25 August 2016

The Coming Party Crack-Up

by Brian Thornton

(Disclaimer– this is a political post. Not one advocating any one candidate, or point of view. It's more a prediction–based a look into America's past–of what may happen in the not too distant future.)

It's a wacky campaign season, full of surprises. The candidacy of Donald Trump has set one of our political parties in danger of cracking up. And it's not the one you think.

Yep. I'm talking about the Democrats.

How can I say that? After all, the Republican party is reeling, whereas the Democrats, the Liberal wing recently revived from a long slumber by the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, seem relatively united.

I didn't say that I thought the Republicans would escape the current crisis unscathed. Merely that they wouldn't split.

Then again, it's tough for a rump party aging itself out of relevance to split, since it's already shrinking.

Why do I think this?

Because it's happened before.

Twice.

And while the tale of the demise of the Whig Party, shattered on the shoals of the issue of slavery in the 1850s is the story you're likely more familiar with, I think the parallels between the crisis of the 1850s and our current chaotic campaign season are less exact than the crack-up that preceded it by three decades: just under two hundred years ago.


I'm speaking, of course, about the split of the Democratic Republicans into two factions: The National Republicans (later "Whigs") and the Democratic Party (yes, the one we know today).

Here's the background:

Alexander Hamilton
At the beginning of the 19th century America's first two embryonic political parties coalesced around
the national figures of Thomas Jefferson (the "Republicans") and Alexander Hamilton (the "Federalists"). Jefferson's Republicans favored strong states and limited national government. Hamilton's Federalists favored a national government strong enough to regulate trade (including by levying protective tariffs intended to protect America's budding industrial sector against chapter foreign competition), make internal improvements and other business-friendly notions.

Hamilton soon died, killed in his famous duel with Jefferson's vice-president, Aaron Burr, but his followers continued on, becoming even less of a national presence with each passing election, reduced to carrying only New England, and frozen out of the presidency by the electoral popularity of Jefferson, and then his hand-picked successor James Madison.

Even Madison's involving the nation in the disastrous War of 1812 did nothing to slow down the Jeffersonian electoral machine. It did, however, seal the fate of the "loyal opposition": the Federalist Party.
James Madison

The Federalists opposed war with Great Britain largely because of the harm it would do to trade with the British (they conducted far more trade with America at the time than any other nation, including Napoleonic France). And the war was catastrophic for a New England economy that relied as heavily on trans-oceanic trade at the time as Seattle did Boeing in the 1970s.

So the Federalists did a very foolish thing. They gathered together at Hartford, Connecticut in late
1814 and had a convention, in which they adopted a position exploring seeking a "separate peace"with the British. The "convention" never took any action after the adoption of this resolution, because by January of 1815 news of the signing of a peace treaty (in Ghent in December of 1814) rendered their position moot.

But when word got out of Federalist intentions, they were tarred as traitors and any pretensions of being a national party were snuffed out.

A Federalist Broadside Opposing France
Which left the Jeffersonian Republicans, or the National Republicans, or the Democratic Republicans, as they were alternately known, as the only political party in the country capable of carrying congressional majorities, and, of course, of electing a president.

When Madison's second term of office ended in 1816, his chosen successor James Monroe, ran for office virtually unopposed. And he ran for reelection in 1820 literally unopposed. The "Republicans" had triumphed.

The problem, of course, is that single-party rule in a republic is a dicey thing. It is human nature to abhor a lack of liberty and to crave alternatives to even the most sensible of choices. A two party system, for all of its flaws, suits this impulse among the electorate far better than even the most efficient single ruling party.

And the Republicans of Monroe's era were hardly that.

In addition the first true economic depression in the nation's history (the "Panic of 1819") and
James Monroe
differences of opinion on matters such as the admission of new states into the union (which was really a shadow argument for and against the expansion of slavery) and other sectional concerns raised their troublesome heads, and the Republicans found themselves riven by dissension. Not surprisingly they broke up into two groups: one more liberal "Democrats" (at least where white males were concerned) and the other more conservative, backed by the bankers and the monied/middle classes: calling themselves "National Republicans," they were soon better known as "Whigs."

Henry Clay of Kentucky: the Great Soul of the Whig Party
The resulting split during the electoral year of 1824 into two opposing factions provides a cautionary tale for our own time. After all, the Republican Party in its current incarnation has experienced an astonishing number of defections by people who are saying in so doing, "I haven't left the Republican Party. The Republican Party has left me."

