01 November 2014

Name That Crook



by John M. Floyd



I like books about writing. I buy a lot of them, and I always seem to learn more from them than I expect to. These "how-to-create-good-fiction" authors sometimes differ on their views of what's good and what isn't, and what works and what doesn't--but now and then, like a family driving away from the Honda dealership, they are all in one Accord. (Sorry--I couldn't resist.)

One piece of writing advice that they all seem to agree on is that we talespinners should spend at least as much time on our villains as we do on our heroes. The point, there, is that the character who actually propels the action forward in a story or novel is the antagonist, not the protagonist. A wimpy bad guy just won't do. As I heard someplace, Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant to kill.

Another good move is to come up with suitable names for our villains. I once said, in a previous column, that I couldn't imagine 007 introducing himself as "Dinkins. Wilbur Dinkins." Well, the same goes for Bond's adversaries. Arnold Goldpinkie probably wouldn't have presented much of a threat to the world, or Doctor Yessiree.

Along these lines, here are a few fictional baddies whose names I especially like. (I can almost picture the sudden smiles on the writers' faces when these popped into their heads.)

Seriously evil dudes:

Hans Gruber, Die Hard
Noah Cross, Chinatown
Percy Wetmore, The Green Mile
Vince Stone, The Big Heat (Lee Marvin played baddies and goodies equally well)
Amon Goeth, Schindler's List
Morgan Sloate, The Talisman
Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men 
Voldemort, Harry Potter series
Stuntman Mike, Death Proof
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Randall Flagg, The Stand
Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven
Sauron, Lord of the Rings
Max Cady, Cape Fear
Oddjob, Goldfinger
Freddy Kreuger, A Nightmare on Elm Street
Dr. Szell, Marathon Man
Bill Cutting, Gangs of New York
Dean Wormer, Animal House
Emilio Largo, Thunderball
Cicero Grimes, Hombre (Richard Boone was always a convincing villain)
Tommy Udo, Kiss of Death 
Commodus, Gladiator (what could be worse? Toiletus?)
Miles Quaritch, Avatar
Leatherface, Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon
Lex Luthor, Superman

Seriously evil dudettes:

Irma Bunt, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Cersei Baratheon, Game of Thrones
Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada
The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz
Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity
Cruella de Vil (cruel devil?), 101 Dalmations
Mallory Knox, Natural Born Killers
Santanico Pandemonium, From Dusk Till Dawn
Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty
Elle Driver, Kill Bill (Daryl Hannah, of all people)
Miss Havisham, Great Expectations
Mama Fratelli, The Goonies
Alex Forrest, Fatal Attraction (Play Misty for Me, Part 2?)
Aileen Wuornos, Monster
Nurse Ratched (wretched?), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Catherine Tramell, Basic Instinct
The White Witch, The Chronicles of Narnia (who better than Tilda Swinton, for this?)
Rosa Klebb, From Russia With Love

Asides and exceptions

I should pause here to admit that some of the best literary and cinematic villains had normal, plain, believable names: Michael Myers (Halloween), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Norman Bates (Psycho), Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca), Ben Wade (3:10 to Yuma), Tom (The Talented Mr.) Ripley, George Harvey (The Lovely Bones), Reverend Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Jack Wilson (Shane), and so on. But who's to say that they wouldn't have been even more ominous if their names had been ominous as well?

By the way, all baddies are not truly evil. Some--Mrs. Robinson (The Graduate), Lt. Gerard (The Fugitive), Major Henry Terrill (The Big Country), Ed Rooney (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Headmaster Nolan (Dead Poet's Society), etc.--are just unpleasant people who get in the way of the protagonists' needs and goals. I'll always like the name of Milo Minderbinder, the sneaky opportunist and profiteer from Catch-22--and even though his actions unknowingly caused death and disaster, he was more of an antagonist than a villain.

And some villains are so terrifying they have no names at all. In The Village, the creatures in the surrounding woods were whisperingly called Those We Don't Speak Of.

In closing, here are my Top 10 favorite names for bad guys:

Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, You Only Live Twice
Lars Thorwald, Rear Window
Liberty Vallance, as in The Man Who Shot
Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter series
Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
Apollo Creed, Rocky
Darth Vader, Star Wars
Hugo Drax, Moonraker
Uriah Heep, David Copperfield


Sigh. I wish I were the one who came up with those . . .




