by Cynthia Chow
Up this week we have a review of a fun mix of fantasy, horror, and mystery-Styx by Bavo Dhooge, with Josh Pachter. We also have an interesting interview with Josh, and in this issue we have a mystery short story written by Josh.
Styx By Bavo Dhooge, With Josh Pachter
Review by Cynthia Chow
Although he may only be 40 years old, 16 years as a police detective in Ostend, Belgium, have taken a toll on both Rafael Styx’s body and his life. Arthritis cripples his bones and fills every movement with pain, and on the Job he is known for accepting bribes and being unnecessarily brutal. Styx’s wife simmers unnoticed with anger due to his affairs and neglect, while his teenaged son rarely utters a few words that aren’t filled with hostility. Styx barely manages to tolerate his rookie partner, whose fashion sense and adherence to rules represents everything Styx loathes in the new generation of detectives.
The one obsession that continues to drive Styx and get him out of bed every day is his pursuit of the Stuffer, a serial killer who is leaving gruesome works of art for tourists to discover. Attached to the bodies of young women, which are hollowed out and completely stuffed full of sand, are literal calling cards with ironic and pun-filled statements. The detective still retains the skills that once made him an impressive investigator, but when he gets too close to capturing the murderer, Styx makes a fatal error. Well, it should have been fatal.
Inexplicably, Styx wakes up riddled with bullets and without a pulse. While the rest of his country believes him to be dead due to the Stuffer’s morbid Facebook postings, Styx shuffles his undead corpse back into an investigation to protect his family and capture his killer. Styx reluctantly enlists the aid of his disbelieving, but talented young immigrant partner, and together the pair track down the clues leading to a warped murderer before he can produce another piece of “artwork.” And before Styx completely rots into pieces.
Belgian author Bavo Dhooge opens the novel by perfectly capturing the noir tone of classic detective mysteries. What makes this police procedural so unique is the twist that allows Styx to redeem himself as both a family man and a detective. While other paranormal mysteries may utilize the ghost of the protagonist to save his soul and solve the crime, here there is very little romanticism involved in Styx’s situation. There can be no emotional reunion with his neglected loved ones, as Styx’s body is repulsively decomposing, and traditional zombie instincts are kicking in.
Noir black humor and Styx’s continually cynical outlook entertain throughout the novel, and surprisingly, his living and prematurely promoted partner Joachim Delacroix proves to be a fascinating and complex character. This entertaining redemption tale of a detective is heightened by the zombie deadline that has Styx desperate to stop the Stuffer before either of them may kill again. Mystery readers will be drawn into this traditional noir detective story, and the inclusion of an undead detective successfully and seamlessly blends two genres into one completely enjoyable read.
Interview with Josh Pachter:
KRL: How did your work on Styx come about?
Josh: I’ve been translating short stories from Dutch into English for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine since the mid-1980s. In 2011, I found myself wondering if my command of Dutch might allow me to translate stories by Flemish authors, too, so I did some research online and found Bavo Dhooge, who is one of Belgium’s most prolific and popular contemporary crime writers. I private-messaged Bavo on Facebook, told him about EQMM’s “Passport to Crime” department, and asked him to send me a story.
To my surprise, it turned out that most Flemish authors write in Dutch, not Flemish, since there are only about two million people who can read Flemish, while ten times as many people can read Dutch. So Bavo sent me a lovely PI story, “Stinking Plaster,” which I translated and which appeared in EQMM’s September/October 2011 double issue. Two years later, Bavo pitched an idea for a zombie cop novel he was working on to an American literary agent, Peter Riva, and the two of them decided that this book was going to need a co-author, not just a translator, in order to help shape it for the American market. Peter and I already knew each other from another project, and he and Bavo agreed that I was the right person to help with Styx.
KRL: What exactly was your role in this collaboration?
Josh: Well, let me start by saying that I was not involved from the very beginning. Bavo presented me with a polished draft of the book in Dutch, with all the characters and plot and settings in place, and then I was invited to approach that draft as a collaborator, not just a translator. Looking at the draft – which I want to emphasize was really terrific as written!– the first thing I felt I should do was tone down the “bad cop” aspect of the main character, Rafael Styx. Yes, the book is about a homicide investigator tracking a serial killer, and yes, the cop ultimately becomes a zombie. But Bavo and I both felt that, at heart, the story is about redemption much more than it’s about a zombie cop and a serial killer. As Bavo originally wrote him, though, Styx was such a misogynistic, racist guy that I was concerned readers wouldn’t much care whether he found redemption or not.
So I gentled him down. He’s still a bad guy – otherwise he wouldn’t need redemption – but hopefully he’s now someone the reader can care about. I also proposed a number of relatively minor modifications to the storyline to tie up some loose ends, clarify some things that Americans might have had trouble understanding, and make the book even stronger than it already was.
