21 January 2018

Lost in the Eighties

by Leigh Lundin

Scarecrow and Mrs King
Nope, not touching upon the implications here.
Last week, I reviewed Gin Phillip’s Fierce Kingdom.

The protagonist makes several references to a mid-1980s television spy series, Scarecrow and Mrs King. I’ve spent decades without television, so the program was unknown to me. Gin Phillips managed to sufficiently interest me, I streamed the first (out of four) seasons.

The principals, Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner, are attractive and humorous. John le Carré this is not, but it is fun, especially when housewife Amanda King cleverly thwarts baddies and their plots.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I offer this condensed version.
The Spy Who Came In From the Mall

June, 1983, Washington, DC. Intelligence Chief Billy Melrose calls an emergency meeting.

“A dastardly foreign-looking, culturally sophisticated attaché…”

“Culture, that’s suspicious,” says Agent Lee Stetson, aka Scarecrow. “And attaché… that seals it. Only foreigners use diacriticals.”

“Anyway, an undercover operative has stolen the last Galactic Man action figure in Washington.”

“Someone stole it?” Scarecrow asks.

“Well, not if you’re going to be technical. They used a coupon on top of a Toys-Я-Us diplomatic immunity discount card.”

“So what does that mean, boss?”

“It means I have to drive to Baltimore to buy another one for my nephew. The Soviets bought it as part of an incomprehensible kidnapping scenario. I’m foggy on the plot but their operatives, Putin and Pulitov, plan to sabotage national elections. That could never, ever happen, but we have to stop the kidnapping. I mean to send you, Scarecrow, but we need someone to pose as your wife.”

Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
“Me, me! I can do it.” Agent Francine Desmond frantically waves her hand in the air.

Scarecrow’s handsome brow furrows as he stares off in space. “Who could do the job?”

Francine jumps to her feet. “Me, me! I’ve worked here nine years; I can do the job.”

“I don’t know who,” Melrose says. “Barbie’s pregnant and Paula’s on assignment.”

“Me, me! I’ve got two masters and a doctorate in spyology.”

Stetson snaps his fingers. “What about Petunia Oggleswort?”

“Out sick. The entire steno pool fell ill. We’ve run out of options, Lee. Who do you think, Francine?”

“Oh, Chief, I’m so glad you finally asked…”

Whump! The door swings open. Amanda King bouncy-steps in carrying a tray.

“Hi everyone. I brought fresh cookies.”

Francine mutters under her breath. “Oh, no. Go away, you b-b-bitc—.”

Chief Melrose brightens. “Oh hi, Amanda. I’m afraid we’re too busy to chat. We’re in the midst of a crisis trying to figure out who…” He stops and looks significantly at Stetson. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Scarecrow selects an oatmeal chocolate chip. “I’m thinking we need coffee with the cookies.”

“No, I mean the op. Right in front of our noses: Amanda! We use Mrs King! She could pose as your wife.”

“Oh no,” says Stetson, vigorously shaking his head. “Not a civilian.”

Francine nods. “Exactly. She’s just a silly suburban tw—“ She stops as everyone turns to stare at her. “… uh, twenty-nine year old housewife.”

Amanda distributes more cookies. “Twenty-six and no, I don’t want the job. I have to run home to head up the birthday party for my son, uh, whats-his-name and my other boy, um, er… His name will come to me too. And my mother’s babysitting right now although she’d rather be cleaning the refrigerator and I have to take my station wagon in for the twenty-two thousand mile oil change and visit the book store where we killed that mafia guy and grab lunch at the tea shoppe where those foreign agents shot at us and and buy vegetables although I can’t understand why people like broccoli or eggplant, and do my nails and watch my soaps and MacGyver and Cheers and I never miss Columbo so you see I’m very busy.”

“Hmmph. Busy seeking endless praise and admiration, you attention craving c—…” Francine suddenly realizes she’s mumbling aloud. “Er, I mean cunning manipulator, just too perfect for poor spies like us.”

