I think I met Steven Sidor about 12 years ago and I think it was at a Bouchercon mystery convention and I think we were both scoring free drinks at a Minotaur Books party because I know (it's nice to be certain about something in this crazy world) that we were both writing for Minotaur back then. Something else I know: Steven's books were very different from mine -- dark psychological thrillers rather than goofy historical mysteries. And something else I know: That difference didn't matter, because Steven and I were instantly simpatico.
Maybe it was because we were both young-ish writers (at the time) with young (no -ish about it) children and a similarly relaxed approach to marketing and touring (i.e., we didn't do much). Or maybe it was because we were both Midwestern nerds who were a little surprised to find themselves doing grown-up things like selling books and hobnobbing at a publisher's party. Maybe it was because we almost have the same first name. Maybe it was the free drinks. Whatever the reason, we hit it off, and although we only crossed paths once after that we stayed in touch over the years. So when Steven asked me if I'd take a look at the new novel he was working on -- a salute to monster movies, pulp fiction and spaghetti Westerns called Los Mummies -- my response was (A) but of course, my fine fellow, and (B) "Los Mummies"?!? Let me at it!
That title eventually changed (dammit), but I'm happy to report that the book has since been published with the following blurb attached:
"Little-known fact: H. Rider Haggard and H.P. Lovecraft once stole a time machine and piloted it decades into the future, where they convinced Sergio Leone and Steven Spielberg to help them create the greatest horror-adventure-Western mash-up imaginable to human minds. Or so I’m assuming, because I just read Fury From the Tomb. Obviously, 'SA Sidor' is the pseudonym they all agreed upon so no meddlers would come after the time machine. But I'm not fooled."
It's such a fun book I decided to give it more than a blurb: I'm also hyping it here with one of my sporadic Q&A interviews. Steven and I didn't have any free drinks to get the conversation started this time, but read on and you'll see that we've got plenty to say to each other without the help.
Me: Going from dark thrillers to a book with murderous mummies, zombie banditos and giant worms feels like a pretty big change-up. How did that come about?
Steven: I like writing dark thrillers. I was actually writing one at the same time I wrote Fury From the Tomb. When I'm working on a novel, I usually have another side project going at the same time, something I write just for fun, to get the juices going, and to keep me loose. Sometimes the side project is a short story or a novella. But it's always radically different from the novel I'm working on. My last two thrillers actually had supernatural elements in them. When it came to Fury, I let go with everything I liked in pulp adventures: old tombs, curses, monsters, hopping vampires... if it popped into my head and I could fit it in the story, I put it in. When I told my agent about my side project, she asked to see it. Then she said to drop everything and WRITE THIS BOOK NOW! So I did.
Me: Hold on..."hopping vampires"? I remember them from the book, of course. They really stand out. (It's quite a compliment to them to say that they "really stand out" when a book has the aforementioned giant worms and zombie banditos. When it comes to memorable creatures and bad guys, Fury from the Tomb is packed.) Are "hopping vampires" a thing? And, if so, how did you run across them?
Steven: My hopping vampires are connected to one of the main characters, Yong Wu, a Chinese boy who works on a train. I knew I wanted vampires on the train. I also wanted them to have a special connection to the boy. Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, come from Chinese folklore. They share some of the same attributes as run-of-the-mill vampires but also have a few unique qualities: their corpses are stiff with outstretched arms, they hop to get around, and they're usually blind but have an excellent sense of smell. Hopping vampires show up in 1980s Hong Kong horror movies. I first ran across them in Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind movies. While typically used for comic purposes, the Jiangshi in Fury From the Tomb have a heartbreaking story behind their monstrous turn.
Me: So let's see if I can tally up all the influences in Fury From the Tomb: 1980s Hong Kong horror movies, 1960s English horror movies (specifically, Hammer), spaghetti Westerns, H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard (or perhaps Lester Dent?), the Indiana Jones movies, maybe a wee teeny touch of The X-Files and/or Kolchak: The Night Stalker...and...and...could that be it?
Steven: Wow, you nailed the big ones. I'd add The Wild Wild West, which was my favorite TV show as a kid. I loved the craziness of that show and how it incorporated horror, science fiction, and fantasy elements. It was an early mash-up. My bounty hunter, Rex McTroy, owes something to men's adventure writers like Warren Murphy, George G. Gilman, and Max Allan Collins. The sandworm comes directly from Dune, which I was rereading during the time I was writing FFTT. Lastly, I have to give a shout-out to Mumm-Ra. Yes, that Mumm-Ra. I watched ThunderCats (the 1980s version) with my son, and Mumm-Ra struck me as really out of place on that show. He was way too scary. But I loved him.
Me: Of course -- The Wild Wild West! That one hadn't occurred to me, but in hindsight it totally fits. I could see it being an even bigger influence as you move forward with the series, since you'll have more time to focus on the Institute for Singular Antiquities and Rom's role as a globe-trotting troubleshooter-type with a plucky partner, a la James West. (An aside for my personal Wild Wild West fun facts: As a kid I thought it had the best opening credits of any show ever, but I could never watch an episode all the way to the end because none of the stations in my town showed it and whenever I ran across it elsewhere it was right before dinner and I'd be dragged kicking and screaming from the TV. Later, when I was a young journalist just out of college, I had lunch with Robert Conrad, and he was both very nice to me and 110% as intense as you'd think from those "Knock the battery off my shoulder" commercials. Afterwards, he sent me a bottle of Tuaca, which I was too young at the time to appreciate. A few years later I was the only film critic on Earth to kinda sorta like the Wild Wild West reboot -- I have a soft spot for steampunk-y mash-ups -- and for a while my boss was getting emails saying I should be fired because I'd obviously been bribed by Warner Bros.) Hmm...where was I? Oh, yeah -- your series! Tell me about the next Institute for Singular Antiquities book. When's it coming and what's it called and how's it different?
