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The small farm where I live is blessed with hundreds of feet of fencerows. They stretch past the barn and around the pasture and by the garden. And they have been neglected for many years. That means that the junk trees, sticker bushes, blackberry vines, privet hedge, and a thousand other items from Mother Nature’s tangled web. Each year they creep farther and farther out into the pasture.
So, each year I tell myself that when the weather cools off, I will start the process of cleaning some of that out. This year, armed with a chain saw and a tractor, I am beginning to make good on that promise. It’s slow-going, but I am actually enjoying the process a lot more than I thought I would. One of the days I will be able to show before-and-after pictures.
I hope that you get the same satisfaction from what you are doing during this Thanksgiving weekend.
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Edward Hoch: grand master of the mystery short story
When you talk about the Agatha Christies and the Ross McDonalds of the world — the great mystery and detective fiction writers of the 20th century — you probably don’t think of Edward W. Hoch (pronounced Hoke). That’s too bad because his fiction should be listed among the pantheon of the greats.
The problem with Hoch is that he wrote only two murder mystery novels (and three science fiction novels). The novel wasn’t his medium.
Instead, he was the master — most believe the Grand Master — of the short story. If you are considering volume alone, he certainly was at the head of his class. During his 50-year writing career that spanned the decades of the last half of the 20th century, Hoke produced and published more than 900 short stories of the likes of Famous Detective Stories magazine, the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
They were not just run-of-the-mill noir tales. Hoch developed many main characters that spanned a range of unusual backgrounds, eras, and devices, and he used them again and again. In addition, he was the master of the “locked door mystery,” the situation that seemingly has no solution. Many writers — if they take on that challenge at all — are lucky if they produce one of those in their career. Hoch did it again and again throughout his writing carer. One of his characters, Dr. Sam Hawthrone, a New England doctor, specialized in only the locked room stories.
As his writing and publishing progressed, Hoch’s many leading characters became known for their distinctive characteristics and cases:
Nick Velvet, the thief who stole worthless items for a substantial fee;
Captain Leopold, a police detective whose private life developed over the years with the many stories Hoch told about him;
Alexander Swift, an agent for General George Washington;
Ben Snow, an American Old West character who might have been Billy the Kid reincarnated;
Libby Knowles, a former policewoman, and professional bodyguard;
Rand, A British spy who bears some resemblance to James Bone;
Father David Noon, a priest-sleuth who has some of the traits of G.K. Chesterson’s Father Brown;
and the list could go on.
Hoch was born in Rochester, New York, in 1930, and there he stayed for most of his life. He grew up loving mysteries and listening to the 60-minute Adventures of Ellery Queen series on CBS Radio. Too young to participate in World War II, Hoch joined the Army in 1950 and was stationed near New York City as a military policeman. That gave him access to the mystery and detective publishing world of New York, and he took full advantage of it.
When he was discharged in 1952, he went to work at Pocket Books, and two years later, he was back in Rochester with a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency. He had been writing and submitting stories without success during this time, but finally, in 1966, he saw his first story published. It was in Famous Detective Stories magazine, and that was followed by other stories in other magazines.
His first story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine appears in 1962, and six years later he was selling stories so successfully and regularly that he finally quit his advertising job to devote full-time to his vocation. In May 1973 Ellery Queen published one of his stories and then did so in every subsequent issue for the next 34 years.
Why short stories rather than novels?
“I guess ideas just come easily to me,” Hoch once said. “That’s why I’ve always been more attracted to the short story form than the novel. I am more interested in the basic plotting than in the development of various sub-plots. And I think the basic plot, or gimmick-the type of twist you have in detective stories-is the thing that I can do best, which explains why so many of my stories tend to be formal detective stories rather than the crime-suspense tales that so many writers are switching to today.”
Hoch lived and wrote in Rochester until his death in 2008.
Hoch would spend a great amount of time researching the plots, characters, and settings of his stories. And as you might imagine, many of the 900 stories that he wrote were not high quality ones. Still, Hoch could write quickly and efficiently once he had an idea, and over many years he developed a reputation as the best mystery, detective, and espionage short story writer around.
Many of Hoch’s stories have been anthologized, so they are not hard to find. If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, then you’re in real luck. You can download a number of his stories free, such as The Velvet Touch, Hoch’s Ladies, and All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Samuel Hawthorne, among others. A winter’s evening spent reading Hoch’s stories is one well spent.
Finally, thanks to faithful newsletter read Vic C. for alerting me Edward Hoch.
OED’s word of the year: they couldn’t decide
The year 2020 has done lots of things to us and particularly to the English language. We’re using lots of words, expressions, and definitions that we would not have thought of a year ago.
