Penzler, Lee Child, guest editor. 


Doug Allyn, 30 and Out

Jim Allyn, Things That Follow

Michael Bracken, Blest Be the Ties that Bind

James Lee Burke, Harbor Lights

Martin Edwards, The Locked Cabin

John Floyd, Biloxi Bound

Jacqueline Freimor, That Which Is True

Alison Gaylin, The Gift

Sue Grafton, If You Want Something Done Right . . .

Paul Kemprecos, The Sixth Decoy

Stephen King, The Fifth Step

Janice Law, The Client

Dennis McFadden, The Truth About Lucy

David Marcum, The Adventure of the Home Office Baby

Tom Meade, Heatwave

David Morrell, Requiem for a Homecoming

Joyce Carol Oates, Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA

Sarah Paretsky, Love & Other Crimes

Joseph S. Walker, Etta at the End of the World

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Path I Took

Bonus Story: Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, My Favorite Murder


I have several short stories coming out soon, including ones in Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. A science fiction story has been accepted in El Porvenir ¡Ya! Chicano Scifi Anthology. It has a Kickstarter page now, a new experience for me. My late mother, a Chicano activist, would be proud.

Martin Hill Ortiz is a Professor of Pharmacology at Ponce Health Sciences University and has researched HIV for over thirty years. He is the author of four novels and numerous short stories and poems.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Divide in the Mystery Writing Community

In the first installment, I examined the culture wars taking place as the storytellers of history — and science fiction — have been changing from the predominately white male narrators. Compared to the puppy wars in science fiction, the mystery writing community, to its credit, has had a milder form of this fight. 

Alpha-male mysteries and thrillers have played a prominent role in the history of the genre. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and a thousand of their progeny confronted femme fatales, many times with a sharp slap. Dashiell Hammett is a favorite writer of mine, but he could be fairly racist, especially towards Chinese-Americans. 

Beyond detective noir, mostly two-fisted male heroes have also dominated the mystery/thriller genre from the classics, The 39 Steps, by John Buchan (1915) and Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household (1939) to Lee Child's Jack Reacher series (ongoing). 

Frankly, a lot of stories have been either updated Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, a pair of detectives with an outsized influence on mysteries and literature. If those stories are good, they are good. But too often, they are too many. I have recently been included in an anthology of humorous short mysteries. Along with a dozen Marlowes, there was one Holmes pastiche.

Do classic mystery and thriller tales and authors of a narrow demographic continue to crowd out more diverse voices and newer directions of mystery?

Penzler's first Best American Mystery Stories anthology.

Cha Versus Penzler

Before describing their dispute, let me introduce the two key players. Otto Penzler, author, owner of the famous Mysterious Bookshop, and super-editor, has since 1997 put out annual collections of the best short mysteries. He is ensconced in New York City. Steph Cha, is a mystery novelist and through the Los Angeles Times, is the mystery specialist at the Los Angeles Review of Books

In November 2018, Linda Fairstein, who has been for years a New York Times bestseller of mysteries, was announced as the Grand Master of the upcoming annual meeting from the Mystery Writers of America. Fairstein is also an ex-prosecutor, and was notably the head of the sex crimes office at the time of the prosecution of the individuals who became known as The Central Park Five. Although the five have been released from prison for their crimes and legally exonerated, Fairstein maintains their guilt. 

The week of Fairstein's annoucement, mystery writer Attica Locke, who at the time was working on a Netflix series* about the Central Park Five, made this tweet about Fairstein. 

"#MWA As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year's awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five." 

Locke went on to term Fairstein's recognition as "a racist action."

*The series, When They See Us, which would go on to be a popular and award-winning success, would not debut until months after this controversy began.

The MWA quickly withdrew Fairstein from being the Grand Master.

Steph Cha of the Los Angeles Times weighed in on this controversy. Of Fairstein, "Her presence among us (those at mystery conferences) should be the scandal of every conference — it probably would've been earlier if there had been more crime writers of color when the Five were exonerated in 2002." 