Steven: Conrad is a Chicago guy. I had relatives who knew him in passing. No comment on the Wild Wild West reboot. No wait, one comment: I like Salma Hayek. The Beast of Nightfall Lodge is the next Institute For Singular Antiquities book. At an isolated cliffside retreat, a famous explorer and big game hunter offers a staggering reward for the capture of a murderous beast haunting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Our team of investigators accepts the challenge. Icefalls, killer werecats, mad trappers, a revivified Billy the Kid, and a ghostly white buffalo await them. So does a family who may have lost their minds and souls to the legendary Wendigo. It's The Thing meets The Revenant... but funnier. I'm taking my characters out of the desert and throwing them into a deep freeze for this second adventure. Instead of globetrotting, they're stuck (mostly) in one very scary place. Due in stores February 2019.
Me: Your description of The Beast of Nightfall Lodge -- and your mention of your Chicago connection -- reminds me of another possible influence on the series I didn't ask about before: Doctor Who. (For those who don't know...which would be most readers: Chicago's public TV station, WTTW, showed Doctor Who early and often.) I didn't feel a huge Doctor Who vibe in Fury From the Tomb, but the set-up for the sequel sounds very Who-y. Is that bouncing around in your head, too? (BTW, I promise to stop being such an old nerd as of the next question.)
Steven: I don't think Doctor Who is a big influence on me, not in a conscious way. I watched during the Tom Baker and Peter Davison years. I do admire the teamwork of Doctor Who and his companions. The idea of a team of heroes is central to my series. I didn't want a lone wolf protagonist. None of the heroes in Fury From the Tomb would survive without the others. They're a "family" of misfits, and they need one another and have to learn to deal with their eccentric, annoying, and sometimes dangerous character flaws. That dynamic creates tension and a kind of energy core. Now that does sound Who-y, doesn't it?
Me: There was nothing remotely Who-y about the crime novels you were putting out a few years ago. They were extremely dark and gritty -- almost bleak. I assume the new series has been keeping you busy for a while now, so I'm wondering: Is a part of you itching to turn back to the Dark Side? What happened to that thriller you were working on when you told your agent about Fury From the Tomb, for instance?
Steven: Monsters ignite my imagination. In my dark thrillers I wrote about human monsters in a realistic mode. Now I'm writing about fantastic monsters in a speculative mode. Instead of building stories around serial killers and occultist kidnappers, I'm writing about mummies, ghouls, and Wendigos. I pull everything from the same dark well. I haven't even thought about the thriller I was working on when I stopped to write FFTT. So maybe it wasn't that good. Who knows? I approach writing organically and let my subconscious direct me as much as possible. I don't plan. I follow my instincts. My best writing always comes from a mysterious place. I don't analyze it too much. I listen to the voices I hear in my head. Those voices are characters. If I try to force them to act in a prescribed way, they break. I let them do the driving while I ride shotgun and take notes. It's not the only way to write, but I've learned it's the way that works best for me.
Me: Hearing how much you let your subconscious take the reins makes me wonder if you outline. It sounds like you prefer a more from-the-gut approach. (I know those are both statements rather than a question, but you know what I'm getting at.)
Steven: I do not outline. When I've tried to write outlines in the past, the outlines turned out fine, but I lost the drive to write the story. It felt as though I had already written it. I do write character sketches and a loose chronology of events. I know the ending, where I want things to wind up. Whenever I get stuck in the writing process, I will skip ahead and write a later scene. Then I connect the pieces. I add layers and expand during the editing process, which is constant for me. I start each day by editing the previous day's writing. Three to five pages of new story is a good day for me. The tension of not knowing exactly what comes next is a positive pressure. I want to be surprised just like my readers do. Most days writing is ditch digging -- slow, hard work that builds over time, line by line.
Me: Speaking of what comes next, do you have anything queued up after The Beast of Nightfall Lodge? Now that you've written dark thrillers and pulpy horror-adventures, what's left on your writing bucket list? Science fiction? High fantasy? Amish romance?
Steven: I'm hoping to continue the Institute For Singular Antiquities series. I really love these characters. I have at least two more ideas for books in the series that are growing now in an idea petri dish. Mixing genres appeals to me. I've got an erotic werewolf novel I'd like to write (no kidding, I really do). And maybe a far-out sword-and-sandal/science fiction story (Gladiators of Rome vs. The Pod People)???
Me: Final question: Any advice for aspiring writers? Mine would be "Sure you don't want to take up needlepoint?"
Steven: Final answer: Be wary of writers offering advice. There's no secret formula to writing. Study your own process and do more of what works and less of what doesn't. Turn criticism into fuel. Be ruthless with your writing time. Learn to say, "No." Be friendly. And when you're stuck and everything appears hopeless, go take a walk in nature. Thank you, Steve, for this wonderful conversation.
There's a barber I don't go to anymore, and here's why: He had a great (he thought) idea for a book.
Why should I hold that against him? After all, I'm a writer. I have lots of great (I think) ideas for books. What am I, jealous?
Here's the problem: The barber found out I’m an author, so he wanted me to write his book. It was going to be about a barber who's a hero to all the neighborhood kids. They come to him for advice, and he dispenses wisdom while cutting hair. If there was going to be an actual plot, the barber didn't mention it. He did say, however, that he would generously split all the profits with me…after I wrote the book and got it published.
It's kind of a bummer, because the guy was a good barber. And cheap. But I've got ideas of my own. Too many, in fact. Which is why I'm going to be giving some away today. And I won't even ask for 50%! I'll settle for a shout-out in the acknowledgments and a beer if we're ever at a writer's conference together.
