Mug Shot: WENDY CORSI STAUB
March 2, 2015
New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than eighty books and a two-time Mary Higgins Clark Award finalist. The Good Sister, first in a trio of social networking suspense novels, was on Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2013 list and optioned for television, followed The Perfect Stranger and The Black Widow. Lily Dale, a new adult cozy mystery series, along with her next suspense trilogy, Mundy’s Landing, will launch in the fall of 2015. She lives in the New York City suburbs with her husband of 23 years and their two children.
- What is your writing routine?
I’ll confess that I’m perpetually driven by the knowledge that I’m living my childhood dream and the terror—yes, even after 22 years and 80 novels—that it can all evaporate tomorrow. That’s always been my motivation to work as hard as I can to create work that is as strong as possible. I’m a reluctant outliner. I’m blessed with an editor who allows me to hand her the first chapter or two of a new novel, along with a very broad idea of where it’s going to go from there. At this stage of my career, promo and travel take up between a third to half of my time, and I’m contracted to write three full-length novels this year and the same next, so I’m forced to be extremely disciplined about the writing itself. When I’m home, I put in 12-14 hour days seven days a week so that I can live and breathe the characters, plot and setting. I do take an hour out to swim daily laps (I listen to audiobooks on a waterproof iPod while I swim!), and I try to cook and eat a late dinner with my family every night. Those are the things that keep me sane (though some might argue with that adjective).
- Tell us about your current project.
I’m in the midst of releasing a trio of social networking thrillers from HarperCollins. The first,The Good Sister is about cyberbullying and a fictionalized Facebook; the second, The Perfect Stranger, is about a group of bloggers who happen to be breast cancer survivors; and the third,The Black Widow is set against the world of online dating and features my first Hispanic heroine and hero. I’m under contract with Harper for a new suspense trilogy set in a fictionalized Hudson Valley town, Mundy’s Landing, with a notoriously bloody past that stretches back to the first settlers. The trilogy launches with Blood Red, and I’m halfway through the second book, Blue Moon, to be followed by the third, Bone White. Finally, I’m super excited to have been given the green light to announce that I’ve sold a new adult cozy mystery series, Lily Dale, to Matt Martz at the new Crooked Lane Books, and that will be part of the imprint’s launch in fall 2015.
- Which writers, living or otherwise, would you host at a dinner party and why?
I make a living creating and resolving fictional mysteries, but I just love a real life cold case. So I’d invite Agatha Christie, whose famous 1926 disappearance (and reappearance a few weeks later) remains shrouded in mystery; Ambrose Bierce, who vanished in 1913 and was never heard from again; and Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose autobiographical novels were rumored to have been ghostwritten by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. They all took their secrets to the grave, and I’d love to solve the literary mysteries they left behind. Oh, and of course I’d include Dorothy Parker, simply because I adore her dry wit, her love of a good cocktail, and her utterly relatable quote: “I hate writing, but I love having written.”
- What do you enjoy about your MWA membership?
Writing is a lonely business, and MWA isn’t just a professional support system—it’s a personal one. Simply put, these are my people and I cherish them. We understand each other in a way that very few in our “real lives” can; we have fun together; we give each other advice. Our relationships unfold primarily over the virtual water cooler (the internet) and of course, over very real barstools at conferences and conventions!.
DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE MURDERS?
March 1, 2015
That night at dinner (it was four years ago, but I remember it is as if were yesterday) a beauty pageant queen, a truly delightful young woman, dressed in her sash and crown taught us how to fold our napkin to look like a turkey.
