27 November 2015

Black Friday Interview with Christopher Irvin

By Art Taylor

In true bumbling fashion, when I first met Christopher Irvin in person at Bouchercon back in October, I asked him, "So do you write too?" Clearly I should've looked more closely at his name tag first, but at least I can blame the general Bouchercon blur for my stumbly faux pas.

He does indeed write—and terrifically well, as I'd already known at the time. And if you haven't yet discovered it yourself, you're in for a treat.  

Christopher Irvin is the author of two novellas—Burn Cards and Federales—and of short stories that have appeared in publications including ThugLit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler, Needle, and Shotgun Honey, among many other journals and anthologies. In May 2015, Keith Rawson at LitReactor named Christopher one of "5 Crime Short Story Writers You Should Be Reading Right Now"—noting that "Irvin’s tone is lightening fast, hard hitting, and leaves the reader breathless and shocked with the sudden and realistic portrayal of violence."

Earlier this month saw the publication of Christopher's first short story collection, Safe Inside the Violence, which has already been earning high praise from various corners. At My Bookish Ways, Angel Luis Colón wrote, "Irvin has a knack displaying the desolation of crime—that near soul-shattering silence and loneliness that comes with the dark places people can end up." At LitReactor, Dean Fetzer wrote, "Irvin has mastered the noir short story, that’s plain." And Paul Tremblay wrote, "A fine collection of crime stories told from the point of view of regular people, forgotten people, and their painfully human decisions are a roadmap to their inexorable Hell."

I'll add myself that it's a terrific collection and a surprising one in many ways—both in terms of where simmering violence might burst out into the world and in how that inner turmoil might manifest itself in more subtle ways. I'm pleased that Christopher agreed to a quick interview about the collection and his work in general—and here on Black Friday and with Small Business Saturday ahead, I also want to call attention to a terrific "Buy Local" promotion underway right now: Purchase a copy of Safe Inside the Violence from an independent bookseller before the end of the month and Christopher will send you for free a limited-edition chapbook featuring four additional stories and artwork by Joe DellaGatta. Details on the deal can be found here.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy here my chat with Christopher Irvin on his fine work.

Art Taylor: So many of the stories in Safe Inside the Violence present characters who—whatever surface they present to the world—hide inner lives, inner turmoil, troubles which may or may not spill outside for others to see. I hesitate to ask that simple question about which comes first for you—characters, situation, plot—but I am curious what drives your storytelling in that direction generally.

Christopher Irvin
Christopher Irvin: Thanks so much for the opportunity, Art. For better or worse, character and situation drive my storytelling, often playing off one another in their development. For example, I wrote "Napoleon of the North End" with the publication Plots With Guns in mind (accepted and published in their final issue, Fall 2014). I approached it with the situation of A) a gun has to be present in the story, and B) recent news of a series of sexual assaults in the North End of Boston in which a white male had groped several women and run off. The police arrested a suspect—even releasing his name—only to come out later that they had the wrong guy. It was prominent in the news for several weeks, though I don't recall what came of it in the end. Anyway, the idea of the garbage collector came next, partially out of trying to use the gun without firing it, or using it “as a gun,” and from his character the rest of the story fleshed out. In another case, "Nor'easter," I had a depressing idea of a man who works as a mall Santa during the holidays, but who is separated from his family. He gets to experience the Christmas/holiday joy around him—and he loves it—but he's lacking that deep personal connection. Again, the situation and character built off each other until threads of plot revealed themselves and I went from there. That's probably where I get some of my “slow burn” style. Plot takes a while for me to develop and feel comfortable in.

How does setting inform your work—Boston particularly?

I used to say setting is everything, and I still mean that in some ways. It should be critical to a story—otherwise, why are you setting it there? I love small details—not the first things you see, but maybe the second, third or fourth that really makes a setting unique and come alive. Instead of pointing out the cobblestones around Faneuil Hall, point out how “newer” brick paths run alongside them and how people will stay on those to avoid tripping or scuffing their shoes on the uneven stones. I've lived in Boston for six years, but I feel like I've only recently been able to write about it. Whitey Bulger, North End Mafia, the “Boston accent” (don't get me started on the “pahk the cah” tourism)—these are classic Boston that have been done to death, and honestly don't interest me as a writer or a reader. I think this is part of why it took me so long to write about the city. The parts I've grown to know, Jamaica Plain, especially, are now on the forefront of my mind. It's a “new” Boston—post-Whitey, post-Big Dig. A newer, more gentrified Boston. That's the Boston I know and identify with, that interests me. I'm sure in another decade it will have transformed even more.

I mentioned that I moved away from the “setting is everything.” It's become much more of a situation, or at least in the way I think about it. How characters interact with their environment, what about the setting adds to their story, what's important to them, etc.

Safe Inside the Violence carries the subtitle Crime Stories, but I don’t think I’d categorize a story like “Digging Deep” that way—even as it brims over with constant tension, the threat of trouble. What constitutes a “crime story” for you? And more generally, how does genre—the expectations of genre—impact your writing?

This is a tough one. There is a great sense of melancholy in my favorite crime stories—perhaps a sense of inevitability, but not without hope. Underdogs I love to root for even though I know they'll stumble and fall eventually. In some ways this feeling, or perhaps a focus on it, has pushed me from the genre definition of crime—a focus on criminal acts—to what? Literary crime? Dark literary fiction? I'm not entirely sure, but it is where I want to be—at least today. I wrote the four new stories in the collection ("Digging Deep," "Imaginary Drugs," "Lupe's Lemon Elixir," and "Safe Inside the Violence") all without a crime publication in mind, and they all turned out in this vein. I was pretty anxious as a kid and I think that comes out in my work, even more so now that I'm aware of it. That's what I'm interested in more than the crime—how people exist in situations that rub up against crime, what their fears/anxieties are, how they make it through the day. As confident as I may seem with the direction of my writing, “genre expectations” do weigh on my mind. When a reviewer praises these stories as being different, I take that as a huge compliment—but is it what people want to read? I hope so. I hope the emphasis on quiet moments, or quiet crimes, is something people can relate to/empathize with and be interested in delving into further. Maybe even want to read a full novel of one day.

