16 September 2014

Rangitoto Island, etc.

by Stephen Ross

It's Friday. I'm reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it's probably radioactive). I've got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It's my lunch break and I'm trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week's article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I've spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I've never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I'm commuting home. I'd love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I've tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: "Have you ever been inside a mental institution?" (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).


I'm one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I'm one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I'm surrounded by software developers -- a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist's field trip). In fact, I'm quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I'm going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It's like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn't write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there's a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren't many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the "voice" of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It's the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: "You are the voice of God."

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one's own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave -- I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn't obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can't escape in my "room where I write", however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I'll wedge in my "Bullets" (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I'll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island
Spotify, in case you don't know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I've created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled "Writing Background" and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation "atmospheres", to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don't own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors -- to do what, I don't really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like mediation. Actually, it is meditation -- a creative meditation. If I'm in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that's the way it is.

Be seeing you.


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

15 September 2014

A Cinderella Sleuth Story with a $5000 Prize

Melissa Yuan-Innes
by Melissa Yi

Hope Sze’s tale

Once upon a time, in the 21st century, a poor student lived in Montreal’s mouse-infested apartments, tending to the sick at all hours of the day or night, while more senior physicians mocked her and tore her dreams to cinders. Until one day, our Cinderella doc discovered a body outside an operating theatre. (Code Blues)

The other practitioners fled in fear, and ordered her to leave the case to the constabulary, but Cinderdoc set upon her own quest to discover the killer. And verily, she did, and it was good.

© savemiette
Two Princes stepped forward to claim her, eyes glassy with admiration, but first a grieving mother (Notorious D.O.C.) and then an illusionist (Terminally Ill) pressed their cases upon Cinderdoc, beseeching her for help. And so Cinderdoc became CinderSleuth, incessantly healing the ill and investigating the lawless.

Melissa Yi’s tale

Once upon a time, a starry-eyed girl longed to become a writer, but her parents and the rest of society urged her toward the far-safer path of medical school. While dissecting cadavers, Melissa’s subconscious brain rebelled and she began spinning an award-winning tale about corpses and music.

During residency, she continued weaving fantastic fables about vampirish school girls, wizards, and psychic children. After graduation, between shifts in emergency medicine, she renamed her alter ego Melissa Yi and created Dr. Hope Sze, the resident doctor who could fight crime as well as disease.

Occasionally, Melissa’s stories appeared in periodicals and anthologies distributed across the Commonwealth. But still, Melissa toiled in the trenches, longing for a fairy godeditor to touch her with a magic wand.

As Melissa crouched over her laptop in despair, two new fairy godparents appeared. The first was nearly invisible, but spoke with a seductive voice and carried a fortune in her hands. She said, “Come with me, child. You no longer need a magic wand to transmit your stories around the globe. With the tap of your keyboard, you can release Hope to the world through the miracle of independent publishing.”

The second godparent read the Hope stories and nodded his head in approval. “Melissa, my name is Kobo. I would like to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We are hosting a ball to celebrate Princess Gillian Flynn. Would you like to write three psychological thriller tales in honour of her ascendant Gone Girl? Everyone who attends the ball and solves the riddles based on your stories may be awarded five thousand dollars.”

Melissa flew to the ball faster than a pumpkin coach could carry her, already formulating the stories in her mind.

Your tale

Once upon a time, which is now: A sharp-eyed, sharp-witted reader could win a Kobo Aura H2O and five thousand dollars. The best part of any fairy tale is the happily ever after, and in this case, it could be yours!

Kobo is sponsoring the Going Going Gone contest, which features three Hope Sze Gone Fishing mystery short stories. Hope escaped the hospital to take her dad fishing on the Madawaska River for his birthday, only to discover that her own family might represent the most dangerous wildlife of all.

Download the stories for free (“Cain and Abel,” “Trouble and Strife,” and “Butcher’s Hook”), solve one riddle per story, and you could win five thousand dollars.