The folks at the Oxford English Dictionary keep close tabs on these things, and usually about this time of year, they select a word or phrase that captures the essence of the public conversations. And they say proudly:
We cast our net wide to capture how English around the world expressed its own view, sometimes sharing the collective expressions for the phenomena endured globally this year, and at other times using regionally specific words and usages. Source: Oxford Word of the Year 2020 | Oxford Languages
This year, however, was different.
They didn’t settle on a single word. Rather, they selected a topic — the pandemic — because it has had such a profound effect on our thing and on our conversation.
We’re using “lockdown,” “shelter-in-place,” “social distancing,” “masking,” and “remote.” And that list will just get you started. You can probably think of a dozen more right off the top of your head.
So then the game is: pick your favorite. The morning that I write this, I am favoring “super-spreader event,” but that could change within the hour.
If you’re really interested in this topic — and it’s a good one — you can download the entire report that the OED experts have put together, and you can register for a webinar they’re having on the topic on Dec. 10, 2020, all at the link listed with the blockquote.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
The presidential memoir is a publishing genré into which only a few can legitimately enter — although it might be fun to see some imaginative writer pen a fictional presidential memoir that qualified in some other genré, such as a detective story.
(The term “fictional presidential memoir” might set some of you wags thinking, “Redundancy?” Okay, have your fun.)
In the words of the immortal Max Schulman, creator of Dobie Gillis, “I digress.”
So, in the rare field of presidential memoirs, we were treated recently to a truly rare item: a presidential memoir that a former president actually wrote.
You will remember that before Barack Obama was president, senator, professor, community organizer, and husband to Michelle, he was a writer. (I did a JPROF post of this sometime back.) The book is titled A Promised Land, and it took Obama about three-and-a-half years to write it.
That’s a long time. One of the reasons that it took so long is that it’s a long book — more than 800 pages. Another reason is that Obama wrote it himself.
The New York Times has more on that and how Obama’s book compares to recent previous entries into the genre.
Even so, other presidents have published similarly lengthy memoirs in less time. Bill Clinton’s “My Life” appeared less than three and a half years after he left the White House and weighed in at around 1,000 pages. Harry Truman published the first installment of his two-volume memoirs a full year faster than Obama published his.
Obama’s meticulous approach — and insistence on writing the book himself — offers a second clue. “Obama is a genuine literary stylist,” said Jonathan Alter, the author of two books about the 44th president. “And anybody who has ever tried to be one knows that it can be like squeezing blood from a stone.” Source: Presidential Memoirs Don’t Always Take This Long to Write – The New York Times
How will Obama’s book stack up against others in the field? That has yet to be determined, but it’s universally agreed that the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant qualify as some of the finest writing that anyone who has held military or political office in this country has ever done.
I’ve written about him before, too:
Obama’s book has gotten a lot of rave reviews so far. We need more time, however, before we know whether or not his book will compare favorably to that of General Grant.
Vietnam Voices: the podcast
The Vietnam Voices project of the Blount County Public Library — with which I am intimately involved — is venturing into new territory: we are producing a twice-a-week podcast.
Vietnam Voices began as a series of interviews conducted with veterans of all armed services who served in Vietnam from 1961 to 1975. These interviews last from 20 to 40 minutes, and many of them have been uploaded to the audio archives of the library.
After the interviews began, we started transcribing some of them and last year produced a book: Vietnam Voices: Stories of East Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975. That book got a great reception when we launched it at our Veterans Day celebration last fall, and it has continued to sell well. (All of the proceeds from the book sales go to the Blount County Friends of the Library, which underwrites this project.)
In recent weeks, we have published a second volume of these interviews: Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (volume 2).
We have also instituted the Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable, a monthly discussion group that meets via Zoom and gives veterans and others a chance to talk about what happened in Vietnam and in America during the Vietnam era.
Now we have the podcast. The episodes in this podcast are short clips taken from the longer interviews. Most of the episodes range from two to six minutes, and we plan to post them on Tuesdays and Fridays. We think this will make the interviews more accessible and will expand our audience for the project.
To date, we have posted four episodes. You can listen to the podcast just about any place where you normally hear podcasts, such as Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. You can also listen to the episodes on JPROF.com and on the podcast website hosted by Simplecast.
Wherever you listen, please consider giving us a thumbs-up or a rating, and if there’s a “follow” button, hit that one, too. All of this helps people find our episodes.
These stories are short, and they are well worth listening to.
Finally . . .
Best quotes of the week:
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The call for unity, a defense of Thomas More, and more about Abe: newsletter, November 20, 2020
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