Earlier this week, the anthology The Mystery Box was published. Presented by the Mystery Writers of America, it is edited by Brad Meltzer and features 21 stories written some of today's best and most popular authors.
Today we are so thrilled to welcome to Omnimystery News seven of these authors, who write about how they came to participate in this anthology and about the backstory to their tales of mystery and suspense.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
James O. Born;
Photo credit Sigvision
James O. Born: "The Boca Box"
I've spent my adult life in two careers: law enforcement and writing. One thing all cops and all writers will tell you is that everyone thinks they can do your job better than you. A couple of episodes of Law and Order and everyone is a legal expert. A subscription to Writer's Digest and suddenly everyone thinks they're Michael Connelly.
My story for the MWA anthology The Mystery Box takes on one subject that is difficult to handle in both careers: fraud. Readers hesitate to read a story about fraud because they're used to murder, mayhem and all kinds of CSI magic that no cop has ever seen in real life.
Believe it or not, in the world of law enforcement, fraud can also be a tough sell. It's not as interesting to investigate and not flashy enough to attract prosecutors unless it's a huge amount of money. But I would argue that fraud touches more lives than violent crime. If you want evidence of the devastation fraud can cause, just ask one of the thousands of people that lost their retirement and life savings on Enron or even by an individual like Bernie Madoff (I mean even Kevin Bacon lost money. Kevin Bacon!).
I'm in no way diminishing the impact of violent crime. But just like the Dallas Cowboys, violent crime gets plenty of media coverage, even when it might not be deserved. Who doesn't like to hear the story of a attractive young girl who kills her rival or husband? There are entire TV series based on it. And what reader isn't captivated by a novel featuring the hunt for a serial killer?
Any good fraud story has to revolve around characters with interesting motives and unpredictable behavior. I learned a long time ago that the only thing harder to figure out than a criminal's motivation is a cop's motivation. Many detectives go far above and beyond the call of duty for reasons that are not obvious. No cop gets paid by the arrest, so everyone is motivated by something different. Duty, thrill, justice, revenge, ego, it doesn't matter and it is infinitely interesting.
When Brad Meltzer asked me to contribute to the MWA anthology, I knew that if it was a story of fraud, it had to be set in Boca Raton, Florida. The relatively quiet town seems to be the fraud capital of the United States. (Brad's parents also lived in Boca, but I doubt there is any connection.)
Like anyone else, when I'm reading fiction, I want to get to the point as quickly as possible. The surprising thing is, in real life, when I'm hearing about a crime, I feel the same way. Fraud, by its very nature, is more difficult to encapsulate in a simple tagline. The elements of the crime make prosecutors shudder and detectives transfer back to road patrol.
It's fun when I can address one issue about both careers in a single short story. Now I just have to figure out how to handle all the cops who want to be writers.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Jan Burke; Photo credit
Sheri McKinley Photography
Jan Burke, "The Amiable Miss Edith Montague"
When Brad Meltzer invited me to participate in The Mystery Box, the newest Mystery Writers of America anthology, he had not yet chosen a theme. In a leap of faith that only Brad and a handful of others could inspire, I agreed to do it. This could have been seen as foolhardy on my part, since wise authors know that anthology themes sometimes venture into the ridiculous. So far, I have not actually seen an anthology themed "Murder at a Calico Cat's Birthday Party in the Louvre", but I've been invited to participate in some that were fairly narrow in scope.
Brad, who later told me that he took my blind agreement to be as binding as a blood oath, came up with a terrific theme: What's inside the box? He made it clear that the box could be real or metaphysical. "Any kind of secret in any type of box."
I loved it. Any child who has seen a gift-wrapped package knows that boxes conceal wonders and seem designed to heighten our curiosity. From the time of Pandora, boxes have been irresistible to us, although we may not always be pleased by what we find within them.
Other types of boxes are the ones in which we figuratively put each other or draw around ourselves, the ones that may keep us from really knowing each other or may prevent us from growing closer. This is perfect fodder for crime fiction.
Writing "The Amiable Miss Edith Montague" allowed me to venture beyond the lines drawn around my series to write a story set nearly a century ago — a time of upheaval — in Jenksville, a fictional town in New York. I enjoyed researching this period of about 1919, when women had the vote in New York but not yet throughout the U.S.; when cars and telephones were changing even rural towns; when publishing birth control education materials could lead to jail time.
The story also allowed me to get to know Marcus Montague, a good-hearted gentleman who narrates it with a wry voice.
The title refers to the victim: Miss Edith Montague, a wealthy and amiable woman, who has been found murdered in her study. The room has been left in disarray, but the only missing item is a wooden box in which she kept receipts, canceled checks and paid bills.