“It’s settled then. Scarecrow, you and Mrs. King check into the resort as a honeymoon couple. Francine, see to the details.”

Francine throws up her hands. “Oh, no, no. I’m not covering for that skinny-ass—“ She stops. “… assiduously slender housewife. Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Then shoot me.”


In his subtle silver Porsche 365 with NOT•A•SPY license plates to disguise the car, Lee Stetson speeds with Amanda to the Lake Coochy-Coo Resort. At the bar, he orders a ’78 Grand Cru des Saults Ste Marie.

Amanda sips a glass. “I’m afraid I don’t know these fancified wines and stuff. Now my mother loves colorful booze, pinks and pastels. I feel so outclassed. Really, that time you bought me steak tartare I thought it was raw hamburger, but that shows you my taste or lack of taste, as I’m sure you already know because I’m happy with Burger King where they cook the steak tartare and put it on a sesame seed bun with pickles and onions and…. Oh, look! There’s our quarry.”

“Shh, Amanda. Don't stare."

“But he looks so much like Francine.”

“It is Francine. She slipped into disguise to fool the bad guys. Let’s find our room and get some sleep.”

Once they unlock the door, Amanda protests.

“There’s only one bed.”

“Yes, of course. We share one bed in episodes 2, 20 and 33. Our cover is we’re on our honeymoon.”

“Not me, buster. I wasn’t raised that way. Maybe Mr. King said my notion of oral sex was endlessly talking, but that’s why he’s the ex-Mr. King ’cause he expected hanky-panky on our honeymoon and I’m not that kind of girl, I mean he’s still Mr. King I guess but I’m not his Mrs ’cause that’s not my sort of thing although you and I glow with repressed sexual attraction and everyone except McMillan & Wife has been bangin’ since the 1960s, well, 1920s and before, I mean look at the court of Louis XIV, but anyway I’ll take the sofa because you won’t fit, on the sofa I mean, or you can stay up and hide in the hallway closet– there’s a metaphor if I ever said one– and spy on the guy about to be kidnapped, anyway I think it’s wrong of the agency to put us together like this and… Are you snoring? Hey, are you awake? Well, I’ll just slip out and look for the kidnappers on my own.”


Next morning, Lee Stetson awakes to the sound of the telephone.

“Scarecrow, where are you? The kidnappers nabbed their victim along with Amanda. They made a run for the get-away limo, but they couldn’t unlock it. They’re headed for their escape chopper.”

“I’m on my way, now.”

Stetson arrives in time to see the helicopter start to lift off. Abruptly its engine chokes, coughs black smoke, and the whirlybird settles back to the ground as it backfires and dies.

The kidnappers fire several machine gun rounds before the doors burst open and the bad guys fall out, knuckling their eyes. Amanda steps down, holding a can of hair spray.

“Hi everyone! I haven’t been trained with mace, but I had my big-hair-spray can and let ’em have it. And I put fingernail polish in the limo locks so the bad guys couldn’t get in and I borrowed, well, purloined actually, maple syrup from kitchen and poured it into the helicopter gas tank. I didn’t know if it would work, but figured it worth a try, and it did pretty well, didn’t it? Didn’t it?”

“Congratulations, Mrs King,” says Chief Melrose. “I’m sure the President wants to award you another secret commendation.”

Francine stares daggers. “Why you scheming, sleazy, slu…” She stops under the glare of Melrose and Stetson. “I mean sultry, sultry and silky Mata Hari.”

“Matty Harry who? I’m just a simple suburban housewife and mother of uh, two, I think, let’s see… one… yes, two, and I’m so pleased I could stop the bad guys and speaking of stop, I should be at the bus stop to pick up my kids, no wait, maybe Mom will pick them up or they can walk. But any awards should go to Lee because he’s the best secret agent ever and I’d do him if we didn’t work together and I love Francine who alerted the bad guys we were on to them spooking them with that innovative disguise that put them on the run. Anyway, I promised to make meatloaf for next week’s royal heiress episode.”

