29 April 2017

Over-Byters Anonymous

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the first in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
Here's my salute to the wonderful families who put up with us crime-writers! 
I write mystery and suspense fiction.  Lately it's been taking over my life.

I blame this on my new laptop.  Sleek and slim, it accompanies me everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the loo.

Unfortunately, it has become too convenient.  I have become a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time.  Take last week, for instance:

"Quick - the laptop! I have an idea and I don't want to lose it."

"Oh no, Mom!  Not the laptop!  Don't do it...don't turn it on...don't"
(Insert theme song from Twilight Zone here.)

Alas, poor Natalie.  She knows what is to come.  Like Jeff Goldblum in that remake of The Fly, I merge with my mini-computer.  We become one.  Conscious only of our own existence.  Oblivious to the sounds of life around us.  Consumed by the story that has to come out of us.

Somewhere, a voice cuts through the fog.

"Mom, I'm hungry."

Normally a staunch advocate of the five food groups, I forget all about artificial flavour, colour dye number 412 and hydrogenated everything.  Lost in the netherworld of word-processing, I utter the dead giveaway:

"There's some Twinkies in the cupboard."

Natalie shakes her head in despair.  "She's gone."

Tap tap tap.  Fingers on the keyboard have a rhythm all their own.  Mesmerizing.  Hours shrink to minutes.  Like a jigsaw puzzle half done, the shreds of my story are piecing themselves together.  If I can only...

"Dad's home, Mom."

"Just a sec."

"It's dinner time, Mom."

"I think there's some Oreo's in the cupboard."

Back to the keyboard.  The laptop is humming our tune.  Words glide across the screen in a seductive dance.  I'm caught in the feverish whirlpool of setting, viewpoint, characterization and climax.

An electric can-opener disturbs my train of thought.

"Earth to Mom.  Want some tuna?"

"Just a sec."

"Honey, are you all right?"

My husband's voice.  What is he doing home so early?

"We're eating now," he says.

"Have a Pop Tart," I blurt.

Natalie shakes her head.  "Give up, Dad."

I'm back to the screen, running with my story character...heart pounding, mind agonizing.  Will he get to the scene before the murderer?  Will he be in time to prevent it?

Somewhere in the house, water is running - pounding on porcelain like thunder.  Hey, that's it!  Add a blinding thunder storm, the hero running through sheets of rain, slipping on wet pavement, unable to read the house numbers....

I PG UP and start revising.

"Night, Mom."

"Night, Mommy"

"Murrmph?"  I don't look up.

Finished.  I save copy and turn off my partner in crime, the laptop.  Draft one, complete.  What a team.  Sitting for hours in one position, I am oddly invigorated.  Ready to run the Boston Marathon, and looking for company.

It's dark outside.  The house is quiet.  I thump upstairs, looking for everyone.

Even my husband is in bed.  I sit on the edge of the mattress, bewildered.

"Why is everyone in bed so early?"

My husband pokes his head up.  "It's 3 a.m."

"It is?"  Astonishing.  Once again, I have been a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time: entire hours mysteriously devoured by the simple on-switch of a computer.  I contemplate starting a self-help group for chronic users:  Over-Byters Anonymous.  But I don't think I could deal with the separation anxiety.

"Wanna read my story?" I ask eagerly.

There are limits to the devotion of even the most supportive family.

It's 3 a.m.  He declines.

Added note:
Today is Authors for Indies day in Canada.  By Indies, we mean independent bookstores.  All across the True North, authors are appearing at independent bookstores to do signings, and show their appreciation.  I will be at Different Drummer bookstore in Burlington, Ontario, this afternoon.  Many thanks to all our independent bookstore owners!

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  Her books and short stories have won 10 awards, even though they are probably certifiable, poor things.  Read at your own risk. www.melodiecampbell.com

28 April 2017

Contributors' Notes: Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Historical

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic mystery convention ranks among my favorite events of the year (major holidays included!), and it’s always a pleasure to see how warmly the Malice community welcomes and celebrates crime writers and readers both old and new. As other people have often said, Malice is like family, and as the convention opens today in Bethesda, Maryland, it's certainly going to feel for many of us like a family reunion.