Marcus, her sole heir and grandnephew, has lived with her for many years — orphaned at the age of ten, he grew to adulthood in her care. Sincerely attached to her, he feels her loss acutely.
Marcus is given comfort as well as assistance in solving the case from an unexpected but welcomed quarter — Clorinda Ainsbury, who broke off their relationship when he asked her to marry him, is a private investigator. She is also intelligent, independent, an avid suffragist, and still in love with Marcus.
Working together, they discover why the killer sought the wooden box and who feared the secrets Aunt Edith kept in it.
I hope you'll enjoy meeting Marcus and Clorinda — I grew quite attached to them. I'm sure you'll enjoy the other stories as well. I am excited to see what my colleagues did with the challenge Brad Meltzer laid before us, and feel honored to be included in such stellar company.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Photo credit Joel Benjamin
Joseph Finder, "Heirloom"
I've always considered "write what you know" one of the most useless pieces of advice anyone could give a writer, especially a thriller writer. If I'd started out writing what I knew, my first book would have been about a guy from upstate New York who wanted to be a cartoonist. (I'm not saying that wouldn't have been a good book, but it definitely wouldn't have been much of a thriller.)
When it came time to choose a topic for The Mystery Box, though, it made sense to rummage through my own box of real-life mysteries. All of these seem to come down, in one way or another, to the question of whether the people around us are really who they seem to be. And I remembered an experience that my wife and I had had more than a dozen years ago when we bought a summer house on Cape Cod, newcomers to a community founded hundreds of years before our arrival, which will undoubtedly survive us for centuries to come.
Don't get me wrong: we have wonderful neighbors on the Cape. But the relationship between the permanent population and the Summer People is an uneasy one, and as a Summer Person, I never forget that I'm a guest in a community that will never truly be mine.
My wife and I bought an old farmhouse built in the Cape Cod style from the estate of a woman who'd died in her nineties. It was set on the top of a hill on land that the woman's ancestors had owned for hundreds of years. After we bought the house and before we started the renovations, my wife happened to be at the town's historical society museum, researching the owner's family, when she overheard two local women gossiping.
"Did you hear what happened to the Snow house?" one woman said. "Some out-of-towners swooped in and bought it! Can you believe?"
"Oh, that's terrible," the second woman said.
Of course, we hadn't "swooped in" or anything of the kind. But we'd done something that bothered some of the old-timers: we'd bought a house they felt belonged to them.
Well, the first improvement we had to make to the old house was to replace its antiquated cesspool with a modern septic tank — a big, ugly project, and required by state law. Since we knew we'd be adding on to the house, we put in a big one. This involved a massive excavation, and apparently quite a few of our neighbors came by to watch this huge septic tank being placed in an immense hole in the ground.
A few months later, after we'd moved in, I stopped at the town dump to get a sticker. When I gave our street address, the guy said, "Oh, you're the folks with the septic tank."
We moved in, and we actually get along with our neighbors just fine. But what if we didn't? What if … there really was a reason the locals didn't want us there?
What if someone was covering up a terrible secret?
A few years later, one of the locals dropped by for a friendly visit. Peering down the hill at the dense forest, she said, "You know, that's where all the bodies are."
She told us that a few decades earlier, a local man, a carpenter, had murdered eight women, dismembered their bodies, and buried the parts in the forest. In what he called his "garden".
On our land, she said.
They never found all the bodies. At his sentencing, they asked the murderer if he had anything to say. Yes, he said. The police hadn't found all the victims yet, he said. "Keep digging."
Well, the horrifying story was true. It just wasn't on our land. But, if you wanted to discourage out-of-towners from buying a house, I thought, that would do it pretty well.
I'm a serious gardener — I grow dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes at our summer house. And while I was planting my tomatoes a few years back, I was seized with the thought: what if the local woman was right?
Voila: the story "Heirloom".
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Libby Fischer Hellmann;
Photo credit Michael Candee,
First Light Creative
Libby Fischer Hellmann, "War Secrets"
"War Secrets", my story in The Mystery Box anthology, edited by Brad Meltzer and published by MWA (Mystery Writers of America) has — well — an unusual backstory.
I was casting around for a story idea — the anthology's premise was "Secrets," which, as you might suspect, lends itself to a host of fascinating concepts. At the time I had just published my ninth crime thriller, A Bitter Veil, which tells the story of Anna Schroeder, a young student in Chicago, who meets Nouri Samedi, an Iranian engineering student. They fall in love, marry, and move to Tehran. However, the story takes place in 1978, and four months after Anna relocates, the shah is deposed. A Bitter Veil depicts the brutality and loss of freedom under Ayaltollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic, and ultimately Anna is forced to escape. She does so with the help of her German father, who was at one time a member of the Nazi party, and a Kurdish Jew from the north of Iran.