Readers are rarely rewarded and fêted in our society, let alone fiercely intelligent readers who can solve ten puzzles before breakfast. When Steve Steinbock introduced me to SleuthSayers, I told Kobo, “These are exactly the people we need to talk to.” Gigantic thanks to Velma and Leigh for fitting me in on a tight deadline.

Please feel free to share the link, to brainstorm solutions together, and of course to admire Kobo’s beautiful platform and their newest e-reader, the Aura H2O, which can be read underwater! What would you do with five thousand dollars?

P.S. I was going to title this blog Cinderella with Guns, for no good reason except I liked the idea of a Cinderella detective, armed and dangerous. Someone beat me to it!


More Information


‘Going, Going, Gone’
Kobo Contest Challenges Mystery Lovers
Gather Clues For a Chance To Win
a Kobo Aura H2O and $5,000

by René d’Entremont

Toronto, September 5, 2014 – When not one but two bestselling thrillers are turned into highly anticipated, soon-to-be-released films, it is an opportunity too good to miss.

In anticipation of the release of film adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s hit suspense novels Gone Girl and Dark Places, Kobo, a global leader in eReading, today launched ‘Going, Going, Gone’ – a thrilling new contest that will put readers’ sleuthing skills to the test. The six-week contest closes on October 10, one week after the release of Gone Girl on October 3.

Read the eBooks. Solve the riddles. Enter for a chance to win $5,000 CAD and a Kobo Aura H2O.

Kicking off today, readers have the opportunity to channel their inner sleuth to solve puzzles by gathering clues found in three original short stories authored by acclaimed mystery writer Melissa Yi, available free of charge at the Kobo bookstore.

In the first story Cain and Abel, released today, readers are invited to go along for the ride when a camping weekend leads to much more drama – and distress – than desired.

Every two weeks, a new story will be released containing clues readers will use to figure out that story’s entry code. Three correct entry codes will enter readers into a contest for a chance to win a Kobo Aura H2O and $5,000 CAD.

“Blockbuster thrillers, such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places and Gone Girl, have always transported readers to new worlds. We’ve partnered on this exciting project with hot up-and-coming mystery writer Melissa Yi to take that idea to a whole new level,” said Robyn Baldwin, Marketing Manager, Kobo. “Booklovers will delve deeper than ever before into the kind of chilling mysteries that make the works of Gillian Flynn so incredibly popular—getting the chance to play detective in a fresh and exciting way.”

"It was wonderful to work with Kobo on such an imaginative contest," said Melissa Yi, Author. "I'm a huge fan of Gillian Flynn's work, so it's an honour to be able to connect with her books in such an innovative way. In the theatre, they talk about the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. As a writer, I feel like this contest breaks down the fourth wall between writers and the readers, so that the audience can dive into the stories — exploring and experiencing the mysteries for themselves."

Yi is a Southern Ontario-based thriller author and physician who channels her experiences as a medical doctor to write about everything from articles for the Medical Post to medical mysteries, suspense and romance novels. Her latest Hope Sze medical mystery, Terminally Ill, hit the Kobo Top 50 eBook List after Publishers Weekly hailed it as “entertaining and insightful.”

How to Play
  • Download the free Kobo reading app – available for the most popular smartphones and tablets – to read the short stories containing important clues needed to solve the riddles and identify the entry codes. There are three short stories in all, and three codes needed to enter the contest.
  • Readers must enter all three entry codes correctly for a chance to win. Sharing this contest with friends and followers via Facebook, Twitter and email will earn additional entries.
  • The contest is open to legal residents of US, UK and Canada (excluding Québec). No purchase necessary. See full terms and conditions. (PDF)

The first short story, Cain and Abel, is now available and can be read with a Kobo eReader or any of the company’s apps.

The series includes:
  • September 05 – Cain and Abel
  • September 16 – Trouble and Strife
  • September 29 – Butcher’s Hook
For more information about author Melissa Yi, please visit her web site.

