Feb 242014

It would be fair to say that Bill Tracy was not having a good day. Tracy, an ex-reporter now writing soap operas for radio, was not happy to pick up a newspaper and read about the murder of his boss, shot by some loon wearing a Santa Claus suit (in New York City in August). The problem for Tracy was simple: the killer had stolen the whole idea of the murder from one of Tracy’s new radio scripts. One of his newly-written and still unpublished radio scripts. That was not going to make the police – or Tracy – very happy…

That’s the start of a very funny and rather outrageous book called Murder Can Be Fun, by Fredric Brown, first published in 1948 under the title, A Plot for Murder. You can find a full audio review of Murder Can Be Fun on the Classic Mysteries podcast this week, and you can listen to it by clicking here.

As if that murder cribbed from one of his unpublished scripts weren’t enough to give Bill a major headache, it quickly got worse: there was soon another murder – this time in Bill’s own apartment building – where, once again, the method of murder was one taken directly from another of Bill Tracy’s new scripts that had never left his apartment.

If you’re at all familiar with Fredric Brown’s mysteries, most of which, sadly, are out of print, you should realize that he had a bizarre sense of humor, and this kind of plot is the kind that he did really well. Tracy, of course, will get deeply involved in the case – the police, after all, are kind of interested in how anyone but Bill might have known what was in his manuscripts. There are all kinds of complications arising from Bill’s “regular” work on the scripts for the soap opera called Millie’s Millions, particularly when he gets an attractive young stenographer to help him write the shows.

And then there’s the drinking. Bill (and the other characters, to be sure) put away enough liquor among them to account for the output of a pretty good-sized distillery. I’d say he makes Nick and Nora Charles look like teetotalers. Tracy’s usual condition might be described as ranging between slightly inebriated and “good and stinkingly drunk.” 

What we have, overall, is a fine, complex comic mystery. I think the solution ultimately is a bit weak – but frankly I was laughing too hard to care very much about that. I think you’ll enjoy Bill Tracy’s company, share his fully justified concerns and fears – and read the book to find out just how the killer DID manage to steal those ideas from Bill’s manuscripts.  Murder Can Be Fun has been reissued as a Print on Demand trade paperback by Blackmask Online. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Murder Can Be Fun is another entry in the My Reader’s Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo reading challenge, fulfilling the requirement on the “Golden” score card for “a book published under more than one title.”


Forgotten Books: Mad Strikes Back

 Forgotten Books, Humor  Comments Off on Forgotten Books: Mad Strikes Back
Feb 142014

I think that like science fiction, the Golden Age of MAD
Magazine must be twelve. That’s about how old I was when I discovered it. A
friend of mine had one of the Signet paperbacks reprinting material from the
first few issues of the magazine about ten years earlier. I’m not sure, but I
think it was THE BROTHERS MAD, the fifth in the paperback reprint series.

Whichever volume it was, I

ISO the Beauty of Bologna

 chatter, Humor, skill, suspense, talent  Comments Off on ISO the Beauty of Bologna
Sep 132013

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

I’m a natural chatterbox. Always have been. Always will be. I love conversation. With others. With myself. With my cats. I can natter on about most anything and will ask almost any question of anyone.

So it’s no surprise that what comes most easily to me in my writing is dialogue.  I can write pages and pages of dialogue with almost no effort. Juggling multiple characters in a single scene – no problem. And I’ll even keep them straight and in character with their personalities as I do so.  It’s like I hear their voices in my head and am merely acting as a stenographer.

Library Journal even pointed out my skill for chatter in a review of one of my Granny Apples books, so it’s official:  One of the best cozy authors for light chatter and low-key humor… – Library Journal (starred review)

What I’m weak on, at least in my opinion, is description. If there is one thing I admire in other writers it’s their ability to paint with words. When I’m reading and can actually smell cow dung, hear pain in a scream, taste a salty ocean breeze, and feel the softness of a child’s tear stained cheek, I’m in heaven as a reader. And a bit envious as a writer. 

