1967, Frederic Dannay suggested in a handwritten letter that avid
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader Josh Pachter
should try his hand at writing mystery short stories. The following year
Josh became (at the tender age of 16) the second youngest author ever
published in EQMM. His debut story, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,”
introduced a family of children, each named after famous fictional
detectives. In short order Josh contributed follow-up stories: “E.Q.
Griffen’s Second Case”
and “Sam Buried Caesar”
E.Q.’s younger brother Nero Wolfe Griffen.
LOOKING BACK ON A HALF-CENTURY LOVE AFFAIR WITH EQMM
We are a fairly exclusive club, I suppose, and our membership grows oxymoronically and sadly smaller every year.
Depending on whether or not you count Clayton Rawson, EQMM has had either three or four editors since its 1941 debut. Officially, Frederic Dannay (who, with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, wrote as Ellery Queen) served as the magazine’s editor-in-chief from its inaugural issue through 1981, long-time managing editor Eleanor Sullivan was editor-in-chief from 1982 until 1991, and Janet Hutchings, who took over the editor-in-chief’s chair in 1991, remains there today. Clayton Rawson was listed on the masthead as EQMM’s managing editor, never editor-in-chief, but he ran the day-to-day operations of the magazine from 1963 until his death in 1971.
And the club I mentioned above has as its membership those of us who’ve had the opportunity to get to know all four of them face-to-face. There can’t be all that many of us left.
In the spring of 1966, Fred Dannay was sixty-one years old, EQMM was twenty-four, and I was fourteen. One day, Mary Ryan, my ninth-grade English teacher, handed me a copy of the June ’66 issue of EQMM and told me she thought I might like it. I have no idea what it was about me—or about her—that caused her to single me out. Sure, I’d read a couple of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but they were really my only exposure to crime fiction up to then—and I don’t remember having found them especially interesting.
I took Miss Ryan’s gift home with me, though, and a whole new world opened up to me as I devoured Agatha Christie’s “The Gate of Death,” Stanley Ellin’s “Death of an Old-Fashioned Girl,” Kelley Roos’s “Murder Underground,” John Creasey’s “The Greyling Crescent Tragedy,” and the rest of the slim 159-page magazine’s contents.
Immediately, a new monthly ritual became the long walk up Jerusalem Avenue to the candy shop at the top of the hill, where I plunked down my fifty cents for the latest issue of the first magazine I’d truly enjoyed since Highlights for Children and Boy’s Life and MAD. Margery Allingham, Robert Bloch, John Dickson Carr, Celia Fremlin, Edward D. Hoch, Talmadge Powell, Joan Richter, Frank Sisk, Nedra Tyre, James Yaffe—and of course Ellery Queen himself—all new to me, all mysterious and brilliant and as addictive as crack.
In addition to its regular monthly issues, EQMM began publishing an annual anthology of reprints in 1960. In 1963, these anthologies started appearing twice a year instead of once, and, early in 1967, I paid the candy-store proprietor $1.25 for a copy of Ellery Queen’s 1967 Anthology, which was #13 in the series—and which contained a reprint of Richard Deming’s “Open File,” a novelette which had originally appeared in the December 1953 EQMM. The story was a police procedural in which the investigating officers fail to solve a crime—a murder, if memory serves. When I finished reading the story, though, I thought—in my fifteen-year-old wisdom—that the cops had botched their investigation, that there was in fact sufficient evidence presented in the story to pin the crime on a specific one of its characters.
For reasons I won’t pretend to remember, I actually wrote a new ending to Deming’s story and sent it off to EQMM—and, in due course, I received a handwritten letter on EQMM stationery from Frederic Dannay himself!
For many years, that letter was one of my prize possessions. Sadly, I lost it when, after a dozen years in Holland and Germany, I moved back to the US in 1991. I can still remember, word for word, the way it ended, though: “Have you ever considered writing a detective story yourself? Seems to me, Josh, if I may, you should!”
So of course I did. I mean, duh.
I came up with the idea of a cop who loved mystery stories so much that he named all eleven of his kids—apparently Inspector Ross Griffen of the Tyson County Police Force was a Catholic—after famous fictional detectives: Albert Campion, Gideon Fell, Sherlock Holmes, John Jericho, Jane Marple, Perry Mason, Parker Pyne, Augustus Van Dusen, Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe—and, of course, Ellery Queen. In my story, sixteen-year-old Ellery “earned his name” by solving in a Queensian manner a jewel theft which was baffling his father . . . while simultaneously botching his investigation of a neighborhood mystery, the theft of three apple pies destined for a church bazaar.
I typed the story up on my little nonelectric typewriter and sent it off to Fred Dannay’s home in Larchmont, New York. A month or so later, I was in my bedroom one afternoon when the phone rang and my mother yelled up the stairs, “Josh! It’s for you!”