About Rakuten Kobo Inc.

Rakuten Kobo Inc. is one of the world’s fastest-growing eReading services offering more than 4-million eBooks and magazines to millions of customers in 190 countries. Believing that consumers should have the freedom to read any book on any device, Kobo provides consumers with a choice when reading. Kobo offers an eReader for everyone with a wide variety of E Ink eReaders and Google-Certified Android tablets to suit any Reader’s style including the award-winning Kobo Touch™, Kobo Mini, Kobo Glo, Kobo Aura, Kobo Aura HD, Kobo Arc, Kobo Arc 7, Kobo Arc 7HD, Kobo Arc 10HD – and the newly launched Kobo Aura H2O. Along with the company’s free top-ranking eReading apps for Apple®, BlackBerry®, Android®, and Windows®, Kobo ensures the next great read is just a page-turn away. Headquartered in Toronto and owned by Tokyo-based Rakuten, Kobo eReaders can be found in major retail chains around the world. For more information, visit Kobo.com

14 September 2014

The Sausage Factory

by Leigh Lundin

Rob Lopresti wrote about the ordering of chronological events that might be revealed in a story, e.g, relating event 2 before telling us about event 1. I find I’m no stranger to unveiling events out of sequence, although I probably lay things out as they happen more often than not.

Like Melodie Campbell, I’m a plotter. I need to know a story complete, how it ends before I start writing, even if characters sometimes push their own agendas.

Part of this comes from my experience as a software architect. I designed very intricate systems software, which John Floyd and Darlene Poier will understand. Fifty- or a hundred-thousand lines of machine code must work perfectly, step-by-step, or disaster strikes. As a manager, one of the most negative signs of talent was a programmer who started writing code the day he received his assignment instead of taking days or even weeks to fully understand and plan the project. Know the ending before beginning was a key to success.

Wurst Notions

Filmmakers often compare making movies to making sausage: you don’t want to know how it’s done. Sometimes I think that’s true of writing fiction.

When I stretch out on the sofa with my eyes closed, I’m working. Don’t be fooled by snoring, I’m still working. Like a video, I run a story through my head, pausing, rewinding, reworking, re-editing to get it right. The movie in my mind has to work before I’m ready to turn it into digital ones and zeros or splatter it on paper.

One advantage to this approach is that just as movie makers often film scenes out of sequence, I occasionally write my scenes out of sequence. Don’t worry– it’s all in my head, but I might choose to jot down particular parts before others.

By the Numbers

In the midst of editing for someone else, a story came to me that I needed to write. As long as I record the essentials, I can do both, much like I used to read more than one book at once. With the plot in mind and, using Rob’s notation, I began writing my scenes in the order of 3, 1, 4, 2.

This particularly story has an unusual feature, a semi-dénouement or false ending (scene 3 designated above). A character reveals how he outfoxed the bad guy, but then the tables turn in a red herring feeding frenzy (scene 4).

I thought I knew where I wanted my reader to begin– as near the end as possible, so goes the good advice. And thus I started with an opening scene that pulled all the characters together at once and went well. But then the real dénouement…

The grand plot was revealed in dialogue as mystery stories have done for the past century and a half. But my characters telling it sounded like blah-blah-blah. It was wooden. I was pretending to show, not tell. What would prevent a character, let alone the reader, from taking a commercial break and heading to the kitchen? The retelling was, well, telling.

Reading in the Dark


I’m the kind of guy who keeps readers in the dark. Why? Because that’s how I like to read, given the chance to use my brain to assemble clues and figure out what’s going on. I can’t simply watch a movie– my brain races ahead, parsing possible plot outcomes. Usually it’s a win either way: I feel satisfaction if I figure it out and, if a screenwriter fairly fools me, then kudos to them. So yeah, I think readers like their intelligence respected and challenged. Dale Andrews and I have discussed this and whether you like to solve the puzzle or if you simply like to relax and read at the end of a long day, we'd love to hear your opinion.

