Pens against polio
A new anthology of crime fiction raises funds for polio eradication
Lorraine Stevens had the motive and the means. All she needed were accomplices in her plot: publishing a collection of original crime fiction to raise money for the fight to end polio.
The idea for the anthology of short stories, published in July 2023 as “An Unnecessary Assassin,” came to Stevens last year at a literary festival in Yorkshire, England. She’d recently learned about the poliovirus reappearing in Great Britain and was talking with friends about how upset she was by the news.
“I happened to mention that polio had been found in the sewers of London,” says Stevens, a member of the Rotary Club of Scunthorpe, Humberside, England. “I found that quite disturbing. I had known polio was still around, but not as much as I went on to find out. One of my author friends said, ‘Well, you know enough authors, Lorraine. Why don’t you do an anthology and sell it for charity?’”
A former librarian who regularly attends crime-writing festivals, Stevens knew her friend was right. This was something she could do. She began asking authors she knew to donate stories for the book. Her first recruit was David Penny, the author of a well-regarded series of historical mysteries. He was eager to fight polio.
“Growing up in Wales in the ’50s, polio was a major issue for us,” Penny says. “This was just prior to the vaccine coming out, and it was pretty much everywhere. As a kid of six or seven, it was always on your mind. I knew people who were in leg braces or iron lungs — or who died from the disease. That stays with you. It becomes almost an embedded fear in you.”
Penny helped Stevens assemble a diverse group of short stories and arranged to self-publish the book using Amazon’s print-on-demand program. The pair were excited to receive two submissions specifically about polio. Gerralyn Ingram, who writes under the name G.L. Waring, used her story to channel her anger at both vaccine deniers and arrogant doctors. A former pediatric nurse, Ingram based the villain of “It Takes Three Drops” on doctors she’d encountered.
“They think they know everything, and their opinion is the only opinion that counts,” she says. “In the story, basically, here’s a doctor who thinks he’s God… [and] who doesn’t think that a woman can be equally as qualified and actually know better.”
Among the book’s highlights are stories by Ann Cleeves and Lee Child. Cleeves’ contribution, “The Habit of Silence,” is a detective story set in a distinguished library. In Child’s “Safe Enough,” a contractor working on a suburban lot begins stalking the lot’s previous owner. Child interweaves his menacing tale with a critique of economic policies that hurt the working class.
Other stories feature a wide range of situations. Chris McGeorge’s “Box” is a locked-room mystery set in a glass box 820 feet (250 meters) underwater. Robert Scragg’s “Revenge is Best Served Hot” and F.D. Quinn’s “Best Served Cold” each give a culinary twist to crime. Judith O’Reilly’s “A Face for Murder” combines a whodunit with a satire of YouTube makeup tutorials.
Penny was delighted by the diversity of the stories.
“You don’t want all the same thing,” he says. “There’s some funny stories, and there’s some poignant ones in there.”
Penny’s own contribution, written as DG Penny, was based on an idea he’d been thinking about for several years: What are the consequences of trying to do the right thing? In “Drive By,” Penny’s protagonist tries to protect a victim of human trafficking and soon comes to regret it.
“An Unnecessary Assassin” also includes two poems. That’s unusual for a crime anthology, but one of them further cements the book’s link to polio. In “Surviving Relations,” Jim Taylor describes a man who had polio as a child and now embraces a succession of dangerous pastimes. “He would never run. It didn’t stop him doing what he wanted,” Taylor writes. “Look him in the eyes, and he would look straight back, unwavering.”
The anthology also references polio in its cover art, which is shaded purple, and in an afterword explaining the significance of the color. It’s what is used to tint children’s fingers at mass vaccination events to show that they’ve received the vaccine. The title refers to the fact that polio is preventable with a vaccine.
“We came up with all sorts of different ideas. There were probably over a dozen potential titles,” Penny says. “This one won because of the alliteration.”
The book is available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Stevens has also sold it at Rotary club meetings and crime-writing festivals all over Great Britain. It’s raised more than US$3,000 so far, and its proceeds will be matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The phrase ‘An Unnecessary Assassin’ kind of sums up the thing,” Penny says. “Polio is totally an avoidable disease, provided there is enough money to immunize each child.”
- October 2023