“Who is it?” I yelled back.
“It’s Frederic Dannay!”
Furious, I clomped downstairs to the kitchen, snatched up the receiver, and barked, “Dad, this isn’t funny.”
It wasn’t my father trying to be funny, though. It was Fred Dannay, telling me he liked my story and wanted to publish it.
Fred wanted some changes, I gladly made them, and “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name” appeared in the December 1968 issue of EQMM, #325 in the magazine’s “Department of First Stories.” I was sixteen when I wrote the story, seventeen by the time it was published, making me the second youngest writer ever to appear in the pages of EQMM. (The youngest was James Yaffee, whose first story was written at the age of fifteen and published in 1943.)
As a professionally published author, I was eligible for membership in the Mystery Writers of America. I applied, was accepted, and at seventeen became the youngest active member in the history of the organization. This got me an invitation to the MWA’s annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet, where I had the opportunity to meet both Fred Dannay and Manny Lee face-to-face. Manny was polite, but Fred was absolutely effusive, and he led me around and introduced me to many of the writers I’d grown to idolize, treating me—as did almost everyone I met—as not just a punk kid but a colleague. Ed and Pat Hoch, John and Barbara Lutz, and Stan and Marilyn Cohen were especially kind to me, and over the years Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Patricia McGerr, Lawrence Treat, Bob Fish, Don Westlake, Joyce Harrington, Ed Wellen, Dan Marlowe, Morris Herschman, Chris Steinbrunner, Warren Murphy, and many others were also much nicer to me than I can possibly have deserved. I saw Mr. Dannay again at several subsequent Edgar banquets, and he always took the time to talk with me—and always left me feeling that our conversations mattered every bit as much to him as they did to me.
Since my family lived on Long Island, it was easy for me to take the train into Manhattan, and I would often go in during the day to visit the EQMM editorial offices at 229 Park Avenue South, then stick around for the monthly cocktail party in the MWA’s cramped offices in the Seville Hotel on East 29th Street. Fred worked from home in Larchmont, but managing editor Clayton Rawson was always in his office at 229 Park when I dropped by, and he always welcomed me, always made time to spend an hour with me. A professional magician himself, Clayton used the world of stage magic as the backdrop for most of his fiction—his four novels, all written in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and many of his short stories featured as their detective “The Great Merlini.” Whenever I would visit Clayton in his office, he would entertain me with sleight of hand, and he was good at it, certainly the best close-up magician I’ve ever seen. During one visit, Clayton handed me a copy of the April 1951 EQMM and told me to select any story in the issue, add up the digits of the page number of the story’s first page, and count to the that-manyeth word of the story. I did so—and he announced that the word was “problems,” which was correct. Although magicians traditionally don’t reveal the secrets of their tricks, he explained to me that Fred Dannay had edited the beginning of every story in the issue as a favor to magician Richard Himber, so that, no matter which story was selected, the word that appeared in the position corresponding to the sum of the digits of its first page would be “problems.” (Mike Nevins wrote about the April 1951 EQMM in his article “The Dannay Years,” which appeared in the magazine’s November 2011 issue.)
My most vivid memory of Clayton Rawson was the day when he handed me a book of matches and insisted that I light them, one at a time, and throw them, blazing merrily, into his open mouth. I’m not sure that technically qualifies as magic, but it was certainly magical to me.
After Clayton’s death, Eleanor Sullivan became EQMM’s managing editor, and she and I grew to be fast friends. Always smiling (though always a little harried and mussed), she, like Clayton before her, welcomed my visits, first to 229 Park and then, after the magazine’s editorial offices moved about twenty-two blocks uptown, to the new space at 380 Lexington. We’d often go out to lunch together, and when I visited her during the colder months, she always insisted on trying on the weird furry winter coat I’d bought at Barney’s Boys Town on 17th Street.
By the time Fred Dannay died, in 1981, he’d bought seven of my stories for EQMM—three about the Griffen family, another a spoof of two of Ed Hoch’s series characters (“The Theft of the Spy Who,” September 1972), and a couple of one-offs. I was married to a Dutch woman by then and living in Amsterdam, teaching for the University of Maryland’s European Division on US military bases in Holland, Germany, England, and Greece—and no longer writing fiction. Why did I stop? That’s complicated—it’s probably easiest to say that my focus had shifted from writing to teaching and leave it at that.
In 1982, as Eleanor Sullivan moved up from managing editor to editor-in-chief after the death of Fred Dannay, the University of Maryland sent me for four months to Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, to teach at a little Navy base in Manama, the tiny island emirate’s capital (and only) city.
Bahrain fascinated me, and I wound up staying for eight months instead of four and returning to the writing of crime fiction with “The Dilmun Exchange,” the first of what would ultimately be a dozen stories about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani detective on the Bahraini Public Security Force. Eleanor bought it for the July 1984 EQMM, and the last half of the ’eighties were far and away my most prolific period in the mystery-fiction bidnis.