Other than scene setting, almost every sentence in this story attempts one of two contrary things: It either darkens the plot while secretly providing a clue, or a line seemly enlightens while actually misleading the reader.

But here in the grand dénouement, I hit a dead spot. The script turned grey and lifeless.

To bring immediacy to the writing, I briefly considered a flashback, but I realized scene 4 was a wrapper for an embedded scene 0, which takes place three years before the rest of the tale. A novelist might call it a prologue, but I don’t see it that way. It has action: things exploding, fires burning, tension bubbling, lots of trouble. What better way to open a story?

Surprisingly, after all this sausage grinding, the final product would read in chronological sequence.

Although my story isn’t honed at this hour (scene 2 still needs work), my sequence of laying down pieces has occurred in this order: 3, 1, 4, 2, 0, where the scenes are:
3. pseudo dénouement
1. story opening
4. true dénouement
2. main body
0. precipitating events

That sounds far more convoluted than what the reader will see:
0. precipitating events
1. story opening
2. main body
3. pseudo dénouement
4. true dénouement

The end.

13 September 2014

Tagged and Bagged! This Writer of Mob Comedies Spills the Goods

by Melodie Campbell.

I should have known there would be a price. 

Back in 2012, when Steve Steinbock reviewed The Goddaughter in Ellery Queen’s Jury Box, I was ecstatic.  <So was my publisher.  Ellery Queen ROCKS!>

Steve called my book hilarious. I called Steve my hero. Little did I know, two years and three books later, that he would be tagging me on SleuthSayers.

Oh Steve, thy devilish one.

Many of you remember Steve from the days of ‘Criminal Brief, the blog.’  <There are a hundred ways in which I want to play with the word ‘brief’ right now, but I will refrain.>  Steve and I met years ago at a Bloody Words Mystery conference in Toronto. We discovered that, as teens, we shared a mutual pash <lovely Brit expression there> for Dark Shadows, the original series.

I like and respect Steve.  I also fear him slightly <EQ and all> so hastily accept the tag.

What Am I Working On?

The Goddaughter Caper.  Or A Coffin for the Goddaughter.  Or A Body for the Goddaughter.  Or The Goddaughter’s Coffin Caper.

Somebody help here!  Book 4 of the Goddaughter trilogy <sic> is nearing completion, and I need a title.  I started with the 3rd example in the list above.  I’m leaning toward the first.  Of course, Orca Books may throw all those out and come up with their own, but I’d still like to hear from readers in the comments below.

Gina Gallo and her inept mob family are back in biz.  This time, bodies are showing up in all the wrong places.  The second book in the series, The Goddaughter’s Revenge, won both the 2014 Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards for best crime novella. <author is over the moon>  The third in the series, The Artful Goddaughter, came out last week.

For those new to the series: Gina is a mob goddaughter in the industrial city of Hamilton (The Hammer.) Try as she might, she can’t seem to leave the family business.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In The Same Genre?

Library Journal said it well:  “Campbell’s comic caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans.  Wacky family connections and snappy dialog make it impossible not to laugh.” 

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’  Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.) My books are comedies first and foremost.  I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs.   
 
Why Do I Write What I Do?

A Greek Mask

Some people are born beautiful.  But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life.  Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask.  That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.

Comedy is Tragedy Barely Averted

My younger brother is autistic.  Our home life was stressful and at times, sorrowful.  When I was a teen, as a means of self-preservation, I looked for the ‘funny.’  More often than not, I made fun of myself.  This was easy to do.  I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material.  And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side.  I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.
So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’  Write it funny. 

How Does My Writing Process Work?

I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto, so I’m pretty immersed in craft.  Not surprisingly, I’m a plotter. I don’t start writing until I know the ending.  But I’m a forgiving plotter.  I don’t plan out every scene.

Sometimes a plot idea will trickle around in my mind for a year.  When the ending clicks in, I sit down to do a basic three-act plot diagram.  I teach this method, and I use my own books as examples.

