Books | August 2015
“Mystery writers walk into a room forthe first time and consider where we could most efficiently kill somebody in an interesting way. We discuss untraceable poisons in restaurants — and terrify the poor people who wait on us. We wonder whether that beam that runs across the ceiling in church would hold up a hanging corpse, and how long a dagger would have to be to puncture a heart.”
Thusly does Carolyn McSparren, editor of Malice in Memphis: Bluff City Mysteries, caution Memphis-area restaurant employees in the volume’s “Disclaimer and Introduction.” Members of Malice in Memphis, a local mystery writers group, contributed to the collection of stories featuring murder and mayhem against the backdrop of well-known Memphis landmarks, events and neighborhoods.
Does pub trivia night bring out your ruthless side? “Trivial Pursuit” by Melissa Royer will make you view your fellow competitors with new suspicion — and wonder what really goes on at the Pink Palace after hours. In the mood for barbecue? Read McSparren’s “Long Pig,” which takes place during Barbecue Fest, and you just might order the vegetarian option instead. Staying downtown? “Murder at the Peabody” by Patricia Potter might have you taking the stairs to your room and skipping the elevator. And “The Queen of Hearts” by Barbara Christopher will make you think twice about wearing your red spiked heels on the cobblestones at Beale Street Landing — in case you really needed another reason not to.
Half the fun of this collection is seeing where these mystery writers will off their characters next. From the horse-drawn carriages of Downtown to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church to Voodoo Village to Mud Island, the fictional Memphis, past and present, of Bluff City Mysteries is filled with revenge-seekers, guilty consciences, and other wreakers of Memphis-style havoc.
Stories range in tone from the borderline zany, cozy-style “Elmwood Blues” by Phyllis Appleby — which is heavy on local color and light on plot — to “Murder in Midtown” by Kristi Bradley, a solid short with plenty of red herrings and emotional intrigue, featuring the residential environs of Midtown as merely an incidental setting. The settings of some stories are sort of characters in their own right, like the James Lee House (former home of Memphis College of Art) in “An Artful Death” by Elizabeth Smith.
“Night Fishing” by Angelyn Sherrod takes place at the Burkle Estate, which now operates as the Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis. In antebellum days, the land was owned by Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who was widely believed to be a secret abolitionist and whose home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In a way, this historical footnote is instrumental to Sherrod’s murder mystery, for Burkle’s extraordinarily respectful relationship with the servants on his plantation ultimately leads to a timely discovery of who the murderer really is.
Like “Night Fishing,” many of the stories have history lessons embedded in them, and thanks to each story’s being introduced by a historical blurb about its setting, you’ll finish the collection a little wiser about weird Memphis than when you started it.
Many of Malice in Memphis’s authors are published novelists, including James Paavola, author of the Murder in Memphis series featuring Memphis Police Department Lieutenant Julia Todd. Contributors Barbara Christopher, Carolyn McSparren, Patricia Potter, Angelyn Sherrod and Elizabeth Smith have published novels in a variety of genres. For others — Kristi Bradley, Juanita Dunn Houston, Cheryl Noland, and Melissa Royer — stories published in Malice in Memphis are among their first pieces of published fiction. Phyllis Appleby writes interactive mystery plays and writes, directs, produces, and stars in Death Du Jour Mystery Theater, which headlines Spaghetti Warehouse in Downtown Memphis, among other venues.
Lest you draw the wrong conclusions about the creative and morbid-minded MidSoutherners who make up the Malice in Memphis writers group, McSparren assures us in her “Disclaimer and Introduction” that they “are essentially peaceful. We can always bump off unpleasant people in our writing. No reason to do it in actuality. So don’t blame the blameless landmarks we’ve used. Remember, it’s all fiction.”
Malice in Memphis
For members of a local mystery writers group, one man’s tourist destination is another man’s crime scene
Story by Kathryn Justice Leache