You have two children now. How has fatherhood changed your writing—both the process of writing and the content of your work?

Fatherhood has really opened my eyes to the portrayal of children in stories, especially violence and uncertainty. Situations, perhaps more so in movies—take Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report, whose son is kidnapped right in front of him—which did little for me before, really strike me now. Again, going back to that anxiety, the worst-case fears of a father, loss of control/powerlessness. That's really on display in "Union Man," the first story that really incorporated my feelings as a father—my “coming of age” fatherhood story. I wrote it when my son, George, was about six months old. He's three now, and I have a second son, Freddie, who's approaching the four-month mark. In terms of process, I need to be more focused than ever with the number of projects and ideas I have going, but I started getting up in the morning to write before work about a year before George was born, so at least I had that down. One less adjustment. It's an adventure.

A more general question about short story collections: Several of these stories have been previously published elsewhere, several are new to the collection, and other stories that have been published elsewhere didn’t make it into the book; how do you determine what’s in, what’s not, and what guides you generally in determining the contents and order of a collection like this?

For this collection it really came down to theme/similarities (threads of family throughout) which I didn't realize until I began to seriously compile a list of stories. It wasn't until I had ARCs that I noticed the through line of anxiety. It's been eye opening to see what notes readers pick up on. Doing interviews like this—forced reflection—has been incredible. I'm a much more intelligent writer, much more aware now, than even six months ago. Some stories that hit the theme were left out because they'd been published too recently in other books, others because they were too short and I wanted to keep the number of stories in the low teens. I read an articleby Richard Thomas (on LitReactor, I think) a while back about how he arranged one of his collections. His use of “tent pole” stories to structure the beginning, middle, and end stuck with me. Other than that, just making sure that the first stories set expectations which carried through to the end. I hope I was successful in choosing the arrangement. I thought hard on it for months, going through several iterations, even up to the last minute.

In addition to the story collection here, you’ve published two novellas, Burn Cards and Federales—short-form storytelling still, though at the longer end of the spectrum. [Note to Chris: I’ll link each.] What is it about the novella, the short story, the flash that attracts you more than a full-length, full-fledged novel? And what are the biggest challenges about writing short versus writing long?

I love short stories, especially dark/weird speculative fiction where you can get away with lack of explanation. For me, as a reader, I enjoy being able to finish something and reflect on what I've just read—the way it leaves me feeling, or a story's ability to stick with me for days, or even years. Short fiction, in general, has stuck with me much more than novels. I think it's because of the focus on the moment, where novels can wander. Not to say that's bad, it's just different. I often find myself wanting to just finish novels—even those I'm enjoying—partially because my “to-read” stack is so huge but also because I've already taken away the style/characters, the 'feel' of the book that's either going to stick with me or not, regardless of the end. It's rare that I'm so captivated by a novel, but it happens all the time with short fiction. Perhaps, because of the short length, there's the mystery of the gaps. What we don't see that can be equally or more powerful than what we do.

Challenges? Uncertainty in where I'll end up. Is it even a story? Does this matter? My few longer works are driven much more by outlines, but I fly by my gut and a loose outline or series of moments on short fiction. Much more subconscious, while I'm making more conscious decisions—especially in terms of plot—on longer works. I've questioned everything—process, style, etc.—on almost every story I've written this year. The farther I stray from “crime,” the more I question my sanity.

Looking at your other work, you’ve also written in collaboration with graphic artists, including Charred Kraken and Expatriate. How is that work an extension of your prose writing, and to what degree is it a significant break?

In a lot of ways, writing comics seems easier than writing prose. For one, I'm much faster at it (I can write about an issue a week). It's much more of a conscious process—like solving a puzzle. Take a five- or six-issue arc, break that overall story down by issue, then down my page, and again by panel. I love this organizational bit, which I do entirely by hand. I really enjoy writing by hand. I start every story by hand, but usually transition to my laptop after several pages—once I have a feel for the tone/direction. So it's fun to do an entire draft by hand when working on comics.

More plans in that direction ahead, or what’s next for Christopher Irvin?

I have quite a few projects at various stages (mostly comics) and a novel that's due for a full rewrite. The novel is my priority for the winter months (it's sat for close to a year.) Between the novellas and the short story collection, it's become a bit of a monkey on my back. I want to prove to myself that I can complete a novel that reaches, or exceeds, the level of my short fiction.

25 November 2015

The Trail of Tears

by Brian Thornton

 A few years back I wrote a book called The Book of Bastards. The following piece on the Trail of Tears was originally intended for that book, but since it centered around a specific incident, rather than around the actions of an individual, it didn't really work thematically. Lately there's been a lot of talk amongst a number of individuals campaigning for the U.S. presidency about registering Muslims, limiting immigration, and basically treating an ethnic and religious minority as second class citizens. 

We've been here before.  

In light of these emerging and troubling facts, I've decided to include my piece on the scar of Cherokee Removal here, since it's about settlers' interactions with Native Americans, and I a descendant of both white southern settlers and displaced Cherokees, am thankful this holiday notions such as "Indian Removal" quite rightly seem unspeakably barbaric to our modern sensibilities.

 Here's hoping they always will. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and all of yours!

So imagine that you’re a member of one of the tribes of Native Americans that lived in the eastern part of North America when European settlers first landed. Further imagine that instead of fighting the encroaching Europeans, you embraced their technological advances, their way of life, their concepts of God, even of having your own alphabet.

What if, in other words, you did what few if any other tribes tried to do: you tried to straddle a middle ground between your own indigenous culture while adopting what you and the other members of your tribe judged to be the best aspects of European culture? Surely the Europeans, especially those so eager to convert the “heathens” native to the continent, would be pleased and accept you and be impressed by your efforts to both become part of the new country they were building and yet still not lose the distinctiveness of your native traditions, right?