31 October 2014

They Hung Lame Johnny

by R.T. Lawton

Not all the outlaws in the Old West became as famous as Butch Cassidy with his Hole in the Wall Gang or Jesse James with his bank robberies. Some were just lesser criminals who never rose to national fame. Here's one of those outlaws in the making.

Cornelius Donohue was born in Philadelphia some time about 1850. An injury from falling off a horse in his youth gave him the nickname of Lame Johnny. As an adult, Johnny wandered down to Texas to become a cowboy on a ranch. He showed up just as the cowboys were making plans to raid the Apaches who had stolen the ranch's horse herd. Johnny went along to help steal the horses back. In the subsequent exchange of raids between the cowboys and the Apaches, young Johnny soon acquired the skills needed to become an experienced horse thief.

A few years later, a man named John Francis Murphy was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, getting his bull teams and wagons ready to freight goods north to Deadwood, South Dakota, when he met a well-dressed fellow walking with a limp. The fellow said he was John Hurley from Philadelphia and he wanted to work his way up to Deadwood with Murphy's freight wagons. Murphy gave "Hurley" a job herding the cavyard at the rear of the wagons and loaned him a horse.

Upon arriving in the Black Hills, Johnny started prospecting for gold along Castle Creek. That summer, a band of Sioux stole his horses, so Johnny borrowed a horse from a friend and rode over to the Red Cloud Agency. There, he killed the man guarding the corral and then stole about 300 Indian horses. He spent the rest of the summer playing his old Texas game of being raided by Indians and then conducting his own raids against their herds. At the end of summer, he sold the horses he had left and gave up prospecting.

Next, he tried his hand as a bookkeeper for Homestake Gold Mine in Lead. This legal employment continued until he was recognized by a man from Texas who claimed "Hurley" was actually a horse thief named Lame Johnny. Seems that Johnny may have stolen horses from more than just Indians while he was in Texas.

Johnny promptly quit the mine and returned to his old ways of acquiring horse flesh., but it wasn't long before he embarked on a new occupation. On the west side of the Black Hills was a trail that ran from Deadwood south to Custer and then over to Cheyenne. Every month, the Homestake Mine sent a bullion coach down that trail with a shipment of gold. Johnny soon got accused of several stage holdups. Unfortunately for him, one of his victims recognized him and spread the word after Johnny stopped a Buffalo Gap to Rapid City stage on the east side of the Hills.

Thinking it might be best to revert to his horse stealing business for a while, Johnny headed down to Pine Ridge to acquire some Indian horses. His luck went against him when a lawman got word of his whereabouts and arrested him for horse stealing. Soon finding out that Johnny was also wanted for robbing and stealing a mail pouch from a stage coach, the lawman took him down to Chadron, Nebraska, and put him on the Sydney to Deadwood coach to go to court. To ensure his safe arrival, Johnny was shackled and handcuffed. Then a blacksmith attached an anklet made out of iron. A chain ran from the anklet on one end and on the other end it was riveted to a metal plate fixed to the floor of the coach.

As further measure, Boone May and Frank Smith rode on the coach as prisoner escorts, while Jesse Brown trailed at a distance on horseback. About eight miles north of Buffalo Gap where Highway 79 now crosses Lame Johnny Creek, a bunch of masked vigilantes, as the story was later told, rode up from the south, stopped the coach and pried the metal plate off the coach floor. They then shot Johnny and hung him from a nearby elm tree. Ironically, this spot was not far from where he'd robbed another stagecoach earlier in his career.

Allegedly, neither Boone nor Smith were able to protect their prisoner. And when Brown tried to ride up to the coach, he was supposedly warned off by a voice in the bushes along the creek.

When Pete Osland's bull train came up the trail the next morning, Johnny was still swinging from the elm tree. They cut his body down, buried it and placed a marker.

Rumors soon spread that a cowboy had cut off Lame Johnny's head and sold it to a museum back east. To find out for sure, Ephrien Dean, W.H. Sewright and others went to the site and dug up the grave. Johnny's body was still in the shackles and chains, but his head was missing. They removed the shackles and boots, then reburied the body. The boots, one of which had a raised heel to accommodate Johnny's injured foot, were later displayed in Wood's store in Buffalo Gap. A subsequent fire destroyed both Johnny's boots and the building. One of the shackles is at the State Historical Museum in Pierre (the state capitol) and the other is on display at the Frontier Museum in Custer where I saw it.