With my buddy Lisa Falco, a fantabulous tarot expert, I used to write a series of cozy-ish tarot-themed mysteries. (I say the books are cozy-ish because I've been told that our heroine/narrator was too snarky to be a traditional cozy protagonist. To which I would reply, "Me and Lisa? Snarky? Chuh. As if. [Sneer. Eyeroll. Whatever 'W' with fingers.]" And I say "used to write" because the series didn't make it. Which Lisa actually foresaw in the cards before the first book came out. God's honest truth! She did a reading that perfectly predicted the rocky road the series would have. But that's a story for another day....) There's a big market for cozy (and cozy-ish) mysteries with interesting themes, and despite what certain barbers think I don't have time to write them all. So if you're looking to jump into the exciting world of mystery writing, feel free to do it with one of these ready-made series.
Murder Is Nothing to Sneeze At: An Allergies Mystery
Feisty (but not snarky) allergist Lanie Cooper dispenses allergy-fighting tips while hunting for the killer of a local pharmacist.
Death Can Get Stuffed: A Taxidermy and Embalming Mystery
Feisty (but not snarky) taxidermist Janie Hooper dispenses animal mounting tips while hunting for the killer of a local mortician.
Hair Today, Gone to Murder: A Hairstyling Mystery
Feisty (but not snarky) stylist Annie Jackson dispenses hair care tips to adoring neighborhood kids while hunting for the killer of a pushy barber.
Procrastination Can Be Murder: A…Uhh…A Something Something Something Mystery
Feisty (but not snarky) procrastinator Frannie Johnson dispenses the occasional self-motivation tip (when she feels like it) and thinks maybe she should get around to hunting for whoever killed that lady -- you know…what's her name? -- one of these days.
Murder Can Be Murder: A How-to-Get-Away-with-Murder Mystery
Feisty (but not snarky) murderer (and noted allergist) Lanie Cooper dispenses homicide tips while trying not to get caught for the killing of local procrastinator Frannie Johnson.
Website Updates Can Be Murder: An Author Promotion Mystery
Feisty (and kind of snarky) mystery writer Stephanie Hocken dispenses bad book ideas nicked from an earlier guest blog post in a desperate attempt to keep her website feeling fresh. If you end up writing this one, let me know. I can help you with the research.
Someone broke the passenger-side window out of my car last night and stole the shoulder bag I take to work every day. I guess they thought it would have a laptop in it. No such luck for the thieves. And no luck for my family. Because you know what was in that bag? Two monkeys and an owl. Bobo, Lou from the Zoo and Barney the Barn Owl, to be specific.
Every day for the last year or so, my son Mojo picked out three of his "guyzos" (his huge posse of stuffed animals) for me to take to work. During the day, I'd send him pictures of the guys helping me do my job. The makeup of the group changed every day except for one constant: Bobo. Bobo always came with me. Because Bobo was special.
Mojo is autistic. There were times a few years ago when it was almost impossible to get him to communicate or cooperate or control himself. And you know who he almost always listened to? Bobo. Bobo could calm him down. Bobo could get him to listen. Bobo could get him to talk about himself and what he was feeling.
Bobo probably would have offended my Italian friends. He-a sounded like-a theese-a. You know: He had a "Whatsa matta for you?" old school faux-Italian accent. Why? Because it's a silly accent I can do, and a long time ago it became my job to give the guyzos distinct voices and personalities. (It's not easy. In fact, there are several guyzos with the same voice. Baby and His Brother Baby, for instance, and they sound a lot like Ted the Christmas Bear who sounds almost exactly like Big Ears the Rabbit.)
Bobo was an upbeat, can-do dude. "Let's-a try it, my friend!" he'd say. Or "You can-a do it, my friend!" (He called everyone "my friend.") And "I love-a you, my friend." And Mojo would say, "I love you, Bobo."
Bobo shared Mojo's distaste for shows of affection, though. "No lovey-doveys!" they liked to shout when things got too icky-sentimental. So I'll honor Bobo's preferences and wrap this up.
My wife and I were in a restaurant celebrating our 21st wedding anniversary when Bobo was stolen. When we came out and realized what had happened, we drove around the neighborhood looking for the bag and the guyzos, hoping the thieves would dump everything when they realized they hadn't snatched anything of value. To them.
We were in tears. Not over an old, stained, to be honest slightly stinky stuffed monkey. The tears were for what Bobo represented. What he gave us. A narrow window into our son's mind and heart.
That window is wider now. Mojo's doing fine. He listens and communicates and (usually, in his unique way) cooperates. This morning, when my wife and I told him what had happened to the guyzos, he said, "Oh, no...oh, no." His lips trembled, and tears came to his eyes. And then, after we talked about it a little longer -- about how much we loved Bobo and would miss him -- he said, "Oh, well." And he was ready to watch his Saturday morning cartoons.
He's still hurt, I can tell. But at this very moment he's watching Bugs Bunny and eating a doughnut. He acknowledged his pain, and then he moved on. What we all have to do all the time. Mojo can do it, too. I couldn't always say that.
A stuffed monkey helped that happen. He's gone now, but the window he opened remains.
Thanks, Bobo. And goodbye.
Yeah, you smelled. But I love you, my friend.
As anyone who's still waiting for the sixth Holmes on the Range novel can tell you, I'm not a fast writer. I'm so slow, in fact, I just wrote an entire blog post about it for my friends over at the Sleuthsayers website. There are a few reasons the new novel's taken me a while -- indecisiveness, rights issues, other projects, the need to feed and clothe children -- but it really does boil down to plain old-fashioned slowness most of all. When it comes to writing, Speedy Gonzales I am not.
(I'm also not Speedy Gonzales when it comes to escaping from cats and whatever else Senor Gonzales does to pass the time. I recall one cartoon mouse remarking to another that "Speedy Gonzales is friends with everybody's see-ster," so we might know at least one other thing Speedy does around the village with great speed and enthusiastic shouts of "Andale! Andale!" Some things maybe it's better not to re-watch as an adult.)