I’ve been honored and humbled by the generosity and goodwill the Malice community has offered to me and my work over the years, and last summer, it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to give back. For several months I served with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson as part of the selection committee for the anthology Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical, reading and scoring more than 100 stories, all blind submissions. The final slate of authors, including a few invited guests of honor, featured John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O’Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

Tonight’s 9 p.m. welcome reception at Malice includes the anthology’s launch and signing. As a preview of that event and the anthology in general, I reached out to a handful of contributors and asked them to introduce their selected stories—with particular attention to each story’s time (given the historical theme) and perhaps to the inspirations behind the story, the genesis of the tale.

Hope you enjoy some of these glimpses, and hope you’ll check out the full anthology as well—available here or at Malice itself, of course.

Susanna Calkins, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier”
“The Trial of Madame Pelletier”—my first and only published short story—features the trial of a presumed poisoner in a small town in 1840s France. My story was inspired by a true cause célèbre, a real “trial of the century” that I had stumbled upon years ago when conducting research as a doctoral student in history. At the time, I’d been struck by how the “Lady Poisoner,” so dubbed by the press, had been tried twice, once as a criminal in the assize court at Limousin, and again as a woman in the court of public opinion. While my story differs dramatically from the trial that inspired it, I did want to convey that same sense of a woman being tried on many levels. Moreover, ever since I read Agatha Christie's “Witness for the Prosecution,” I have wanted to try my hand at a courtroom drama.

Carla Coupe, “Eating Crow”
“Eating Crow” is set in a bucolic Devonshire village in late 19th century England—the type of place whose photo graces a calendar for May or June. My protagonists, teenager Beryl Mayhew and her crow sidekick, Hermes, came to life in “As the Crow Flies” when the Chesapeake Crimes anthology Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (available spring 2018) asked for stories that featured an animal. Now I love dogs and cats, but wanted to write about something a little more unusual. An octopus? Nah, too limiting. As I looked out my office window, I saw some crows. Perfect! They’re intelligent and curious. As I researched just how intelligent crows are—I didn’t want Hermes to do something crows aren’t capable of—I was amazed at their cognitive abilities and complex social structure. In this story, Hermes is more of a foil than a sleuth—but I’m sure he would have solved the case if he could read!

P.A. De Voe, “The Unseen Opponent” (De Voe is also an Agatha Award finalist in the Best Children/Young Adult category for her book, Trapped: A Mei-hua Adventure)
Why this setting? I’m fascinated with China’s long, documented history and culture, so I placed “The Unseen Opponent” in early 15th Century Ming China. By this time, middle-class Han-Chinese women were embracing the tradition of foot-binding, called lotus feet, as the norm. Foot-binding made it impossible for women to walk without pain. At the same time, non-Han Chinese did not practice foot-binding, giving their women more freedom of movement. In researching for the story, I also discovered the Chinese developed an inflated ball used to play kick-ball or cu-ju in the earlier Tang Dynasty. Furthermore, playing the game of kick-ball had been popular among Chinese women—before foot-binding became prevalent. Information about the first inflated ball dove-tailed so well with my interest in foot-binding, that I knew I had to use the kick-ball game as the stage for my story. 

Liz Milliron, “Home Front Homicide”
“Home Front Homicide” takes place in Buffalo, NY in 1942, the early years of WWII. People forget, but with Bethlehem Steel right there, Buffalo was a big part of the war production. Bell Aircraft had a plant in Wheatfield, not far outside the city limits. My protagonist, Betty Ahern, works for Bell. She is very loosely based on my grandmother, who was a Bell employee during the war while my grandfather was in North Africa. Women in manufacturing was a new idea and not everyone liked it. So what would happen if the female-friendly shift supervisor was killed at the plant? Betty is supporting a family since her dad is disabled and her older brother is in the Pacific; she needs to find out and keep her job. My grandmother never solved a murder, but I’d like to think she’d be tickled at being the inspiration for the story.