I purposely did not explain the connection between the two men in Veil; it's what we call in the business a "loose thread." Happily, I saw an opportunity to explore their relationship in "War Secrets", which is set in Nazi Germany during the 1930s.
But "War Secrets" had to stand on its own in order to be a part of the anthology, so I did some research and discovered not one, but two secrets held by the two major characters. One of the characters is physicist Erich Schroder who works in a lab in Leipzig. The other is Davood Sarand, a young Kurd who snags a privileged position in Schroder's lab. Davood is a closeted Jew, at least until he falls in love with Julia, a German Jew. But Erich Schroder has his own secret, which he decides not to pursue in the era of Deutsche Physik, which was also called "Aryan Science". Schroder, of course, is Anna's father, and Davood is the son of the man who helps Anna escape Iran.
As writers, we learn that conflict is the most important ingredient in fiction, and I can't think of a more extreme conflict than that imposed by war or revolution. The strife and stress turns some people into heroes, others into cowards. And it's not just individuals who are affected; families, communities, often entire cultures are tested, some irreversibly. That's why I am continually drawn to settings like Nazi Germany or, say, the Iranian revolution, for inspiration.
Thus, "War Secrets" became not only a short story about secrets and their consequences during a time of extreme conflict, but also the "prequel" to A Bitter Veil.
I hope you enjoy the story.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Photo credit Jan Cobb
Laura Lippman: "Waco, 1982"
I have always liked participating in themed anthologies. I tell my writing students that I consider them "external prompts" and that such exercises should not be disdained as gimmicky or not-quite-writing. I've written more than 20 short stories in the past 10 years and every single one came from an external prompt.
And, as it happens, Brad Meltzer is only the second MWA editor to request a story from me. A box, he said, metaphorical or literal. Due by the end of January. Can you do it?
Sure, I said, confident — hubristic — that the idea would come.
Now, I go to teach every January at a very fine writers conference that Dennis Lehane helped to start at his alma mater, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. When I arrived there in January 2012, I had just — just — finished a novel. The deadline for my short story fell a week after the writers conference. Strangely, I wasn't the least bit nervous. I'm not a mystical person, nor one invested in the concept of destiny. But I do believe that you can make ideas happen if you're open to them. I was looking for a box. Metaphorical or literal. I was sure I would find it.
I have been teaching at Eckerd since 2006 and the other faculty members have become some of my dearest friends. One is Ann Hood, a novelist whose out-sized talent is matched by her out-sized talent for living. Things happen to Ann. It's hard to explain. Amazing things, but also mundane things, which she makes amazing. That week at Eckerd, she lost her sweater at a local restaurant. We went back one, two, three times, determined to find Ann's sweater. The wait-staff pretended ignorance. We were on to them.
On one of those trips, I demanded to see the lost-and-found box, go through it on my own. I didn't find Ann's sweater, but I remembered being a reporter in Waco, Texas in the early 1980s, my first job out of college. I was assigned to write an article about motel lost-and-found boxes at the end of the summer. Of course, there was nothing interesting in them. But what if …
A week later, I submitted my story, "Waco, 1982". It's not a story I could have written in 1982, although I was trying, very hard, to write fiction when I was a young reporter. It is the first real fiction I've written about my Texas years and I hope those who knew me then will realize that I've learned a lot about the arrogance and pseudo-sophistication of youth. The story is completely fictitious — good Lord, I hope that's apparent — but a few details are borrowed from real life: Pat's Idle Hour, a juke box that played "String of Pearls", coconut milk shakes from the Health Camp. I was young and dumb, but I thought I was smart. It's a pretty dangerous combination.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Katherine Neville: "The Lunar Society"
As a former technological person myself, who'd participated in the early commercial phase of the computer revolution, I had long been fascinated by its predecessors: that handful of scientific entrepreneurs who — inspired by the Enlightenment, and living though the American and French revolutions — had then gone on, on their own, to spearhead the Industrial Revolution that has transformed modern society.
Experimental scientists like Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Galton, Joseph Priestley, William Small (tutor of Thomas Jefferson) and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles); or the steam engine manufacturers James Watt and Matthew Boulton whose products would mobilize everything from ships to trains to factories; or the pioneering ceramist Josiah Wedgwood, who created an affordable dish-ware product (one which had for so long been monopolized by another country, that it was named after it: "China" — these were inventors who'd gone from invention to mass production of their own creations, hence often combining the "spirit" of discovery with the very "material" result in wads of money. Alchemically inspiring!