And while the party's agonies might stoke a certain amount of schadenfreude among Democrats, I don't know anyone who is actively rooting for the demise of the Republican Party. And I say, "Good." And furthermore I fervently hope for the rebound of the Republican Party, the party of Reagan, as a principled repository for conservative political thought and action.

Because if the Republicans don't bounce back, it's highly likely that we will witness a split of the Democratic Party, with the "conservative" (moderate) wing of the party coalescing around so-called "Wall Street Democrats" and the "liberal" wing around the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

After all, "ex" Republicans have to go somewhere. If history is an indicator, they're likely to gravitate to the existing opposition party and help by sheer numbers make its "moderate" wing more conservative.

Only time will tell. Either way it promises to continue to be an interesting election (in a Chinese curse kind of way).

24 August 2016

Back in the USSR

David Edgerley Gates


In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.

This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.

Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.

The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.

I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.

For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.

The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.

It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.


23 August 2016

Dare to Be Bad: Human Remains


Once upon a time, two writers challenged each other to write a story a week. It didn’t have to be good. In fact, their motto was “Dare to Be Bad.” But it had to be done at the end of the week.
If a writer failed to write a story, s/he had to buy the other a steak dinner. Because they were poor, this was great incentive.

They wrote a story a week. They mailed the stories to editors instead of obsessively rewriting. They got better and better. You may recognize their names today as Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Dean Wesley Smith. I met them when I was a winner in Writers of the Future in 2000 and found both of them inspiring.

Karen Abrahamson,
Jay Lake,
Dean Wesley Smith,
Leslie Claire Walker
After going to Writers Police Academy this month, I realized that part of the reason that I was locked up on the fifth Hope Sze book, Human Remains, was that I wanted it to be amazeballs.

Now I still want it to delight, entertain, shock, and thrill, but I also want it to be done. And I want to loosen up about making it perfect.

William Stanford, Ph.D.
I also got a jump start in June when I visited the stem cell lab of William Stanford, in Ottawa. He kindly gave me a tour and okayed the science in the following excerpt, which may or may not make the final cut of the book, but will probably teach you about CRISPR and other awesome innovations.