“You’re adorable,” says Stetson.

“Winsome,” Chief Melrose says. “Isn’t she a darling, Francine? Francine?”

“Uh-oh! Francine’s choking,” cries Amanda. “Quick, I learned Cub Scout CPR.”

20 January 2018

Movie Music


by John M. Floyd



Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer


This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.

Questions

How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here . . .




19 January 2018

Guest Post: V.S. Kemanis on "Writing Legal Suspense"

I'm pleased to host V.S. Kemanis today for an insightful guest post on writing legal suspense fiction. I know Vija best as a fine short story writer whose work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the EQMM anthology The Crooked Road, Volume Three, among other places. But she's also a novelist—Deep Zero, the fourth book in her Dana Hargrove series, releases next week—and as she discusses here, much of the series draws on her background as an attorney herself. As her website explains, "In her legal career, she has been a criminal prosecutor of street crime and organized crime for county and state agencies, argued criminal appeals for the prosecution and defense, conducted complex civil litigation, and worked as a court attorney for state appellate courts." An impressive career, an extensive resume, but how do you draw on one career in law when pursuing another as a writer? In her essay here, she addresses that point and more. Welcome, Vija! — Art Taylor

Writing Legal Suspense: Navigating the Personal and the Professional 
By V.S. Kemanis

V.S. Kemanis

Writing what I “know,” drawing on my legal career, I created a series featuring a female assistant district attorney. To clarify, I recall a pleasant chat I had with two people in a noisy bar—the KGB Bar in Manhattan—on an evening I was scheduled to read from my work. A bit later, when they didn’t realize I was standing nearby, I heard one of them say to the other, “I can’t believe that woman told us she used to be a prostitute!”

Sorry to disappoint, but my protagonist is a female prosecutor, not a prostitute. I’ve given her some enviable qualities without being too liberal in the idealization department. She’s not without her vulnerabilities, some of which are taken from my own experiences.

I went to law school in the late seventies, a time when the male/female student ratio was finally approaching 50/50. By the time I entered the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the class of new recruits was almost evenly split along gender lines, but the courtroom was still largely a man’s world. I never had to break new ground, to go where women had never gone before, but I rode in on the tidal wave of female entrance into the legal profession.

Even so, it was not easy. I remember times when I felt like the fifth wheel or the unwanted interloper in the old boys’ club. A few uncomfortable situations from the early years will never fade from memory. There was an appellate judge who told me during oral argument that I sounded like a “schoolteacher.” A boss who made jokes about not being able to get around me in the hallway when I was pregnant. A roomful of seasoned investigators explicitly discussing a woman’s body, unmindful of my presence.

But these indignities were insignificant compared to greater challenges. Working in the criminal justice system can be an emotional rollercoaster, dealing with shattered lives, tough adversaries, and conflicting views on policing and punishment, to name a few things. For a young professional starting a family, juggling the demands of career and personal life can be nearly overwhelming.

So, when I embarked on my legal suspense series, I wanted to wrap all of this up in my strong-female-lead-with-vulnerabilities character. Her name is Dana Hargrove. For some years now, I’ve been throwing impossible ethical dilemmas at Dana, many involving the intersection of her career and family.

In creating these novels, the easy part is plotting Dana’s criminal cases and ethical dilemmas. A pool of this stuff swirls in the back of my mind, cases I handled as a prosecutor or read about in the latter part of my career as an editor at an appellate court. Insert fictional characters, change some details, find a connection to Dana’s life, and the plot emerges.

