Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is not for ten-year-olds, but I tried to read an issue at that age simply because it had belonged to my mother who’d died. I was disappointed, probably because I expected queens and knaves but found only police in various guises. All the same, I confess I felt a little thrill of excitement when a master of the mystery short story agreed to respond to some questions for Canadian Writers Abroad.
James Powell has lived outside of Canada for most of his adult life. Born in Toronto in 1932, he attended University of Toronto (St Michael’s College). Upon graduation in 1955, he left for France. Three years later he migrated to work in New York and the Midwest. He settled in Marietta, Pennsylvania, with his wife Mary Lou.
Powell started publishing short stories — over 140 mystery and humorous stories — in the 1960s, most of which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. 1989 was a good year for Powell, bringing him not only the Reader’s Choice award for the satirical “A Dirge for Clowntown” but also the Derrick Murdoch Award from the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) “for making a long Canadian story short.” The following year his first collection of stories came out: A Murder Coming, edited by Peter Sellers. In 2003, “Bottom Walker” won CWC’s Arthur Ellis Award for best short story, and in 2006, he took the Grant Allen Award. His 2009 collection of stories, A Pocketful of Noses, about the Ganelon detectives, set in the fictional town of San Sebastiano (created for his first published story, the excellent “The Friends of Hector Jouvet”) is available online at Crippen and Landru. In 2015 he received the Edward Hoch award; his acceptance remarks can be found at shortmystery.
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, a paperback anthology of mystery stories the size of Reader’s Digest, has had only three editors since its inception in 1941. The current editor, Janet Hutchings, writes admiringly of James Powell in her introduction to his humorous essay on what makes a good mystery story.
Below are the written responses by James Powell to my questions.
James Powell’s Life in Question and Answer
You asked how I happened to write for Ellery Queen. While in France I heard that there was a special police force in Monaco charged with watching big losers at the casino and if they thought the individual might commit suicide they were to escort them to the railway station, buy them a ticket and give them travelling money because they didn’t want their principality to become the suicide capital of the world. I thought one of these policemen might be an interesting character study. But back here years later when I started to write the story I was afraid my one brief afternoon in Monaco wasn’t enough to make the story real. So I invented my own Principality, San Sebastiano, as his stamping ground, complete with its history, streets and population. I submitted the story to seventeen magazines. Two of them, Harper’s and Mademoiselle, offered me encouraging notes of regret which I am grateful for to this very day. Then Ellery Queen accepted the story. [“The Friends of Hector Jouvet” was published in 1966.] Since then most of my 145 or so stories have appeared there or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Two were published in Playboy when it was under the fiction editorship of Robie Macauley.
You asked how I came to be down here. When I graduated from the University of Toronto (St Michael’s College) in 1955, I spent three years in France, the first at the Sorbonne on a French government grant and then two more years as an English assistant in lycées in Valance and Marseilles, intending to teach high-school English or French on my return. I had edited my college literary magazine [The Gryphon, formerly Trireme] and hoped to write fiction on the side.
But my lycée experience told me I was not going to be heaven’s gift to high-school teaching and when I was offered a job in educational publishing in NYC I took it. I believe that was 1959 or 60. While there I roomed with an American friend from St Mike’s working at The New York Times. He later married and moved to the Midwest to work for a Catholic diocesan newspaper. A year or so later he recommended me for a job on the same paper. I made Iowa my home for the next few years, finished a novel (as yet unpublished — nor will it be) and my first short stories. My friend, with his wife and daughter (my god-daughter), had moved by this time to Mexico where he worked at a training centre for what I would best describe as the Catholic version of the Peace Corps, preparing American Catholics to bring their business skills, etc. to Latin Americans. Two or three years later he and his family died in an airliner crash returning back.
Not long after I thought I would try NYC again. On my way I decided to stop in Marietta to visit my friend’s family. As it happened, his sister and her husband were about to leave for Spain and would be gone for three months. They suggested I babysit their house while they were gone and this I did.
Marietta is a small town of 2,500 to 3,000 people on the banks of the Susquehanna River, the longest unavailable [closed to boats] river in the US. Dickens crossed it in a stage coach in his first trip to the US. Though only ten miles downriver from Three Mile Island, I think the town is a charming one.
After a couple of years in NYC, I decided it was much nicer to be a poor writer there than in the Big Apple and came back. It was then I met my wife and that was that. I was an only child and my parents were each the black sheep of their families while my wife was Marietta born and well equipped with parents and brothers and sisters here.
You asked if I still consider myself a Canadian. Yes, I do but I’m not sure why, having been down here now longer than I was up there. Perhaps part of it is growing up just before and during WWII. Later I listened to a lot of CBC radio drama involving Andrew Alan, John Drainie, Tommy Tweed, Lorne Greene and many others whose names I thought I would never forget or misspell.
My Canadian roots do run deep. My mother’s people came from Germany and Ireland during the 1840s. My father’s family came even earlier. My great-great-grandfather commanded a regiment of soldiers who had fought, as he did, at the Battle of Waterloo which garrisoned Quebec City in 1817 in case another War of 1812 should come down the line. Many of these soldiers settled in Durham county where he became Sheriff. His son published an Ottawa newspaper and represented Carlton county in the legislature, which he opposed. His son, my grandfather, looked good on a horse and served with a militia regiment during the Second Riel Rebellion. He came back from the Boer War as an officer in The Royal Canadian Dragoons and remained so until his retirement. My father was a teenage artillery officer during WWI and served again in WWII with the Three Rivers Tank Corps where he rose to the rank of regimental sergeant major.
On that serious note, let’s end with a quotation from James Powell’s short story, “A Dirge for Clowntown,” in which Inspector Bozo fondly recalls his father:
His father’d been a three-star general in the Clown Marines. Strutting out there at the head of his crack clown drill team in his uniform of electric blue with all the gold frogging and gold stripes on the sleeve and his shako with its immense pompom he’d been the hit of every parade. The drill team’s trips and stumbles were all coordinated to perfection. When one marching clown slipped on a banana peel a hundred did.
“The Sting of the Hoop Snake,” one of Powell’s stories about RCMP Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock and his sidekick peg-legged bear, Winnie-the-Peg, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1989, is the title of his forthcoming collection with Wildside Press.