Cha extended her criticisms toward the homogeny of MWA. "While the mystery writing community has changed somewhat over the last few years, it has long been embarrassingly white and, if not outright conservative, less than progressive in its collective values (hello hero cops and beautiful dead girls)."

Penzler fired back, in part defending Fairstein, in part attacking Cha. 

"Regrettably, I have only recently become aware of this disgusting turn of events. I was not in New York and had no cell phone service when you cowardly and reprehensibly snatched the Edgar Award from Ms. Fairstein, evidently cowed by racially charged and utterly misinformed letters from Attica Locke and Steph Cha."

"Cha boasted of her ignorance, admitting that she did not know that Ms. Fairstein had been a long-serving and honored assistant district attorney who headed the Sex Crimes Prosecution Office had never heard of the Central Park Five case and, furthermore, had no idea that Ms. Fairstein has written numerous books, most of which have been on national best-seller lists and whose work and reputation earned her a Grand Master Award-a situation that her employer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, should consider as she is, incredibly the editor of its crime section and patently unqualified for the position."

He railed against revoking Fairstein's recognition.

". . . [a] disgraceful decision, besmirching the reputation of one of the finest, most decent and honorable women I have ever known."

And concluded his letter with:

"I have been a proud member of MWA for more years than many of you [MWA Board] have been alive, but that pride no longer pertains. I am ashamed of you and of the organization for taking such a cowardly stance. For many years, I have welcomed the celebration of the incoming board with a party at the Mysterious Bookshop. The board does not deserve a celebration of any kind, and it would be hypocritical of me to host one. You are no longer welcome in my bookshop."

Cha responded:

"He calls me stupefyingly ignorant [Penzler used those words in a section I didn't quote] and unqualified to edit for LARB because I hadn't heard of Linda Fairstein. (He also says I hadn't heard of the Central Park Five, because his reading comprehension isn't very good.)"

Steph Cha's 2019 Suspense Thriller

The Aftermath

This battle continues to echo three years later. For the 2021 edition of the Best Mystery Story series, Otto Penzler was removed as chief editor. Steph Cha was given the reigns. 

Diversity of storytellers is a goal of hers. She said, "You might see more stories by women and writers of color (both categories I happen to belong to) in this series going forward, but not because of some secret agenda to sacrifice quality for diversity. I gravitate toward some stories over others because I have opinions, a worldview, and a pulse."

In another tweet Steph Cha went on to declare: "Here's what I have to say about Otto Penzler. On a personal level, I am of course pleased to take the reins away from a man who once called me stupid and racist and demanded I lose my editing job for criticizing Linda Fairstein. I'm only human."

Two Anthologies

Otto Penzler struck back by starting a separate anthology. While Steph Cha called her anthology The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, Otto Penzler set up a competing anthology called The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021.

So this year we have two anthologies which, if you happened to blink, seem to be carrying on the same legacy. Steph Cha selected as her guest editor, the mystery writer, Alafair Burke. Otto Penzler went all-in with one of highest testosterone thriller writers, Lee Child.

Steph Cha promised more diverse voices and a more modern look at what mystery is. Her compilation self-consciously represents the philosophy and practice of inclusion. Her chosen editor, Alafair Burke, is a New York Times bestseller with 18 novels to her credit. She is 52 years old. (I include ages here because part of the story is the old versus the new.)

Otto Penzler went with the thriller writer, Lee Child, known for shoot 'em up action, 26 novels in all. I was genuinely disappointed when I learned Child's explanation for naming his hero Jack Reacher. Child was at a grocery store and was asked to reach for an item. He thought, if I fail as a writer, at least I'll have a career as a reacher. I imagined Jack Reacher was a pun on Jack Creature, referencing the beastly side of the character. Child is 67 years old.

I've read both of these anthologies and performed a demographic breakdown of the authors of the stories. For Penzler/Child's anthology, all 20 authors (21 when including a bonus short story by 19th century author Ambrose Bierce) were white. Among the whites, none were Latino or Latina. Fourteen were men and six were women. I couldn't always find the ages of the authors and sometimes had to fill in with imperfect estimates (undergraduate degree minus 22). With that imprecision in mind, they averaged 67 years old. Child's age!