(Oh, and I should have included "dumb distractions" on my list of reasons the new book's so overdue.)
In my Sleuthsayers post, I lay most of the blame for my slowness as a writer on the fact that I like to hear what I write out loud. Which shouldn't necessarily slow me down, I know. Legend has it Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his later novels to a team of fast-typing secretaries. (When I say "legend has it," I mean I read it on Wikipedia.) I already know that wouldn't work for me, and not just because I can't afford a team of fast-typing secretaries or even one secretary with missing fingers and tinnitus. Putting words together is something that requires effort for me -- lots and lots of effort if I want those words to form good sentences. Imagine if Bizarro became a novelist: "Me want to finish new book last year, so me am still writing it as slow as possible." That's me.
And I don't just move slowly when putting words together as a writer. I even do it slowly as a reader. Just as I want to hear everything I write, I "hear" everything I read. I'm not saying I read everything out loud, though I might as well. I mean I read at the speed of speech. Any faster than that and I just start skimming.
That makes me a pretty good copy editor and proofreader and a lousy mystery fan and colleague. There are so many books I want to read -- hundreds, it feels like -- yet in a good year I get through maybe 20. Making things worse: When I see one of those books I want to read on sale, I buy it...even though I know there's a good chance I won't crack the thing open before Judgment Day. (And when Judgment Day comes, the first thing St. Peter's going to say to me is "Why the hell did you buy so many books?")
We recently had the floor redone in my office, so I had to pull my unread books off the shelf and move them for a few days. When it was time to put them back, I thought it would be fun to stack them into a literal To Be Read pile. Only I couldn't do it. Put that many paperbacks on top of each other, it turns out, and when you get about six feet up it starts to feel like building a chimney out of Jell-O. I could never get it to say up long enough to finish. (I'm guessing that's a sentence that would never come out of Speedy Gonzales' mouth. Callback! Arriba!)
Submitted for your approval: the closest I came to completing my To Be Read pile, documented by a notable photojournalist. (My wife.) And keep in mind I have two dozen more unread books on my Kindle.
Anyone want to recommend a good book on speed reading?
A glance at the headlines this morning confirms that the Great American Dumpster Fire of 2017 rages on. But at least, this being the holidays, carolers can now huddle around it for a moment of shared warmth and cheer before taking their chances at the next house. (These days, if a group of strangers approaches a home demanding that the occupants bring them some figgy pudding and bring it right here, stand-your-ground laws kick into effect.)
The stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas is my favorite time of year, so I'm trying to maximize whatever good vibes I can find despite current events and the occasional close encounter with Wham!. (Oh, how I loathe you, "Last Christmas." You make "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" look like Cole bleepin' Porter.) How exactly am I accentuating the positive in these dark days? A splash of rum in the ol' eggnog doesn't hurt. Nor does a bourbon chaser. Or a bourbon chaser for the bourbon chaser. A chaser-chaser-chaser really brightens the mood, too. And if a guy's not a little merrier after a chaser-chaser-chaser-chaser...well, he's probably passed out.
Another, probably healthier strategy for Christmas spirit maximization: I'm making like Santa and tossing around freebies. And I don't even care if you've been naughty or nice. Hell, just look at the first line of this post: I've been watching the news. "Nice"? Is that even a thing anymore?
So here, my naughty friends, is a gift for you -- "Fruitcake," a Christmas story I wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine once upon a time. It's the lead story in my collection Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime. (The paperback makes a great stocking stuffer. Or a great yule log.)
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a cup of eggnog to doctor and some chasers to pound down. Just mentioning that Wham! song parenthetically put it in my head, and if I don't get it out soon this really might be my last Christmas....
Ethel Queenan decided on murder when she saw Connie Sandrelli sitting on Santa’s lap.
Connie was an attractive woman, if you were one of those wolves who goes in for loose blouses and tight slacks and lots of hair. And she was a young woman — just sixty-five. Ever since she moved into the Always Sunny Trailer Park in Clearwater, Florida, the men there had been falling all over each other to drive her to the grocery store, show her how to play shuffleboard, mow the lawn around her mobile home, whatever she wanted whenever she snapped her relatively wrinkle-free, non-arthritic fingers.
The problem was, there weren’t enough men to go around. Each year, five or six Always Sunny wives became Always Sunny widows, while the husband-to-widower conversion rate was much slower. As a result, the competition for available men was fierce. And Santa belonged to Ethel — whether he liked it or not.
Ethel’s husband Ralph had passed two years before. He died the way he’d lived. Cursing and drunk. Enraged by a fourth-quarter fumble during an Indiana University football game, he threw his beer at the television, then kicked in the screen when a Kentucky linebacker ran the ball in for a touchdown. A lightning bolt of electricity ran up his Reebok and flash-fried Ralph Queenan where he stood.
Ethel considered her husband a martyr to Indiana collegiate athletics and even wrote the president of the university asking him to name a hall or a scholarship after Ralph. She never received a response. That made her so mad she threw every one of their Indiana University sweatshirts and jackets and baseball caps and plastic cups and commemorative coins and Christmas tree ornaments into Ralph’s Weber grill, doused the mound with an entire can of lighter fluid and tossed in a lit match.
The resulting burst of flame singed off her eyebrows and set her neighbor’s lemon tree on fire. The trailer park smelled like scorched lemon meringue pie for a month.
Despite her devotion to Ralph’s memory, Ethel had been not-so-patiently waiting to replace her husband from the moment the paramedics carted away his charbroiled carcass. She’d watched with growing fury as other widows—hussies, all of them, even the ones she’d once considered friends — snatched up each new widower as soon as he came on the market.