In addition to the Chaudri stories, I also conceived the idea for a project I planned to call Partners in Crime. My idea was that the book would consist of a dozen or so short stories, each written by two authors working together—and, in each case, one of the two authors would be me. Although the book never happened, about fifteen stories wound up being written, and most of them were published individually. EQMM ran my collaborations with Ed Hoch (“The Spy and the Suicide Club,” January 1985), Stanley Cohen (“Annika Andersson,” February 1993) and Jon L. Breen (“The German Cologne Mystery,” September/October 2005), and I also sold Partners in Crime stories written with Edward Wellen (“Stork Trek,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July 1985), Michael Avallone (“Better Safe Than Sorry,” Hardboiled, Summer/Fall 1987), Joe L. Hensley (“All That Mattered,” Robak’s Firm, 1987), John Lutz (“DDS 10752 Libra,” An Eye For Justice, 1988), Dan J. Marlowe (“The Seven-Year Bitch,” Hardboiled, 1990), and Francis M. Nevins (“The Leo’s Den Affair,” Dick Tracy: The Secret Files, 1990).
During this same period, I edited a series of “Author’s Choice” anthologies, beginning with Top Crime: The Author’s Choice (St. Martin’s Press, 1984) and continuing with Top Science Fiction, Top Fantasy and Top Horror (all of which were published in various European countries, but not in the US), and translated a couple of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and de Gier stories from Dutch into English for EQMM.
Meanwhile, my marriage didn’t survive my time in Bahrain, and I wound up living in Germany from 1983 to 1991, still teaching for the University of Maryland on American Army and Air Force bases.
And in ’91, right around the same time that Eleanor Sullivan passed away, I moved back to the US and settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
I haven’t done all that much in the mystery field since my return, although I’ve translated stories by Theo Capel, Rene Appel, Carla Vermaat and Tessa de Loo from Dutch into English and by Bavo Dhooge from Flemish into English for EQMM’s “Passport to Crime” series, which has given me the opportunity to get to know Janet Hutchings, who took over as editor-in-chief after Eleanor died and has now served in that position for over twenty years.
A couple of years ago, Janet bought a story called “History on the Bedroom Wall” and ran it in the “Department of First Stories” in EQMM’s September/October 2009 issue, which I believe makes me the only person who’s ever appeared in the DFS twice—first as a teenager in 1968 and again aged 58 in 2009.
How could such a thing happen? Well, although it wasn’t written as a part of my Partners in Crime project, “History on the Bedroom Wall” was written collaboratively, and the story was published as “by Rebecca K. Jones and Josh Pachter.” Rebecca K. Jones is my daughter Becca, who was born in Germany in 1986. In 2009, she was twenty-three and a second-year law student at the University of Arizona, and writing a story with her was unquestionably the high point of my “career” as a writer.
Today, Becca is a deputy county attorney in Phoenix, and my wife Laurie and I live in Virginia, where I teach communication and film-appreciation classes at Northern Virginia Community College. I continue to do translations for “Passport to Crime” from time to time, and every once in a while I write a new story of my own. When Janet published my “iMurder” in the July 2011 EQMM, that made me a member of another pretty exclusive club—there aren’t many of us who’ve published new fiction in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in six consecutive decades, but I’ve now been in there in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s. If I can hang on a few more years, perhaps I’ll show up in the ’20s, too, and I’m not sure if anyone has yet hit EQMM in seven consecutive decades.
When I moved from Germany back to the US in 1991, I lost not only my original 1967 letter from Fred Dannay but almost everything else I owned—looong story; I’ll spare you—including treasured photos of me with Fred, Clayton, and Eleanor.
In October of this year, though, Laurie and I drove to Cleveland the weekend of Bouchercon to visit with my dear old friend Les Roberts (who writes the Milan Jacovich novels and was B’con’s “Special Cleveland Guest”) and his lovely girlfriend Holly Albin. We also had the opportunity to spend some time with my even older friend John Lutz and his lovely wife Barbara, and Janet very graciously took time out of her busy schedule to have a drink with Laurie and me.
So I’ve at least got one photo of me with an EQMM editor, and I’m happy to share it with you here. (Janet’s the pretty one. I’m the other one.)
Fred, Clayton, Eleanor, and Janet: It’s actually kind of amazing to think that EQMM has only gone through three (or four, if you count Clayton) editors in over seventy years.
But I consider myself honored and
blessed to have had the opportunity to have known all four (I
darned well count Clayton, whether you do or not!) of
them. They—and EQMM
been a very important part of my life for almost half a
century now, and I look forward to continuing my
relationship with the magazine and its leadership till death
do us part!
Josh Pachter, thus far the only American to whom
Other articles by this West 87nd Street Irregular
Page first published on Jun 17.