Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Conversation with Novelist and Short Story Writer Josh Pachter

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Josh Pachter

We are delighted to welcome author Josh Pachter to Omnimystery News today.

Josh is the author of over four dozen short stories, ten of which feature Bahrain police officer Mahboob Chaudri that have recently been collected into a single volume titled The Tree of Life (Wildside Press; August 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats). We recently had the opportunity to talk with Josh more about his work.

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Omnimystery News: Give us the backstory to your series character Mahboob Chaudri.

Josh Pachter
Photo provided courtesy of
Josh Pachter

Josh Pachter: In 1982, I spent 10 months in the tiny island emirate of Bahrain, smack dab in the middle of the Persian Gulf and smack dab in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. I was there to teach for the University of Maryland at the US Navy's Administrative Support Unit, which was the headquarters of the Navy's Middle Eastern fleet. Years earlier, I'd published a dozen or so short stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but by 1982 I hadn't written a new story in almost a decade. There wasn't really all that much to do in Bahrain — the entire country was only 250 square miles in area, half of that was military territory and off-limits to foreigners, and most of what you could get to was desert — so I decided to get back into the crime-fiction business and created the character of Mahboob Chaudri, who started out as a patrolman on the country's Public Security Force but was soon promoted to detective. Because of the tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Bahrain's police force is almost entirely made up of Pakistanis, so Mahboob is something of a stranger in a strange land, far away from his home and his wife and children. He's a gentle man, without much book learning but with plenty of intelligence and plenty of heart. I wrote the first couple of Chaudri stories right there in Bahrain, then continued with the series for several years after moving from the Middle East to a little town outside Nürnberg in what was then called West Germany. Several of the stories were reprinted in year's-best collections and other anthologies, and author/critic Bill Pronzini called Mahboob "one of crime fiction's most delightful new detectives."

OMN: What kind of mystery stories are these?

JP: The Chaudri stories are pretty straightforward police procedurals — although, because of the cultural setting in which they take place, the procedure is quite different from police procedure here in the Western world.

On the other hand, I've got a novel coming out from Simon451 — a new speculative imprint of Simon & Schuster — on November 3, and that one's kind of hard to categorize. It's called Styx, and I collaborated on it with Belgian phenomenon Bavo Dhooge. (Only his name will appear on the cover, but the title page will read "by Bavo Dhooge with Josh Pachter.") The main character, Rafael Styx, is a homicide cop in Ostend, Belgium, and as the book begins he's chasing a serial killer who's already murdered three women. Fairly early on, Styx catches up with the killer — who shoots and kills him. Kind of like Janet Leigh getting it in the shower, 20 minutes into Psycho. Except where Janet Leigh then disappears from the movie, Styx does not disappear from the book: at the beginning of the next chapter, he wakes up … and gradually comes to the realization that he's still "alive," that he is in fact a zombie. And as a zombie he continues the hunt for his own killer. Bavo and I see this book as a crime novel that happens to have a zombie as the main character, but Simon & Schuster decided to publish it as a sort of horror/fantasy about a zombie who happens to be a cop. To be honest, we're concerned that, because of this categorization, readers who would appreciate the book as a solid cop-tracking-serial-killer crime novel might miss out on it — but I certainly hope your readers will look for it! (It's available for pre-order now on Amazon.)

OMN: Give us a summary of your books in a tweet.

JP: The Tree of Life: In the island emirate of Bahrain, Pakistani policeman Mahboob Chaudri tracks down an assortment of murderers and other criminals.

Styx: Homicide cop Rafael Styx becomes a zombie and goes after the serial murderer who shot and killed him.

OMN: Are any of the stories in The Tree of Life based on real-life experiences?

JP: Two of the Chaudri stories are very closely based on my own experiences.

"The Ivory Beast" is set aboard the US Navy's Middle East flagship, the USS Coronado, as it makes what's called a "show the flag" run through the Persian Gulf from Bahrain to Karachi. At the time I was living in Bahrain, the "official" Middle East fleet's flagship was in dry dock undergoing repairs, and the Coronado was serving that role on a temporary basis. I was invited to teach a course on a "show the flag" run to Karachi, and quite a bit of what happens in the story really happened while I was on board. (Except for the murder. I made that part up.) Several of the officers and enlisted men you'll read about in the story — including Captain Dave Buck, Lieutenant (JG) Bill Kundo and Seaman "Bear" Jensen — are real people, who gave me permission to use their real names in the story.