Ethel was at a temporary disadvantage, having no eyebrows and all. But even after they grew back bushier than ever, romance continued to bloom for others, not for her. She finally took a stand, rising up at a Fourth of July barbecue to declare, “I’ve waited long enough! The next single man in this park is mine! Mine!”
“The next single man” turned out to be Bud Schmidt, a retired postal worker from Duluth, Minnesota. He wasn’t Ethel’s type. With his pale skin and concave chest and bulbous gut balanced on spindly little legs, he looked nothing whatsoever like her dream man, Ricardo Montalban. But he fit her number-one requirement well enough: He was still breathing.
There are many unwritten laws in Florida’s retiree-packed trailer parks and condo associations, and one of them is the four-week rule — a month-long moratorium on courting a widow or widower after the Dearly Departed has been laid to rest. Ethel made her move on Bud the day after his wife died.
First, she brought him a cake. The next day, she brought him Jell-O salad. The day after that, it was tuna casserole. And on the fourth day, she pulled out the big guns, making her intentions clear to one and all: She brought Bud Schmidt a baked ham.
All of Always Sunny was soon abuzz about Ethel’s scandalous behavior. Whenever she walked by, the men cracked wise, shouting out things like “Hey, Ethel — just so’s you know, I’m a meatloaf man myself!” The women, on the other hand, would stop talking altogether, letting her pass by as silently as a snake slithering across the road.
It bothered Ethel, but it didn’t stop her. Only one person’s opinion mattered. And when she dropped by Bud’s mobile home with a new dish every day, he seemed . . . well, not exactly pleased, but not displeased, either. He would just smile, thank her politely and shut his door without saying the words Ethel longed to hear: “Why don’t you come on in and help me eat this?” The only thing that ever changed was the size of Bud’s gut, which was slowly growing from a cute little pot into a fifty-gallon tub, and Ethel’s every outing ended the same way: with her shuffling back to her trailer to leaf through her Betty Crocker cookbook in search of the magic recipe that would convince The Chosen One’s stomach to say “open sesame” to his heart.
Ethel had worked all the way through the Meats and Poultry sections and was just making her first cautious foray into the hitherto uncharted realm of Fish & Shellfish when Connie Sandrelli came on the scene. She was a widow from Rhode Island. She was alone. She was pretty. And, much worse, she could cook.
Chicken cacciatore. Eggplant pasta torte. Risotto. Gnocchi. Ravioli. It was a far cry from the fried chicken and chili mac and pigs in blankets that had, till then, been the backbone of Always Sunny’s weekly pot-luck dinners.
Ethel found Connie’s strange, gloppy-looking contributions pretentious, disquieting, unwholesome. Yet everyone else oohed and ahhed and asked for more. Especially the men. Especially the man. Bud.
“Mighty good,” he said to Connie as he scooped up his third helping of lasagna in Always Sunny’s “recreation hall.” “My. Teee. Good.”
“Why, thank you, Bud,” Connie said. “I’ve got a whole other pan back in my trailer. I’ll bring you over a plate tomorrow, if you like.”
“Dandy. Dannn. Dee.”
Ethel overheard it all, thanks to a hearing aid turned up so high she could make out the wet, slobbery mastication of baked beans and cole slaw twenty feet off. She’d been lingering at the food table, hovering over the untouched salmon loaf she’d brought to the pot-luck. It hadn’t turned out at all like the picture in the cookbook, that loaf. It looked like a roll of fiberglass insulation coated in gravel.
Betty Crocker had let her down. Life was letting her down.
And Connie Sandrelli — she’d crossed her.
The woman should’ve done some research, asked around, respected seniority. But no. Connie had jumped Ethel’s claim. Soon she was bringing Bud new food nearly every day: cioppino and baked ziti and all kinds of supposedly Italian food that Ethel had never seen in a Chef Boyardee can.
Ethel retaliated by upgrading to a more expensive cookbook.
Bud’s bulging stomach went from tub to barrel.
The culinary brawl raged for weeks with no clear victor. Always Sunny’s oddsmakers pegged the outcome as even money: Connie had youth and looks on her side, Ethel had raw determination.
The Christmas party changed everything. As always, it was the highlight of the trailer park’s social calendar. Everyone gathered in the rec hall for caroling and eggnog and presents. And Santa Claus, of course.
It was obvious who should suit up as St. Nick. There was only one man in the park whose belly really did shake like jelly when he laughed.
So an hour into the party, Bud Schmidt ho-ho-hoed his way through the door in the park’s ancient red suit and cotton ball beard. And he wasn’t alone. Santa Claus had a helper this year. Connie Sandrelli.
She was wearing a Santa hat and black boots and a red frock that didn’t quite reach her knees. Ethel thought she looked like an elf hooker. She was helping Bud hand out all the dime store gifts in his sack. She even brought one to a fuming Ethel.
Connie smiled as she handed Ethel the little brightly wrapped package, but all Ethel saw were fangs. She didn’t bother to open the gift. She wrapped it in her paper napkin and left it sitting next to her plate like something unpleasant she’d picked out of her food.
And then, the presents distributed, Santa took his place on his “throne” — a metal folding chair at the front of the hall.
“Ho ho ho! Who wants to come and sit on Santa’s knee?” He turned to Connie. “How about my little elf first?”
Connie hesitated, blushing.
“Come on!” Bud patted his lap. “Come here and tell old Santa what you want for Christmas!”
There were shouts from the audience — “Yeah!” and “Go, Connie!” and “Ignore that dirty old man!” Ethel barely fought back the urge to screech “Don’t you dare, you cheap floozy!”
Connie grinned at the crowd for a moment before taking her place on Santa’s lap. There were a few cheers.
“So what can Santa Claus pull out of his sack for you, little girl?” Bud boomed.