Valerie O. Patterson, “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden”
Appropriately enough, the idea for “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden” came to me while I was attending last year’s Malice Domestic.  I read the announcement that the 12th Malice Domestic Anthology would be historical mysteries set before 1950. Already I was intrigued because I love historical mysteries.  I also happened to see an ad in the Malice booklet for Left Coast Crime, announcing that its next convention would be held in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of my favorite places.  My thoughts turned to Hawaii just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into WWII, a period I lectured about in a civil liberties class, a period rife with undercurrents.  Then, a voice came to me with a first line—“This is what the boy remembers”—and the whole story frame became clear.  As writers, we sometimes get lucky when the small pieces of story coalesce and capture a moment and, in this case, murder.

Keenan Powell, “The Velvet Slippers”
One autumn morning in 1895, aging housekeeper Mildred Munz slips out of Lawrence Fairweather’s bed and tiptoes towards the kitchen to warm his arsenic-laced porridge. Having devoted her life to service in Fairweather’s North Adams, Massachusetts mansion, her devotion became more personal when his wife died. His lover by night and servant by day, she is tired of waiting for the inheritance he promised so long ago. Her plans go awry when Lawrence’s greedy nephew, Edmund, catches her sneaking from the master bedroom. Lawrence surmises his own inheritance is in jeopardy, and noting his uncle’s failing health, he calls in a doctor.
This story was inspired by Victorian mansions I saw in North Adams during a genealogy research trip a few years ago.

Shawn Reilly Simmons, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”
I've had a fascination with gangsters since I was young. I saw The Godfather for the first time when I was twelve, and that experience influenced how I saw movies from that point forward. I remember being the only girl in school (in the mid-1980s) who looked forward to White Heat and The Public Enemy coming on TCM. My story, "You Always Hurt the One You Love," takes place in the 1940s and is inspired by my love of the gangster genre. I originally wrote the story to read at my first Noir at the Bar event in Washington D.C. this past summer. Encouraged by the positive response it received, I reworked it a bit and submitted it to the anthology. I'm thrilled my first ever gangster story appears alongside stories by authors I've long admired, and that I've paid personal tribute to a genre of which I'm a long-time fan.   

Mark Thielman, “The Measured Chest”
As a former prosecutor, my favorite cases almost always could be found at the intersection of a compelling victim and forensic evidence—a story to make the jury want to do right coupled with the proof to make a conviction possible. When crafting fiction, I try to combine both elements: a historical narrative to grab the reader’s interest paired with an application of forensic science.
In “The Measured Chest,” the captain of a U.S. naval sloop during the War of 1812 directs the ship’s carpenter to explain the disappearance of the purser. Was he murdered by a crew member or did he fall prey to the mysterious spirits which have long haunted sailors?

The inspiration for the story can be found in a two-thousand-year-old forensic science technique from India. Once read, I knew this bit of history needed to find its way into a mystery. The solution to “The Measured Ches” turns on a 19th Century re-imagining of this tale.

Victoria Thompson, “The Killing Game” (Thompson is also a finalist for the Agatha Award for Bet Historical Mystery for Murder in Morningside Heights)
The story takes place in New York in July 1917. It is a prequel of sorts to my new Counterfeit Lady Series, which debuts with City of Lies in November 2017. The characters are con artists, so the story revolves around The Killing Game con, so called because the mark thinks he’s going to make a killing on a fixed horse race. When someone is murdered and our heroine’s partner is falsely accused of the crime, Elizabeth must run another con to clear him and find the real killer.  The trick she uses is based on one used by “America’s Master Swindler” J.R. “Yellow Kid” Weil, as recounted in his autobiography.

