A recent request from my publisher prompted me to write a short story version of the Spencer Manning mysteries. An explanation of that request is at the end of the story. It was an interesting adventure that has me wondering if there are more short stories in Spencer’s future. So, for Spencer fans who are awaiting the next book (I am hoping by early fall), enjoy!
In Missing Boy. Spencer talks about the first McDonald’s, in Des Plaines, IL. He relates an incident that happened to him when he was a kid – and did actually happen to me. The history of the McDonald’s brothers is unknown to most people ordering a Big Mac.
In the grips of the Great Depression, Richard and Maurice left New Hampshire and headed to California with dreams of becoming millionaires as Hollywood producers. Having no success, they opened a drive-in restaurant, McDonald’s BBQ, in San Bernardino in 1940, just a few blocks from Route 66. The featured item was slow-cooked BBQ with fries for 35 cents. They expanded to a rather eclectic menu that included hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Female carhops served food and the business took off with sales soon hitting $200,000 a year. The brothers soon realized that, though they were pushing BBQ, their biggest sales item was burgers.
Deciding to streamline, they fired the carhops, switched to plastic utensils and cups so they didn’t need a dishwasher, and changed the menu to just burgers, with drinks and potato chips and pie. Copying Henry Ford’s assembly line, they developed the “Speedee Service System.” Each employee had a task, and customers were not given choices. Burgers, with a lowered price of 15 cents, came with ketchup, mustard, onions, and two pickles. Anyone who wanted something different would have to wait. [Read more…]
When I start a new book one of the first chores is to identify characters and assign names. You’d think that would be easy. I first “flesh out” the character and then look for a name that fits, and I have spent way too much time looking for the perfect name. I have even sat with the phone book leafing through pages for a good name. I have found a lot of unique names. Can I use Zabory as a character?
Luckily, the Spencer Manning books are a series so I only had to angst over the main characters once. But that was a lot of initial angst. Spencer, my private detective, wasn’t a problem. He is my homage to one of my genre heroes, Robert Parker. But, not wanting to steal his creation, I changed his Spenser to my Spencer.
The problem isn’t always finding a name I like but sometimes liking one too much. In the first book, “Change of Address”, I needed a name for Spencer’s aunt and named her Rose, after my grandmother. Then I needed a name for Spencer’s love interest/friend on the police force. I thought Rose would work nicely. I don’t remember how long it took for me to figure out I had already used the name, but I was well into the book and the name had already worn in for both. I realize that many people do have the same name but keeping track of characters in a story can be confusing and having two with the same name is just asking for trouble. My solution was to change the girlfriend to Rosie and I think that has worked well.
In “Dark Alleys” I needed a name for the boy next door to one of the new main characters. How hard can it be to come up with a boy’s name? Not hard at all. I narrowed it down to Billy or Jimmy and decided on Jimmy. But I also liked Billy, so halfway through the book his name changed to Billy. That was caught by one of my “first readers”. I kept Jimmy. [Read more…]
As a kid, I spent many wonderful summer days at Riverview Amusement Park, the largest in the country. When I was thinking about a plot for the fourth Spencer book, I thought of Riverview and the plot fell into place. I had to call on some time magic because the park closed in 1967 and the story takes place in 1984, but so far I haven’t had any complaints. As I wrote Missing Boy, the memories flooded back. There were certainly the rides and the attractions, but do you remember Two-Ton Baker and Wizzo from Bozo’s Circus? I include a lot of the flavor in the book, but there is so much more. And if you ever went to Riverview you have your own memories. But how did it all get started?
In 1879, German war veterans held rifle practice at what they named Sharpshooters Park in Chicago (Belmont and Western), setting up paper targets on land and floating targets on the north branch of the Chicago River, which bordered the park on the west. After complaints from wives about being abandoned on Sunday afternoons, they installed a playground and opened the park to the public for picnics and band concerts. Rifle practice was ended but shooting galleries (with real bullets) became a part of the later amusement park. [Read more…]
Set amongst the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006, the plot of the Syrian mirrors the deceit, tension, and intrigue that has been the history of the Middle East for thousands of years, a perfect setting for a romantic thriller.
As Nadia is about to declare her missing husband dead and marry her new love from America, her best friend, Sonia, tells her that her husband is still alive. But Sonia’s motives are other than friendly. Even though Nadia no longer loves her husband, she feels responsible for him and sets out to free him. In order to do that she has to bargain with the head of the Syrian secret police, a powerful and dangerous man who has been wanting Nadia for years.
The Syrian is fiction, but Cathy Sultan blends fiction with history as she weaves her characters through the history of the time, something she knows firsthand as told in her book Israeli and Palestinian Voices, a collection of interviews and first-hand experiences in a region gripped by religious fervor and fanaticism.
The Syrian is a well-written, fast-moving thriller of romance, betrayal, and intrigue that will keep you turning the pages and wanting more, even at the end—there’s a sequel in the works!
How would you feel if you were sentenced to five years in federal prison for a few ounces of marijuana? Angry? Bitter? Vengeful? Whatever your feelings, it would change your life, as it did for Bruce Rubenstein who walked out of prison with enough inside information and contacts to become a prize-winning, best-selling, True Crime author. His book, The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night and Other True Stories of Murder and Mayhem, is a well-written, spell-binding compilation of eight of the hundreds of articles Bruce has written over several decades.
When you read this book, start at the end, because the ninth story—Bruce’s personal story—is just as captivating as the others. I don’t know how Bruce made prison seem funny, but “A Note On My Sources” is a mostly hilarious recounting of his prison years and a good introduction to the tight, wonderfully descriptive stories that fill the rest of the book.
