Friday, May 10, 2019

Drinks with Reads: "Better Days" and a Sun Stealer

Art Taylor won the Edgar Award last month for his story “English 398: Fiction Workshop” from the July/August 2018 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (he also was a guest here for that story). Today he’s talking about his latest story for EQMM: “Better Days,” from the May/June 2019 issue. Welcome, Art! 

“Better Days” is a follow-up to one of my earlier stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine: “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” from back in 2013. Both stories take place along the North Carolina coast, and both center on a young reporter, his retired father, and the sometimes-tense relationship between them—though coming together to solve an unexpected crime in each case helps to unite father and son in more ways than one. 

Adding fresh troubles in the new story is an attractive bartender who’s caught not only the reporter’s eye but also the eye of a wealthy and charismatic newcomer. “Better Days” is the title of that stranger’s sprawling yacht, but the reporter sees only worse days ahead for himself as long as the other man remains docked along the boardwalk. 

As for a drink to accompany “Better Days,” the bartender—Charlene, Charley to her friends—offers up a cocktail herself, as you’ll see in the excerpt below. In this scene, the stranger with the yacht—Randy—has bought a round of drinks for everyone in the bar, but the reporter, our narrator, is quick to decline that bit of generosity when Charley brings around the tray:

I waved off the drink. “I’ll order something in a minute.”
Charley narrowed her blue eyes, confusion in place of mischief, started to say something. Randy spoke first. 
“I wouldn’t turn down a Midnight Tryst.”
I glanced his way. “What did you say?”
“It’s the name of the cocktail,” Charley said, passing my glass and another to a couple who’d taken up residence at the end of the bar.  
Randy raised his drink in my direction. “Gin, creme de cocoa—”
“Cacao,” Charley called over her shoulder. 
“Excusez me.” Randy purposefully mangled a French accent. “And what else?”
“Fernet Branca,” Charley said, “plus a couple of secret ingredients.” 
“Right there when I need you.” Randy winked. I’m not sure Charley saw it. “And a little bit of mystery? She knows how to play the game.” He pointed at me, fingers shaped like a gun, his thumb wagging a couple of times—trigger pulled. “You don’t know what you’re missing, friend.”
We’d never been introduced. He didn’t ask my name now, just turned to watch Charley again, the curves of her, delivering the last of the drinks. 
I watched too. I did know what I might be missing. 
I made up the Midnight Tryst for the story, but Googling a cocktail that actually uses these ingredients brought a bit of serendipity. The Sun Stealer (created by Henry Prendergast of Analogue in Chicago) is a riff on a classic cocktail called a Hanky Panky, and somewhere in the combination of those cocktail names—Hanky Panky, Sun Stealer, Midnight Tryst—you’ll find many of the key elements of my own tale.

I hope you’ll enjoy both “Better Days” and the cocktail that seemed destined to accompany it. 

Sun Stealer
2 oz. gin
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth, preferably Punt e Mes 
1/4 oz. crème de cacao, white 
1/4 oz. Fernet Branca 
dash orange bitters 
Garnish: lemon twist
  • Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice. 
  • Strain into a coupe.
  • Serve up, garnished with a lemon twist.
Art has been a frequent guest at Mystery Playground. He did a wonderful Q&A with his wife, Tara Laskowski, here.


  1. I really enjoyed the story, Art. And the drink sounds interesting.