Rough draft excerpt of Human Remains, by Melissa Yi

“Do you know what CRISPR is?” said Tom, the head of the stem cell lab. He pronounced it crisper, which made me think about my parents’ overstuffed refrigerator and/or the best potato chips.
“I do.” I swallowed and tried not to look obvious about it. Medicine teaches you not to show fear. Tom’s eyes were kind and steady on mine, but I’ve seen preceptors act super understanding to your face and then sabotage you with a substandard evaluation. “At least I understand the concept of cutting genetic code with ‘scissors’ made of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
That’s another evaluation trick. If you can spout jargon immediately and correctly, they’re more likely to nod and leave you alone. I wasn’t getting the vibe that Tom was hostile—quite the opposite, actually—but I needed a good evaluation on this rotation, or Ottawa wouldn’t accept me and McGill might fail me, both of which would torpedo my career.
Tom rubbed his chin and gazed out his window. Of course, it was a sign of status that he had a corner office with a window, but I got the feeling that he would’ve hung out in a sun-free basement for decades as long as it meant he could research stem cells. I relaxed a smidgen. He said, “Do you know the back story? I wouldn’t expect you to, but it’s fascinating.”
I nodded and smiled. Yes, please. Tell me the story. If you get them talking while you ask intelligent questions, they recall you fondly on your evals, and there’s less of a chance you get tripped up on weird questions about DNA sequences.
He said, “Yoshizumi Ishino first noticed these repeating DNA sequences in E. Coli in 1987. They were separated by short unique clusters of DNA, which was strange, because repeated DNA usually appears consecutively.”
My mind was already ping-ponging around. E. Coli causes a lot of urinary tract infections and is therefore considered my personal enemy. But I tried to contribute to the conversation. “Yes, I listened to a podcast on it. They compared it to sounds. So the repeat DNA sequences sounds like”—oh, God, now I was going to have to do it. I honked. Tom stared at me while I honked like a duck, five times, my cheeks burning. “And the sequences in between are all different. Like…” I honked, made an eee! sound, honked, oohed, honked, clicked, honked, oinked, honked, and meowed.
Tom stared at me. “I have never heard it explained it that way before. Which podcast was this?”
“Radiolab.” My friend Tori had sent me the link. Thank you, Tori. “They had better sounds, of course.”
“No, I like yours. I’m going to use that in my next lecture. That should wake ’em up.”
“I’ll send you the link.” I don’t know if I’ve ever been more embarrassed in a professional lab. But I could also tell I’d won him over within the first hour of arrival, which boded much better for me getting a stellar reference letter. I resisted the urge to cross my fingers.
“Did they also explain what CRISPR does?”
“They said CRISPR was like a mug shot of the bacteria’s enemy viruses. Like, when a virus attacks, the bacteria send out the ground troops of their immune system, but most of the troops die”—just like marines. Just like Tucker and I almost did—“and so do the bacteria. But if the bacteria survive, their enzymes cut the viral DNA up and then store short sequences—the CRISPR—interspersed with their own DNA. That way, they can carry around mug shots, or most-wanted ID’s, of the viruses that almost killed them. So if they ever run into the same viruses again, they can ID them right away from the CRISPR and send out targeted forces to vanquish them, in the form of enzymes that will slice up the viral DNA.” Faster than cutting off a zombie’s head during the upcoming apocalypse, I wanted to add, but didn’t. He already thought I was weird enough. 
There were a lot of problems with my explanation. It was super basic. I wasn’t talking about B-cells or T-cells because Radiolab hadn’t. I couldn’t even talk intelligently about RNA. I was sketching the surface. If he asked me to dig deeper, I was pretty much toast. At least I got to sneak in the word “vanquish.”
“That’s pretty good,” said Tom, drawing his eyebrows together and pursing his lips. I couldn’t tell which way he was going, i.e. if he liked my explanation because it was understandable, or if it pained him because it was too low brow. “Did they talk about Cas?”
“Not so much, but I know they’re the enzymes that do the actual cutting.” On of the online science articles, a commentator had lamented that Cas9 and other enzymes do all the work, but CRISPR gets all the credit. Another commenter said that CRISPR had the sexier name. They were a team, though. CRISPR identifies the bad guys, and then Cas9 or another enzyme will step up and do the slice and dice. Like a sheriff and an executioner, although I don’t know the legal or immune system well enough to give a proper analogy.
“And do you know how CRISPR and Cas are revolutionizing research?”
My turn not to grimace. He was a tougher customer than I thought. “I know that this technique is faster, cheaper, and more precise way to cut a gene sequence than we’ve ever had before. I know that once you cut out the sequence you don’t want, all you have to do is plant another sequence you do want, and the bacteria will help mend it by replacing the bad sequence, so the media is already fantasizing about designer babies. I know that zinc finger nuclease and transcription activator-like effector nucleases can handle longer DNA sequences, but they’re slower and less likely to work.”
“And knockout mice?”
I was starting to sweat. I’ve never worked with mice. It’s a miracle I ever got into medical school. Luckily, Tori had told me a little about her research with mice whose genes that have been disabled, or knocked out. “You used to have to inject altered DNA from embryonic stem cells and hope that they’d get incorporated through homologous recombination.” He didn’t blink. Using jargon didn’t impress him. I guess, for him, it was about as jaw-dropping as an ingrown toenail was to me. Damn
it. “The mice that successfully incorporated the altered DNA were called chimeras. Then you’d hope that the chimeras would breed and make more mutant DNA, so by the third generation, maybe you’d get a mouse with both copies of the mutant allele. But with CRISPR/Cas9, the system edits the gene right away, and the first generation has the mutation.”
Tom smiled. “Why stop with one mutant gene? We could do five at the same time. CRISPR is also the best cross-species technique so far. We used to confine ourselves to mice, rats, fruit flies, zebra fish, and C. elegans, but right now, I’m waiting to see if there’s a species that CRISPR doesn’t work in.”
I hesitated, checking his eyes to see if my explanation was good enough. I held my breath, praying that he wouldn’t ask what C. elegans was. Dear Supreme Being, should you happen to exist and care to hear my pleas, if Tom doesn’t ask me about C. elegans, I promise I’ll look it up later.
He high fived me. “Good enough! You’re the first person who ever honked at me to explain CRISPR.”
I sighed, a mix of relief and despair, while he reached for the doorknob of the pale wooden door behind his desk. It opened directly into his lab. He said, “That’s great. You’re going to fit in here just fine.”
He waited for me to enter, so I did, and he said to my back, “You’ll have to tell me about the dead body another time, though.”

There you have it. I am officially daring to be bad. I'm posting the opening chapter of Human Remains on my website as well.

How about you? Dare to be bad?