So… once I have my inciting moment, first, second and third crisis, and finale firmly in my head, I sit down to write.  I start with the opening/inciting moment.  Then I usually skip to the ending, and write the climax and finale.  Then I go back to the beginning and write forward.

For me, it’s important to know that I like the characters and plot enough to stay with that story for the months to come.  That’s why I write the beginning before I spend much time doing outlines.  I need to know that I can live in that world, and enjoy it.

Advice to aspiring writers:

It's not romantic.  But it's the truth.  If you are going to be a writer, you have to love the actual act of writing: by this I mean, hands on keyboard, butt in chair, all by yourself, pounding out stories that the characters in your head are demanding you tell.

Of course, coffee and a wee dram o’ whiskey help.

Melodie Campbell drinks coffee and single malt somewhere south of Toronto.  The Artful Goddaughter is now available in stores and online.

12 September 2014

Use Your Brain, Luke! Your Brain!

Photo courtesy US Army
by Dixon Hill

Recent news articles about people accomplishing amazing things, just by using their brain waves, have my head spinning.

Evidently it's now possible to control prosthetic limbs, or perform other tasks, simply by thinking.

In some cases, a person uses his/her mind to control muscles attached to sensors that control the prosthetic device.  This doesn't strike me as terribly earth-shattering, though, as I recall reading about such a system in at least one of Dick Francis' Sid Halley mysteries.

In more surprising cases, however, brain wave signals are transmitted to the prosthesis via a wireless connection attached to electrodes placed on the brain.  It seems that brain-wave controlled devices are now enabling some spine damaged Gulf War veterans to walk again -- on what appear to resemble robotic legs! -- while other vets are using their brains to control their wheelchairs.

Google Glass wearable computer
(For those unfamiliar with the device)
And, in perhaps the most remarkable story, which I saw on CBS, a London company combined a device that detects brain waves (similar to an electroencephalograph) with a Google Glass.  A female reporter used the device, which looked rather like a misshapen plastic hair band, to trigger the camera on a Google Glass without speaking, or touching it. Essentially, she used her brain to snap a photo; all she had to do was: (1) wear the two devices, and (2) concentrate in a certain manner.


You can visit HERE or HERE for a couple of interesting YouTube videos about this sort of thing. The prosthetic arm in one of them has been nicknamed "Luke" because of it's seeming functional similarity to the artificial arm worn by the character Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars series.

These devices are still in a sort of trial phase, of course.  Nor do they necessarily tap directly into the user's brain, the way Luke Skywalker's fictional appendage might theoretically have done.

Yet, there seems to be no question that we're getting closer to physically tapping the connection between the application of motive force and pure thought.  The tale of the Six Million Dollar Man may become a non-fiction story in the not-too-distant future, as folks begin wearing prostheses controlled by the same brain waves that once controlled the limbs being replaced.  In short, people will be able to move a prosthetic limb just by thinking.

Which set me to thinking.

One day -- not too long from now, perhaps -- folks will almost certainly be able to write, just by thinking about what they want to say.

Their thoughts might be downloaded into their computers, the print showing up on the screen just as if they'd typed or dictated it.

Consider the impact computer usage has had on writing -- increasing the number of people willing to put thoughts into print for money.  How much would this impact be magnified, by the advent of brain-to-computer download writing

People who wouldn't have the patience to type a story on a typewriter, now find it easier to compete with us for scarce magazine space, due to the computer.  But, imagine the competition our writerly progeny will probably have to face . . . when every Tom, Dick and Martha can write a book or short story just by thinking it onto the page!

Of course, things might not really be that bad.

One difference between professional writers and those who simply write, is said to lie in editing. According to this idea, it's not the work of writing a first draft that makes someone a writer, but rather the willingness to follow through: to rewrite subsequent drafts until a writer finally produces something that truly elicits a response on the reader's part -- something truly professional.

