What If Jack the Ripper. . .
What if Jack the Ripper were alive today? Would he use Twitter? Would he understand it?
What if Jack the Ripper were alive in the 1950s and became a cardigan-wearing crooner? Would his music be any good? Would people think all the stabbing references unromantic? Imagine the holiday specials.
What if Jack the Ripper shot JFK? Has that been done before? It sounds like it's been done before. (Does it matter if it's been done before?)
What if Jack the Ripper were alive in the 1970s and got into est? How would that go?
What if Jack the Ripper were an extraterrestrial who gets befriended by a young boy who teaches him the meaning of family? The saccharine would be the deadliest part of that story.
What if Jack the Ripper were an ex-CIA agent? Trapped on a crippled passenger-filled spaceship? Being held hostage by Soviet agents? At Christmastime? Cue the clever quips.
What if Jack the Ripper joined a grunge band? A rap group? A boy band?
What if Jack the Ripper was turned into an accountant who didn’t have the most pleasant personality, oh but what he could do to a budget?
What if Jack the Ripper became a car salesman? What would he have to do for you to leave today with the best car on the lot?
What if Jack the Ripper were reborn as an opera singer? Would he be heralded for his work in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle? What if his heart was really in musical theater?
What if Jack the Ripper were a mystery writer? Would writing crime fiction quench his desires?
What if Jack the Ripper were a mystery writer who had to fill a blog post?
What if Jack the Ripper was a really cute and distracting puppy with big floppy ears and the most doleful eyes? Awwwww. Name him “Saucy Jack”! “He’s a cute pup,” you might say, “but the vet bills are from hell!”
What if Jack the Ripper were a cat? What if all cats are Jack the Ripper? They are, aren’t they?
What if Jack the Ripper were a modern teenager? What if all modern teenagers are Jack the Ripper? They are, aren’t they?
What if Jack the Ripper took a job as a department store clerk who enjoys his job and has pleasant relationships with everybody? Except fry cooks, for some reason.
What if Jack the Ripper took a job as a fry cook?
What if Jack the Ripper were alive today and ran for public office? Too easy? Would he more likely become a Hollywood producer?
What if Jack the Ripper were an attorney? Not much of a stretch there either. But what if Jack the Ripper sued for residuals?
What if Jack the Ripper lived in his parents’ basement but instead of going out at night or ever he just sat in front of telly all the time eating chips and talking about disemboweling this person and eviscerating that person so much that sometimes his parents feel the need to say, “Instead of just sitting there, get off your arse and do it. Just do something.” But then he still doesn’t. Although he does go on 4chan and Reddit a lot.
What if Jack the Ripper were your chiropractor? your allergist? your dentist? Too far?
What if Jack the Ripper were Hercule Poirot? What if Jack the Ripper were Miss Marple dressed as Hercule Poirot but not for Halloween?
What if Jack the Ripper were Sherlock Holmes?
What if Jack the Ripper were Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother who is also a vampire and a werewolf?
What if Jack the Ripper were Santa Claus? And you forgot to leave him cookies. . .
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Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories. His fiction has appeared in Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, Spinetingler, and more. His debut novel Hipster Death Rattle will be published in 2019.
For the Love of Noir
Ask a roomful of writers or filmmakers to define what constitutes "noir" and you’ll get a roomful of answers. At one time or another, I’ve heard or read: it’s about the discontent of humanity, it’s about losers, it glorifies losers, everyone gets screwed, the subversion of justice, villains as heroes, even that old chestnut, “the dark night of the soul.” In other words, noir life ain’t pretty.
So if noir life ain’t pretty, what’s its lure? Why do people write it? Read it? Flock to its movies? Why are people willing to read hundreds of pages or sit through two hours of a movie about doomed souls in a world where everything is stacked against them and there’s probably no good way out?
Catharsis? There but for the grace of…? The satisfaction of “Aha! I knew the world is rotten?”
Could be. In part, anyway. But my gut tells me that’s not enough. There has to be something even deeper than mere catharsis, something seductive.
I suppose there could be many answers to my question about the lure and popularity of noir, but I think at its core it’s because noir is…beautiful.
There. I’ve said it. Noir is beautiful. It’s a seedy beauty bred in shadows, to be sure, but as any artist —painters, photographers and filmmakers in particular, even sculptors — will tell you, shadows can often be more interesting than light. Shadows carve, shadows clarify. And noir, if nothing else, is a narrative of shadows; real ones in its style, metaphysical ones in its morality. Noir, then, in its indelible and iconic visual style, even in literature, and its fearless embrace of a blurred philosophy of right and wrong, is art.
Noir, whether in dark alleys or on sun drenched streets, cracks open the surface of life where the bright smile and the positive attitude will, it is falsely promised, be rewarded, and instead reveals the shadowed life underneath. Emotions held in check on life's surface, noir releases in all their rawness: sadness, disappointment, desperation, rage, heartbreak, love curdling into hate. The men and women who live in the noir world, either by choice (criminals, sleazy business types, opportunists, corrupt officials, dirty cops, etc.) or circumstance (the victimized, the unfortunate, the helpless, the trapped), are either willing or forced to express emotions and engage in actions we might normally hold in check. Their lives may be going nowhere but to doom, but the trip there sure isn’t dull. It’s full of feeling, full of danger.
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Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Ann is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.
