30 September 2014

Fast Eddie

by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.

But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.

The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.

South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.

"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.

"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."

I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.

Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?

"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."

But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.

But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.

Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump

By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

28 September 2014

I Learn Something New

by Louis Willis

In these postmodern times of information overload, I find it almost impossible to discover anything new under the sun because everything is moving so fast in cyberspace that I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. One part of my brain urges me to pause and read information on a webpage. Another part whispers, “Click that link and you just might discover exciting new information about a subject that interests you.” That is how I stopped and read about the new way young people are using the slash (/) in conversation and on the Internet.
The use of the slash dates back to ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe one / represented a comma, two // represented a dash, which evolved into the equals sign and was eventually simplified as a single dash (— ). In English prose, the slash is usually used as a conjunction. Of course, it is used in other ways too, such as in poems to show a line break. It also has many nonlinguistic uses.
As with many other punctuation marks in this cyberage, the slash is now used somewhat differently. I discovered the new use in the article, “The One Word In Everyone’s Texts/Conversations Right Now” by Sara Boboltz on the Huffington Post website. The slash, she says, is being used in texts, instant messages, emails, and face to face conversations. 
Boboltz links to the article “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 24, 2013, by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Professor Curzon requires the students in her history of English course to teach her two new slang words before class every day. In one class, a student mentioned “slash.” The slash is used as a conjunction, and slang doesn’t often create a conjunction. Instead of using the symbol /, the students used the word “slash” in their writings on Facebook, blogs, and Tweets as a conjunction. The students also used “slash” to mean “following up” and to indicate an after thought or topic shift.
It seems only the forward slash is currently used. I wonder how in the future the kids will use the backward slash. Maybe they’re already using it, and I just haven’t stumbled across an example. 
I imagine that at this very moment a graduate student is trying to earn his slash her degree studying the use of language on the Internet, and calling the study “netdialectology.” Maybe he slash she will come up with a name for this new way of speaking and writing that is evolving on the web. 
My candidates are netspeak, webspeak, cyberspeak, or nettalk, webtalk, cybertalk.
What are your thoughts on what we should call the language used on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites?

27 September 2014

You Know You're a Writer When...

By Melodie Campbell

Recently, I read something  that got me thinking.  (Okay, have your little laugh.  I can wait.)

The quote was:

“A writer who isn’t writing is a monster.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if that meant a writer who wasn’t writing right now and every minute was a monster.  Or whether it meant a writer who was prevented from writing was a monster.

For the sake of all concerned (at least in this house,) I’m goin’ for the latter.

Which brings me to this little list.  If you are a writer, tick off the ones that apply to you and leave a comment below with the goods.  Or better still, add your own.  If you are not a writer, stand back.

You know you’re an author when:

1.    You’d rather spend time with your characters than your friends.

2.    You’ve been at the computer all day and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish seem like a major food group.

3.    Your spouse yells “Are you all right in there,” and you’re pretty sure you’ve heard that voice before.  Somewhere.

4.    Your idea of a vacation means hours and hours of time to write.  And nobody bugging you to “do something fun.”

5.    You reach for Glenlivit when the internet goes down.

6.    You could be arrested if the Feds look at your search history.

7.    You actually know the difference between less and fewer.  And consider it a hanging offense when people misuse them.

8.    You have been known to ignore phone calls from your mom, kids, husband, boss, and possibly God.

9.    Your idea of supreme hell is being trapped at a cocktail party for three hours with people who aren’t writers.

10.    You have seriously considered murdering people who say, “I have this great idea for a book, and if you’ll write it, I’ll share the profits with you.”   And the ones who say, “I think I’ll write a book someday when I get more time.”  And the ones who say, “Of course, it’s just a mystery/fantasy/romance genre book you’ve written.  When are you going to write something important?

Excuse me now.  I have a lot of people to murder, and I’m behind.

Melodie Campbell murders people regularly in her zany mob crime series, The Goddaughter.  She lurks at www.melodiecampbell.com

26 September 2014

Some Details: Fast-Rope vs. Rappel

by Dixon Hill

David Dean's excellent blog post, which provided important details for those writing about Catholic characters, put me in mind of some other information you might find useful.  And, naturally, given my background, these details tend to be military in nature.  But, I see a lot of military techniques used in cop shows, and sometimes evidently by real police, these days.  So I thought you might have seen some of these techniques, too, and that this info might interest you -- as mystery writers.