22 August 2016

Good Reading

by Jan Grape

I'm like most writers– I read a lot. Sometimes it comes in spurts as time and energy prevail. I don't often write book reviews because most places want you to say at least one negative thing. I have a hard time doing that. First, if I don't care for the book, then I'm not going to write a review of it, Second, I know how hard a writer works to write the book and just because there might be something I don't like, that doesn't mean that someone else won't love it. With that said, I must mention two books to all of you. The first is Fool Me Once and the second is Home. Yes, both are by Harlan Coben. Both are quite different but, both are excellent books. I have to say I can see why Harlan is an international best seller.

Fool Me Once came out in March this year. It's a suspense thriller designed to keep you up all night and reading all the next day if you can't finish it in one sitting. The main character is a woman special-ops pilot named Maya. The woman is cool, collected under fire, intelligent but flawed like all good characters are. The story opens with Maya trying to get through her husband Joe's funeral. She buried Joe three days after his murder. Maya is barely holding herself together. Her two year old daughter, Lily, is too young to understand, but at the last moment Maya worries about what Joe's family might say and decides her to bring the child:

     Hi everyone, my husband was recently murdered. Do I bring my two year old daughter to the graveyard or leave her at home? Oh, and clothing suggestions? Thanks.

After the funeral and receiving line and all the sympathy and thank yous for coming and Joe's family finally leaving, Maya stands at the graveside staring at the hole, wondering what she should say to her husband. Her friend, Eileen, who has been entertaining Lily, persuades Maya back into her car and heads home. Once there, Eileen says, "I've been meaning to give you something."

It's a nanny cam that looks like a digital frame. "The maid Isabella has been with Joe's family for years. Why do you think I need a nanny cam?" "Because when it comes to your daughter, you don't trust any one." Maya has to admit that was true.

Maya has to come to terms with her husband's murder, with deep secrets in Joe's past and in her own past before she can come to terms with herself.




Home by Harlan Coben is due out September 20th. This book features Myron Bolitar, the sports agent investigator series character that started Coben on his way.

Two young boys were kidnapped from wealthy families who were friends. In fact, the boys, age six were playing together at the home of one of the boys. A ransom was demanded then nothing more was heard. No more calls with instructions to leave the ransom money. No photos or videos. Nothing, no trace, no bodies, just nothing.

Ten years pass and Myron hears from his old friend Win that one of the boys has surfaced in England. Win's nephew had been one of the boys taken. Is this Win's sister's sixteen year old son or is the son of the other family?

Where has the boy been for ten years? What does he know about the other boy? What memories does this teenager have of the ordeal and what will his life be from now on? What about the two sets of parents? How will each cope as they discover whose boy is this?

Once again, Harlan delivers on a story that keeps you turning pages and wondering about the true meaning of home.

I read the first Myron Bolitar book years ago.  It's awesome to see a writer continue to stretch his talents, grow and become famous. I know you will enjoy both books, so don't hesitate to put both on your wish list.  Both are from Dutton and are or will be available from your favorite mystery bookstore. Or any bookstore for that matter.

21 August 2016

The Murder of a Magazine

by Leigh Lundin

Shocker: Kim’s tush attends Malibu College
while the rest of her hits the beach
Sources claim the butt of celeb jokes was seen…

Caitlyn’s not mother of her own child!!
Astrobiologists, bewildered by DNA results…

First Spouse debate replaces VP event
Melania and Bill broadcast live
Nation glued to heated husband & wife debate…
Kanye, Kim, KloƩ klaim KKK konnection!
Initial indications, according to cunning linguists…

DNA proves maternity of Hilton hotel heiress!
(not who you think!)
Parisian plastic surgeon Dr. Myanne Dowment says…

Billionaire found in bed with Hulk Hogan
(not who you think!)
Infamous billionaire moves to crush media…

One of these headlines is true… Well, maybe two, and as much as we’d love to see the potential first spouses debate, it’s the final item I draw your attention to. Before Peter Thiel and Terrance Gene Bollea sue me, this is an opinion piece and the ‘in bed’ part is, to my uncertain knowledge, figurative.

The mystique of celebrities eludes me, but other people love ’em. In the spirit of full disclosure, an acquaintance is still furious with me after I said one of the celebs above was a waste of protoplasm. But I use the headlines to make a crucial point.

A multi-billionaire is using his bundles of money not just to influence the media, but to destroy a major news outlet he disagrees with.

No, I’m not talking about a certain presidential candidate, but a thin-skinned, foreign-born entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

Nick Denton
Nick Denton, muck-raker

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel, muck-maker
Internet news magazine Gawker, founded by entrepreneur Nick Denton, is a cross between People Magazine and the delightfully unsavory National Enquirer that we love to hate. Gawker published an article about Thiel that read, “Peter Thiel, the smartest VC in the world, is gay. More power to him.”