Elaine Viets, “The Seven” (Viets is also this year's Malice Domestic Guest of Honor)
“The Seven,” my short story set in the early 1950s, is based on conversations overheard when I was growing up. We lived in a split-level in a new St. Louis suburb. My mother's friends would stop by for coffee, cake, and conversation. Thanks to a well-placed heating duct in my bedroom, I could listen to them talk about how trapped they felt as stay-at-home mothers. They'd had careers before marriage, and longed to return to the office, but their husbands decreed "no wife of mine will ever work," and the conventions supported that idea. Wives were supposed to be satisfied with "good providers" who gave them clothes, food, and well-furnished homes. I heard many of these women say, "I'd do anything to escape the house and go back to work." Would they go as far as the ladies in "The Seven"? Read it and see.


My Own Malice Schedule (Back to Art)


I'll be at the anthology event as well—in addition to several other officials events, thanks in part to my story "Parallel Play" having been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens! (You can read all of our stories through links at Malice Domestic's Agatha Awards page here.)

Below is my full schedule—and look forward this weekend to seeing all my Malice friends and to making some new friends too!
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 28, 5 p.m.
  • Welcome Reception & Anthology Signing for Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (as part of editorial selection committee) Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
  • Panel: “Make It Snappy: Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and B.K. Stevens, moderated by Linda Landrigan • Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m.

27 April 2017

Moving, Moving, moving...

by Eve Fisher

Next week, my husband and I are moving from small town South Dakota to Sioux Falls, South Dakota - which to many people is still small town South Dakota.  (Sioux Falls is South Dakota's largest city, with a population of under 200,000.)  We're moving for many reasons:  the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) work we do at the pen; doctors (we're getting older and frailer); amenities (restaurants, shopping, etc.); cultural events (of all kinds!), etc.  And we already have a network of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in Sioux Falls.  And we found a real gem of a house, a vintage Craftsman, that I call the "Goldilocks house", because it's not too big, not too small, but just right for the two of us.  Amazing!  (Will post pictures later.)

So excited, exhilarated, exhausted.  Also sad and bittersweet.  We've lived in the old town for almost 27 years, so of course we're going to miss a whole lot of stuff.
  • Everywhere we go, we know somebody, if not everybody.  There is always someone to talk to. 
  • Everywhere we go, they know who we are.  They know our order at the Chinese Restaurant. They know us at the two diners.  And at the library, the grocery store, the post office, and just about everywhere else we go.   
  • We don't have to think about where we're going and how we're going to get there:  there are only so many places to go, and only so many ways to get there, so by now we move on autopilot.  
  • We have a state park two miles from town, which I walk in almost every day.  I've seen deer, eagles, foxes, coyotes, pheasants, and wild turkeys, not to mention geese, ducks, pelicans, seagulls, coots, and cormorants.  
  • Friends.  You all know who you are.  
And there are all the differences of small town living.  Some of my favorite stories are:

When we first moved up here, we rented for the first year, and then went house hunting. There weren't that many houses for sale, so I think we saw all of them.  (In the same way, we visited every church in town.)  When we finally did buy - a huge two-story box a block and a half from campus - after the closing, I went down to City Hall to change the utilities over.  The lady at City Hall said, "Oh, we already took care of that.  It's all in your name now."  They're not going to do that in Sioux Falls.  (We lived in that house for 22 years...)

Northern Exposure-Intertitle.jpgThe local radio station used to broadcast out onto Main Street, so that as you walked around downtown, you could hear the news, weather, music, and the ever-important "locals".  One day I was walking to work and heard that I was going to be interviewed later that day...  This kind of thing was one of the reasons that, back then, I used to tell everyone back East that I lived in the South Dakota equivalent of Cicely, Alaska (of Northern Exposure for those of you who weren't fans.)  They all thought that was pretty cool.

Pharmaceutical shock:  The first time I walked into the local drug store and saw that they had needles for sale to anyone who wanted them I about freaked out.  Then I realized they were for diabetics, and it hadn't occurred to anyone that addicts might want them. Another time, I had to have my wisdom teeth surgically removed, and the pain prescription wasn't going to be ready for another hour.  But Allan had to teach all day, so I called a friend and asked if she could pick me up and take me to the drug store, because the pain was pretty bad?  Fifteen minutes later her husband knocked on the door with my prescription, and told me to write him a check later. It was so sweet of him, but what stunned me was that the pharmacist had given pain meds to someone else to deliver to me...  (In case you can't tell, I was used to big city living - LA and Atlanta - where you show up in person with some serious ID.)