In "Jemaa el Fna," Mahboob is in Marrakesh, Morocco, where he's been sent as a member of the security team accompanying the Bahraini Minister of Defense to the annual Conference of Non-Aligned Nations. On his day off, he has an adventure in the city's main square, and what happens to him is almost word for word something that happened to me when I visited Marrakesh a few years after my stay in Bahrain.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

JP: I almost always begin with a title. For example, my 10-month stay in Bahrain included the month of Ramadan, which means I was there for Lailat al Qadr, "the Night of Power." That seemed to me to be a perfect name for a Chaudri story, so my job was to decide what crime Mahboob might be called on to investigate on such an occasion. But perhaps my favorite of my titles is on a more recent, non-Chaudri story. About a year and a half ago, my wife Laurie and I went to hear a marvelous singer named Robert Earl Keen perform live at the Birchmere, not far from where we live in northern Virginia. During a song called "Merry Christmas From the Family," I could've sworn I heard Robert Earl sing the words "Police Navidad" instead of "Feliz Navidad," and I thought now that would make a great title for a story! When Laurie and I got home, I googled the phrase "Police Navidad" and discovered that (1) it didn't ever seem to have been used as a title before, but (2) it is in fact an urban slang expression referring to those occasions when somebody calls the cops to report an out-of-control holiday party. So obviously my story had to take place on Christmas Eve and begin with a policeman — who, in homage to REK, I named Bob Keene — knocking on a door behind which there's a wild party in progress. This wound up being one of those stories that practically writes itself, and it was published in the January 2015 issue of EQMM.

OMN: How much research was required for these stories?

JP: The Chaudri stories required an enormous amount of research. I was writing about a culture with which I had limited familiarity, and it was important to me to get the details right. Not just the geography, but the cultural details. In the collection's title story, for example, "The Tree of Life," Mahboob's investigation of a 20-year-old murder takes him into the emirate's sedentarized Bedouin community. By the time I wrote that one, I was living in Germany and had to do second-hand research, using the 1980s-era Internet. I think I wound up spending more time researching that story than it took me to write it. When it appeared in EQMM, people wrote in to make fun of me for what they saw as the anachronism of my having put a faded photograph of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the wall of one of the Bedouin characters' houses — but the truth is that the Bedouins had enormous respect for JFK, and his picture was often used to decorate their homes.

OMN: How true are you to the various settings?

JP: I did take very occasional liberties with the geography in the Chaudri series, although most of the details in those stories are accurate. For one story, though, I wanted to send Mahboob into the emirate's Dutch community, since I lived in Amsterdam before my time in Bahrain and am fluent enough in Dutch that I'm able to translate fiction (and nonfiction) from that language into English. Well, the Dutch community in Bahrain was mostly involved in the construction business, and while I was there a major Dutch firm was busy building the most expensive stretch of roadway in the world, a causeway connecting Bahrain to the Saudi Arabian mainland. So I decided to blow up the bridge and have Mahboob investigate a case of industrial sabotage, and I called the resulting story "The Saudi Causeway." AHMM editor Cathleen Jordan liked it, but she was uncomfortable with the real-world setting and asked me to shift the construction project to a different Bahraini location. There's only one other place where a bridge connecting Bahrain to the mainland could go, though, and that's why the published version of the story is called "The Qatar Causeway."

OMN: How did you come to select The Tree of Life to be the title of the collection?

JP: When John Betancourt at Wildside Press asked me if he could collect the 10 Chaudri stories into a single volume, he told me that Wildside's experience suggests they'll sell many more e-books than hard copies, and that their e-books sell much better if the word "megapack" appears in the title. So his idea was to publish the collection as an e-book titled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack. I'm still old-school enough to want to be able to hold an actual book in my hands, though, one that doesn't need a battery charge before it can be read. So I encouraged John to also put out a paperback and to use a different title for that version of the collection. I went back and forth between the names of two of the stories — "The Tree of Life" and "The Night of Power" — before finally settling on The Tree of Life.

OMN: Were you involved in the cover design?

JP: I think John did the original cover design himself, and it was perfectly competent. He invited me to make suggestions, though, and I had quite a few of them. I wanted the title font to look Arabic, for example. I wanted a photograph of the actual Bahraini "Tree of Life" to appear on the cover. I wanted a camel and rider. John turned the design over to the incredibly talented Sam Cooper, and Sam gave me absolutely everything I asked for — and came up himself with what I think is the cover's best feature: that bright yellow desert sky which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a huge fingerprint. I love that!

OMN: What kinds of books do you read for pleasure?