To my eye, it was complimentary, but not his. Even though the statement was factual and Thiel had already come out, he was offended.

Most of us would have issued a take-down notice or written a letter to the editor, “Dear Sir…” But not the 1% of the 1%. This billionaire wields his money like a weapon. He set out to destroy Gawker Media in no uncertain terms. He didn’t merely target the Gawker web site, but the entire parent company, which included gossip mag Gawker.com, tech site Gizmodo, gaming blog Kotaku, car enthusiasts’ Jalopnik, sports fans’ Deadspin, Lifehacker, the feminist blog Jezebel, and the former Valleywag, which dished the dirt on the dark side of Silicon Valley.

A federal agent once told me that litigation isn’t resolved by who’s right and who’s wrong but by who has the most money, the deepest pockets. That’s what Thiel chose to do, hammer Gawker by secretly funding third party lawsuits against them to the tune of millions of dollars. In doing so, Thiel proved more reprehensible than any stretch of Gawker.

While I might agree that one’s sexuality should be one’s personal business, I vehemently oppose censorship. Thiel has pretended that he supports freedom of the press in other ways, but he reserves the right of billionaires to control media outlets. Apparently the German-born billionaire doesn’t appreciate the importance of our First Amendment rights… especially if he can buy them out from under us.

How he chose to go about it beggars belief.

Among the litigants Thiel clandestinely funded was Terry Gene Bollea, a.k.a pseudo-wrestler Hulk Hogan. While married, Hogan supposedly engaged in affairs with his daughter’s friend and with the wife of his best friend. Unsurprisingly, a sex tape was recorded and forwarded to Gawker, which aired parts of it on-line. Who forwarded the video I leave to your imagination. In any case, Hogan– privately funded by Thiel– sued.

It’s less accurate to say Thiel and Hogan won $140-million, than to realize that Freedom of the Press lost. Thiel deliberately chose to exercise litigation with chilling effect on the American press. Nick Denton left Britain thinking he'd enjoy greater journalistic freedom where the rich and famous couldn't so easily hide their deeds. Ordinary citizens in the US have more rights to privacy than public figures. Thiel turned that concept on its head.

Univision has bought parts of Gawker and this week, the rest shuts down. While no one can compare the gossip rag to the grand newspapers that have shuttered their doors, it will be a loss, if not to the community, to the concept of freedom to publish.

20 August 2016

Outliners Take Note--Don't Call Me a Pantser!


by Elizabeth Zelvin



NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as a guest blogger. Liz is, she says, a semi-dormant SleuthSayer ("Like writers in general, we never retire"), and she's the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series: five novels and five stories published, plus two additional stories accepted for publication. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award. Other publications include two historical novels, two books of poetry, an album of original songs, and a book on gender and addictions. Liz lives in New York City and can be found online at http://elizabethzelvin.com, on Facebook at http://elizabethzelvin.com and on Amazon. Good to have you here, Liz!--John Floyd


Having completed the first draft of a new short story and feeling mighty good about it, I got to thinking about my personal creative process, with which I've become fairly well acquainted over the years. I call myself an into-the-mist writer, because when I sit down to tell a story--we're talking fiction here, whether long or short--I can see only a little way ahead of me. I have to peer into the dimness to see my way, and what comes beyond the limited compass of my headlights is a mystery. In fact, it's an act of faith to trust that there's something there, and believe me, I have many moments of doubt.

The image that comes to me when I say the words "into the mist" is a drive I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy summer morning. My husband was with me, but he is a New Yorker born and bred who came to cars late in life, and at the time, I was still the family's only driver. There was supposed to be a scenic view of mountains off to the side, but we literally saw only the gray wedge in our low beams, which revealed swirls of mist, a hint of the winding road, and once a doe escorting a couple of fawns.

That's what writing the first draft of a story or a novel is like for me. I can see a glimpse of where I need to go next. I have a few ideas--like notes in a guide book--of features that may show up along the way ahead. But I'm never sure that I'll get where I'm supposed to be until I get there. When I do, there's no mistaking it. It's my destination, all right. I heave a big sigh of relief--and buckle down to the much easier business of killing my darlings and cleaning up the mess.