In one of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels, Grafton has Kinsey sitting in a kitchen talking to a witness while the person is making a fried bologna sandwich. With beauty and skill, Grafton describes the meat being thrown into the skillet and cooked, complete with sizzling and the aroma of fried fat and salt, so that the reader is salivating and jonesing for the sandwich right along with the detective.  I defy even the most stringent vegetarian not to lick their lips during that scene. I’ve long forgotten which book it is from and the plot of the book, but I’ve never forgotten the cooking of that sandwich. It was a condensed but complete tutorial on how to write.

I’m working on it.  Not frying baloney. I haven’t cared for baloney since I was a kid. But I’m working on getting that good with my description.

Another skill I’d like to develop is writing serious fiction. I’m known for my light humor, but I’d really like to write a dark, multi layered tale of heartache, suspense, and betrayal. 

Like I said, I’m working on it.

May 032012

I have always enjoyed the mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, including the ones about Leonidas Witherall, written as “Alice Tilton.” I have reviewed several of them, and I thought I’d put links to some of the previous reviews here for anyone who might like to read more of her work:

Starring the “Codfish Sherlock,” Asey Mayo:

And featuring Leonidas Witherall:

The Witheralls are farce, to be sure, but there’s a lot of humor in the Asey Mayo series as well – more so in the later books than the earlier ones. Most are available, new or used, in paperback editions. Your favorite mystery bookseller should be able to find them, or try Amazon.com.


Some Texas Education Humor

 Humor  Comments Off on Some Texas Education Humor
May 022012

For those of you who don’t know, STAAR stands for State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.

Apr 302012

While a great many fine authors use humor in their mysteries, often to lighten the mood after (or before) some horrifying event, there are few who write their murder mysteries as out-and-out farces. One who did was Phoebe Atwood Taylor, author under her own name of mysteries featuring Asey Mayo, the New England amateur detective known as the “Codfish Sherlock.” But those mysteries are mostly fairly straightforward, although there are some excellent comic elements in many of them.

But Taylor also wrote another series, under the pen name “Alice Tilton” featuring a New England schoolteacher named Leonidas Witherall, whose principal claim to fame is the fact that he strongly resembles playwright William Shakespeare (or at least Shakespearan busts and portraits). And those books are out-and-out farces, racing from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, as Witherall gets himself involved in a murder (often, in fact, he is being framed for one) and must stay a step or two ahead of the police and try to solve the murder before they arrest him.

What kind of farce? Well consider the events in “The Left Leg,” first published in 1940. It’s the subject of today’s review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here. In “The Left Leg,” we begin with Witherall being thrown off a local bus, after another passenger, a young woman, makes some very peculiar (and fraudulent) accusations against him. As there is a snowstorm raging, he ducks into a nearby hardware store for shelter. The store appears to be empty – but as Witherall stands there, a man runs in wearing a green top hat and green silk suit and carrying an Irish harp under his arm. The man runs to the cash register, opens it, takes an envelope out of the register, and runs out of the store. Witherall leaves (with the store owner, now returned, insisting that Witherall must have robbed him) and next seeks refuge at the home of his boss, the headmaster of the school where Witherall teaches, only to find the man has been murdered and police are banging on the door. And the headmaster’s body is missing a (prosthetic) left leg. And Witherall’s galoshes are on the floor near the body.

Complicated enough for you? And that’s just the BEGINNING of the novel. It’s sort of the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges meet the Keystone Cops. And it is hilarious. Leonidas Witherall – usually called “Bill” by the other characters, because of his resemblance to William Shakespeare – is a more-or-less solid pillar of relative sanity in the midst of a remarkably crazy world. Taylor wrote eight of these wild comedy-mysteries between 1937 and 1947, and some are back in print again. I find these books a good way to refresh my own quirky sense of humor. “The Left Leg” is great fun.