Not if you were the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Cherokee Chief John Ross

The Cherokees did it all: they dressed like the whites, they farmed like the whites, lived in frame clapboard houses like the whites, even bought and owned black slaves to help them bring in cash crops like the whites.

And in the end, none of it mattered.


Because the Cherokees had the bad grace to live on land where gold was discovered in the late 1820s. After that it was only a matter of time before the Cherokees, as had their neighbors the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws before them, were pushed off their land.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the majority opinion
But the Cherokees had learned much in their study of the ins and outs of white culture. Like any good American who felt they were being treated unfairly, they got lawyers and filed law suits. When the state of Georgia tried to force a cession treaty on them where they “voluntarily” surrendered their lands in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokees sued. The case, known as Worcester v. Georgia, contested the sovereignty of an individual state with regard to either policing or parceling out Cherokee land, which by treaty right was considered sovereign territory.

This was tied up in court for years, until the Supreme Court heard the case and in 1832 ruled against the state and established as settled law the matter of whether Indians had legal rights to both occupy and control their own land. Several other court victories reinforcing the legal rights of Indians to their treaty lands followed.

Can't take him off of the twenty dollar bill quick enough!
In the end it was all for naught. The United States government is separated into three branches, and while the court system has every obligation to rule on and establish the laws, it is the job of the Legislative branch (Congress) to make appropriate laws in the first place, and of the Executive to enforce said laws. Neither the Congress nor the President (in this case Andrew Jackson, a man who initially made his reputation fighting tribes such as the Creek Confederacy as a general of Tennessee volunteer troops) lifted a finger to halt Cherokee removal.

Jackson is reputed to have said: “Mr. [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” He said no such thing. Instead he noted that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”

The end result was the forced removal of most of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands beginning in 1838 (some residual tribal members still live in the region, including a group living on a special reservation in western North Carolina). The route these two large groups of Cherokees followed westward through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri into what is now Oklahoma became known in the Cherokee language as “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” which translates as “the Trail Where They Cried.”

More than 4,000 of the 13,000 Cherokees who made the journey perished on the trail; some were infected with smallpox picked up from used blankets that were given to them by a Tennessee sanatorium that had recently suffered an outbreak of this disease against which the Indians had no immunity.

Truly a dark and ignoble chapter in the history of this country–one that continues to be a cautionary tale for successive generations to this very day.

Kinda puts the likes of Donald Trump and his "Muslim Registration" notions into a crystal clear light, doesn't it? Can't say it couldn't happen here, after all.

Because it happened before.

And we all know that "registration" is usually just the first step down a slippery slope toward what in the future will likely be branded a "cautionary tale."

Food for thought.

Happy Thanksgiving.

America First

David Edgerley Gates

Couple of things led to this week's musing. After my speculations about the Duke of Windsor's political sympathies. Eve Fisher suggested John Gunther's INSIDE EUROPE (1938) for a good picture of the rise of fascism, and then she wrote wrote a column about anarchist history - how none of it develops in a vacuum. This was followed by Jan Grape's piece on terrorism, and then there was Donald Trump's widely-reported prescription for a register of Syrian refugees, and bringing back waterboarding. It doesn't matter what you or I think of Trump, or what we think about torture, for that matter, or immigration policy, or radical salafist Islam. Certainly there's a debate to be had about national security, but that's another conversation. Right now, let's talk about the hysteria index. This doesn't exist in a vacuum, either, or outside historical context.

We've got a long track record in this country of what Harry Truman once called Creeping Meatballism. Examples go back to the Know-Nothings, a nativist, anti-Catholic political party of the 1850's. One constant is fear of the Other, as in the captive narratives that were popular after the Deerfield Raid in 1704, white women and children carried off by Indians, and much the same sentiment as No Irish Need Apply or the Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow laws, or various incarnations of the Red Scare. It boils down to marketing skills, and the lowest common denominator.

Charles Lindbergh got famous three times. First, for his solo flight across the Atlantic, then when his son was kidnapped, and last, for his active engagement with the America First Committee, established in 1940 to keep the U.S. out of any European war. Although there was plenty of isolationist feeling in the country, or at least a strong bent toward neutrality, in the end America First damaged Lindbergh's reputation and later legacy, because he was not only an admirer of Germany and an apologist for Hitler's rearmament policies, but he ascribed support for the war to the Jewish influence. This echoed the anti-Semitism of the more notorious America Firsters - one, Laura Ingalls (not the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE writer) went to jail for sedition after Pearl Harbor, because she'd taken money from Nazi spymasters.

Joe McCarthy might seem a little obvious, and more than a little below the salt, which is why he was written off as a blowhard at first, but there was nothing ridiculous about him, not if you got tarred with the Commie brush. The blacklist was used to settle a lot of scores, and nobody's motives were pure, so you wonder how come it provoked so much fevered melodrama. What gets lost, or eroded over time, is the actual experience people lived through, the climate of paranoia and lynch law. That's why survivors on both sides of the quarrel still hold a grudge.  

Generally speaking, I'd guess you could make a pretty good case that this kind of phenomenon arises in times of uncertainty. As a friend of mine once remarked, people don't have much tolerance for ambiguity. The more complicated and intractable the problem, the more likely it appears to encourage simple-minded posturing and wishful thinking. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter," Spade says, which holds true for any unserious argument.

The world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, is in fact an increasingly ambiguous and treacherous place, and we don't have too many navigational aids. Is there any such animal as True North? I can't say. The difficulty with taking refuge or comfort in
certitude, is that the goalposts are gonna move. There's no sure thing. Orthodoxy is snake oil. The received wisdom is a high-mileage trade-in with too many previous owners. The evidence of your own senses is open to question. It depends what's in the drinking water. In other words, we've got a trust issue. Somebody comes down from the mountaintop, you have reason to wonder whether the air up there's too thin to breathe.