I've tried to write the other way: planning in advance, laying it all out neatly. It doesn't work. My creative process starts with my characters talking in my head. (Well, my husband says it starts with "I can't"--but after that.) Anyhow, I can't plan the jabber of those unruly characters. I'm not in the driver's seat. Bruce's wisecracks and Barbara's enthusiasm are a gift from the muse or whatever you want to call it. It happens, and it's the best feeling in the world. All I can do is make a beeline for my laptop or my Post-its or the voice recorder on my iPhone, whatever's handy, and start writing down what they say.

Once my characters start talking to each other, their conversation shapes the course of the narrative, even if I know in a general way where the story is going to end up. My series characters all have strong personalities, and it doesn't take much for them to start talking and acting exactly like themselves. The secondary characters in a particular story spring up as needed. They become my suspects and witnesses and law enforcement folks with their own personalities and ways of reacting to the situations I put them in and the characters they meet. They only come to life because I don't try to stuff them into some preset mold.

One of my favorite true stories from my historical novel about Columbus's voyage in 1493 is how one of the Spanish priests who accompanied the expedition went around Hispaniola collecting what he called folktales from the Taino, the indigenous people. When he got back to Spain, he published a collection of these tales. Like most authors, he was very proud of his book. These simple people have such charming folktales, he said. What a pity that they have no religion! The point, of course, is that the Taino were telling him about their religion all along.

That's kind of the way I feel when writers whose creative process involves outlining call writers like me "pantsers," a term that I consider demeaning. Who are they to dismiss my creative process as "flying by the seat of my pants"? It's my process, and believe me, there are no pants involved--no recklessness or lack of thought, merely an equally valid and effective way of summoning creativity, however different from theirs. So don't call me a pantser!




19 August 2016

Anthony & Macavity Finalists Talk Favorite First Novels

By Art Taylor

This week marked the final balloting for this year’s Macavity Awards; the final balloting is just ahead for the Anthony Awards; and in less than a month, the winners of all these will be announced in New Orleans at Bouchercon.

I’m pleased to have some of my own work in contention here: On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for both the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, which I edited, is a finalist for the Anthony for Best Anthology or Collection. And I’m thrilled for the other SleuthSayers who are also honored as finalists this year: Barb Goffman for “A Year Without Santa Claus” and B.K. Stevens for “A Joy Forever,” both contenders for the Macavity for Best Short Story, and B.K. Stevens again for her novel Fighting Chance, an Anthony finalist for Best Young Adult Novel.

What’s maybe most exciting about all of this, however, isn’t the chance to toot our own horns but to connect with and celebrate the other writers in whose distinguished company we’ve found ourselves. I appreciated the opportunity to interview the other finalists for the Anthony for Best Anthology/Collection right here at SleuthSayers back in May, and earlier this year, when On the Road was up for this year’s Agatha Award, I asked my fellow finalists what first novels they themselves would name as favorites and why; you can find that latter round-up of titles at the Washington Independent Review of Books here, and I’d encourage you to look up the Agatha authors’ own books as well, a fine bunch!

That column offered a pair of fun opportunities—both to get glimpses into those authors’ tastes and influences and to add some titles to my own TBR list—so I wanted to repeat the same question with this year’s Anthony and Macavity finalists for Best First too: "What is your own favorite first novel (mystery preferred, but could be any genre), and how has that author’s work influenced or inspired your own writing?"

And our panelists are:



Anthony Award Finalists, Best First Novel
Macavity Award Finalists, Best First Novel

Here are the responses I got—a varied bunch and terrifically interesting, as I hope you’ll agree!

Patricia Abbott, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Concrete Angel
Patti Abbott
One of my favorite police procedural series was created in 1965 by Swedish couple, Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo. Police detective Martin Beck was a typical cop in Sweden and readers got a fine portrait of Scandinavian socialism for good and bad. In Roseanna, his first outing, Beck investigates the murder of an American tourist found in the Gota canal. The duo would go on to write nine more books. What made the books special for me was the way the authors addressed societal problems of their day. Their influence on later writers, like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, is immediately apparent. To be able to write compelling crime stories with great characters, and also critique contemporary society is a terrific achievement. And the elements were all there from the start. Roseanna is my choice for my favorite first novel. In Concrete Angel, I tried to examine the way women with mental health issues were treated in the 1960s. And Shot in Detroit looks at the issues Detroit experienced in 2008 and after. Certainly the work of Sjowal and Wahloo was a huge inspiration.