Connie whispered in his ear.
Bud waggled his eyebrows and gave out a hearty “Ho ho hoooo!” And then he kissed her.
Some people laughed. Some people applauded. And one person walked out of the room, went to her trailer and began plotting Connie Sandrelli’s demise.
Ethel scoured her trailer for instruments of death. Soon she had assembled on her kitchen table a pistol (for shooting), a steak knife and knitting needles (for stabbing), a hammer and a scorched bust of former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight (for bludgeoning), a pillow and a plastic Winn-Dixie bag (for smothering), a toaster (for dropping into a water-filled bathtub) and a fruitcake (for eating — Ethel was hungry).
The pistol wouldn’t work because Ethel couldn’t find any bullets: Ralph had hidden them somewhere, though he refused to explain why. He just said it was “a precaution.” The steak knife, knitting needles, hammer, bust, pillow and bag were out due to Ethel’s arthritis. Some nights, she could barely get her dentures out. A life-or-death struggle with a woman five years her junior definitely seemed like a bad idea.
That left the toaster. Ethel sat at the table for fifteen minutes, chewing on her fruitcake, running various scenarios through her mind. But no matter how she imagined it, she couldn’t quite see a toaster attack panning out. She’d have to wait until Connie was taking a bath, break into her trailer, creep into the bathroom and plug the toaster in without being noticed—and then hope that the electrical cord was long enough to reach the tub.
No, she needed something easier. Something less risky. More sneaky.
She took another bite of fruitcake. Her false teeth clamped down hard on something brittle. It crunched. She cursed.
The cake had come from the grocery store, that was the problem. Those big chains put all kinds of crazy things in their fruitcakes—candy and cherries and whatnot. You never knew what you were going to bite into.
Ethel stopped chewing.
Her chief weapon in the war for Bud Schmidt had been food. Why change strategy now?
The next day, she baked a fruitcake.
# # #
Ethel Queenan’s Christmas Surprise Fruitcake
1 cup diced candied orange peel
1 cup diced candied lemon peel
2 cups diced citron
3 cups raisins, chopped
1/2 cup two-year-old leftover red wine from back of fridge
1/2 cup amaretto (because brandy is too expensive and what’s the difference, really?)
1/2 cup peppermint schnapps (because it’s been sitting around forever so why not use it?)
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
6 teaspoons nutmeg
2 teaspoons cloves, ground
2 teaspoons allspice
1 cup rat poison
1/2 cup Ajax
6 teaspoons dead husband’s heart pills, ground
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon spittle
Mix fruit in a large bowl; pour in wine and brandy substitute. Stir and set aside. Start sipping leftover schnapps.
Sift flour with spices, Ajax, rat poison and pills. Add baking powder and salt and sift again. Start second glass of schnapps. Throw in more spices just to be safe. Then more poison. Then more spices.
Cream butter, add sugar and eggs, mix thoroughly. Add molasses and stir. Spit in batter. Sprinkle with more rat poison. Start third glass of schnapps.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Feel queasy. Pour remaining schnapps down drain. Lie on couch for twenty minutes.
When head stops swimming, get up and put cake batter in oven. Bake for three hours. Lie down on couch again. Vow never to touch another drop of schnapps. Imagine painful, pleasing death of husband-snatching Jezebel wench.
# # #
It baked up quite nicely. Ethel thought it was the most beautiful fruitcake she’d ever seen. She was almost sorry she couldn’t try a slice.
Her alarm clock beeped her awake at four a.m. the next morning. She rolled out of bed, put on her darkest outfit (a navy blue polyester pantsuit she’d purchased in 1979) and walked to Connie Sandrelli’s trailer. She left the fruitcake on the doorstep. It was covered in wrapping paper with a red bow on top. Attached to the bow was a note.
Merry Christmas, beautiful!
—Your Secret Admirer
Ethel walked away humming “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” When she got home, she climbed back in bed expecting to be awakened soon by the sweet sound of sirens.
When Connie Sandrelli found the fruitcake next to her morning paper, she knew immediately who it was from.
A week before, Bud got it into his head that it would be cute if he started cooking for her for a change. The first dish he brought her was something called “cheeseburger Italiana” — or, as Bud called it, “cheeseburger Eye-talian.” It was a casserole. He’d found the recipe on a box of Bisquick.
As a serious, marinara-in-her-veins Italian-American, Connie had to try very hard not to be offended. She had to try even harder when she tasted it.
Bud, it appeared, hadn’t done much cooking in his life. He didn’t seem to know the difference between garlic powder and cumin, for instance. And ketchup and tomato sauce were considered interchangeable. Somehow, Connie kept a smile on her face even as she choked down the man’s blasphemous culinary abomination.
When Bud came by a few days later with something he called a “Velveeta sausage log,” Connie let him know she wasn’t hungry just then but she sure was looking forward to a heaping plate later on. Over the next week, she transferred one hearty slice a day from the refrigerator to the bottom of the garbage can.
Given her earlier encounters with Bud’s kitchen experiments, Connie was in no hurry to chomp into the man’s first stab at cake baking. She’d always found the pleasures of fruitcake to be fickle and fleeting under the best of circumstances. A Bud Schmidt fruitcake could be dangerous.
So Connie gave the cake a place of honor amongst the cookies and biscotti and chocolate balls sent down by her relatives up north, but she never took a bite. She only mentioned the fruitcake to Bud once, fearful that he would suggest brewing up some coffee and tucking in.
“Thanks for your little surprise,” she told him. “It’s lovely.”
Bud smiled and gave her an “Awww shucks, it was nothing” shrug. He thought she was talking about the Velveeta sausage log. Or maybe something else he’d done. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. And anyway, forty-three years of marriage had taught him not to question a woman’s gratitude. If it’s something you earned, great. If it’s not something you earned, even better.