We prefer to imagine it's all those other guys who are so gullible, and open to suggestion. Truth is, there's probably a closet jihadi in each of us - not in the literal sense, the Islamist moral midgets, but in the sense that each of us harbors a need to be protected, inside the mouth of the cave, safe from predators. Told it's okay. Better perhaps to know too little than too much, and not to be challenged by a world that doesn't conform to our hermetic comforts. The jihadi is sealed off, at a remove. I'm sure there's a psychological term for it. Inversion? It's reassuring, and self-contained. It feeds off its own inner heat, it has no outside frame of reference.

We're talking, I believe, about a defense mechanism. A reaction to uncertainty and confusion, and the loss of confidence. An arrested mania, a retreat. Why not call it a pathology? There's a fascinating book called EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. We might reflect on this, in our fortress mentality. These are uneasy times. They conjure up bafflement.


24 November 2015

Don't Buy This Book

by Melissa Yi

Birth smells.

That’s the opening line to my upcoming medical thriller, Stockholm Syndrome.

An agent’s assistant said it made her want to vomit. She forced herself to read the first chapter and still wanted to puke. So the agent sent his regrets.

Stephen Campbell, who interviewed me for Crimefiction.fm*, had a more measured reaction. “It’s interesting,” he said. “I never thought about how birth would smell, but of course you’re right.”

As a doctor, I should note that birth smells aren’t the worst. Most parents are unaware of them, because they stay at the “office end” (head of the bed) instead of the “business end” (delivering the baby), plus 99 percent of the time, they’re ecstatic about their healthy newborn, not sniffing for overtones of amniotic fluid.

But as a writer, I tell you exactly what I think. That means the average person may not be able to handle Stockholm Syndrome.

Is that a problem? Maybe. As the Indian teacher Chanakya pointed out BCE, “A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first.”

On the other hand, we have to take risks with our work if we want to create lasting excellence, as Edgar-nominated author Kris Rusch/Nelscott pointed out here

My advance medical readers reacted to Stockholm Syndrome like this:

From: Dr. Greg Smith
Subject: Hope Sze's triumphant return
Message: The best yet, I think. Dang thing kept me up til 3:30--been a while since a book did that.

Tracy VanDalen Bradley, Respiratory Therapist: I finished it in three days. You can’t read just one chapter.

Dr. Paul Irwin: God, you write great. Your mind/thought process is at least as peculiar as mine.

But can the non-medical reader handle a book about a hostage-taking on an obstetrics ward?
New York Times bestseller Dave Farland wrote, “I was completely hooked--an intriguing and introspective thriller.”
Author of The Freshman Murders and reknown computer scientist Gerald Weinberg posted an advance review on Kobo:
Here's a book that's easy to read, but hard to review.
It's a page-turner, thrilling while sensitive, super-serious while witty, and gutsy while insightful.
So why so difficult to review?
In the first place, I want to give my reader information about the story, but I don't want to give
anything away. No spoilers.
More than that, however, it makes me feel like an appraiser of fine property confronted with an
item for which there is nothing comparable. It's simply unlike anything else I've ever read.

Stockholm Syndrome. Not for the faint of heart or stomach. It may garner a lot of one-star reviews. Those used to really bother me, but a) I stopped reading them, and b) now I think they’re kind of funny. Like the ones for Susanna Moore's In the Cut, where more than one reader said they threw the book in the garbage because they didn’t want anyone else subjected to it.

If you want to decide for yourself about my book, I’ve posted the first chapters on my website, and you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway here.

I’m having a Facebook party December 1st  at 7-8 p.m. EST, with party favours, but foolishly set it as a private party, so friend me and message me if you want an invite here.

On December 6th, I’ll have a party at our local library in Cornwall. Theme: Swedish, for Stockholm. We’re going to wear blue and yellow and drink glögg.

Will anyone buy Stockholm Syndrome? Or will they just run away screaming?

*That interview will air December 2nd.

23 November 2015

Know Your Terrorist

by Jan Grape

Most of us are still reeling over the mass murders in Paris and in Mali this week. I'm upset by the Americans of all nationalities and religions and races wanting to close our borders and keeping anyone who is Muslim from entering especially refugees from Syria. But I don't think this forum is a place to get too political because we talk about mysteries and writing.

However, a friend of mine named Sharan Newman is a mystery writer who writes historical mysteries usually set in Medieval Times. She also writes non-fiction books. She researches her books meticulously and when I read anything she has written I feel I can understand and also trust her research is as true as possible. She has written several articles on Know Your Terrorist. One she had written this week caught my eye and I asked if I could use it for my blog. She agreed. Then in trying to locate that article, she found one she had written earlier and I think is more informative. So following is a wonderful article on the known terror groups who are in our immediate headlines and does a lot to explain who is who.

Know Your Terrorist

The recent tragic events in France have made it clear that most of us are a little vague on the different terrorist groups operating in the world today. Even the terrorists there weren’t sure who they were working for. When I realized that even they were confused, it seemed like a good idea to give a simplistic explanation of the major non-governmental terrorists so that the next time someone takes you hostage and says that they are from the Broccoli Liberation front, you can explain to them why they should kill you for another reason, rather than to free oppressed broccoli.

Here are the most active free-lance groups. In my next essay, I'll consider the governmental and corporate terrorist organizations that have created the more openly violent cadres.

As the link below and all the news reports seem to agree, Boko Haram, operating in Northeastern Nigeria, is the most brutal and least comprehensible of the active terrorists. They love mayhem, murder and rape and don’t seem to be making any ideological demands apart from a fuzzy connection to Islam. Originally a non-violent group that protested oppression by the Nigerian government, it grew to oppose any form of what it considers Western influence. This is why even Muslim children are killed or kidnapped at western-style schools. They say they are Islamic but, as with another group, ISIS/DAESH, they are imagining a mythical Islamic past. Actually, I think they are also imagining a mythical Africa derived from western films seasoned with Lord of the Flies.