Glen Erik Hamilton, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Past Crimes 
Glen Erik Hamilton
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950). Arguably one of the most influential mystery novels ever written, Highsmith's tale of two men who trade murders—one reluctantly, one eagerly—is still a gripping page-turner. Guy (note the Everyman name) is a vacillating architect unhappy with his wife and life. His new acquaintance Bruno is—well, Bruno is something else entirely. A charming sociopath, Bruno is the sharply-dressed rehearsal for Highsmith's greatest creation, the anti-hero Tom Ripley.

In between the delightful surprises of her plot, Highsmith managed to explore guilt, paranoia, homoeroticism, and above all the fascination many of us have with the darker side of human nature. The story follows Guy, seeing Bruno through his gaze. We realize that even with a close third-person view Guy is an unreliable host, largely because he doesn't know his own mind.

I write about criminals as well—some reluctant, some eager—and admit that the moral ambiguities in their world have an allure for me, at least from a distance. And while my protagonist Van Shaw is anything but indecisive, he too is figuring out his place in the world. Crook or hero? If Van is unreliable, it's mostly to his own higher instincts.

Rob Hart, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for New Yorked 
Rob Hart
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. I picked it up mostly on a whim, because it had been in the New York Magazine Approval Matrix. And it just knocked me on my ass. I saw a Broadway show with my wife that evening and took the book out during intermission just so I could read a few more pages. It's the kind of book that demands your attention. And as a writer, it forces you to up your game on so many levels—it's hysterical and smart and experiments with form (footnotes!) it's got an emotional core and the ending, well... I don't even want to come close to spoiling that. But I will say I had to put the book down for a moment. And I shuddered. That's a hell of a thing, to elicit such a visceral physical reaction in a reader. That's something I one day hope to achieve.

Chris Holm, Anthony Finalist for Best Novel and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
I really wrestled with this question because I’m fascinated by brilliant debut novels, and was unsure which of my favorites I should highlight. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? William Gibson’s Neuromancer? Katherine Neville’s The Eight? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? Ultimately, though, I settled upon Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Written in part while Tartt was a student at Bennington College, The Secret History is a marvel of structure and language, a poignant coming-of-age story, and a thrillingly effective whydunit. Those who turn their noses up at mysteries will insist The Secret History transcends genre; I humbly submit that it demonstrates the full range of what genre’s capable of. If I one day write a story with a tenth its grace, I’ll die a happy man.

David Joy, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Where All the Light Tends to Go
David Joy
There’ve been countless times I’ve gone back and read the debuts of writers I love and just been blown away by the amount of talent they possessed so early. I think of a writer like Ron Rash, who’s undoubtedly one of the finest at work today, and I know a lot of people who can make compelling arguments that his first novel, One Foot In Eden, is as strong a novel as he’s ever written. He was that good from the start. I think what takes me most by books like that is how clear and powerful the voice comes through. You read writers like Ron or Daniel Woodrell or Donald Ray Pollock or George Singleton, and you know who you’re reading. Think of writers like McCarthy and Larry Brown and William Gay and Barry Hannah, you knew from the first sentence. Their voices were just that strong. So I’m going to give you someone I think needs more attention and that’s Alex Taylor. He has that kind of voice. His debut, The Marble Orchard, was as rich a debut as I’ve ever read. It’s sure-footed and wholly original. As far as the effect that kind of writing has on me, it’s humbling. It lets me know I’ve got a long ways to go.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Unquiet Dead
Ausma Zehanat Khan
I first became enchanted by mysteries when I discovered the work of the great Ngaio Marsh, whose debut novel A Man Lay Dead introduced her darkly handsome, archetypal detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn's charisma drew me in further through the course of 32 books, and to this day, he remains my favorite detective of fiction. He was clever, sophisticated and kind—with an old-fashioned chivalry and masculine directness that made his suspects swoon. Esa Khattak owes him a debt.

In Alleyn's train came the charming young reporter, Nigel Bathgate, who acted as his sidekick through several other adventures, including the enthralling Enter a Murderer, the first of Marsh's books to feature a theatre setting. The theatre would become a defining element of Marsh's best work, as in her pair of her novels Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin. Both these novels introduced the fairy-tale theme of an unlikely talent's discovery and stardom. I was a theatre buff from a young age, so I was captivated by the world Marsh created, a world that discussed the writing and staging of plays in the midst of a gruesome murder. I learned more about Shakespeare through Death at the Dolphin, than I ever did during high school. And I credit these mysteries, as well as Marsh's Light Thickens, with teaching me to love Shakespeare's language and themes. But there were other lessons, too. Through Ngaio Marsh's wonderful artistry, I learned the sting of a well-turned phrase and the importance of a range of colorful suspects: Marsh's character descriptions are some of the best I've ever read.