Diversity Rises in Genre
As a doe-eyed kid growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t actively look for Latino characters in all the buckets of pop culture I was gobbling. But when I came across them, glowing on the screen or speaking to me from a story, it was joyful. Hey, that guy looks like my dad. She sounds just like my mom. Of course, as a Latino, the faces I did find were pretty much limited to Zorro, Chico and the Man, and West Side Story. Still, this showed we weren’t just invisible sideliners in the world. We were a part of it.
One-to-one character identification isn’t necessary for a story to be accessible, of course, but when it’s a character from a group that is usually marginalized, that adds a freshness to an author’s story, and, yes, it’s a nice extra for readers from that marginalized population. Now if I were writing this post last year, I might’ve dared to say that the fight to bring this kind of diversity to pop culture was winning. But after last year’s U.S. elections, it seems that the advantages of diversity need to be brought up again and again.
Realism. Variety. Representation. And empathy, that lessening of fear of the Other. All understandably and logically good things, no?
Literary fiction tackles diversity and the social commentary that is inevitably a part of it, but that kind of book may at best have the air of a “Very Special Episode” or “Important Lesson Here” and at worse creak under the label of “political correctness.” This is why genre writing — mystery, science fiction, and horror — can be so important to diversity. While the primary responsibility of genre arguably is to entertain, some of the best genre writing delivers social commentary wrapped in a plot-driven story, and so like a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down — or, if you prefer, like an undercover cop, a Mak'Tar stealth haze, or a cloak of invisibility — mystery, science fiction, and horror can make a social or political statement subtle, not polemical, illuminating, not mawkish.
Most crime fiction reinforces the status quo of our lives. Justice prevails, crime doesn’t pay, everyone move along back to your homes now. But when there is Latina lawyer as a heroine, or a procedural series is set in Puerto Rico, that says not only that Latinos are part of the world, but also that we can be part of this tradition of crime fiction. Science fiction, through its frequent use of allegory, alludes to the possibilities or change or the consequences of not changing the injustices in our society. Horror also works at the allegorical level, exemplifying some deep fear in the zeitgeist.
I write in all three genres, and I’ve been privileged to have stories featured in several Latino-themed anthologies for crime and speculative fiction. My first reaction when I heard of these type of anthologies was that they were a sad sort of self-segregation. But stories ache to be told, and they will find any damn way they can to be told. Or, perhaps more accurately, their authors will find any damn way they can to tell them.
Recently, I had a story published in Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy, the first-ever collection of United States-based Latino/Latina writers in speculative fiction and fantasy. By virtue of a vigorous Kickstarter effort by its editor, Matthew David Goodwin, the book got the attention of an independent publisher, Wings Press, and was published in January.
The anthology contains wonderful examples of diversity and social commentary and great plotting. There is a monster in "Sin Embargo," by Sabrina Vourvoulias, but there is also insight into the verbal-coding endured by immigrants, all taking place during the atrocities of Guatemala's dirty wars. Carlos Hernandez's "Entanglements" involves alternate timelines, but also make a comment on stereotypical notions. In my own story, “Room for Rent,” there are no Latino characters. But there are extraterrestrials who are forced to immigrate to Earth.
Now, one thing about such anthologies, titled as they are, is that they may only be read by the converted. But the (possibly a pipe) dream is that these stories and books won’t have to have labels appended to them forever, that these characters and issues can casually illuminate the experience of everyone, including that little kid who does not yet know the joy of finding a familiar face.
Originally published in Do Some Damage.
— Richie Narvaez
Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories. His fiction has appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, and Spinetingler.
The Clue to Character
Where would a story be without a character? Character is the engine that drives the narrative, and creating a character is a magical process. Imagine having the omnipotent power to mold a person on the page. Not only do you get to conjure up the character’s physical attributes and such details as a birthdate, but you also have the opportunity to develop his or her personality.
Evil or noble? Intelligent or foolish? Witty or dull? Take a smidgen of this and add a pinch of that, and, voilà, a person starts to emerge. For a character to be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into the character’s thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. The reader has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course, for a character to be fully formed, the author must imbue her or him with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to weave the tale.
When writing a mystery series, the essential component is a sleuth to solve the crime. Here, the author is presented with two possibilities: professional detective or amateur sleuth. It all circles back to character and the story that the author has in mind for him or her. For my series, I chose the amateur sleuth. My protagonists are journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon.
Why a journalist? A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.
Now, how does a jewel thief fit into the model of a sleuth? Aren’t lying and evading the law a thief's modus operandi? Isn't this in stark contrast to a journalist's reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely. That's exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal's mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.
To round out my ensemble, I have Chief Inspector Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard. They represent the law in all its gravitas. While their job is to hunt down criminals, sometimes the law’s constraints chafe and make their task more difficult. That’s why I have Gregory. He is Burnell’s nemesis. They have an adversarial, cat-and-mouse relationship. As a thief, Gregory has more flexibility to maneuver and never misses an opportunity to needle the chief inspector. Burnell, for his part, has been thwarted in his many attempts at catching Gregory red-handed. Will he ever succeed? The jury is out on that question.
There are myriad things to consider when delving into the essence of what makes a captivating and appealing character. The author must much achieve a delicate balance of shadow and light, intrigue and clarity, to give the story meaty substance and an air of authenticity. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that you as a writer have to explore in every book as you seek to make readers truly care about your characters. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because that means they want to know the story behind the character.
Daniella Bernett is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Lead Me into Danger and Deadly Legacy are the first two books in her Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. From Beyond the Grave, the third book in her series, will be released this month.