For connected topics see: Nigerian Army, Nigerian Government, International Oil Cartels, Koch Brothers. A more academic explanation is here:

This is not the oldest group but one of the most visible. It began in the late 1980s in the wake of the years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “With Soviet forces withdrawing …, the idea of a global jihad suddenly seems possible, and al Qaeda, literally “the Base,” is born. “We used to call the training camp al Qaeda,” bin Laden would later recall. “And the name stayed.”´ [sic] (http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/17/al-qaeda-core-a-short-history) Doesn’t that sound cozy?

Al-Qaeda was founded by Osama bin-Laden, born in 1957 to a Syrian mother and Yemeni father. The senior bin-Laden was a self-made millionaire contractor who became the major builder for the Saudi Arabian monarchy. PBS Frontline has posted a fascinating biography, written by one of bin-Laden’s followers, portraying him as a pious young man who was doing contracting in Afghanistan when the invasion of Kuwait began: “While he was expecting some call to mobilize his men and equipment he heard the news which transferred his life completely. The Americans are coming. He always describes that as a shocking moment. He felt depressed and thought that maneuvers had to change. Instead of writing to the king or approaching other members of the royal family, he started lobbying through religious scholars and Muslim activists.”  [sic]


Al-Qaeda was born because of the American support of the Saudis and vice-versa. Osama was considered a terrorist by the Saudis and, under him, A-Qaeda organized mutual support with the Taliban. “The leader of Taliban Mulla Omer was keen to meet Osama. He met him early 1997 after two TV interviews, Channel 4 and CNN.[!?] Mulla Omer expressed respect and admiration but requested him to have low profile…. Bin Laden noticed that the driving force in Taliban were Ulema (religious scholars). He made very good links with them and lobbied specifically for the subject of American forces in the Arabian Peninsula. He was able to extract a fatwah signed by some 40 scholars in Afghanistan sanctioning the use of all means to expel the American forces from the Peninsula. The issue of that fatwah was an asset to him inside Taliban domain. He felt that Ulema were at his back and he could go high profile after long silence.” (ibid)

“His relation with Taliban would best be understood if Taliban themselves are understood properly. First of all Taliban are not simply another Afghan faction supported by Pakistan. Taliban are sincere to their beliefs, a religiously committed group unspoiled by political tactics. They would never bargain with what they see as matters of principle. Bin Laden for them is a saint. He is a symbol of sacrifice for the sake of jihad. They see him as very rich Arab from the Holy Land who gave up his wealth and luxury to fight for the sake of his brother Muslims in Afghanistan.” (ibid)

I wish there were more such biographies.  It is essential for us to comprehend the rationale of the many people who support the terrorists. One problem we have is understanding why these terrorist leaders are so protected. If you read the whole article, it continues explaining why the Taliban and Osama were so revered. The author doesn’t mention bombings, murder, or the oppression of women and minorities, of course.

Even before Osama bin-Laden was killed, his grip on Al-Qaeda was slipping. Other groups in the Sudan, Nigeria and Syria, were not looking to them for leadership. Many, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, do not have a firm theological base other than, West and Jews = bad; our Islam = good.
See Taliban, George W. Bush, Oil Cartels

Of the Muslim-associated terrorist groups, this is the most interesting to me because, unlike the others, there is a medieval flavor about it. Sadly, as I mentioned above, they don’t seem to have any historians among them, so that the caliphate they plan is drawn from fantasy. They do appear to have some serious and competent Muslim scholars in their ranks, but they haven’t made it clear what school of Shari’a law they are working from. Of course, few people outside of fundamentalist Islam know that there is more than one branch. Have you ever noticed how many problems occur because no one thought to consult an expert in history?

ISIS grew from the Syrian al-Qaeda sector as a result of the Syrian civil war. The reasons for that war, beyond the Arab Spring, have been minutely dissected without any consensus. Suffice to say that ISIS is the richest and best-organized of the Islamist groups operating today. As with the first two groups, they succeeded because a dictator or other person in power was tormenting a minority group and they were able to come in and fill a vacuum. In this case, they began as rebels against the government of Bashir al Assad, which is not only dictatorial but heretical in their eyes. They state that they have set up is an Islamist Caliphate. The last Caliphate in the area was defeated by the Ottoman Empire over 600 years ago so the blueprint is rather old. Both the Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates in the 8th through 11th centuries tended to be fairly easy going about minorities, even Islamic ones. I believe that, like Boko Haram, ISIS has been taken over by the psychopathic wing of the party. Their treatment of the Yazidi is an example of this. It’s not likely that their Caliphate will resemble the ancient ones.

Much has been made of the foreign volunteers coming to fight for ISIS. Some of these fighters arriving from other countries are devout Muslims who may be horrified by what they find. Indications are that others come in a spirit of adventure or from a feeling of failure at home. But too many recruits have come because they love having power and not having any rules of behavior. For historians out there, think French Revolution.

There are many other terrorist groups that have no religious attachments. Most of these are political or territorial. ETA, or Basque liberation, has been attempting to find a peaceful solution recently as has the socialist FARC, in Columbia. Greece has the far-right Golden Dawn; Ireland, the reformed Sinn Fein. All of these have used violence and terrorism in their quest to achieve their goals.
There have been many explanations for the success of the recent Islamist terrorists. Some say that it is a relic of European colonialism. Others that the terrorists are a reaction to oppressive governments and cultures of corruption and bribery at every level. Well, I don’t think any of these things helped. Certainly, many of the most violent groups are fighting against leaders who have ignored and oppressed sections of the society.

After much consideration, it seems to me that we and much of the media are looking at the problem from the wrong direction. We see the horrific actions of ISIS and Boko Haram, but these are distracting us from much more widespread and pernicious terrorism.