There are many places where a helicopter can't land, but people need to get off the helicopter and onto the ground below.  Thick jungles or forests are such locations, but there are others you might not have considered.  Think of the roofs of high-rise office buildings: they are often festooned with antennae that prevent a helicopter from landing.  Yet, a helicopter -- if properly equipped -- can put people onto that roof, or take them off.

When helicopters can't touch down, but need to offload personnel, two options are fast-roping and rappelling.  Fast-roping is faster than rappelling, but I've seen fictional law enforcement units using both methods on TV and in movies, so I'll cover both here.

FAST  ROPE OPERATION
Note the number of men sliding down each rope
at the same time. UH-60 Helicopter.
HELICOPTER  RAPPEL OPERATION
Note that there is only man per rope
at any given time.  UH-60 Helicopter.
Viewed from a distance, Rappelling and Fast-Roping from helicopters can look very similar.

In both cases, people slide down ropes that hang out of helicopters.

But the person rappelling is usually attached to the rope by a D-ring or snap-link, while a fast-roper is only attached by hands and feet.






A coiled Fast-Rope:  The eye-splice at
photo bottom is used to tie-into the aircraft.  
The ropes used by these two operations are quite different -- because they serve very different needs.

("Fast-Rope" can evidently be spelled with or without a hyphen, and even sometimes as a single word.)  A fast-rope, itself, is a thick hawser-type rope about 1.5 to 2 inches thick.  The ropes are pretty long -- 35 feet and 40 feet, I seem to recall.  With a few that were about 60 or 70 feet.  The number "78 feet" sticks in my mind as the greatest distance one can safely fast-rope -- though I may be wrong.

The rope needs to be thick, because the fast-roper needs something to hang onto.  As I mentioned above, the fast-roper isn't tied or snapped to the rope.  Instead, s/he gets down from the helicopter to the ground by grabbing the rope in gloved hands, and between boots, then sliding down the rope as if it's a firehouse pole.

Fast-roping uses a thick rope that the roper slides down,
similar to sliding down a firehouse pole.


Fast-roping is a quick way to empty a helicopter that can't land, because several people can slide down each rope at the same time.  Hence the name "Fast-Rope": a rope used to empty a chopper fast.










These fast-ropers are much better spaced (closer)
than the folks in the upper left pic.  Going out closer
means you get more folks on the ground faster.
On my old A-Team, we usually rode UH-60 or MH-60 Blackhawks (seen above) when we fast-roped, and would use two ropes to exit the aircraft: one per door.  As we neared the objective, helicopter crewmen would prepare to deploy the fast-ropes, while we gathered in two groups, one around each rope, where it hooked to the chopper.

Everybody would grab the rope, in a specified well-rehearsed order -- the top of each man's hands touching the bottom of the hands of the man holding the rope above him -- ensuring no one's hands overlapped anyone else's.

When we hit the objective, the crewman dropped the rope coil out the door and leaned out to be sure the far end was dragging on the ground as the chopper moved slowly forward.

Simultaneously, our "doorman" would do the same thing with a quick glance (to ensure he didn't slide down the rope, only to plunge off the end.)  Then he would swing out and jump his feet onto the rope, sliding down.

As the doorman went out, the man beside him rotated around and dropped down the rope, followed by the next guy, and the next.  In this manner all twelve of us could descend the two fast-ropes, with our equipment, and be "weapons-up" in a matter of seconds.  Due to the chopper's forward movement, we'd hit the ground about 2 or 3 meters apart.

The ticket with a fast-rope is that the friction generated between your gloved hands, and your boots, on the rope, slows you down enough that you don't get killed or injured by the drop.  And that's A LOT of friction!  I saw a buddy of mine, who tried to fast-rope without gloves one time.  His palms and fingers looked like hamburger: horrifically blistered, torn and bleeding.  He had to wear serious bandages for about two weeks.  (To his credit, he fast-roped, wearing the bandages under his gloves, during those two weeks -- because it was VERY important.  But it hurt him like heck, every time!)