In retrospect, I have to say that I disagree with Bavo and Peter that the book “needed” a collaborator. I think my input was helpful, but I think the book would have been fine without it, and every step of the way, Bavo retained the final say. It was amazing to me how in sync we were, but there were occasional disagreements between us. Happily, he was always willing to listen to my point of view, and I’d say that as often as not we wound up in agreement. Whenever we didn’t – cue Frank Sinatra here – we did it his way….
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Josh: Sometimes I talk to middle-school groups, and I always start out by asking for a show of hands: “How many of you want to be a writer?” Generally, every hand in the room goes up, and I then point out to them that they’re already writers, since they know how to write and do write. So, how long have I been a writer? Since I was three or four, I suppose, but I’ve been a published writer since the ripe old age of 16, when I sold my first short story to EQMM.
KRL: That’s pretty cool. What else have you written and has it always been in the mystery genre? Can you share about your most recent book/story?
Josh: I’ve had something like 70 short stories appear in EQMM, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Espionage, New Mystery, New Black Mask, Hardboiled, and quite a few “year’s best” collections and other anthologies. Most of my writing has been crime fiction, although in the ’80s I edited a series of anthologies for a Dutch publisher – Top Crime, Top Science Fiction, Top Fantasy and Top Horror and they insisted I include something of my own in each volume, so I had to write one science-fiction story, one fantasy story, and one horror story. I don’t think any of those were very good, though. My thing seems to be crime fiction. My most recent story, “Selfie,” is in the February issue of EQMM. It’s one of the shortest things I’ve ever written, and far and away the creepiest. I’ve read it out loud at a couple of events, and it seems to creep everybody out.
KRL: I understand that the short story we published of yours (Coffee Date), you wrote with your wife. What was that like and how did it come about?
Josh: Also in the ’80s, I had an idea for a book of short stories I wanted to call Partners in Crime. It would include 15 or so stories, each written by two people writing collaboratively, and in each case one of the two “partners” would be me. I was living in Germany at the time, and this was pre-email, so I used snail mail to invite a bunch of my friends in the mystery community to collaborate with me. Some declined, but most said sure, and I wound up writing stories with the legendary Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, Dan J. Marlowe, Patricia McGerr, Michael Avallone, Francis M. Nevins, Stanley Cohen, Jon Breen, Joe L. Hensley, Ed Wellen and several others.
The book never happened, but the individual stories were published in EQMM, AHMM, and other places. A quarter of a century later, my daughter Becca asked me if I’d be interested in writing a story with her, and of course I jumped at the chance. Our collaboration, “History on the Bedroom Wall,” appeared in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” – making me the only person who’s ever appeared in that section of the magazine twice, first in 1968 and again 41 years later, in 2009.
Collaborating with Becca reminded me of my long-ago idea, and when John Betancourt of Wildside Press approached me last year about the possibility of collecting all 10 of my Mahboob Chaudri stories into a single volume, I asked him if he might also be interested in Partners in Crime. He was, and I decided I probably ought to come up with some new stories to add to the old ones. So I’ve been tossing around collaborative ideas with my friends Bill Pronzini, Les Roberts, Art Taylor, Kathryn O’Sullivan and Meg Opperman, and one new story – “A Woman’s Place,” which I wrote with René Appel, who’s known as the father of the Dutch psychological suspense novel – is already finished and should be out in EQMM sometime later this year.
Well, okay, meanwhile, my wife Laurie is a really terrific nonfiction writer who’s always wanted to try her hand at fiction, so I suggested to her that she and I write a story together. Laurie and I met online in 2007 – thanks, match.com! – and our first date was at a coffee shop, so it seemed obvious that we’d write a story about two people who meet online and have their first date in a coffee shop. “Coffee Date” was the result. It was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post last year, and, yes, Kings River Life reprinted it this year. (Thanks, kingsriverlife.com!)
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Josh: I actually don’t really like writing all that much. It may come naturally and be fun for some people, but it’s hard work for me! So although I’m a professional writer, writing isn’t my profession. It’s sort of a hobby, I guess, and I do it when an idea bubbles up in my head and won’t give me any peace until I write it down. In other words, I write to get that damn voice in my head to shut up and leave me alone!
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Josh: I almost never outline, although once upon a time I did write a chapter book for younger readers, and that longer work I outlined very carefully. I even drew floor plans of the old Victorian house in which most of the action is set. Mostly, though, I am – and I really don’t like this word, but it fits, so I’ll use it – what writer friends of mine call a “pantser.” In other words, I’m a “by the seat of my pants” writer, not an outliner. Of course, most of what I write is pretty short, so there’s generally not enough going on and not enough characters involved to make an outline useful, let alone necessary.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Josh: Not at the very beginning, no. I was in fact incredibly lucky. In 1966, my 9th-grade English teacher, Mary Ryan, kept me after class one day and handed me a copy of the June ’66 issue of EQMM. I have no idea why. I suppose I must have read some of the Sherlock Holmes stories by then, but I had no particular interest in crime fiction. That magazine hooked me, though, and I started buying every issue. In ’67, I read a story called “Open File” by Richard Deming. It was what’s called a police procedural, sort of like CSI except with cops rather than forensic investigators, and what made it different from the usual police procedural was that, this time, the detectives don’t figure out whodunit at the end of the story. I thought there was enough information given, though, that they should have been able to arrive at a solution, and I sat down and wrote a new ending and mailed it off to EQMM.