As I was working on this, I began to realize that, while we are busy trying to stop murderers, rapists and torturers, the people who are really responsible for their actions are thousands of miles away, moving pieces on metaphorical chess boards.
I do think it's fantastic to know quite a number of mystery writers, especially when you know one who has already done the huge amount of research that you thought you were going to have to do.

Thank you, Sharan, for allowing me to use your hard work here. Sharan is off to spend a month is Paris, doing research and although some folks ask if she might rethink going to France now, she reminds everyone...if we stay home and hide, the terrorists win. We can't let them rule our lives.

22 November 2015

Long Shots

© MGM and Kotaku
by Leigh Lundin

By happy happenstance, I found myself in conversation with our resident filmologist John Floyd discussing the single-camera, continuous tracking shot that opens Spectre. This phrase, ‘single-camera, continuous tracking shot’ or SCCS, refers to using one camera only to follow the action even as it moves uninterruptedly, sometimes over relatively great distances. (The 5½-minute tracking shot of the beach landing in Atonement stretched over a quarter of a mile.) Such a technique gives a sweeping sense of place and an immediacy of time.

Sure, your cousin Jenny shoots with a single camera all the time with her cell phone. Great Uncle Spassky did it before her with his compact video recorder. Of course he forgot he left the camera on during that inglorious argument during Louise’s wedding and Jennifer’s phone was confiscated by Old Mrs. Henpecker in English class after she documented Tonya Thurible really wasn’t wearing panties. But to be sure, they weren’t making epics to be shown at international film festivals, let alone your local Cineplex.

Plot Shots

You may have heard variations of single-camera, continuous tracking shot in connection with last year’s acclaimed Birdman. Virtually the entire movie appeared as one uninterrupted shot.

    Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu …

Iñárritu used a number of extremely clever cinematic tricks to fool the eye, visual sleight-of-hand, sneaky editing, and a smidgen of digital magic. He learned from a master.

I’d love to word-playfully tie Birdman in with The Birds, but my target is a different movie entirely, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Candidly, I appreciate it more as a film study than a film story. Hitch innovated two things: For the first time, he filmed in color. And, for the first time in a major movie, he elevated to an art form single-camera shooting…

… including cheating.

At least five times, Hitchcock used a fade-to-black technique, standard in films with cut scenes, but here the lens loomed close to the back of an actor’s dark jacket and when it pulled back and swung right, the audience found itself viewing a newly set-up scene without realizing it.

As mentioned last week, the opening scene in Spectre uses a fast-moving, single shot technique, and like Rope and Birdman, they cheated as well when entering and leaving the hotel room, and again when the building collapses. The hotel suite was on a sound stage not in Mexico, but London. We can forgive them for that.

On the Move

Quentin Tarantino’s often flawed story-telling enchants me less than his film techniques. Kill Bill was no exception and here the show became fascinating. As continuous filming moved about the building, stagehands rushed to remove and replace walls and lay in a camera ramp on the fly. That is old-fashioned movie magic.

Tarantino’s efforts sometimes remind me of Japanese martial arts epics. Kung-fu cameras love long tracking sequences, the bigger the better. While the action may appear cartoonish, the cameraman– and the audience– get a workout. On at least one epic, filming stopped so they could replace an exhausted cameraman.

In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick employed the recently invented Steadicam. Kubrick and the camera’s inventor, Garrett Brown, continued developing and refining the Steadicam and its potential. The result was one of The Shining’s most famous scenes featuring the plastic tricycle. A camera, mounted mere centimetres above the floor, followed little Danny as he pedaled his Big Wheels trike through the hotel hallways.

My favorite example is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, made in 1958, a decade after Hitchcock’s Rope. I rarely watch movies more than once, but I’ve studied that opening sequence many times.

Rope, like Rear Window, was largely shot within a single room, but Touch of Evil sweeps through a city, even from one country to another. Welles had a reputation for blowing budgets and schedules, not to mention cars. When studio execs heard Welles spent an entire day rehearsing the opening shot, they rocketed someone off to give him hell. But Welles had fooled the studio. That one amazing shot put him days ahead of his shooting schedule.

I rewatched it after seeing Spectre. Clearly, Touch of Evil majorly influenced Spectre’s director, Sam Mendes.

Lest you think this type of immersive camera work is reserved for the big screen, season one episode four of True Detective contains a heart-thumping scene where Rusty Cohle, embedded with white supremacist bikers in a black, gang-ridden, crack house neighborhood, tries to get himself and an uncooperative neo-nazi out alive, while protecting innocents, especially a black child. Look for a possible cut in a black screen when the camera swoops up to frame a helicopter and then drops to pick up Cohle again.


It seems directors of our crime genres love single-camera, continuous tracking shot. I’ve mentioned several examples, and you can find others documented here and here and here. But single-camera shooting is showing up another place without a crime in sight… music videos.

Droning On

Take, for example, the group OK Go, known for continuous single-camera shoots as well as loyal fans in North America and Japan who participate in their intricate videos.

They came to my attention through ‘This Too Shall Pass’, known as the Rube Goldberg vid. (A Rube Goldberg Machine is the equivalent of a Heath Robinson Contraption in the UK and eine Was-passiert-dann-Maschine or Nonsens-Maschine in Germany. Australia’s Bruce Petty inventions came much later.) Watch the video; you won’t be disappointed.

Most of OK Go’s videos feature single camera shots, but in this intriguing video, they use a drone. The result is … uplifting.

How Girls Do It or Saving the Best for Last

Not sure how I stumbled upon it, but I’ve watched ‘The Voice Within’ fifteen or twenty times. It’s fun studying the old theatre, trying to figure out how the crew accomplished the camera work while unwrapping power cables as they moved around. (And Christina Aguilera doesn’t look exactly awful either.)

And that’s it for now. Some movie examples like The Player I haven’t seen and I didn’t include Gravity in my list because so much CGI was involved. Other than Kill Bill, my examples have shortchanged martial arts movies, not because they’re terrible, but because I’m less familiar with the genre.