JP: Actually, I read more Dutch these days than anything else. When I moved to Holland in the late '70s, I taught myself the language by reading comic books: Donald Duck, Asterix, and a Belgian series called Suske en Wiske. Because the stories were simple and illustrated, I could work my way through them pretty easily, and I quickly built up both a vocabulary and an understanding of the language's grammar and syntax. I eventually became fluent enough that I was able to begin translating, and since 2004 I've been translating crime stories by Dutch and Belgian authors for EQMM's "Passport to Crime" department. "My" authors often send me copies of their novels, and I've got several shelves of them lined up and am working my way through them. Last year, I was asked to translate a special issue of Suske en Wiske into English for International Antibiotics Awareness Week, and, when the publisher asked me how much I'd charge, I said I didn't want any money — I wanted the complete series of over 250 books. To my surprise, they agreed, so I'm also working my way through those — and having as much fun with them now as I had back in the late '70s and early '80s. When I do read English-language fiction for pleasure, it's usually crime novels — either by authors I'm friends with (Les Roberts, Loren D. Estleman, Bill Pronzini) or authors I haven't met but think are brilliant writers (James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly).

OMN: What's next for you?

JP: At the same time I was writing the Chaudri stories in the '80s, I also wrote about a dozen collaborative stories with a dozen different crime-writing colleagues — Ed Hoch, John Lutz, Dan J. Marlowe, Michael Avallone, Mike Nevins, Jon L. Breen, Stanley Cohen, Patricia McGerr, Joe L. Hensley, a few others — hoping to find a publisher who'd collect them into a book I wanted to call Partners in Crime. Most of the stories were published individually, but the book never happened. Now, though, John Betancourt is interested in following up The Tree of Life with, after all these years, Partners in Crime. For this one, I also want to include some new stories, such as "History on the Bedroom Wall," which I co-wrote with my daughter, Rebecca Jones, back in 2009, and which Janet Hutchings put in EQMM's "Department of First Stories" (making me the only person who's ever appeared in that section of the magazine twice, first in 1968 and again 41 years later!). I've recently finished new stories with my wife Laurie and with Holland's master of psychological suspense René Appel, and I'm working on stories with my friends Les Roberts, Art Taylor and Kathryn O'Sullivan.

Meanwhile, Bavo Dhooge and I are talking about doing either a sequel to Styx or something else together, and I'm also discussing a possible book-length collaboration with another Belgian author, Dirk Vanderlinden.

These days, though, I do more translating than writing — although the story I co-wrote with my wife ("Coffee Date") will appear in The Saturday Evening Post in October, I have a solo story called "Selfie" in the November EQMM, and I just sold "Eb and Flo," which is a tribute to my dear Aunt Florence and Uncle Ben, to Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. I've got translations in the current issues of both EQMM (Michael Berg's "The Last Run") and AHMM (René Appel's "Joyride") and another one coming up in EQMM within the next couple of months (Hilde Vandermeeren's "The Lighthouse"), and I'm working on a translation of a chilling story by the Belgian team of Dupuydt and De Paepe. I'm also finishing up the translation of Dizzy Me, a memoir by a Belgian woman, Tania Stadsbader, who wrestled with attacks of debilitating dizziness for 15 years before finally getting an accurate diagnosis and then successful treatment. When that's done, I'm hoping that my next big project will be a translation of Michael Berg's Golden Noose (the Dutch equivalent of the Edgar Allan Poe Awards) winner, A Fatal Night in Paris.

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Since his first publication in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1968, more than four dozen of Josh Pachter's short stories have appeared in EQMM, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and many other periodicals, anthologies, and year's-best collections. In 1986, he won a special award from the Mystery Writers of America for translating the Edgar-nominated short story "There Goes Ravelaar" by Janwillem van de Wetering from Dutch into English, and his translations regularly appear in EQMM and elsewhere. In addition to his short stories, he is the co-author (with Bavo Dhooge) of Styx, which will be published by Simon451, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, on November 3. In his day job, he is the assistant dean for communication studies and theater at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun Campus. He lives in Herndon, VA, with his wife Laurie and their dog Tessa.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at JoshPachter.com, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Tree of Life by Josh Pachter

The Tree of Life by Josh Pachter

The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Stories

Publisher: Wildside Press

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)

Murder, kidnapping, robbery, smuggling, industrial sabotage and international terrorism — Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani native working as a police officer in the Middle Eastern island emirate of Bahrain, tackles all these crimes and more … and solves them with a charming mixture of logic, wisdom, wit and heart.

From 1984 to 1986, seven short Chaudri stories by Josh Pachter appeared in the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and three more were later published in other places. In this collection, all 10 of the Chaudri stories are gathered together in a single volume for the first time, complete with a new introduction and new afterwords for each story by the author.

The Tree of Life by Josh Pachter

1 comment:

  1. Great interview. I read the Mahboob collection and commented on Amazon that it will be a treat for every thriller/suspense/mystery reader who enjoys well-told tales that leave the mercilessly trodden themes of the genre. A delightful aroma of The Middle-East, colorful, and attractive, a bit mysterious, rises from the pages. In my youth, I've been a lot of times in The Middle East (not in Bahrain though) and these short stories gave me back memories that I had forgotten :-)

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