“My first novel was Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal Books in 2015. That novel has a tie to AHMM, too: The protagonist was introduced in a 2010 story that won a Derringer—or, to be more precise, half a Derringer (it was a tie). The protagonist, Jane Ciardi, is an American Sign Language interpreter who takes a freelance job from a Cleveland private detective and promptly gets drawn into dangers, ethical dilemmas, romantic entanglements, and the other sorts of challenges amateur sleuths tend to encounter. I think the novel’s a solidly constructed, satisfying whodunit, I think it’s got plenty of humor, and I hope it offers readers some insights into deaf culture and sign language interpreting. Our older daughter, Sarah, is a nationally certified ASL interpreter—she’s the one who first suggested that I try using an interpreter as a protagonist in a mystery—and our younger daughter, Rachel, has serious hearing loss. So hearing-related issues are important to our family. My husband, a fifth-degree black belt, contributed by choreographing the action scenes—the novel’s a true family effort. And it’s set in my favorite city, Cleveland. It hasn’t burned up the best seller lists, but I’m proud of it.”
“One of the things I enjoy most about this series is Leah’s relationship with Detective (later Lieutenant) Brock. Amateur sleuths wouldn’t get far without a source of police information, and many amateur sleuth series involve female sleuths who have romantic relationships with male police detectives. But Leah’s happily married, and so is Brock—his wife never actually appears in the stories, but he mentions her often. So Leah and Brock are simply friends who like and respect each other. He’s more practical and sensible, and she’s more imaginative. He brings her down to earth when she gets carried away, and she helps him see possibilities that hadn’t occurred to him. Together, I think, they make a good detective team.”
AHMM Feb. 1998 Leah Abrams #1 “Death on a Budget”
AHMM Jan.1999 Leah Abrams #2 “Death on the List”
AHMM Oct. 2002 Leah Abrams #3 “Death of the Guilty Party”
AHMM May 2006 Leah Abrams #4 “Death on a Diet”
AHMM May 2010 Leah Abrams #5 “Death in Rehab”
Ex-cop turned private detective, Iphigenia Woodhouse, premiered in the Mid-Dec 1991 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in a story called “Night Vision.” Her assistant, Harriet Russo, appears on the cover of AHMM April 2000, painted by Tomek Olbinski, for the sixth mystery, “A Wild Justice.”
Iphigenia Woodhouse began, in part, as a response to some of the fictional female private detectives who became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. I enjoyed many of the novels and stories about those detectives, but their lives seemed very different from the lives of most of the women I knew. Usually, these detectives had no family obligations: Their parents were dead, their husbands (if any) divorced, their children nonexistent. If they liked, they could choose mentors they found compatible, have sex with men they found attractive, offer guidance to young people they found interesting. All their relationships were voluntary and temporary: They didn’t owe anybody anything and could move on whenever they chose. If they decided to fly to another city to pursue a lead, they didn’t have to coordinate schedules with anyone or arrange for childcare. In those respects, they had more in common with traditional male fictional private detectives than with most women today. That’s fine—it’s probably healthy to fantasize about complete independence from time to time. But I thought it might be interesting to write about a female private detective whose life is both enriched and limited by deep, lasting ties and obligations.
AHMM Mid-Dec. 1991 Woodhouse/Russo #1 “Night Vision” reprinted in Women of Mystery, ed. Cynthia Manson (Carroll & Graf, 1992)
AHMM Dec. 1993 Woodhouse/Russo #2 “Sideshow” reprinted in Women of Mystery II, ed. Cynthia Manson (Carroll & Graf, 1994); reprinted as “Une simple diversion” in Histoires d’homicides a domicile (Livre de Poche, 1995)
AHMM Dec. 1994 Woodhouse/Russo #3 “Death in Small Doses” reprinted in Women of Mystery III, ed. Kathleen Halligan (Carroll & Graf, 1998); reprinted in translation in a collection published by Livre de Poche
AHMM May 1996 Woodhouse/Russo #4 “Butlers in Love”
AHMM Jun. 1998 Woodhouse/Russo #5 “The Devil Hath Power”
AHMM April 2000 Woodhouse/Russo #6 “A Wild Justice”
AHMM May 2003 Woodhouse/Russo #7 “More Deadly to Give”
AHMM May 2008 Woodhouse/Russo #8 “Table for None”
AHMM Jul/Aug 2013 Woodhouse/Russo #9 “Murder Will Speak”
An excerpt from B.K. Stevens’ interview from The Digest Enthusiast book six. Here she discusses her process, working out a plot, and weaving a list of suspects together.
It probably won’t come as a big surprise when I say my writing process varies significantly from story to story. Once in a while—and I wish it happened more often—I’ll get an idea for a story, devote only a little time to planning, plunge into the story, and write it straight through. Usually, the process isn’t nearly that simple and delightful. Usually, when I get an idea for a story—and it’s sometimes only a title, sometimes a murder method or a character or a plot twist—I write it down in a computer file titled “Notebook.” Ideas often languish there for years or decades—dozens still languish and will doubtlessly never go further. But sometimes I eventually think of a way to make the idea work, or I look through the notebook for inspiration, run across an idea I’d forgotten about, and see new potential in it.