Feel free to chime in. What are your favorites? Let us hear from you.

Our friend ABA sent in a pair of articles relating to last week’s article about James Bond and Spectre. Thanks, ABA!

Notes specific to Spectre
For example, the movie-making wrecked some £24-million in cars, about $36-million dollars. The entire film cost £250-million or about $380-million.

Notes about Bond movies
For example, both Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino wanted to direct Bond films. Whew! 007 might just have dodged a bullet there.

21 November 2015

In Pursuit of Movie Trivia

by John M. Floyd

I think I've always been in pursuit of movies, and anything involving them. I confess to having watched more movies in my lifetime (both in theatres and at home) than any sane person should watch, and I own so many videos they're beginning to compete for shelf space with my beloved books. My recent suggestion to my wife that we might have to move because my DVD collection needs more room didn't go over well, but she has tentatively agreed that we might add a couple hundred square feet to my home "office." We'll see if that comes to pass, but I'm not optimistic.

A reel addiction

This attraction to filmed fiction might seem, to you, to be a bit immature. If you said that to me outright, my honest response would be, "Of course it's immature." I am fully aware that I haven't yet grown up, and if I do, I hope it doesn't happen anytime soon.

A direct result of all this, of course, is my fondness for movie trivia. I love discovering little-known facts about films and actors and filmmaking--most of them found in those fascinating DVD "bonus features"--and for today's column, I've put together a list of this incredibly worthless information. (Since most of these little nuggets came as a surprise to me, I hope some of them might surprise you as well.)

The unscientific observations of a movie maniac:

- The original title of Star Wars was The Star Wars.

- The main theme song for Unforgiven ("Claudia's Theme") was composed by Clint Eastwood.

- "Goldeneye" was Ian Fleming's name for the Jamaican beachfront home where he wrote all the James Bond novels.

- The Blair Witch Project was filmed in eight days.

- Michael Myers's mask in Halloween was a two-dollar Captain Kirk mask, slightly altered and painted white.

- Actor Sam Shepard, who's also an author, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

- Tom Selleck was offered the role of Indiana Jones but had to refuse because of his contract with Magnum, P.I.

- The cigarettes smoked by the boys in Stand by Me were made from cabbage leaves.

- The original title of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. The names were reversed when Newman decided to take the role of Butch rather than Sundance.

- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a drawing of R2D2 and C3PO appears on a column in the Well of Souls.

- Sean Connery wore a toupee in all of his James Bond movies.

- Most of the cast and crew of The African Queen got sick from the water. Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston were unaffected because they drank only whiskey.

Deep Throat cost less than $ 25,000 to make, and earned an estimated $ 400 million.

- Steve Buscemi was once a New York City firefighter.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

- The charcoal drawing of Kate Winslet in Titanic was actually drawn by director James Cameron.

- The Jaws line "You're gonna need a bigger boat" wasn't in the script, and was improvised by Roy Scheider.

- When a hurricane hit the set during the filming of Jurassic Park, the pilot who choppered the crew to safety was the same man who had played Indiana Jones's pilot, Jock, in Raiders.

- Several battle scenes in Braveheart had to be refilmed because of extras wearing sunglasses and wristwatches.

- Actor Christopher Lee was an undercover agent for British Intelligence in World War II.

- The final Lord of the Rings movie, Return of the King, was nominated for 11 Oscars and won all of them.

- The announcer who replaced Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam) was Pat Sajak.

- Steven Spielberg waited 33 years to finish college. When he did, he turned in Schindler's List as his student film requirement.

- For John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing, the entire cast and crew were male.

- The roles of Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove were originally written for John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

- In The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, Fleming was played by Sean Connery's son Jason.

- To make some of the spacecraft seem larger in the movie Alien, director Ridley Scott filmed his own two children outfitted in miniature space suits.

- The roles of both John McClane in Die Hard and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry were first offered to Frank Sinatra.

- The martial arts instructor for the the Bond movie Never Say Never Again was Steven Seagal.

- The original tagline for posters of the movie Twister was "It sucks."

- Marlon Brando refused to memorize his lines in Superman. When he spoke to the superbaby, he read words written on a diaper.

- Haley Joe Osmont, the boy who "saw dead people" in The Sixth Sense, played Forrest Gump's son five years earlier.

- Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction quote from Ezekiel (which is inaccurate and mostly fictional) was originally written for Harvey Keitel's character in From Dusk Till Dawn.

- Alfred Hitchcock was placed under CIA surveillance for his use of uranium as a plot device in Notorious.

- Among the actors considered for the role of Han Solo were James Caan, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, John Travolta, Kurt Russell, Billy Dee Williams, Nick Nolte, Al Pacino, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Murray, Burt Reynolds, and Robert DeNiro.

- Many of the extras in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were really mental patients.

- Dooley Wilson (Sam, in Casablanca) didn't know how to play the piano.

- Peter Sellers' salary for Dr. Strangelove was more than half the budget of the entire film, and the movie Titanic cost more than the Titanic itself.

- The names of the cab driver and the policeman in It's a Wonderful Life were Bert and Ernie.

- Both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were extras in Field of Dreams (the Fenway Park scene).

- The view-through-the-gunbarrel sequence at the beginning of James Bond films was invented by title designer Maurice Binder, who really did aim the camera down a gunbarrel.

- Kevin Spacey was cast in Seven only two days before filming began.

- Charles Durning, a WWII veteran, was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

- In the coliseum scenes in Gladiator, only the bottom two decks contained real people. The other thousands of spectators were computer-generated.

- Gregory Peck's closing "Do your duty" speech in To Kill a Mockingbird was done in one take.

- In High Plains Drifter, one of the headstones in the graveyard was inscribed with the name Sergio Leone.

- One of the voices of E.T. was that of Debra Winger.