For the Cha/Burke anthology, 12 story authors were female, 8 were male. There were 8 white non-Latinx, 4 Latinx, 5 black, 1 Latinx black, 1 South Asian, and one for whom I could not find info. Among the ages I could find and making estimates for the rest, they averaged 48 years of age. 

The game was on. Or afoot. In my next installment I review the Penzler's best mystery anthology. Between the two, they speak volumes in the differences between the old and the new. 


I have several short stories coming out soon, including ones in Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. A science fiction story has been accepted in El Porvenir ¡Ya! Chicano Scifi Anthology. It has a Kickstarter page now, a new experience for me. My late mother, a Chicano activist, would be proud.

I have made no judgment here regarding Fairstein or the Central Park Five. That is not to say I believe the Central Park Five or Fairstein should be considered guilty. On the contrary, I view them as innocent until I am better informed. For matters of such weight, I have a personal (arbitrary) 20 hour rule. If I haven't made at least 20 hours of research on the subject, including arguments and counterarguments, I will remain neutral. That might sound like a cop out, but for most of these matters, my opinion is not needed. (I'm not that important!) 

Johnnie Cochran of OJ fame, made a profound statement. He said that it didn't bother him if a person thought OJ was guilty. It bothered him that people who knew little to nothing about the case thought OJ was guilty. There are hundreds, thousands of controversial matters that vie for public consciousness and my own.  I have selected a few to study well enough to provide a definitive statement. This has not (yet) been one of them.

So the Central Park Five are innocent and were railroaded. Historically, this has happened often enough to not make it a surprise.

And Linda Fairstein is innocent of wrongdoing in these matters, a different sort of railroading.

And the Central Park Five and/or Linda Fairstein could be guil. . . no, I'm not going there. My ignorance should never equal someone's presumption of guilt. 

Martin Hill Ortiz is a Professor of Pharmacology at Ponce Health Sciences University and has researched HIV for over thirty years. He is the author of four novels and numerous short stories and poems.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Culture War over History and Fiction

In this post I have three parts to present. First, the context of my piece: a battle is being fought over who should tell the narrative of history. Second, I demonstrate that the same fight is taking place in fiction: who gets to be the storytellers is changing. Third, I discuss how these cultural wars have played out in the fiction genres of science fiction and mystery. 

All of these lead up to my next three posts, a look at how this has played out in the split between The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 and The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, two anthologies that used to be one.


Over the past decade the United States has experienced some particularly nasty fights over questions of what should be included or excluded from its historical narrative. 

I certainly grew up with the relentlessly heroic white American narrative. As a child, cowboys were good guys and Indians were the villains and this fit into games we played, much as we played cops and robbers. (I preferred being the Indian because shooting someone with a suction cup arrow was more satisfying than pointing a toy gun and saying bang-bang.) George Armstrong Custer was an unquestioned hero, played on the screen, in one turn, by Ronald Reagan. But times were changing. The television show Custer (1967) which glamorized the exploits of the general was successfully booted off television following Native American protests.

Custer's exploits in a Dell Book. George Maunder from the 1967 series as Custer. That wide-open mouth suggests he ate his enemies.

There is this line from Arsenic and Old Lace, a Joseph Kesselring play from 1941. The protagonist, Mortimer Brewster, is citing his crazy ancestors, "You know in those days the Indians used to scalp the settlers, [his ancestor William Brewster] used to scalp the Indians." Which was standard funny way back when. However, historically, the settlers scalped the Native Americans at a much higher rate. General bounties were set on the lives of Native Americans and scalps were proof of kill. Dark skin Mexicans and Mexican-Americans often became victims: their hair and skin could "pass." 