Over the next week, the mountain of holiday treats in Connie’s kitchen was gradually worn away by the erosion of near-constant snacking. Yet the fruitcake remained, inviolate, untouchable, like some moist and mysterious monolith.
It had to go.
Connie couldn’t just throw it away, though. It was a symbol of Bud’s devotion . . . though, in all likelihood, a spectacularly nasty one.
So instead of tossing it out, she dressed it up. She plated it with candy armor — gumdrops and Skittles along the sides, peppermints and candy canes on top. When she was done, the fruitcake was unrecognizable.
She covered it in Saran Wrap and walked it to the trailer of Always Sunny’s most hated resident: George “Bones” Heaton, the manager. She felt a little guilty about pawning off someone else’s gift as one of her own. But wasn’t there an old legend that there’s really only one fruitcake in the world — it just keeps getting passed around? Who was she to stand in the way of tradition?
# # #
Bones (short for “Skin and . . .”) was a small, grizzled man with a large, fleshy mouth that spewed ill will like a smokestack. Always Sunny’s residents were not, on the whole, a rowdy or unreliable bunch. So Bones spent very little of his time breaking up wild parties or overseeing evictions. Instead, his duties as manager leaned heavily toward maintenance work and general handymanery.
As undemanding as these chores generally were, however, Bones seemed bound by holy oath to make them as unpleasant as possible for all concerned. His rote response to any complaint, large or small, were the words “Whadaya want me to do about it?”
Even if you told him exactly what you wanted him to do, the odds weren’t good that Bones would actually do it. Your chances for success worsened considerably if you got on his bad side somehow — which was easy to do, since his “bad side” comprised the majority of his being.
In December, there were two sure-fire ways to inspire his wrathful sloth: (A) coming to his door singing Christmas carols or (B) not coming to his door with a present. Bones had been known to chase away suddenly-not-so-merry carolers with a garden hose. Gifts, on the other hand, he accepted greedily, if not graciously.
Her new neighbors had let Connie know that a Christmas offering to Bones was mandatory. Connie was, of course, outraged and offended. But she also had cracks in her driveway and a box elder that was growing perilously close to her telephone line. So she brought Bones a gift.
“Huh,” the little man grunted when he saw it. “You say there’s a cake under all that candy?”
Connie came as close as she could to a good-natured laugh. “Oh, yes. It should be a tasty one, too. I had my niece Gina make it for me. She’s a pastry chef up in New York. A real wiz kid with the baking. Sometimes she gets kind of fancy with the ingredients . . . you know, experimental. But she—”
“Yeah, okay, thanks,” Bones said, signaling that Connie’s audience with him was at an end. The door to his trailer was closed before she could finish her farewell “Merry Christmas!”
Later that day, Bones’s wife Virgie found the fruitcake on the kitchen table when she returned from the latest meeting of her divorce support group. She’d never been divorced before. She was just trying it on for size. After four weeks with the group, she still couldn’t figure out what everyone was complaining about.
“What’s this?” she called out.
Bones was in the living room, approximately twelve feet away, watching Judge Judy dole out justice reality-TV style.
“What’s what?” he hollered back.
“This thing with all the crap on it!”
“This hunk of crud in the kitchen!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“This weird-lookin’ blob on the counter!”
“That’s a fruitcake!”
A fruitcake? Virgie thought it looked more like a candy-encrusted brick.
“Where’d it come from?”
It took five more minutes of yelling to work out the details. Virgie never left the kitchen, and Bones never left his seat.
When it was all over, Virgie took the fruitcake to its new home. She thought the cake looked more decorative than edible, so she placed it amongst the snow globes, nutcrackers and miniature angels on the mantelpiece of the double-wide trailer’s faux fireplace. There it stayed for the next twelve months.
Virgie and Bones usually packed up their Christmas decorations around Valentine’s Day or, at the very latest, Easter. But this year it became a one-man job—and the man in question was reluctant to commit to any project that required him to put down the remote control.
When Virgie left Bones, she chose the timing carefully. She didn’t want a big fuss. So she started packing her bags five seconds after the kick-off of the Super Bowl. She was out of the trailer by half-time. Bones tracked her down the next day to attempt a reconciliation — over the phone.
“Awww, you don’t care if I’m there or not, George,” Virgie told him. “I bet you didn’t even stop watching the game after I left last night.”
“Well, yeah,” Bones admitted sheepishly. On the widescreen TV a few feet before him, Judge Judy was scolding a man for selling his best friend a sickly parrot. “But I didn’t enjoy it.”
The reconciliation did not take root, and Bones found himself single for the first time in fifteen years. It didn’t really affect his life much, except that there was a lot less shouting around the trailer and no more bickering about what to watch on TV.
# # #
The following November, Bones’s bachelorhood produced an unexpected dividend. Through no effort of his own, the man suddenly found himself with an admirer.
Ethel Queenan began dropping by every day with food.
“That wife of yours never fed you right,” she’d say as she handed him the latest creation from the pages of her new cookbook: Bake Until Bubbly!. “And now that she’s gone, you’re just wasting away to nothing.”
In attempting to seduce Bones Heaton with fiesta chicken and tuna noodle strudel, Ethel knew she’d scraped all the way through the bottom of the barrel deep into the dirt beneath. She was desperate.
Whether Connie Sandrelli didn’t care for fruitcake or simply had a cast-iron stomach, Ethel would never know. But the man-stealing hussy not only survived the holiday season, she married Bud Schmidt just a few months later. To show that there were no hard feelings, Ethel baked them a chocolate cake — or, to be more precise, a chocolate, Clorox, Cascade, Tide and lemon-fresh Pledge cake. The resulting black sludge was so noxious with chemicals Ethel had to throw it out, pan and all. She nearly passed out from the fumes.