On the web, I've seen photos posted by knuckleheads who prided themselves on letting go of the rope as they descended, only to grab it again later, to slow their descent.  However, I strongly urge you not to let any fictional law enforcement personnel practice this foolish "showboating" in a story.

The fact is: the folks in those online pics are just Good-Time Charlies; they aren't carrying any equipment.  If they had been, and they'd let go of the rope -- even for just a moment -- they'd have been toast.

If you look closely, you'll see that the folks in the pics in this post aren't carrying any equipment either. Clearly, these are training photos, though I never did any fast-rope training in which I didn't wear at least my load-bearing equipment and weapons.

When I did this work, the U.S. Army did not officially permit anyone to fast-rope while carrying more than 35 lbs. of equipment.  However, 35 lbs. was just about the low-end weight of our load-bearing equipment, weapons and basic combat ammo load in SF.  When we added rucks, we could fast-rope with up to 50 or 60 lbs., but that really is about the top-end limit for safety.

I can think of a specific instance when 7th SF Group had us practice fast-roping with heavier loads, such as 75 or 80 lbs., and even more.  They did this for very good reasons, hoping we could find a way to fast-rope with heavier loads, by doing a good PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) when we hit the ground, to minimize the impact.  That much weight, however, resulted in quite a few injuries, which was how we came up with the 50 or 60 lbs. total equipment weight limit.  And, the fast-roper carrying that much, had better do a good PLF on impact with the ground.

The sad fact is:  You can parachute while wearing a 110 lbs. rucksack (I've done it -- A LOT.  It hurts, but it works.  Trust me.), but you can't fast-rope with more than 50 or 60 pounds of gear strapped to your body.  Well . . . you can, if you want . . . but the odds that you'll be in fighting shape after hitting the ground are pitifully low.
Common rappelling ropes.


Which brings us to Rappelling.









This guy has his brake hand on (right hand).
He's waiting for permission to go.
This person is in mid-rappel.
Rappelling is probably more familiar to you than fast-roping.  Even if you haven't practiced it, you've seen it in countless mountain climbing or adventure films, such as The Eiger Sanction.  Both fellows in these two photos are practicing standard repelling: off a wall (left) and out of a helicopter (right).

High-speed "Swiss Seat"
or "Harness"

In both cases, they're wearing very nice high-speed "Swiss seats" or "Harnesses" similar to the one seen to the left.  The "rappeller" hooks a snap-link to the D-ring on his seat, and runs the rope through the snap-link so that it wraps around it but can still slide through.  In some cases, s/he may run the rope through the D-ring, itself, though this isn't necessarily recommended.

Though this type of harness is nice, it's not necessary for rappelling.  Frankly, I always had to use a rope "Swiss seat" similar to the one in the drawing on the right.

To create this Swiss seat, you take a rope about five or six feet long, hold the center at your waistline below your navel and wrap the ends around your back to bring the ropes front again.  Then, you wrap the ends once around the rope, just forward of your thighs, and tuck the ends under the rope, bringing the running ends down between your legs and running them back up across the rump cheeks to come back up between your body and the rope around your back.

Now, squat down while you pull up on the two ends of the rope, tightening everything you just did.  (Men must take particular care at this point, to ensure the ropes do not cross each other, or the crotch area!)  Once your seat is tight, stand, while holding the ropes good and tight, then tie the ends together in a square knot (see pic).  The drawing shows the square knot tied below the navel, however I was taught to tie it off on my "off-hand" side.  (i.e.: Since I'm right handed, and hold my rappel line with my right hand as "brake hand," this brings the rappel line around my right side.  Thus, I "tie-off" my Swiss seat -- with the square knot -- on my left, to keep it out of the way of the rappel line when I'm rappelling.)

It's also possible to do a "Body Rappel" by passing the main rappelling line under one thigh and across the body and back, but I don't want to get into that because:

  • It's too easy to describe it in a way that might put a practitioner in danger.
  • Frankly, I find it quite uncomfortable, and would only employ the body rappel in an emergency.
  • To get a look at roughly how it's done (for story-writing purposes) you're probably better off watching the 1986 horror movie House, in which the main character uses a body rappel method at one point, and you can see how it might work.

Some readers may have seen rappelling, but might not completely understand how it works.  So let's discuss it a moment.