Johnny was gone, but no one knew how he and his gang could disappear so easily into the Hills after a robbery. Their trail always seemed to disappear in the area of King's Ridge.

Then in 1919, according to Mrs. Halstead, she and her husband filed a homestead claim on King's Ridge. Their land lay between Custer and Buffalo Gap near Lame Johnny Creek. On the western portion of the land set a high rim rock and a box canyon with no visible way down. While searching for a missing steer one fall, her husband followed tracks in the snow to the rim rock. From there, he could see the steer moving around on the canyon floor. Where the steer's tracks disappeared up top, her husband found three large rocks forming a gateway to a hidden trail going down.

On the canyon floor were two large caves that couldn't be seen from the top. The larger cave looked to have been a corral large enough for about 25-30 horses. The smaller cave contained rotted ropes, rusty cans, whiskey bottles and rotted bedding. Black soot from an old fireplace covered the walls of this cave. All was undisturbed as if the owners had left, but somehow hadn't made it back.

Not long after, Orval Halstead and her family moved away. They never told anyone about the caves until she told her story to the Eastern Custer County Historical Society in the late 1960's

                                                                   #

Historical facts taken from Our Yesterdays, published by the Eastern Custer County Historical Society which collected written copies of oral stories from many of the early pioneers in that area and compiled them into a book. Other information was acquired from displays at the Frontier Museum in Custer.

30 October 2014

Still More Fun With Music and Writing!

by Brian Thornton

Taking a break from discussing the intersection of history and mystery to swoop back in one big elliptical arc to another of the tropes I mine for content for this site. Another intersection. This one the place where auditory input stimulates manuscriptive creativity.

Which is to say, "Word-count springing from music."

As I've written here, I struggle with tinnitus, even more so since my son (he's 2 1/2) found a
particular frequency of shriek guaranteed to instantaneously ratchet up my tinnitus like being plucked suddenly from the serenity of a peaceful mountain meadow and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a Who concert circa 1978 (for an idea of what that sounds like, click here). Before my son was born I could go for long periods ignoring my tinnitus. Not so much anymore.

Come on, you just KNOW this shit is loud.

Don't get me wrong. I yield to no one in my admiration for the particular brand of aural havoc Townshend, Moon, Entwistle and Daltrey could wreak.

It's just not an easy soundtrack for me to work to.

And while this link to ambient engine noise in a 24 hour loop from Star Trek the Next Generation definitely masks my tinnitus and allows me to concentrate while writing, I find I sometimes want to have music in the background, "ambient," if you will.

And that's what today's post here at Sleuthsayers is about: an update on what i'm listening to while working, and additionally, trying to poke a hole in the unfair characterization of ambient music as somehow "boring."

My most frequent "ambient" listens these days are:


"Moonwater" by Rudy Adrian, a New Zealander who does wonderful stuff. Give it a listen here.


And then there's the epic stuff of Patrick O'Hearn. A Portland, Oregon native, this guy was something of a musical prodigy, playing bass for such jazz guys as Joe Henderson before he was out of his teens, matriculating to playing for Frank Zappa in the late '70s and early '80s, going from there to a gig playing synthesizers with Terry Bozio in a band that could have only found an audience during the 1980s, Missing Persons, and on to a prolific solo career doing mostly, you guessed it: ambient music. I've included the album cover from his masterpiece, "So Flows the Current" (2001), but I find all of his canon incredibly listenable, especially while I'm writing.

Dear GOD, why???
Lastly, there's musical polymath Brian Eno, who pioneered the notion of "ambient music" after leaving Roxy Music back in the 1970s. In so doing Eno was simply applying an electronic component to composer Erik Satie's earlier idea of background music played live by musicians, which Satie called "furniture music."

I've listened to a fair amount of Eno's stuff, and one of his earliest, "Music for Airports" (1978). is one of my favorites. And his latest, "Lux" (2014), is really great. In fact, his stuff is always interesting, whether or not you actually like it.

And that brings me to my second point: writing is an art form. So is music.  These sorts of things in the best of times, feed off of each other. This is how musical pieces such as Mussorgsky's terrific "Pictures at an Exhibition", can be inspired by another form of art (in this case, the work of Mussorgsky's recently deceased friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann).

And so for my next trick, I'll continue this train of thought next time with the work of several artists whose new stuff in 2014 has helped inform my writing.

See you in two weeks!