When I first moved up here I was 36 years old, with long black hair down to my waist.  After a couple of years of dealing with prairie winds - either I kept my hair tied back, pinned up, or got whipped almost to death by it - I cut it short.  One of my best friends came up for my 40th birthday, and as I gave her the walking tour, in almost every shop someone came up and said, "Oh, Eve, let me look at your new haircut!"  After about the third or fourth time, Lora stopped on the sidewalk and asked, "Are you telling me that people don't have anything better to do in this town than talk about your hair?"  Pretty much, yep.

The truth is, ANY change in a small town will generate days, if not weeks, sometimes months and even YEARS of talk.  My hair got a couple of days.  But people still talk about when the old hotel downtown burned down, and they still give directions according to buildings that are no longer there. (I have always been grateful that I moved up here BEFORE the Franklin School was torn down, because that way when someone says I need to turn right after the old Franklin School, I know where that is.)

Caring: small towns pull together, show up, bring food, and send cards.  I can't tell you the number of fundraisers that are held in a small town, most of which involve food:  pork loin feeds, pancake feeds, soup suppers, etc.  They're held for cancer patients, accident victims, hospital bills, medical bills, funeral bills, you name it.  And people show up, pay a generous free will donation, and eat heartily. And no death is ever ignored.  When my mother died, I got cards from practically everyone in town, even though no one had ever met her.  When we moved Allan's mother up here, she quickly became part of the community (she was the biggest social butterfly you could ever meet).  Sadly, she lived less than a year after the move (pancreatic cancer), but her church, prayer, and exercise groups called and visited, and at her South Dakota memorial service, over 200 people showed up.

The web.  You sit in a small town cafe, or church supper, or anywhere, and you hear stories.  Families are traced backwards and forwards.  Where they came from, where they lived, where they're buried, where the children / grandchildren / great-grandchildren moved to and what they're doing now.  Who married whom?  Where did they work?  Some stories are repeated with great relish:  You remember the folks that used to live in that big house on the corner:  they separated, and she got the house, but he came back every year to check up on the kids, and every year, nine months later, she had another baby.  Never divorced...  Others - of violence and abuse, or heartbreaking sorrow - are spoken of in hushed voices.  It's endlessly fascinating.  Especially since my family isn't in the mix.  Because the downside of a small town is that they never forget, and all the sins of the fathers are remembered unto the fourth and fifth generation.  This is one of the reasons why people move away from small towns. Small towns never forget.  Allow me to repeat that.  Small towns never forget.

I've enjoyed living in a small town; and I know there are times when I will really miss it.  But it's only an hour's drive away from Sioux Falls, and, as I said, Sioux Falls isn't that large a city.  I will continue to see my friends, and they now have another reason to come to Sioux Falls.  Thank God I live in the age of automobiles and interstates, instead of the days of buggies and dirt roads! And I will continue to write stories set in Laskin, South Dakota, with Grant Tripp and Linda Thompson and Matt Stark.  But who knows?  Some new characters, new settings may be coming into the mix.  I'll keep you posted!






26 April 2017

Life on Mars

David Edgerley Gates


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.


25 April 2017

Still Crazy After All These Years

by Paul D. Marks


Daniel Sickles
Tomorrow, April 26th, is the anniversary of the first time the temporary insanity defense was used in the United States. So, since we’re all a little insane, temporary or otherwise, to be writers, I thought I’d mention it and Daniel Sickles, the first person to use that defense.

Danny Boy (October 20, 1819 – May 3, 1914) was born to a wealthy New York family and had his share of scandals in his life, most notably killing his wife’s paramour, Philip Barton Key II (April 5, 1818 – February 27, 1859), the son of Francis Scott Key, the dude who wrote the little ditty we sing before ballgames, the Star Spangled Banner.

Key and Sickles had been buds, good buds. Sickles was a Congressman and Key was the District Attorney for the District of Columbia (DC).