I love history. But what I love about history is that it is not the simplistic story I was told as a child with memorizing dates and often memorizing the prejudices of my teachers. (As a child all this took place in public schools. Sometimes the prejudice was eye-popping to me, even as a gullible kid.) From a Southern teacher in a New Mexican school: first of all, Abraham Lincoln was the ugliest person who ever lived.

Those who would attack a multi-perspective history often use the term "Critical Race Theory." Critical Race Theory has become an umbrella to cover all history that some people don't want to hear. More than that, it has become a selling point for fear-driven narratives in the same line as Sharia law taking over America, Happy Holidays means "War on Christmas," or Obama must have been born in Kenya. All of these are nonsense except to the very uncritical. 

This is not to say the liberal view of history is right, and the conservative view is wrong. History is more complex than that. I am saying the conservative view of history permeates the narrative. Including multiple points of view fills the picture.

Culture Wars as Played Out in Fiction

Sixty years ago, the white male narrative was the overwhelmingly dominant story. Even when minorities figured as part of the stories, those stories were written by whites. (Sometimes to great effect such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Often in cringeworthy forms.) As America became more diverse in its population, voices with authentic experience have had a greater opportunity to speak for themselves. 

The Growing Diversity of Storytellers.

I first became interested in the question of male versus female authorship when I performed analyses of those books chosen as the 100 greatest mystery novels by the Mystery Writers of America (1995) and by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain (1990). Before I ran the numbers, I suspected female authors would be on parity with males. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, among others would match, novel for novel, those of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Peter Lovesey. Of the 67 authors who wrote the novels that appeared on the MWA list, 16 were female and 51 male. Of the 64 authors who wrote the novels in the CWA list, 17 were female and 47 male. 

Times are changing. There has been no update to the CWA and MWA all-time best mystery lists, so I directed my attention elsewhere. I went on to analyze male versus female authors as to who had the most weeks atop the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list and how that has changed. From the years 1960 to 1990, books authored by men were on top 81% of the weeks. Some years, even into the 90s, men had the top seller every week of the year. In the 2010s, women were on top more often than men. This switch may have occurred a decade sooner, except that, with the popularity of the Harry Potter books, the New York Times evicted JK Rowling from Adult Fiction sending her to a newly invented bestsellers list, Childrens Literature. She was later kicked off that list in favor of a list for series books. Dan Brown was safe. 

The percentage of weeks and total weeks of male and female authors having the #1 New York Times Bestselling Fiction. In this graph, the 2010s include through 2015.

It would make an interesting study to see how many weeks The Da Vinci Code would have been #1 if it was explicitly up against Harry Potter. When science switches over its methodology, it usually continues for a time with a "legacy" calculation: how the figures would rank using the old method.

The Changing Demographic of Genre Fiction and the Puppy Wars

The changing demographic of authorship extends beyond more female authors. Blacks, Latinos and Latinas, and other minorities began infusing fiction and genre fiction with distinct perspectives. Some saw this as an affront, dismissing their achievements as being praised because they were minority voices. Others saw this as finally getting in after a history of exclusion.

With inclusion came backlash. One ugly example took place in the 2010s as some authors and supporters of the "traditional" alpha-male explore the stars, kick alien butt, felt crowded out by the diversity of voices of minority writers who were dominating the genre. Those who felt disenfranchised created a manifesto, calling themselves the "Sad Puppies" with the more aggressive becoming the "Rabid Puppies." Some members of these groups resorted to personal attacks against those favoring the newer inclusive science fiction and its minority authors, hurling invective, and threatening authors with violence. 

The Hugo Awards accepts nominees via voting at the World Science Fiction Convention. The puppies attempted to seize control of the 2015 awards. Their supporters flooded the nomination process so that every nominee in every category were those from their slate. One author, not wanting to be associated with the puppies, withdrew. The judges replaced that nominee with Liu Cixin and his novel The Three-Body Problem. He became the winner. As for the other categories, none of the nominations from the puppies were given awards.

This article from NPR, on the other hand, said the puppies won by losing.