A couple of weeks later, I received a two-page handwritten response from Frederic Dannay, who was one of the two cousins who wrote together as “Ellery Queen” and the editor-in-chief of the magazine. I no longer have that letter, but I know the last two sentences by heart: “Did you ever think of writing a detective story yourself? Seems to me, Josh – if I may – you should.” So, duh, of course I did, and Fred bought it. Which means I sold the first short story I ever tried to sell, a story I wrote when I was 16?
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Josh: Well, when I wrote that first short story at 16, I sent it directly to Fred Dannay’s home address, and some time later I was upstairs in my bedroom at my family’s house on Long Island when the phone rang. My mother picked it up in the kitchen and called up to me, “Josh, it’s for you!” I yelled down, “Who is it?” and my mom yelled back, “It’s Frederic Dannay!” So I barreled down the stairs and snatched up the receiver and barked, “This isn’t funny, Dad!” And of course it wasn’t my father. It was Fred Dannay, calling to let me know that he was going to buy my story.
KRL: Wow that’s awesome! Future writing goals?
Josh: Oh, gosh, for a person who doesn’t really like to write, I suppose I have a bunch of goals. I’d like to do more collaborations and see Partners in Crime appear in print at long last. I’d like to do a few more Mahboob Chaudri stories. It would be great to find a publisher interested in putting out that kids’ book I mentioned, First Week Free at the Roomy Toilet.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Josh: I don’t really have writing heroes, although there are lots of writers whose work I admire. When I think of heroes, though, I think of firefighters rescuing children from burning buildings and people like my daughter, who is a deputy county prosecutor in Arizona and has devoted her working life to putting the scumbags who commit acts of violence against women and especially children behind bars. Those are heroes.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Josh: Depends on the story. For the Chaudri stories, which are set in the Middle Eastern island emirate of Bahrain, I did a ton of research, making sure I got all of the cultural and religious and geographic details right. There aren’t a lot of guns in my stories, but when a firearm does show up I research it carefully, to avoid a dozen letters from gun nuts pointing out my mistakes. A lot of times, though, I just make stuff up.
KRL: What do you read?
Josh: I usually have half a dozen different books going all at once. Right now, I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s first Robert Galbraith book on my iPhone and Paul Theroux’ Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories on my iPad.
In actual hard copy, I read a few of my friend John Floyd’s short-short mysteries from The Angela Files before I go to bed, and while I ice my shoulder after doing my twice-a-day physical-therapy workouts (I had rotator-cuff surgery in December), I’m enjoying the first volume of Simon Callow’s three-volume biography of Orson Welles. Meanwhile, most of the Dutch and Belgian authors I translate send me signed copies of their novels, and at the moment I’m about halfway through Bavo Dhooge’s Stiletto Libretto, which was the first of what’s now nine books he’s set in LA, even though he’s never yet set foot in the US.
And last year I translated a couple of volumes of the wonderful Belgian graphic-novel series Suske en Wiske for possible publication here, and instead of paying me for the work the publisher sent me almost a complete set of the books – over 100 volumes! – so I’m loving immersing myself in that world. (I hope some American publisher does decide to pick up that series – they are so much fun!)
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Josh: Laurie and I don’t get cable or satellite or broadcast television – we have to go over to her parents’ place to watch the Super Bowl – but we do get Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and we usually have one or two shows we’re working our way through. Right now we’re watching Transparent and the new episodes of The X-Files, and we just this week started in on Veep. We’re waiting eagerly for the next season of House of Cards, and the next season of The Man in the High Castle, and after binge-watching the first two seasons of The Newsroom I’m about this close to paying whatever they’re asking for Season 3. Movies? Don’t get me started! In addition to interpersonal and intercultural communication, I teach film appreciation at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus, and I could list 200 favorite films without stopping for breath. You want a quick 10, just to get a sense of what I like? Okay, but these aren’t necessarily my top 10, just 10 that come to mind right away. Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, My Dinner With Andre, Mindwalk, The Dinner Game, The African Queen, Desk Set (or anything with Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn), What’s Up, Doc?, Allegria (a gorgeous story film made by Cirque du Soleil), Duck Soup, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version, not the botched Johnny Depp version), Sleuth (the original, with Michael Caine, not the remake with – um, Michael Caine) … and, shoot, that’s already more than 10, isn’t it?…
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Josh: Yes, absolutely, an Edgar Allan Poe Award to my mantelpiece.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Josh: I have a very bare-bones website I built and maintain myself at www.joshpachter.com. I do have a Twitter account, but I rarely tweet. I usually can’t think of anything to say that would take me 140 whole characters. I’m a lot more active on Facebook.
To enter to win a copy of Styx, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “styx,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 27, 2016. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Click on this link to purchase any of this book. If you have ad blocker on you may not see this link:
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.