At Sickles’ behest, Key would often accompanied Sickles’
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles (1836–1867), to various events when he couldn’t attend. Now that’s a good friend, and a trusting one on Sickles’ side. But the relationship between Key and Mrs. Sickles went from platonic to romantic…and, of course, complications ensued.

Key, who was reputed to be the best looking man in Washington, would stand across Lafayette Square from the Sickles house, waving a handkerchief to Mrs. Sickles as a signal to meet. Sickles figured out what was going and eventually confronted his wife, forcing her to write a letter of confession.

“Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die!” Sickles shouted on seeing Key waving the kerchief on February 27, 1859. Sickles pulled a pistol, shooting Key, who begged for his life. Maybe the noise of the shots caused Sickles to go temporarily deaf too because Key’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Sickles pulled another pistol and shot him in the chest.


Whether either was singing the Star Spangled Banner at the moment is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Sickles very clearly murdered Key.
Philip Barton Key II

While Sickles was detained in jail awaiting trial, he was visited by Congressional colleagues, government officials and received a letter of support from Prez James Buchanan. The public was also on his side.

Edwin M. Stanton (December 19, 1814 – December 24, 1869), future Secretary of War for Lincoln, and the rest of Sickles’ legal team came up with a brand, spankin’ new defense: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Stanton argued that his wife’s affair caused Sickles to temporarily not be in his right mind when he shot Key, thus he was temporarily insane (just long enough to do the deed of course) and, therefore, shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. (I want that lawyer!) Newspapers torched up the torrid affair in their pages. That won over most of the public. In court, Stanton argued that Teresa’s infidelity drove Sickles mad, that he wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Key. And Sickles was acquitted. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though Sickles’ history didn’t end there.

The fact that Sickles murdered someone, and that that someone was the son of a very well-known person and an important person in his own rite, doesn’t seem to have hurt his career at all. After that little detour he became a Union general in the Civil War, actually serving with distinction: He was awarded the Medal of Honor. He lost a leg in the war, which he sent to Washington to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery so he could visit it on occasion (not kidding!).

After the war he did a Wild Wild West spy mission to Colombia. He also served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. And he was elected to Congress more than once. And we know from his past that he was eminently qualified for the job...

Both Sickles and Teresa claimed to have forgiven one another, which provoked outrage from the public. Though in reality they were estranged from each other. She died young of tuberculosis in 1867. He later married a Spanish woman he’d met while posted in Spain after the war. They had two children.

Sickles’ final resting place is Arlington National Cemetery, so next time you’re out that way stop by and say hello. Though I’m not sure if he was buried with his amputated leg or not so you might have to make a separate trip to pay your respects to it. (Actually, it’s at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, so you will have to make a separate trip. Bummer.)
The Trial of Daniel Sickles

So next time you’re on trial, considering a plea of temp insanity, be sure to remember Sickles and Stanton in your prayers. ;-)

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Note, while I appreciate any thoughts and comments you have, I might not be able to respond as I usually do this time. But I do appreciate them as I’m sure the others who read this will.

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And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.


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Anthony Nominations close soon. Which means you still have time to read my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the 12/16 Ellery Queen. And which was voted #1 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll for 2016. It’s available FREE on my website along with “Nature of the Beast,” published on David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp, and “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” published in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. All from 2016 and all eligible. Click here to read them for Free.




24 April 2017

Perspective

by Janice Law

Few things are harder than one’s own – or indeed one’s society’s – unspoken assumptions, biases, and thought patterns. Having just made my way though more than 1200 pages of the Chinese science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I have been struck by how ethnocentric much of our own popular writing is and also how easily good fiction can be constructed out of different materials and ideas.


Cixin Liu is a popular and award winning science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Except for some short stories, his wildly ambitions trilogy about earth’s encounter with an alien civilization was American readers’ introduction to his work. Launched with The Three Body Problem, the trilogy begins with a scientist with a justifiable grudge. After her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie was disheartened about humanity’s prospects and willing to explore radical solutions. Sounds familiar at the moment!