Female authors have come to dominate science fiction awards. The Nebula award for best novel has gone to women in ten out of the last eleven years. The fresh perspectives provided by the recent writers have been thrilling, including my favorite, three-time Hugo winner, NK Jemisin.

There is a general rule behind this. Authors are often "strangers in a strange land" (a Bible verse and the name of a famous Heinlein novel). Marginalized groups can have a fresh perspective on the world we live in and they provide us their eyes. Life experience is broad and varied. Great authors who are white can also see as strangers: Joseph Conrad or Truman Capote.

Being a Latino who looks nothing like a Latino, I have often thought of myself as an undercover spy. Over the years, racists have confided in me, saying remarkable things.

Coming Up Next. A Divide in the Mystery Writing Community


I have several short stories coming out soon, including ones in Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. A science fiction story has been accepted in El Porvenir ¡Ya! Chicano Scifi Anthology. It has a Kickstarter page now, a new experience for me. My late mother, a Chicano activist, would be proud.

Martin Hill Ortiz is a Professor of Pharmacology at Ponce Health Sciences University and has researched HIV for over thirty years. He is the author of four novels and numerous short stories and poems.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Three Strange Rejections

Writing and sending out manuscripts for decades now, I've had my share of rejections. From the submission tracker Duotrope, I am told that my 14.3% acceptance rate is higher than the average for those authors who have sent to the same publications. Still that means 85.7% rejection.

In the past two months, I've had three unique rejections. 

First, for my short story, The Horse Whistle, I was sent a standard rejection notice. Two days later, I received an unrejection notice, apologizing for the first. One week after that I received a final rejection notice, this time being told it was final. My first ever unrejection became a rejection.

I sent my short story, WTF, to freeze frame fiction in March 2015. It was accepted. And then nothing happened. This is not too unusual, projects, even those with good intentions, sometimes die. I sent the piece out five more times. Two acceptances and both of those journals expired before publishing. I began to feel the story was cursed. Then in August 2021, six-and-a-half years after it was accepted in freeze frame fiction, I was told the project was back on track. And there I am, first in the table of contents.

Finally, I sent a poem to the Milwaukee Irish Fest poetry contest back in July. I didn't win the contest which was decided in August, and that's not a big deal, only one winner. Today, I received in the mail a handwritten note from one of the judges, all the more surprising because I entered the contest electronically:

Dear Mr. Ortiz,

[Name redacted] here of the Milwaukee Irish Fest poetry contest. This is a very tardy acknowledgement of and thank you for "You're Never Too Old to be Young."

Your poem is very refreshing in style and content: a true ribald ballad that would bring down the house in Irish pubs around the world.  

Thank you

--- ----

Any acceptance is better than any rejection, but I suppose going out of the way to snail mail a sympathy note is a fine gesture. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Where Has COVID-19 Had Its Highest Death Rates Since The Delta Variant Appeared?


The COVID-19 Fatality Rates in the Time of the Delta Variant and Vaccine Availability

The COVID-19 infection has passed over the United States in several waves. The death rates before and since the appearance of the Delta variant and the general availability of the vaccine tell a dramatic story. 

So, before and after. What date to choose? For this analysis, I chose February 23, 2021 as the dividing point. This was the date when the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus first appeared in the United States. Delta variant infections now account for 99% of infections in the U.S.  By this date, the massive wave that began in November was well in decline. America COVID-19 deaths had peaked on January 12th, 2021 with 4490 in a single day. 

Cumulative US Deaths, from Worldometers .info

Death Rates Before and After February 23, 2021.

Which states have fared better or worse, before and since February 23, 2021? Below is table with the states ranked in order according to the numbers of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 (100,000 being the standard epidemiological number) from before and after February 23, 2021. The end date for this analysis was October 1st, 2021. The phase one numbers are universally higher: 72.7% of all deaths occurred before 2/23/21.

Table 1.

The above numbers are taken from They are in 99% in agreement with the gold standard data maintained by Johns Hopkins, but worldometers is easier to navigate to a specific date for a specific state. (Note: the totals in worldometers appear a bit higher because they include Puerto Rico, U.S. territories. They seem to double count veterans. This analysis is the fifty states and District of Columbia.) 