- In The Abyss, many of the underwater scenes were filmed in smoky air instead, using fake bubbles.

- Tippi Hedren (The Birds) is the mother of Melanie Griffith and the grandmother of Dakota Johnson.

- The carpet in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining had the same design as the carpet in Sid's hallway in Toy Story.

- The Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard was really the (at that time) recently-built Fox Plaza, the headquarters of the studio that produced the movie.

- Martin Balsam was originally hired as the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Stanley Kubrick replaced him because he feared Balsam's voice might be too familiar to audiences.

- Actor Donald Pleasance was a POW in World War II.

- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford was supposed to have fought with the Arab swordsman in the marketplace. Instead Ford was ill with dysentery that day, and just shot him instead.

- Hannibal Lecter appeared on screen for only 16 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs, and Darth Vader was on-screen for only 12 minutes in Star Wars.

- The "You talkin' to me?" scene in Taxi Driver was improvised by Robert DeNiro. The scripted scene had consisted of only one line: "Bickle speaks to himself in the mirror."

- Cecil B. DeMille originally wanted William Boyd (TV's Hopalong Cassidy) to play Moses in The Ten Commandments.

- Pierce Brosnan was forbidden, by the terms of his contract, from wearing a tuxedo in any non-James Bond movie from 1995 to 2002.

- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in Chemical Engineering.

- George Lucas's dog was named Indiana.

- The working title for North by Northwest was In a Northwesterly Direction. 

A final piece of trivia:

I watched a movie last week called The Salvation (2014). It was a Western filmed in South Africa, with a Danish director and actors from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the U.S., and England. And it was good.

Who says truth isn't stranger than fiction?

20 November 2015

Mystery In The Superstitions

By Dixon Hill

As may be plainly seen by looking at the photo below, the Superstition Mountains are quite inviting, and do not appear at all sinister. (He said with a wink.)

Why then, is this small range of jagged peaks, near Apache Junction, Arizona, so swathed in superstition and murder?

And, though lots of those murders are apocryphal, all too many were quite real!

Well ...

This is, after all, the spot on the map marked with a big X, if you're one of those folks looking for the Lost Dutchman's fabled gold mine.  (In fact, I took this photo while standing beside a picnic table at Arizona's Lost Dutchman State Park.)

And, that Dutchman figures pretty prominently in Valley lore around here.

Here is a look at just a few of the Valley businesses trading on the Lost Dutchman for the sake of name recognition.

I'm not sure I'd like to park my R.V. in this place.
I might return to find it missing, and not be able to locate it ever again!

There have been numerous books written on the subject, of course.

Just as there are plenty of "Lost Dutchman's Mine" maps floating around.

Some with less detail than others.

This map (right) is based on some rocks supposedly found in the area.

Evidently, the idea here is that the
Lost Dutchman, adept at wielding pick and shovel, used them to etch his treasure map on a surface more durable than paper.


These are the rocks.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't any mines in the Superstitions.  In fact, there are a LOT of old mines
and defunct mine shafts in the Superstitions.  The place is, after all, a treasure trove of minerals.

HEY!  You can see something that might be the entrance to a mine, in this photo (right).  Of course, it might just be a cave.  But, is it the entrance to the Lost Dutchman's Mine?

I rather doubt it.

The problem is: The Lost Dutchman's Mine brings out tons of treasure hunters every year.

Some contemporary Lost Dutchman occurrences are funny.
But ... others aren't.
Most of the time, of course, they find nothing, and then go back home -- with a story of adventure, and maybe even a gold nugget they bought somewhere else.  (The Gold Field Ghost Town -- built while I was off in the army -- isn't far from the mountains.  And, they sell "gold" there, though the last time I saw it, what they were selling was iron pyrite, otherwise known as "fool's gold."  Perhaps that tells us what the owners think of their customers.)

Some contemporary additions to the tale are rather humorous, such as the one in this clip on the left.

Other would-be treasure hunters, however, wind up lost and out of water, in a desert terrain that does not suffer fools or the unprepared gladly.  Among these folks, the lucky ones get choppered out by the Sheriff's Posse.  The unlucky ones stick around, to add their ghosts, and stories of a good person gone missing, to the litany of the Miner's victims.

Around 2010, for instance, a Colorado man came out to hunt for the mine.  His remains were discovered three years later.  He had apparently become wedged in a vertical fissure while climbing one of the walls.  Thinking about his last days or hours on earth is not a pleasant past-time.

Occasionally, however, that old "Ghost Mine" causes REAL problems.

When I was in high school, folks in The Valley began to notice that a lot of people who had gone hiking or camping in the Superstitions were not coming back.  Search parties were sent out.  The Civil Air Patrol overflew the mountains for several days at a time.  But, no bodies were found.

Finally, one search patrol did find a body or two.  And, that body or two had been shot to death.

To make a long story short: A mother and her two grown sons thought they'd found the Lost Dutchman's Gold mine back up in these mountains.  And, perhaps they'd been back there all by themselves for a little too long.  Add in a strong dose of "gold fever" after they thought they'd found the mine -- which, unfortunately, sat not far from a rather popular trail -- and they found themselves having to fend off a formidable number of "claim jumpers."

The story might have been funny, if they hadn't killed so many hikers.

The fact is, however -- even though you can see a picture of that "Lost Dutchman's" tomb stone on the right -- there may have been no Lost Dutchman at all!  At least, not in the Superstitions.

In fact, according to some research, there are as many as 51 versions of the Lost Dutchman legend, many of them having nothing to do with the Superstitions, and some taking place in states other than Arizona.

So, why is this legend so prominent here in The Valley, that folks die over it?

Well, I'll write about that in my next installment.

Meanwhile, if you're coming out to The Valley, and you want to visit a nice picnic or camping area that has nice hiking trails, you might make the drive to the Lost Dutchman State Park.

Just watch out, if somebody starts shouting: "HEY!  HOLD IT, YOU CLAIM JUMPER!"