Take a look at that the pic of the guy rappelling off the wall again (right).  His left hand, on the rope in front of his body, is his "guide hand." The guide hand doesn't really grasp the rope; it just lets the rope run through it, in order to guide the manner in which it enters the snap-link or D-ring.  This hand has little to no impact on the speed of descent.

His right hand, which is thrown out away from his body, is his "brake hand."  In this photo, he's in mid-drop: the rope is running freely through both his hands.  He bounded out from the wall when he threw off his brake hand, which is why his feet aren't touching the wall.  He's currently falling down the rope.

In this photo (left) you can see how the rappeller is completely suspended by the rope pulling up on his snap link.  Note the trailing rope that wraps around the right side of his body (left side of photo), and that his right hand is behind his back.

This guy has stopped, or slowed, his descent by moving his brake hand tightly up to the small of his back.  This action causes the friction of the rope around his waist, and the rope trapped against his back by his tightly grasped right hand, to overcome the inertia of his fall, slowing or completely stopping his descent.

When going down a wall, a person can walk, but more commonly they "bound" -- jumping out from the wall as they release their brake hands, zipping down the line, then moving the brake hand to the small of the back and swinging up the feet to meet the wall when they want to stop.

The person in the foreground (pic on right) is the "belay man." His (or her) job is to watch the person rappelling, and stop their fall if that person seems to suddenly lose control.  Belaying is accomplished by grabbing the rope in two gloved hands and running backward to put tension on it.  This tension binds up the rope, where it passes through the snap-link and around the body, and thus breaks the fall.

Rappelling off a wall is just like rappelling out of a helicopter except:
  1. There is no wall to push off of.
  2. Helicopter rotor wash -- the wind of the rotors pushing down -- will push the rappeller more quickly down the rope, making it harder to stop.
In either case, once the person rappelling hits the ground, s/he must run backward until the rope comes completely out of the snap link (or simply open the snap link and pull out the rope!) in order to get off the rope.  

Now, recall that "Belay Man"?  The reason you can't easily send more than one person down a rappelling rope at once, is that the weight of the person rappelling below would act as a belay, stopping or majorly hindering anyone trying to follow.  This is one major reason why fast-roping is faster than rappelling, when it comes to emptying choppers.


There are other types of rappelling.

The person on the left is performing an "Australian Rappel."  In this case, instead of creating a Swiss seat, that five or six foot section of rope is simply wrapped twice about the waist, and the snap link is attached in the center of the small of the back.

This person is using his right hand as brake hand, and he's got it raised as if about to put on the brakes.  You brake, in an "Aussie" by raising your brake hand tightly to your chest.



On the right, is a person practicing the Australian Rappel on the "free side" of the wall, where there is no wall beneath the platform you jump off of.  This is how you practice performing an Aussie from a chopper, when no helicopters are available for training.

As you can see, he's just jumped off the wall, brake hand held out to zip down the line until he decides to brake his plummet.


Note, from the photos above, that the Australian leaves the rappeller with a free hand that's not doing anything.

In this photo on the left, of South Korean police in action, you see that these guys are using the Aussie to bound/run down the wall of this high-rise, while holding weapons at the ready.  The Aussie also permits them to look where they're going, so they can engage any bad guys who poke their heads out, if needed.  The shield held by the man on the right side of the photo tells me this is probably a breaching team.  They plan to breach a window or door below, in order to enter the building from an unexpected direction -- preferably directly into the room occupied by the bad guys.








Rappelling can put good guys where the bad guys don't expect them to show up!I hope you found this useful.

I hope you found this useful.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

25 September 2014

The Minister and the Choir Singer

by Eve Fisher

This summer, among other things, I read Sarah Churchwell's "Careless People: Murder and the Making of The Great Gatsby". Very well written, very well researched. Churchwell says that The Great Gatsby was influenced, and borrowed from, the Hall-Mills murder case, which captured everyone's imagination from Damon Runyan (who was one of the reporters on the spot) to James Thurber ("A Sort of Genius") to William Kunstler ("The Minister and the Choir Singer"). The case was never solved, for a variety of reasons ranging from incomprehensibly bad police work to, as David Gates put it a while back, "a lack of any practical forensic approach", to the wholesale swamping of any reason or fact by a media storm that most people don't think existed until O. J. Simpson.