Certainly, there are other differences between the professional writer and the writer who isn't truly professional, just as there are probably legions of writers who write a first draft, send it off unedited, and make the sale.  (Sad to say, I'm not among them.)

Somehow, though, I think the craft of writing, is what spells the difference.  Those who take the time to craft their writing -- handcraft it, if you will, the same way a master carpenter does his work -- those folks will continue to come out on top.

No matter how easy thinking words onto paper may become.

I have to admit, however, that I'd like to take this opportunity to craft something else today.  I'd like to find a new name for this technology.  A name that means "thinking the words into your computer." Or, instead, perhaps a word such as the imaginary "cogiscribe," which might be interpreted as "to think-write."

Who knows?  If we hit on the right word or phrase, Sleuth Sayers may earn a special place in our future lexicon.  So, what are your suggestions?

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon

11 September 2014

Holy War

by Eve Fisher

  • "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." -Umberto Eco 
  • “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war's appeal.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
There are a few obvious things about people in their teens and early twenties: an excruciating focus on themselves, a low thresh hold for boredom, an even lower tolerance for criticism [while dishing out lots of it to others], a disgust for trivia, gossip, and mass culture [usually while digesting huge amounts of it], a constant pursuit of sheer sensation [which is their definition of knowing that one is alive], and a determination that their lives will in no way ever, ever, ever resemble those of their elders (I know: I remember it clearly).

And God knows there are so many options: drugs, video games, sex, crime (more for its thrills and potential violence than even any financial gains), war, love, learning, religion (ranging from strict to cults), and anything else that can give meaning to a life that... well, in the industrialized world, is pretty safely fenced in from all but self-inflicted dangers. And those self-inflicted dangers are very enticing.  Danger is very enticing.

So we have young men from all over the world, including America, Canada, and Europe, heading off to jihad in the Middle East or wherever else they can find it.  Much fewer women. (Perhaps because women's lives, everywhere, offer a little more danger than men's on a daily basis.)

It's very reminiscent of all the young men who could not WAIT to sign up to go off on the Crusades during the 11th-13th centuries.

Only the first Crusade was successful, if by successful you mean attaining the military objective of "getting Jerusalem out of the hands of the infidel."  Successive crusades were either a waste of time, blood and manpower, OR they were remarkably successful, if your definition of success is "getting a whole lot of loot by sacking Christian cities" like Constantinople.

The Crusades were packaged as a religious war, which would take back the Holy Land (as if it had ever been ruled by Europeans).  But it was also, in a practical sense, a way of dealing with a whole lot of single young men who, lacking video games, were rampaging through Europe fighting and feuding and being generally destructive.  A very modern note is that most of these young men did not have a chance in hell of ever getting married:  medieval Europe had a gender imbalance (more men than women) among the upper classes, thanks to bad medieval medicine, monasteries as birth control, and probably a certain amount of gender-specific infanticide.  And, even if there was an available woman, it took a lot of money to get married, because you had to be able to support the wife, children, and retainers of decent knightly living. And most of these were younger sons:  no money, no land, no marriage.

Believe me, medieval rulers, both church and state, recognized the problem of these young men, and so they tried to "curb socially destructive fighting" with chivalric ideals, with church rules, with tournaments, and you know what?  It was still out of hand.  So they shipped them overseas and let them fight their hearts out.

Massacre of Jerusalem
The guys, of course, went because this was the adventure of a lifetime.  A young man's job was to fight. Reading letters and memoirs (read Villehardouin about the Fourth Crusade; Joinville about, God help us, the Seventh), it's obvious that every one of them expected to fight hard, kill lots of the infidel, and win castles, lands, women, money, everything they need to live well.  And they're going to have a glorious time, because young men know that they will never die in battle.  (In fact, most of them died of dysentery, typhus, and gangrene.)  So off they went, and the First Crusade (1097-1099) did indeed take back Jerusalem, and win the Four Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer: Jerusalem, Edessa (Turkey), Antioch (Syria), and Tripoli (Lebanon). And they massacred their way through all of it:  in Jerusalem, to celebrate and cement their victory, the knights beheaded every Muslim (men, women, and children).  When the Jews fled for safety to the synagogue in Jerusalem, the Crusaders burned it - and the Jews - to the ground.