Bruce was a protester/hippie in the 60s. A party in a hotel in Mexico ended with a little extra marijuana. The hotel had just been vacated, perhaps by Timothy Leary who was in Mexico looking for psychedelic mushrooms. Bruce thought about throwing away the marijuana but decided he “…didn’t want the fiesta to end.” Without that admittedly bad decision, we wouldn’t be reading stories by Bruce Rubenstein and, perhaps, four men in Chicago would still be in jail.
Asked later by a friend why he didn’t just wade across the river to enter the U.S., Bruce had no answer. But when the customs man said “step over here” Bruce knew he was in trouble. He was taken to the Webb County jail in Laredo, Texas and charged with violating the Marijuana Tax Act, possession and smuggling. As the days went by, Bruce grew hopeful that he would just be tried on the Tax Act charge and get off with probation. But no such luck. Five years for a few ounces of weed. [Read more…]
In my third book in the Spencer Manning mystery series, Harbor Nights, I introduced a secondary character by the name of Larry Maggio, the crime boss in Chicago, and made him the grandson of Johnny Torrio. Larry Maggio is fictional. Johnny Torrio is not. Torrio looks like a mild-mannered, kindly grandpa—looks can be deceiving.
Torrio grew up in a slum neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His first job was in his stepfather’s grocery store which was really a front for illegal liquor. He rose to the head of a gang of boys and made enough money to open a billiards hall where the gang could plan their crimes. The gang attracted a number of rising criminals, including Al “Scarface” Capone.
While Torrio was making his name in New York, his uncle by marriage, “Big Jim” Colosimo, had taken control of the underworld in Chicago with an enterprise known as the Chicago Outfit. In 1909 Colosimo was threatened by extortionists and asked Torrio for help. After moving to Chicago, Torrio helped grow the Chicago profits, concentrating on brothels. In 1918 Capone became a suspect in a murder investigation and the Brooklyn Mafia sent him to Chicago to take the heat off and Torrio put him to work. [Read more…]
I write mysteries. But, in a way, so does every other writer. Every good story, in every genre, contains some element of mystery. There has to be tension, conflict, or suspense and the reader is left wondering how that is going to be resolved. Maybe it isn’t who done it but, in a Romance, who will the heroine pick—the rich playboy or the boy next door? In a thriller, how will the hero save the day? Or in a comedy, where will the next pie come from? I oversimplify, but every genre will keep you wondering about something.
But with a good mystery there is an extra element. The author needs to give the reader a chance to figure out who done it by leaving a trail of clues along the way. Near the end of the mystery, Ellery Queen turned to the reader (or the audience) and asked if the reader had figured it out. And that is where a mystery differs from the other genres. A reader can read just for fun or can try to figure out the puzzle.
The art of leaving clues is not easy. There have to be enough to give the reader a chance at solving the puzzle, yet too many will make it obvious and take away the challenge. And there have to be the infamous “red herrings” to mislead the reader (herrings turn red when they are cured and were used by fugitives back in the 1600s to throw bloodhounds off the scent). The clues have to build in a timely fashion…the author doesn’t want to give it away too early. And the author can’t cheat and pull the culprit out of thin air. I have thrown away several books where a character appeared in the last chapter.
You have to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery before it is revealed. And if readers don’t get it right, they have to be able to look back and, with a slap to the forehead, realize which clues they missed. Not an easy task, but lots of fun if done well.
Resisting the urge to point out the lettering on the door, I just put on my best warm smile and nodded.
She looked around nervously and said, “I don’t have much money for…”
Keeping the smile, I replied, “Why don’t you just tell me what the problem is—the first hour is free.”
A small smile replaced some of her confusion. “I’m trying to decide on a book to buy and there are so many to choose from. And, like I said, I don’t have much money so I want to spend it wisely.”
“Any books in particular?”
“Yes, mysteries. That’s why I came to you. I thought you might be able to recommend something.”
I folded my hands on top of the desk, leaned forward, and said, “I can do better than that. I do have one to recommend, but why not read the first chapters before you spend your hard-earned money?”
She looked at me with a gleam in her eye. “I can do that?”
“Yes. The first chapters are free—just like my first hour. If you like it—and I think you will—then spend your money. And let me know what you think of my suggestion.”
She took one of my cards, thanked me, and said she hoped to see me again. I hoped she would too. It could be the start of a long and beautiful friendship.
Before I could read, my dad read mysteries to me. His favorite authors were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. So my first exposure was to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, two definitely hard-boiled P.I.s. In my early teen years I expanded my reading list to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, John MacDonald and others—a wide variety of mysteries having detectives with a wide variety of styles. After having read over a thousand mysteries, my favorite has become Robert Parker and his character Spenser, certainly a more easy-going P.I. than Sam and Philip. So when I started writing mystery novels, I realized my own character had evolved in my head, and he was a lot like Spenser. And as my homage to Robert Parker, I named him Spencer Manning.
Learning as he goes, Spencer Manning is compassionate, far from perfect, and not afraid to take risks. He doesn’t carry a gun and would rather not fight but will do both if he has to. Highly motivated by what he thinks is right, Spencer follows that path wherever it leads. He is partly who I am, partly who I would like to be, and is my homage to Dad who got me started down this road many moons ago.
Part of the fun of writing has been watching Spencer become more confident and better at his job. He has evolved from a new P.I. who wasn’t sure where that path would lead him (Change of Address), into a more experienced detective who still makes mistakes but fewer of them and recovers from them faster.
Spencer is a guy you would enjoy having a beer with at your favorite pub and whom you’d want on your side if there was trouble. He’s no Sam Spade tough guy, but he still gets the job done in his own style and I’ve had a lot of fun bringing him to life.