It was a dark and stormy night (I’ve always wanted to write that, but it really was). Anyway, it was a dark and stormy night. I sat for a few minutes in my car, waiting for the rain to let up before dashing through the shrubs and around to the front door of the old house. The guest list, for dinner, might have been drawn up by Agatha Christie herself. The Dean of the College was there, of course. After all, it was her house. And the Dean’s young son. The guest speaker was there with her husband in tow. Also, a hearing-impaired emeritus professor. Ninety year-old twin alumnae. A lawyer from the Attorney General’s office. Several representatives from the alumni association and from the staff. And of course, our beauty queen. She showed us how to fold a towel so that it looked like a monkey. And then she turned her attention to the napkins. Somewhere, upstairs, a dog barked. Rain hit the windows like a spray of bullets. I’d like to tell you that’s when the power went out. But I can’t. Because it didn’t. And this is a mostly true story. Even the dead body parts. Well, not dead “body parts.” Even the parts about the “dead bodies.”
The dinner conversation was gracious and genteel, and notwithstanding the generational changes that were represented by a span of some seventy years, the ladies still shared a certain connection. And then, one of the women leaned across the table and asked, "Do you know about the murders?"
It was September 16, 1922. A young couple strolled down Easton Avenue, along the border of New Brunswick and Somerset. Even today, as I drive down the road, if I look past the strip malls and the housing, the hospital and the Dunkin' Donuts, I can still find glimpses of the countryside. Ninety-two years ago, the young couple turned off Easton, down DeRussey Lane, heading toward an abandoned farmhouse when they were stopped short by a gruesome discovery, a man and a woman, each shot in the head.
He was a distinguished looking man, even in death. She, a pretty woman, or would have been were it not for her throat, “a mass of maggots, from ear to ear.” A bloody calling card identified the man as an Episcopal priest, The Reverend Edward W. Hall.
Once the Reverend had been identified, it took no great detective work to identify the woman. It was not the Reverend’s wife. Everyone in the congregation knew the Reverend’s poorly-kept secret, his affair with a married member of the church choir, Mrs. Eleanor Mills.
The police investigation focused on three suspects, the Reverend’s wife, Mrs. Frances Hall, who allegedly planned the murder and her two brothers, Henry Hewgill Stevens and Willie Carpender Stevens, who allegedly carried out the crime. But the investigation in 1922 led to no indictments. In 1926, responding to growing media attention, the Governor ordered a new investigation. As a result of this new investigation, a fourth suspect, a cousin, Henry de la Bruyere Carpender was identified, but never charged. Mrs. Hall and the two Stevens brothers, however, were indicted. The trial which began November 3, 1926, captured the attention of the American public. The media coverage of the trial was extensive. Notable among the court reporters were Damon Runyon and Mary Roberts Rinehart.
After a contentious and very public trial, marked by conflicting testimony, missing and compromised evidence, the defendants were found not guilty.
Did Mrs. Hall and her brothers get away with murder? The murders have been the subject of numerous books and movies. (In 1964, attorney William Kuntsler penned The Hall-Mills Murder Case: The Minister and the Choir). But the case has never been solved. Sitting in the Reverend’s dining room that night with the Dean and her guests, the emeritus professor, the 90 year-old twin alumnae and of course, the beauty queen, it was easy to imagine the Reverend, with a gunshot wound just above his right ear and an exit wound at the back of his neck and his mistress, with her multiple gunshot wounds and the string of maggots, like pearls across her throat, trapped somewhere between judgment and justice, locked in an eternal embrace, in the Reverend’s upstairs bedroom.
(Photos retrieved from the Franklin Photo Archive at the Franklin Twp. Library.)
— Jeff Markowitz
Jeff Markowitz is the author of the darkly comic thriller Death and White Diamonds as well as three books in the Cassie O'Malley mystery series.
MOTIVE IN WHODUNNITS: IS IT EVEN IMPORTANT ANY MORE?