I have been critical of Florida's response to COVID before this, but I was surprised that with all the competition they managed to rank the worst over the past seven-plus months. 

Vaccination Rates Versus Biden Vote

It is hard to look at the list and not notice that most of the states that have performed poorly recently are Republican-led. Trump won the state election in 12 out of the top 14 in the 2020 election, the exceptions being the hotly contested elections in Georgia and Nevada. (Twenty-five states went for Trump and twenty-five for Biden. DC, included in this analysis, went for Biden.)

So, what's going on in the Trump states? Do the states where Trump won have lower vaccination rates? The table below includes vaccination rates, state ranking of vaccination, percentage of votes that went to Biden in each state, and the ranking of those states. The vaccination rates came from Johns Hopkins and were current for October 1st. The voting percentages for Biden came from Wikipedia.

Table 2.

The correspondence is fairly remarkable. The eighteen states with the lowest vaccination rates all swung for Trump. The eighteen states with the highest vaccination rates all swung for Biden. Florida, ranked a modest 33rd, has the highest rate of vaccination among states that went to Trump. 

A fairly tight correlation between state vote for Biden and percent vaccinated. District of Columbia is on the far right.

Vaccination rates correspond to death rates after 2/23/21. (Going too much before February, the vaccine was not generally available)

Table 3.

Table 3 tells some fascinating stories. First of all is the big picture: states with death rates that correspond to their vaccination rate. Among the 20 who are doing most poorly in death rates are 14 states which are also in the bottom for vaccination rates. Among the 20 who have the lowest death rates are 13 who have the highest percentage vaccination.

Dividing this data up in another way, 31 states and the District of Columbia performed roughly as expected with death rate rankings corresponding to vaccination rates (plus or minus 10). This included states with high vaccination rates and low death rates (e.g., Vermont, ranked 3rd in vaccination and 1st in fewest deaths) or those with low vaccination rates and high deaths (e.g. Mississippi 49th in vaccination and 50th in death). 

*Worse and better were defined as having 10 or less in difference between rankings.

Nine states performed markedly worse in deaths compared to their rankings in vaccinations. Most notably was Florida (32), New Jersey (21), New Mexico (20), Virginia (20), Massachusetts (14), Kentucky (13), New York (13), Texas (12), and Nevada (12). With the high number for Florida, it suggests that the state is making poor decisions beyond the question of vaccinations.

Ten states performed markedly better in their rankings of deaths versus ranking of vaccinations. These were most notably North Dakota (44 ranks higher!), Alaska (22), Nebraska (21), Wisconsin (19), Wyoming (19), South Dakota (17), Utah (17), Iowa (16), Indiana (13), and Ohio (11). Out of the top eight of these, seven were contiguous.

(Note: these numbers were updated on October 6 due to a miscalculation)

Is There a Herd Immunity?

There are two ways to be vaccinated against COVID-19: by a prepared vaccine or by getting the disease. States that have outperformed their official vaccination rates in recent months are often those which have had the highest infection per population. 

An explosion of infections occurred in the upper Midwest beginning in October 2020, with over 1% of the population becoming infected per week. And this can only reflect what was measured at a time when health care services were saturated. "Silent" infections were likely not tested. Going back to the beginning of infection, North Dakota is ranked 2nd in infections per population. South Dakota is 6th, Utah 11th, and Wyoming 12th. With the exception of New Hampshire, all states that outperformed their vaccination rates (by having fewer deaths) are in the top 25 of infection rates.

Herd immunity, better phrased as vaccination by infection, carries a huge price. Although this analysis has focused on the ultimate price, death, hospitalization, economic destruction, short-term suffering and long term impairment are all possible with COVID-19 infection.

Martin Hill Ortiz is a professor of Pharmacology at the Ponce Health Sciences University. He teaches vaccinations and has researched viruses for over 30 years.