Ngaio Marsh's writing taught me that mysteries didn't need to be paint-by-number constructions of murders, suspects and clues. They could encompass a wide range of interesting commentary, delve into history, politics or race relations, and deftly incorporate psychological depth. All with the most alluring arrangement of language and setting one could imagine. Ngaio Marsh's England and New Zealand were two places I dreamed of as home, all through my teenage years. From A Man Lay Dead all the way through to Light Thickens, Marsh's strengths as a writer continued to flourish and develop—she left her fans wanting more.

Brian Panowich, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for Bull Mountain
Brian Panowich
Like most writing assignments I receive, I have the hardest time doing specifically what is asked of me. The question posed was what is my favorite first novel and what kind of influence has it had over my own writing, and if I stayed on topic, that would be pretty easy to answer. John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing made me want to try my hand at writing a novel. Forth Of July Creek by Henderson Smith was so good it made me think I’d never try my hand at writing a novel. Soil by Jamie Kornegay was the best first novel I’ve ever read, but if the question was what first novel was the most significant to my own career, it would be The Second Son by Charles Sailor.

You see, when I was seventeen, I was a class a fuck-up, and that summer, a buddy and me thought we’d try to steal a gas station air-machine to get at the wealth of quarters inside. So undercover of streetlight, we pulled a beat-to-hell Pontiac Grand Prix into the parking lot of a Gas-N-Go and wrapped a chain around the steel post cementing he yellow air compressor to the ground and punched the gas. We lost the bumper and hit the curb, and the only thing we accomplished was getting both of our asses locked up in County. I was there for three weeks. Felony theft by taking, and a vandalism charge just for shits and giggles.

During those three weeks in lock-up, I had a little forced time on my hands to evaluate my current life trajectory. My cell’s tiny slit of a window faced the fairgrounds and every night I would stare out at the Ferris wheel of the fall fair, and wonder what I was going to do next. During my second week, after the Ferris wheel came down and there was nothing to stare at out the window, I grabbed a book of the book-cart that came around once a day around noon. I grabbed The Second Son, with zero intention of reading it, but after a day of going stir-crazy, I peeled open the cover and read a fantastic story of a man who fell from a skyscraper and survived to go on and become one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read to this day. I read the book twice during my tenure at 401 Walton Way.

When I finally got home, and after promising my father the money spent on bail and fines wasn’t in vain, I searched for that book in my library, and every book store I could find, until I found a paperback edition at a Goodwill on a fluke. I’m a novelist now, and I believe that book was where it all began. Sometimes when I’m in the throes of an author’s crushing case of self-doubt, I pull that book off the shelf and remember the power it held over me, and how a book can change a life. I hope someone finds one of mine someday and puts it to that kind of use. It’s the reason I do it. I think it’s the reason we all do.

Art Taylor, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for On the Road with Del & Louise
Art Taylor (hey, that's me!)
As I said back in the WIROB column, I had three novels that popped to mind. Like Chris Holm, I’m enthralled by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and two other debut novels have also stood out to me for their equally confident prose and intricate, engaging plots: Tana French’s In the Woods and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air (the last one is lesser known, of course, and not a mystery, but I’m such a fan that if I ever see a copy in a used bookstore, I pick it up just to pass it along to some deserving reader).

I taught In the Woods this past semester at George Mason University, but it’s not just the freshness of my rereading that has me putting it at the top here. I was stunned by the book when I first read it (I reviewed it for the Washington Post here)—just blown away by the beautiful writing, the complex and frequently heartbreaking characters, and the many layers of a plot that offered new depths and startling surprises at regular turns. Rereading it simply reinforced that admiration and reminded me of the level of writing I’d love to aspire toward myself—even if there’s likely little connection between her work and my own in On the Road with D&L, perhaps more of an influence evident in some of my short fiction (and really a stronger connection structurally between my book and Cynthia Shearer’s, since hers is also a novel in stories). Either way, still a long way to go on developing my own craft, but that’s how reading can enrich writing, right? Raising the bar? Not just influencing but encouraging our own prose? At least that’s what I tell myself.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Bouchercon—and happy reading in the meantime!

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As a final note here, I’m encouraging folks to sign up for my new newsletter, which I hope to debut later this month—along with giveaways of three volumes from the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series: The Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and the newest addition, Storm Warning. Sign up here and you’ll automatically be entered in the drawing!