That's better, Brian! Ladies and Gentlemen, Brian Eno, circa 2014, (apparently) all grown up!

29 October 2014

Seventeen minutes

by Robert Lopresti

A few nights ago I was having a typically pointless dream -- something about listening to the Star Spangled Banner at a golf tournament, if you must know -- when suddenly things shifted and I had a story idea.  I mean I dreamed I had one, but also I really did.  And then the alarm went off.

I'm sure you have had the experience of percolating a brilliant idea in your sleep, only to see it vanish when you wake.  You may have also had that experience's more humbling twin: remembering the dazzling insight and realizing it was nothing of the kind.  One night in college I scrambled for a notebook at 3 AM and write down my lightbulb flash.  In the morning I found that notebook page and read, quote:

           A warehouse.

So far, I have not found a way to monetize that flash of genius.

But getting back to my recent experience, when the alarm went off I was still in possession of the story idea, and, to repeat, it really was a story idea.  Which meant that the clock was ticking.

My memory is that R. Buckminster Fuller said: From the moment you have an idea you have seventeen minutes to do something with it.  If not, you lose it. I can't find those words on the Internet, so maybe I have it garbled, but I find it good advice anyway.

Write it down.  Hum it.  Tie a string around your finger.  Do something physical to get that elusive thought into a second part of your brain.  Seventeen minutes.  The clock is ticking.

My father, by the way, had his own way of dealing with this.  When he was at work and needed to remember something he would tear off a sliver of paper and put it in his shirt pocket.  When he got home he would find the scrap and remember why he had put it there.  I know that if I tried that I wouldn't even remember that there had been a reason.  "What the hell is this here for?" I would say before carefully dropping the reminder into the recycling bin.

And speaking of remembering things, we were talking about my recent morning.  It would have been great if I could have turned on a light and written down my idea immediately, but my wife, long-suffering as she, would not have been pleased to have her last half-hour of sleep interrupted.  Besides, my audience was waiting for me.


You see, we have cats.  Six thousand of them.

All right, really there are just four.  I like to say that we have two pet cats and each of them has one pet cat.  Share the guilt.

But my first duty when I stagger out of bed is to fill two water bowls, one dry food bowl, and three wet food plates, scattered on two floors.

All the time I was opening cans and bags I was trying to keep my story idea front and center in my skull (fortunately feeding the beasts doesn't require a lot of intellectual activity).


When all the critters were temporarily sated I was at last able to sit down with a pen and notebook and write down what i had: the title, the premise and the last sentence.  Now all I need to do is grow a plot around those three points.  It may happen; it may not.  But by God, I didn't lose this one. 

Have any stories about saving/losing ideas, especially in the early hours?  Put 'em in the comments.

Oh, from top to bottom: Jaffa with friend, Blackie, Chloe, and Charlie.


28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?

by Stephen Ross
Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'ĂȘtre. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.

Nope.

She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!


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

27 October 2014

An Honest Rejection Letter

by Fran Rizer

Carla Damron
A Caleb Knowles Mystery
SleuthSayer readers and writers, please allow me to introduce a superb South Carolina mystery writer– Carla Damron. I've known Carla since we met at the SC Book Festival years ago, and our paths have crossed numerous times since then. Damron blogs on Writers Who Kill and in September she posted about rejection– not the usual "oh, woe is me, I got another one," but a piece she called "An Honest Rejection Letter." I thought those of you who have ever received a rejection (and I'm told that even the most successful writers have been on the receiving end of those little letters that tear our hearts out) would enjoy reading her blog. I'm going to share it with you, but, first, here's a little more about Carla.

Described as a "writer of social issues mysteries," Carla is a licensed clinical social worker and, like me, she's a true southerner born and raised in South Carolina. Her counselor experiences resonate in her three mystery novels: Keeping Silent (2001, mass market 2002), Spider Blue, (2005 trade paper 2006) and Death in Zooville (2010).

Caleb Knowles, a social worker who was described in a Charlotte Observer review as "a social worker with a delightfully dry sense of humor" is the protagonist in these first three novels. In Death in Zooville, Caleb and his deaf brother Sam become entangled in the world of poverty, addiction, and homelessness.