What I did not know until later, was that most of these men not only knew one another; they belonged to a society they themselves had founded in England, not a secret society or a fraternal order, but a society whose sole purpose was to further and quicken the application or use of scientific discoveries. Hence, they backed the creation of better bridges, canals and waterways for moving goods and traffic, they experimented with oxygen and gas and hot-air balloons. They dubbed themselves "The Lunar Society" because they always met on the night of a full moon (for the very pragmatic reason that they could see to find their way home on horseback!)
But this Industrial Revolution, as with every revolution, would meet with fierce opposition from the reactionary camp. This time, everyone — from royalty, nobility and Anglican church officials, to peasant mobs — was out to nail those upstart freethinkers (or just any "thinkers" might do in a pinch.) As the "Seditious Meetings" and "Treasonable Practices" Acts were passed by parliament, forbidding all meetings not government-approved, and as the "Church and King" riots moved across the English countryside, leaving smoldering factories and laboratories in their wake, the Lunar Society met once more — this time in secret.
For the Lunaticks were not only scientists, but also pragmatists and humanists who believed in and spoke out for concepts like equality and justice. And to a man (and one woman) they were determined, against all odds, to demolish a 300-year-old system that would strike at the very heart of the British establishment: that system was Slavery.
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
Charles and Caroline Todd
Charles and Caroline Todd: "The Honour of Dundee"
It was the legend of Pandora that started it all — the mysterious box she wasn't allowed to open. And when she did, she released all the sorrows of the world to make man's life wretched. All that was left in the box was Hope, to keep us going. Agatha Christie collected boxes — she found them both intriguing and beautiful. You can see them at Greenway, her fascinating home in the Devon countryside. We have a small collection ourselves, picked up in countries we've visited. Easy to pack and a reminder of that moment. When we were writing our short story for The Mystery Box, we wanted to explore the idea that a box might be something worth killing for — but what happens when the contents of the box are very different from what the killer expected? A variation on the theme of Hope inside. It's fun to turn something upside down and look at it from a different perspective.
Many great families had an Honour, something that would protect them or save them in time of peril, like the Fairy Flag of the MacLeods in their stronghold of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Even England has such a legend. Arthur and the Knights of his Round Table lie sleeping on the Isle of Avalon, until called to save their country. And there's Drake as well, the great Elizabethan sea captain who stopped the Spanish Armada. He also waits for the summons. It's a way of looking at desperate times and knowing that help is there. Perhaps Churchill while writing his famous speeches in World War II wished he could call on Arthur to win in France or Drake to deal with the submarine menace. John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, (also remembered as "Bonnie Dundee" was the Scots leader at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, the forerunner of the Stuart rebellions of 1714 and 1745. And he died there. Bonnie Prince Charlie has supplanted him in the romantic folklore of lost causes. But he was a hero in his day and revered. And there was our title, "The Honour of Dundee".
Put these all together and you can't resist writing about a mystery box that has historical roots. It's one of the reasons we enjoy setting stories in Britain — there's such a rich and infinite vein of material to explore. Mining that vein is the adventure of every trip we take to look for stories and settings. And we're never disappointed. The box we brought home from England long ago still sits in the glass cabinet where we keep treasures. And we like to think that it holds untold stories. And one day, we'll open that box and set them free.
— ♦ —
Mystery Writers of America Presents:
The Mystery Box
edited by Brad Meltzer
New Stories by Steve Berry, Laura Lippman, Tom Rob Smith, R. L. Stine, Jan Burke, Joseph Finder, James Born, Katherine Neville, Charles Todd, Karin Slaughter, and 11 Others
There's nothing more mysterious than a locked box. Whether it's a literal strongbox, an empty coffin, the inner workings of a scientist's mind, or an underground prison cell, there are those who will use any means necessary to unlock the secrets of … The Mystery Box.
With this anthology, bestselling author Brad Meltzer introduces twenty-one original stories from today's most prominent mystery writers. In Laura Lippman's "Waco 1982", a young reporter stuck with a seemingly mundane assignment on lost-and-found boxes unwittingly discovers a dark crime. In Joseph Finder's "Heirloom", a scheming neighbor frightens the new couple on the block with an unnerving tale of buried treasure. In R.L. Stine's "High Stakes", a man on his honeymoon gets drawn into a bizarre bet involving a coffin — a bet he may pay for with his life.
From the foothills of Mount Fuji to Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, from a physics laboratory in wartime Leipzig to an unusual fitness club in Boca Raton, these sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, and always suspenseful tales will keep you riveted to the page.