Keeping Outremer was the problem.  For some reason, the locals wanted their country back, and Saladin's grandfather, Zangi, led a jihad that took back the Kingdom of Edessa.  As soon as word got back to Europe, a Second Crusade (1147-1149)was preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which accomplished very little except get Eleanor of Aquitaine quite a reputation, and St. Francis of Assisi an opportunity to preach to a Sultan, while the English forces got sidetracked with kicking the Moors out of Lisbon.

Forty years later, the Third Crusade pitted Saladin against Richard the Lion-Heart of England (Eleanor of Aquitaine's son by Henry II). The two great medieval warriors got involved in a very chivalric exchange of poetry and gifts before Richard beheaded 2,700 Muslim hostages because they got in his way. On the way home, Richard got captured and held for ransom by Duke Leopold of Austria.  (It's Richard's absence in the Third Crusade that gave the legend of Robin Hood real fire.)


Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).  Where the Crusaders, tempted by the wily Venetians, said the hell with the Holy Land and attacked, looted and sacked, first Zara and then Constantinople, both Christian cities.  The bronze horses, the winged lion, and a lot more "Venetian" treasures were taken in this Crusade.  About 10% of the Crusaders did go on to the Holy Land, but they might as well not have bothered.  In fact, by sacking Constantinople, the "Crusaders" made it easier for the Ottoman Turks to eventually take over not just the Middle East and North Africa, but most of Eastern Europe...  But that's another story.

There were more Crusades, one of which was successful:  In 1228-29, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II went over and - rather than fighting - negotiated a 10 year truce with the Muslims, regaining the City of Jerusalem back for the Crusaders in exchange for religious toleration of Muslims in the Holy Land.  For this, he was excommunicated by the Pope and considered a heretic (and a softy) by everyone in Europe.

And then there were the "crusades" of the common people:  The People's Crusade under Peter the Hermit, in which 20,000 peasants - men, women and children - got slaughtered by either the Hungarian Magyars or the Turks. The Children's Crusade of 1212, where a young French shepherd named Stephen and Nicholas from Cologne both had visions in which they were commanded to raise an army to free the Holy Land.  They got thousands of children to accompany them, all across Europe.  (Which leads to the obvious question:  what the hell were their parents thinking?)  Anyway, the children made it to Marseilles, where two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, put them on 7 ships to the Holy Land, where every single one of them was sold into slavery.
Siege of Baghdad

None of the Crusades succeeded in taking out the Muslim Abassid Dynasty.  That job was reserved for the Mongols, who invaded in the 1200s.  In 1258, Hulugu Khan (grandson of Genghis) invaded, sacked, and burned Baghdad to the ground, killing one million Muslims.  In 1291, his successors took the entire Muslim world while other great-grandchildren of Genghis were banging on the gates of Vienna.  Eventually the Mongol Empire -stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean - spread Islam all the way to China.

There have always been holy wars, preached by old men, fought by young men - but the results are rarely what either hopes for.  Nobody "won" the Crusades.  Nobody "wins" any holy war; the end usually comes down to the stark realities of wholesale massacre and/or endless blood feud, all in the name of religion.  But holy wars, under any name, are indeed a force that give certain people meaning, and give certain people extreme excitement, what with bloodshed and massacre made legal, even holy.  To quote from Dexter Filkins' "The Death of Steven Sotloff" (New Yorker, 9/2/14), "the political goals [of ISIS]—a civil war, in which Islamist forces would triumph—seem secondary to the promise of terrible destruction... 'If the enemy wins, we will burn everything.'" Which is exactly what the Crusaders, the Muslims, and the Mongols did, to everyone they ran across, time and again.