Some SSers may have met Carla Damron as she has been a featured speaker and panel member at many writers' conferences and will be at Murder in the Magic City, Birmingham, Alabama, in February, 2015. For more about her, check out her webpage www.carladamron.com


I am just back from a wonderful writing retreat among some very creative women. Part of our weekend included writing exercises. The following is one I completed—a story in a letter. Sort of. My fellow wild women writers suggested I share it, so here goes!
Dear Author,

Thank you for submitting your novel, A Long Road to Nowhere, to Acme Publishing. Unfortunately we do not feel it is a good fit for our company. It may have been a good fit, had I read it before lunch, and if lunch hadn't included two glasses of a very nice chardonnay.

Or maybe it would have fit if I hadn’t just read five chapters of someone’s else’s work, an Apocalyptic YA novel about transgendered vampires, that had an opening which I loved, but completely fell apart at chapter two. (Seriously? A transgendered vampire would not convert to Buddhism.)

And, you may not want to hear that we just accepted someone else’s work, a coming of age graphic novel, reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird, except that it’s set on planet Zargon and the protagonist has tentacled arms and drives a moon-ship. Graphic novels are all the rage this week.

And perhaps your work would have fit with Acme Publishing, if my boss, the assistant acquisitions editor, hadn't just handed me the novella written by our editor-in-chief’s thirteen-year-old niece, with orders that I find something in it that’s salvageable. “She did a nice job with her margins” was not, apparently, strong enough praise.

Your manuscript aside, I found your query letter striking. Interesting that you mentioned sending it to forty other publishing companies. Were we supposed to be flattered to be number forty-one? And, while I’m very glad that your mother loved the work and your writer’s group thinks it’s as good or better than Joyce Carol Oates, these opinions are likely biased. (My mother loved my high school performance of Anne Frank but you don’t see me on Broadway, do you?)

The inclusion of a bottle of scotch with your manuscript was a nice addition. Perhaps it would have scored more points with me if the editorial committee hadn’t snagged it before I saw the label. They’re in the board room right now singing Abba tunes.

As you know, author, the selection process is a subjective one, and you may find another publishing house that is eager to accept your work.

Best wishes,
Intern to the assistant acquisitions editor


PS. What's the most interesting or fun or depressing rejection you've ever received?
This has nothing to do with today's topic.  Melodie and Eve
wanted to see me in my clown costume.  Here it is.  I'm second
from left (as though you couldn't tell!) Hate I can't find a full-
length picture because my hot pink and purple cowboy boots
were magnificent both in Nashville and as a clown.

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you!

26 October 2014

Not John Cheever’s Fault But Mine

by Louis Willis

         I’ve been alternating between reading stories in the anthologies The Dead Witness and Murder & Other Acts of Literature in my ongoing attempt to discern the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. My post in August was from The Dead Witness.
         For this post, I read "Montraldo" by John Cheever (1912-1982) in Murder & Other Acts of Literature. I’ve read only one story by Cheever and that was in college. I don’t remember the story. What I remember is it didn’t invite me to read more of his stories. I decided, in choosing “Montraldo,” to give him another chance to impress me.
         The nameless narrator opens the story with the statement, “The first time I robbed Tiffany's, it was raining.” He goes on to describe how he did it. After his explanation, I was expecting him to rob the store again and maybe dodge the cops or pull some other jobs. I was disappointed.
         He uses the money from fencing the jewelry to travel to Montraldo in Italy. Instead of staying in one of the two luxurious hotels, he rents a room in a villa that is in poor condition– no running water and no toilet– because he likes the view and is curious "about the eccentric old spinster and her cranky servant." The two argue constantly.
         The servant, Assunta, insults the old woman (not named), calling her “Witch! Frog! Pig!” The old woman replies calling the servant, “the light of my life.” As the old woman lay dying after a fall, at her request, the narrator gets the priest.  
         About a third of the way through the story, I began to suspect what the surprise ending would be. When it came, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I thought, “John, my man, I’m impressed.” Cheever didn’t help with my attempt to discern the difference between genre and literary fiction. Only one crime, the robber, is committed and, although the old woman dies, whether it was murder or an accident is ambiguous. Maybe one difference between literary and genre fiction is a tendency toward ambiguity in literary stories, while genre stories tend to be straight-forward.
         I can't judge Cheever based on only two stories, one of which I don't remember. “Montradla,” however, is one of those stories that I feel I would not have missed anything if I had not read it. Although I enjoyed “Montradla,” it didn’t invite me to read more of Cheever. That he is not one of my favorite authors is my fault not his. But I like what he said about "car thieves and muggers."