When I decide I definitely want to try to turn an idea into a story, I sit down at the computer and start taking notes about it, using a method I called “focused freewriting” when I taught English: I stay focused on the story but write down virtually anything that comes to mind about it, from plot possibilities to bits of description to thoughts about theme. Sometimes, I’ll put together a list of major incidents in the plot; occasionally, I’ve used a variation on the “beat sheet” Blake Snyder recommends in Save the Cat; often, I don’t come up with anything that formal or orderly. For one recent story, I took a page and a half of notes; for another, I took forty- seven pages of single-spaced notes before finding the key to making the story work. (The second story was a whodunit—I have to take far more notes for whodunits than for other sorts of mysteries.) When I feel I have a clear idea of the story’s direction, I start writing the first scene.
TDE: How did the Lt. Johnson and Sgt. Bolt series develop, and why did you choose to tell the stories as letters?
BKS: Believe it or not, the premise for the Walt Johnson and Gordon Bolt series came to me in a dream. I’d been writing mysteries for two or three years, without coming up with anything publishable, when I woke up one morning with a vivid impression of a scene. Two police detectives are walking across the grounds of a large estate, talking. The first detective says, “It was a clever murder, wasn’t it?” The second replies, “Not so very clever—unless you mean the part about the horse.” The first detective is utterly confused—it had never occurred to him that a horse might be involved. “What horse?” he demands. The second detective misinterprets his question and says, “Does it matter what horse? One from the stables, I suppose.”
That sliver of conversation defined the characters of Walt and Bolt, established the relationship between them, and set the pattern for every story in the series. Walt Johnson is a highly respected police lieutenant. Everyone, especially his adoring subordinate, Sergeant Gordon Bolt, sees him as a brilliant detective. But Walt is in fact a dim bulb, earnest and well-meaning but always in a fog. He blunders through his cases, missing every clue, blurting out clichés and irrelevant observations that reveal just how lost he is. Bolt, much smarter than Walt but far too humble, thinks Walt is a genius and seizes on everything he says, misinterpreting all his muddle-headed remarks as dazzling deductions. Bolt’s the true detective. He’s always the one who figures everything out, and Walt’s always the one who gets the credit. Walt feels guilty about it but lacks the courage to admit the truth to anyone, including Bolt. That’s the basic plot for all twelve Bolt and Walt stories.
As for the letter-writing form of the stories, I read several epistolary novels in graduate school, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa—I didn’t love the novels, but I was intrigued by the form. (And I relished Henry Fielding’s epistolary parody of Richardson, Shamela.) I also read Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, an early mystery and a variation on epistolary form, and I was struck by Jane Austen’s use of long letters in novels such as Pride and Prejudice. When I gobbled up Dorothy Sayers’ works, I liked her use of epistolary form in “The Documents in the Case,” a long short story she wrote with Robert Eustace. So when I cast about for a way to tell Walt’s story, epistolary form occurred to me as a possibility. Walt is plagued by guilt because he’s become a success by taking credit for Bolt’s accomplishments. He needs to confess, and to whom should he confess if not to his mother? In the third story in the series, “True Romance,” Walt’s widowed mother emerges from the letters when she pays Walt a long visit and wins the heart of Sergeant Bolt. That story is told in the form of a long letter from Walt to his ever-patient wife, Ellen. Of course, Walt has no idea that his mother and Bolt have fallen in love, just as he has no idea of what’s going on in the case he and Bolt are investigating; readers have all the evidence they need to realize the truest romance in “True Romance” is the blossoming one between Bolt and Mrs. Johnson, but Walt never suspects. All the other stories, as I recall, are written as letters from Walt to his mother—except that by the eleventh story, “True Test,” Walt has switched to e-mail, and breaks off suddenly when Ellen goes into labor with their second child. The final story, “True Enough,” is a letter Walt writes to his mother while she and Bolt are on their honeymoon.
In May 2017, I asked author B.K. Stevens about the differences between Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s mystery magazines. Here is her response from her interview that appears in The Digest Enthusiast book six:
“I don’t see sharp differences between the two digests—they’re both excellent mystery magazines, and I enjoy them both and have friends who write for each. Some people say AHMM is more open to stories with paranormal elements; I’ve never done a careful comparison, but that rings true. It hasn’t really been a consideration for me, though, since I didn’t write my first story with a paranormal element until recently. (It’s called “One-Day Pass,” and I’m happy to say AHMM accepted it a couple of months ago. But it’s an old-fashioned ghost story, rather than a story featuring trendier creatures such as zombies or shape-shifters—I think either magazine would be open to that sort of story.) It may also be that AHMM is more open to over-the-top humor, which I love. Again, though, I’ve never made a real comparison.”
Stevens’ “One-Day Pass” appears in the May/June 2018 edition of AHMM.
B.K. Stevens published over 50 short stories, primarily in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Eleven are included in her collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. She’s the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional mystery offering insights into Deaf culture and sign language interpreting, and of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. Nominated for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards, and a Derringer award-winner, Stevens taught English for over 30 years and wrote full time until her death in 2017.
At the time of her interview for The Digest Enthusiast book six, she sent a copy of her bibliography which is now available on this website. I’ll continue to update Bonnie and Joe’s biblios in the days ahead.