When a message from an alien civilization appears on her monitor, Ye Wenjie hits the reply button and unleashes a host of troubles, the most insidious of which are the sophons, super sophisticated spy equipment that is launched at earth. Worse follows.

A Western reader inevitably thinks of Pandora, but in her Chinese version, she is no curious girl but a brilliant physicist and theorist of what comes to be called the Dark Forest view of the cosmos. Given Western assumptions about women and science, it is striking to see the range of female scientific and engineering talent that Liu includes in the novels.

There are some gender differences, however, although they do not necessarily fit our own stereotypes. Cheng Xin, the young aerospace engineer who is the protagonist of Death’s End, the last of the novels, has indeed the feminine virtues of compassion and caution, virtues admirable but, in the novel, only helpful in the short run. On the other hand, the macho Thomas Wade, one of the few important Western characters, is effective in many ways, but his aggression and violence also prove ultimately inadequate.
The two people who come closest to solving the problem of a hostile universe are both unlikely and quite unlike the typical Western heroes. Luo Ji, who temporarily staves off disaster, is a bit of a slacker. Appointed to work on global solutions to the alien crisis, he goofs off in Scandinavia and appears to waste the time that should be devoted to intensive research. I can’t help thinking that he is a modern version of one of the Daoist sages, in tune with the universe and destined to achieve success through a sort of focused passivity.

Even less likely is the second possible savior of humanity, Yun Tianming, an ineffectual young man dying of lung cancer and awaiting euthanasia. When he comes into money at the last minute, he buys a star (don’t ask, it’s complicated) for a woman he’s admired from afar, Cheng Xin. She, in turn, recruits him for what will be a dangerous, decades- spanning mission to the alien civilization.

Like Liu, Tianming with his modesty and lack of ambition (but notice that romantic gesture with the star) proves to be a remarkable individual with a combination of ingredients superior in a crisis to either stereotyped masculine or feminine behavior. His gesture of affection for Cheng Xin, by the way, is the closest the novel comes to sex of any kind. And this too seems rather traditional, like the film Cheng Xin admires about lovers who are separated by the length of a great river and never meet. Real love is poetic, spiritual – and often doomed.

Similarly, the other great staple of our popular literature, violence, is treated in a different way. I think two people are shot during the trilogy and a couple more are murdered by a robot. But fights and quarrels and car chases and the like are definitely out. On the other hand, the body count is tremendous. Whole civilizations are destroyed and the relatively comfortable eras in earth’s history come after terrible population crashes.

The whole history of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and ultimately the universe is Darwinian, a matter of the survival of technologically-advanced and lucky civilizations. Nature, itself, hides nasty surprises like the multiple dimensions that can collapse with disastrous results.

Ye Wenjie’s physicist daughter, Yang Dong, even becomes disillusioned by physics, which is as close to a belief system as most of the characters have. She had thought that “The World of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that inclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.”

This melancholy conclusion is more than borne out by the sprawling novels that reach from our Common Era to a scene toward the end of the universe. The latter is more than a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, perhaps because Cheng Xin and her companions are able to time trip, not like the Doctor with a reversible Tardis, but via a combination of hibernation and light speed travel.

Ultimately Cheng Xin and her friends concede that all things must end, but the conclusion of this wildly ambitious and imaginative novel is that the universe can collapse and be reborn, a hope that comforts Liu’s protagonists perhaps more than a Western audience used to heavier doses of positive thinking.

23 April 2017

International Good Books • Great Writers Series

by Leigh Lundin

Last month, I talked about Alice and how buying from International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) donates to a humanitarian cause. From the land of Stephen Ross, the New Zealand Oxfam charity has created two other ads, one I’d seen before and another recommended by a reader (thanks ABA), I wasn’t aware of.

Whereas Alice was surreal, one of the others defines racy and the other esoteric noir. Let’s start with the dark esoteric and save the sexy one to wrap up.

Metamorphosis

This way lies madness…


An advanced education gone horribly wrong.

Havana Heat

This way lays… well…


Once your panting subsides, you know where to order your books.

Go ask Alice.