February 22, 2015
About a year ago, I read an article (I don't even recall where) that talked about the question of motive in contemporary crime fiction. We all know the familiar adage: means, motive, and opportunity are needed to prove guilt in a criminal trial, and a mystery writer plotting out a story or novel must supply all three for the narrative's murderer. For a killing to occur, real or fictional, the culprit has to have the tools to commit the crime (the weapon), a reason strong enough to take another person's life, and an unhindered chance to put into action the intent to kill. In countless mystery stories and novels, one or more killings occur, and the detective proceeds to investigate sniffing out clues that will lead to knowledge about these three things. As the investigator checks out suspects, he or she eliminates those who may fit the profile for one or two of these points, but not all three. The person who matches up to all three, of course, is the killer. But the article I read asked how accurate this picture is in today's world of forensics. Do police, when investigating a murder, really care all that much about the motive? To the contemporary police, the weapon used remains important (as a way to link the suspected killer to the crime) and the relevance of opportunity will never go away unless one day people are able to be in two places at the same time. But what's the big deal about motive?
If a married woman is killed, for example, then, yes, the first person the police will look at is the husband (statistics dictate this approach). But even in a case like this, what really do the police need to know: why the husband wanted his wife dead, or whether any blood, skin, bodily fluids, etc. provide a DNA match with the husband? If the police find that the blood spatter at the crime scene contains the husband's DNA and nobody else's (and assuming there's no other reason for his blood to be there), they have their murderer. Case pretty much closed, based on forensics. Whether the husband killed his wife for her money, in a jealous rage, because he has a lover he wants to be with, or for any other reason is of secondary importance. Finding out the why serves as nothing more than icing on the cake.
This is the way nearly every episode of CSI and its offshoots proceed. The CSI team is all about forensics, following the evidence, and whatever motive they give the viewer comes at the end. There are episodes, and very good ones, where the team never gets to the bottom of understanding the killer's motive. But it doesn't matter. They know without doubt they have the right person based on the physical evidence. And, as this article I read noted (and with which I agreed), there is something about this development in investigative technique that seems to make the mystery writer's job harder. Like in real life, a crime on the page can occur where no physical evidence is left behind, and there as always finding a motive to link a specific person to the victim remains of major importance. But with forensics teams able to use tiny fibers of hair as decisive evidence nowadays, it's less and less common that no physical evidence is left at crime scenes. So the crime writer faces a choice: keep concocting mysteries where physical evidence plays no part or (not quite plausibly) a minor part, or write mysteries whose solutions hinge in large part on forensics.
The problem here is that not everyone writing wants to present the minutiae of forensics. CSI has long been a superb show, but I have a hunch that most writers would rather watch that kind of mystery than write one like it. Most writers, I suspect, are more interested in people — psychology and motive — than in CSI-type science. To avoid this dilemma, one can always write crime stories from the criminal's point of view, and here motive remains paramount. Ditto for whydunnits, where the emphasis is not on who committed the crime but on why the perpetrator did what he or she did. Maybe that's why, over time, whydunnits have become more and more popular. With investigative science central to solving crimes, the whydunnit gives writers a way to explore human motivation without having to make the science a centerpiece. But for those still writing whodunnits of any kind, the challenge is there. How much do you focus on your killer's motive, and if you do, how do you do it while trying to create a world the reader believes?
Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of the Martinique-set crime novel Spiders and Flies, and his short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Spinetingler. Each summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Bryant Park in Manhattan. His new book is the genre-blending noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses.
February 20, 2015
After our Revels holiday party in December, we found ourselves with some extra holiday gift bags. These snazzy bags were stuffed with new crime fiction paperbacks, a hardcover or two, the latest issues of several crime magazines, and a lovely MWA-NY mug. President Emerita Patricia King came up with the excellent idea of sending these extra gift bags to members far and wide who could not attend the Revels. We chose members who had mailed in ballots for our recent election and picked anonymously from the stack of envelopes (with return addresses from out of town).
Richard Ciciarelli was one of the lucky recipients. He wrote to say, “This books will come in handy this winter when there isn’t much to do here in Phelps except shovel snow and read.”
"What a rare treat," wrote Marolyn Caldwell. "I got Harlan Coben. He's one of my favorite writers."
And Caroline Crane Kiyabu, who took a while to pick up the package because she had the flu, wrote, "How very nice of you to send all those goodies. They should speed my recovery no end."