Only two more Always Sunny men came on the market after that. One died three weeks after his wife’s funeral. The other moved to San Francisco with his wife’s brother, something he’d apparently been waiting forty years to do.
That made Bones Heaton the only unattached male in the trailer park. He was a little too young and a lot too lazy, but he was eligible, and Ethel needed a husband. For her, being single was simply not an option. Take the “man” out of “woman” and all you’ve got’s a “wo,” her mother used to say. Ethel always assumed this was a firm endorsement of matrimony. She had no intention of being a “wo” the rest of her life.
Bones accepted her attentions with uncharacteristic patience, largely because he’d grown sick of frozen pizza and fish sticks. Like Bud Schmidt before him, he never invited Ethel inside or dropped by her trailer in return. But he never chased her away with the garden hose, either. In fact, as Christmas drew closer, he began to worry that she’d give up on him before his refrigerator was fully stocked. Given the trailer park’s demographics, it was only a matter of time before another Always Sunny widower stepped onto the auction block. And Bones was realistic enough about his personal charms to know what would happen if he faced competition.
What was called for was a Christmas gift. But Bones being Bones, it would have to entail minimum effort to procure. Ideally, it would be something he could find within ten steps of his La-Z-Boy.
Which is how it came to be that one warm December evening Bones Heaton presented to Ethel Queenan a beautifully decorated, twelve-month-old fruitcake. Ethel cooed and made a fuss over it, though it actually looked far too gussied up for her tastes. But the man had made an effort on her behalf, and that boded well.
And anyway, Ethel thought as she walked back to her trailer, peel off the peppermints and the thing was probably perfectly fine.
She’d been cooking all afternoon, and she was hungry.
Here's a news flash I missed: "Secret sauce" isn't a secret anymore. Which should come as no surprise, I suppose, in the age of WikiLeaks. The only shocker is that Julian Assange didn't out the sauce himself from his sinister WikiLair in an abandoned Depends factory. I can see him rubbing his cadaverous hands together as he cackles, "So...the corporate clown thinks his sauce will stay a secret? Not if the Leaker has his way! Henchmen...to the internet!"
But no -- Assange can focus on revealing Colonel Sanders' "11 herbs and spices" or uncovering the "ancient Chinese secret" behind those super-clean shirts he gets from the Ecuadorian embassy laundry. Because the Daily Mail blew the lid off the secret sauce mystery way back in 2012. According to McDonald's Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut, the sauce splatted on Big Macs is made from "mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard...whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion power and paprika." (I hope the Daily Mail is now investigating an even bigger mystery: What does a McDonald's "executive chef" do with himself all day? Other than revealing proprietary information to dodgy English tabloids.)
So it turns out secret sauce isn't simply thousand island dressing, as so many of us had assumed. Nope. Look at those ingredients. It's thousand island dressing with some mustard. Which makes mustard the secret sauce in secret sauce. The more you know!
I was thinking about secret sauce this week because I just finished reading a novel that had a heapin' helpin' of it. Which would make a book a real pain to read, you might think. Thousand island dressing and mustard might bring a little zip to wafer-thin meat patties and sponge-like slices of bread, but try reading through the stuff. You'd need a fresh Wet-Nap, like, every two paragraphs. Only I'm talking about metaphorical sauce. A secret ingredient. A flavor that makes you pause and say, "Hmm...I wasn't expecting that to be in there."
I found that flavor in a surprising place: an obscure, long out-of-print (until recently) 1958 Western paperback called The Last Notch. I have a soft spot for Westerns, but I'll be completely honest with you, one reader to another. A lot of them are sauceless. Generic, bland. Big Macs without the sauce or even the pickles and onions. Meat and bread. Boring.
A lot, I said. Not all! It doesn't get any saucier than True Grit or Little Big Man or Lonesome Dove. And no one's gonna accuse Elmore Leonard and Joe Lansdale of being generic, bland and boring. The right writer can take any kind of story and make it unique and interesting. It's just that most writers of obscure 1958 Western paperbacks didn't really try.
But Arnold Hano did. The name on the cover of The Last Notch is Matthew Gant, but thanks to Scott Montgomery's Western/crime fiction website The Hard Word, where I first learned about the book, I know that Hano was the real author. And if you know who Hano is -- and I didn't until recently -- the fact that The Last Notch is anything but generic comes as no surprise.
In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hano was a prolific writer of books and articles about sports and athletes. His 1955 book about a pivotal World Series game, A Day in the Bleachers, is still in print today. But the secret sauce in The Last Notch isn't that the good guys and bad guys settle their differences with a rousing game of baseball. Consider this: Hano was also an editor for the pulp paperback imprint Lion Books, where he worked closely with noir legends David Goodis and Jim Thompson.
A deep, dark streak of noir does run through The Last Notch. It's got a classic noir set-up, too: A hired killer who wants to escape his violent life takes on one last contract...but the intended target turns out to be the only person who could save him.
But you know what? We still haven't gotten to the novel's secret sauce. And I'm not going to tell you what it is, either. Part of the power of the book for me came from my surprise when it went somewhere Westerns almost never go. (But, hey -- I realize not everyone's as spoiler-phobic as me. If you want to know more about the plot of the book, check out Scott's review.)
I don't know why Hano decided to write a Western that was so dark and daring. I assume it wasn't something he did lightly: As an editor, he'd have known all too well that he was making his book less conventional, less commercial. But if he hadn't pulled the trigger (so to speak), I wouldn't have picked the book up six decades later, and I wouldn't know who Hano is today.
What makes The Last Notch special isn't just the noir and isn't just the twist. It's Hano himself -- a unique individual hidden in the pages of a paperback that looks like a thousand others.
Look inside, writers. The secret sauce is you.