Filkins continues, "...[to] the guys who signed up for ISIS—including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife—killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. 'Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking,' an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party." And that is exactly what holy wars are:  a macabre party, in which anything goes, anything is acceptable, anything can be done, no matter how depraved or despicable, because the cause is "right".

It's everyone else who suffers.

10 September 2014

Resurrection Men

by David Edgerley Gates


Ian Rankin published his thirteenth Inspector John Rebus novel, RESURRECTION MEN, in 2002. The story is about a group of cops in a rehab facility - sent down in disgrace because of alcohol or domestic violence issues, or they've fallen afoul of Internal Affairs - but being Rankin, the book is of course about a lot more than that. The title is double-edged, a turn of phrase with a dark history.


In the early 19th century, medical schools relied on the dead bodies of executed criminals for anatomy studies. It was illegal, in that day and age, to leave your body to science. but the supply began to dry up, and it gave rise to a trade in fresh cadavers, and the graves of the newly buried were dug up by body-snatchers, who sold the dead for necropsies. They were known as Resurrection Men. 



Two of these entrepreneurs, Burke and Hare, resident in Edinburgh in late 1827, improved their market share by skipping exhumation and turning to murder. Their victims were the derelict, the sickly, women of the street - people who wouldn't be missed. Over the course of the next year, they killed at least sixteen people, and shopped their corpses to a surgeon named Knox, to use in his anatomical lectures. How much Knox knew, or suspected, is an open question, but certainly he turned a blind eye. After they were caught, Hare turned King's Evidence, in return for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His body, as it happens, was then publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh. Knox, the doctor, was never prosecuted.


"A wretch who isn't worth a farthing while alive," Sir Walter Scott remarked, "becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist." Scott was being ironic about economies of scale, but as far as I know, he never used this incident as material. Dickens wasn't so shy. One of
his characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Jerry Cruncher, is explicitly a grave-robber. And in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story called "The Body-Snatcher," which stops just short of naming Knox as a knowing accomplice. Stevenson's DR.
JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a reimagining of the Whitechapel murders, and there's been some conflation, in books and movies, of Burke and Hare's crimes with Jack the Ripper. The serial killer, as a figure of fear, is a mid-Victorian invention, I believe. Not that somebody might not claim many victims, but that he does it for the sick thrill.


Psychopathology wasn't well-understood, in the 1800's - the term didn't even come into general use until the early 20th century. One of the narrative engines of David Morrell's gripping recent novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART, which takes place in 1854 London, is the lack of any practical forensic approach, and the inability to process, let alone inhabit, the mindset of a serial murderer. It's not simply an unknown, but unimaginable, like an empty space on an old map, which simply states: Here Be Monsters. Burke and Hare took up their trade for the easy money, but the seeming
effortlessness of the murders gives you pause. They displayed no remorse. Burke, in fact, before he went to the scaffold, asked whether Dr. Knox would give him the five pounds he was owed for his last victim, so Burke could buy a new suit of clothes to be hanged in. 

"To know my deed, 'twere best not to know myself," Macbeth says. Burke and Hare apparently avoided any kind of self-knowledge. They denied the humanity of the men and women, and at least one child, that they murdered, but did they deny their own? Neither one of them were crazy, so far as we know, although they were probably a few cards short of a full deck. They were paid five to ten pounds for each dead body they delivered. In today's numbers, between six and twelve hundred bucks. Not too shabby, if you're desecrating a grave in the wee hours, but for a capital crime? The odd thing about these guys is that they were very far from the pathology of the Ripper. There was actually nothing out of the ordinary about them. They were simply dumb enough to get caught.

Maybe that's the thing. It isn't that Burke and Hare live on in our imagination because they were criminal deviants who've evaded detection for 125 years - is the Ripper case solved? More, perhaps,
that Burke and Hare touched a popular nerve at the time, and that a writer like Dickens or Stevenson gives them shelf life. (Burke's skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.) No, the dread lies in the open grave. 

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/