Eleanor Mills
On September 14, 1922, in New Brunswick, NJ, the bodies of Eleanor Rinehardt Mills and the Edward Wheeler Hall were discovered lying side by side under a crab-apple tree. They had been shot, and the bodies carefully arranged so that her left hand laid on his thigh, and his right hand on her neck. He had a hat over his face, and his calling card placed at his feet. Torn love letters were strewn over them. He was an Episcopal priest, and she sang in his choir. In the words of The New York Times, although both were married to other people, Hall and Mills "had long been friendly."

It was obvious they'd been shot, but the investigation was... unbelievable. According to Churchwell, the first doctor to look at Mrs. Mills body didn't even do an autopsy, since it was obvious she was dead by foul play; and it took two more autopsies to discover that Mrs. Mills had been shot three times, her throat cut, and her tongue cut out. There was no police cordoning of the area, and, as publicity blazed ("Priest and choir singer slaughtered in New Jersey!"), people came and went freely. It became such a tourist destination that, by the time of the 1926 trial, the crab-apple tree was entirely gone, hacked away by souvenir hunters.

Frances Noel Stevens
The prime suspects never changed: Hall's wife, Frances Noel Stevens (1874–1942), and her two brothers, Henry Hewgill Stevens (1869–1939) and William "Willie" Carpender Stevens (1872–1942). (James Thurber's essay was primarily about Willie Stevens, who was an odd duck all the way around; probably high-functioning Asperger's, in his world, he couldn't hold a job and spent most of his time hanging around the local fire house.)

The prosecution's key witness was Jane Gibson, a pig farmer on whose property the bodies were discovered. She would be known throughout the next few years as The Pig Woman. Because she was poor, uneducated, and highly "colorful", people quickly took sides regarding her story: she was either the bearer of ultimate truth or a crazy woman trying to get attention and money. Her first story was that her dog got her up and out around 9 on the night of the murder. She saw a man standing in her cornfield, so she got on her mule and rode towards him. As she got close, she saw four people by the crab apple tree. Then she heard gunshots, and one fell to the ground. She heard a woman scream, "Don’t", repeated three times. She said she turned her mule in the opposite direction, heard more gunshots and when she looked back, saw a second person fall and heard a woman shout "Henry".

Over time she saw more people; she saw fewer people; she heard more sounds; she saw a black man; she didn't see a black man. At the trial, she was a great sensation, rolled in on a hospital bed to give her testimony.

The trouble was, there was no proof, no evidence, and even if Mrs. Hall had arranged and/or participated in the murders, her husband was an adulterous pastor. The Hall/Stevens family were all acquitted, even though most historians and students of the case believe that they were guilty. (William Kunstler was the exception: he posited that the KKK committed the murders. Most people disagree.)

But the case captured the imagination of the day, especially since it was never solved. It held primacy in the public imagination until the tragic Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932.

Churchwell links this murder to The Great Gatsby, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, everyone was talking about it during the time F. Scott Fitzgerald was actually living in Great Neck ("East Egg" in the book). The novel takes place in 1922, the year of the crime. And there are patterns throughout: Hall gave Mills a novel - Simon Called Peter - (racy for the 1920s) that Fitzgerald has Nick Carraway read while Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, romp in the back bedroom. Myrtle and George Wilson are supposedly based on Eleanor and James Mills. George was a mechanic, James a janitor. Tom Buchanan describes George in the novel as "so dumb he doesn't know he's alive", and one of the reasons James Mills was never a credible suspect is that he first appeared to be so dumb he didn't know his wife was having an affair, and he didn't have the "manliness", apparently, to do something about it. Meanwhile, Myrtle and Eleanor were both sleeping above their station, desperate for another life, away from their boring, working-class husbands.

I don't know if Churchwell is right in all her surmises, but it's a fascinating case, and a great book. Start off slow: read Thurber's essay and/or Gatsby to whet your appetite; then go to Churchwell and discover the whole cast of characters. And let me know who you think did it.

(NOTE: I am, hopefully, in Quebec. See you in a week…)

24 September 2014

Lee Child's PERSONAL

by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.