The tough part for me is to incorporate the law into the story, without making it sound like a legal brief. I endlessly rewrite the sections with the legal underpinnings for Dana’s conflicts, dilemmas, and decisions. My goal is to be accurate and to make the law accessible and interesting. Not boring. (Really? The law can be boring?) This is where questions of writing technique and target audience come in. I imagine that any writer who relies on technical knowledge to advance a story faces similar challenges.

Let me back up and make an embarrassing admission. I’m absolutely fascinated by criminal law and courtroom procedure! This stuff has everything: it’s intellectual and technical and absurdly detailed but also grounded in basic moral tenets. Who couldn’t love it?

Well, I’ve come to learn that many fans of crime fiction do not share my thrill at the clever gymnastics of incisive legal argument. To be fair, many do. I could decide to limit my target audience to legal nerds like me. But I’d rather make my stories appealing to a broader audience, without sacrificing the legal conundrums. Comments from beta readers, reviewers, and fans have helped with this.

The main technique I use for making the law flow is to cut out a lot of filler. The dramatic bits are highlighted: a brutal cross-examination, the surprise testimony, the jury’s verdict in a close case. This doesn’t make it inaccurate or unrealistic—just condensed. Focusing on the consequences of a prosecutor’s decision, instead of the technical rules, is another way to make the story come alive. If Dana does X, she could be disbarred. If Dana does Y, the killer could go free.

Thanks to popular entertainment, basic legal terms are now part of everyday language: probable cause, Miranda rights, suppression of evidence. The writing challenge arises with ideas that haven’t made it into common parlance: statutory elements of specific crimes and rules of professional ethics. Sometimes, Dana goes through mental gyrations or discusses a problem with her colleagues. I read these scenes out loud to myself and others. Do they make sense? Does the dialogue sound authentic? Funny or not, a lot of lawyer-speak is completely authentic but won’t sound that way to a non-lawyer. “People don’t talk like this.” Actually, they do. But anything that bogs down the story should be trimmed or rewritten to make it more colloquial.

After four novels, my journey through Dana’s fictional world has been a new mix of the professional and the personal. The pastime of fiction writing has morphed into a profession. The creation of characters has morphed into my alternate reality. Dana, her friends and family, have invaded my life.

I ask creators of series if you agree: It’s a lot of fun having a second family.

18 January 2018

Death by Fairytale

by Eve Fisher

A week ago, I posted this image on my Facebook page, and Paul Marks commented, "Eve, I think there's a SleuthSayers column in this":

No automatic alt text available.

And he's right, so here it is!

Traditional English folk songs can be history (a little mossy, a little mutated), myth retold (look, everyone really wants to go to Elfland, if they can just figure out a way to come out alive), news (remember when Alisoun got shot cause they thought she was a swan?), and the occasional unique idea (I'll let you know when I find one).  They're all sung in a minor key, and can be very haunting.  That's why they're still being sung.  And why I still listen to them.

But let's break down these categories a bit:

Most of English folk songs have people dying of a broken heart.  "Barbara Allan" is actually unusual, in that it's the lass that's hard-hearted (although she does die for her dead lover in the end:  "my true love died for me today, I'll die for him tomorrow").  Most of the time it's the lass that got knocked up on velvet green and was abandoned who dies of sorrow (and sometimes childbirth).  But there's a lot of broken hearts, and there still are.  For one thing, it's hard to get to a ripe old age and never have your heart broken once.  And sad songs are cathartic.  There's nothing like a good cry, especially when accompanied by alcohol and maybe a group sing-along in the bar...

The amazingly large number of deaths by drowning makes just as much sense.  Drowning was actually a major cause of death in the Middle Ages because:
(1) People drank a lot.  Beer in the morning, beer at midday, beer at night.  Granted, a lot of it was small beer, but there wasn't any caffeine in those days, and the water wasn't safe to drink and they knew it.  And even if it was, they were still going to drink beer.  Or wine.  And if anyone offered them some whiskey, well, they wouldn't turn it down.
(2) Almost every village and every city was built along water, because water was necessary for cooking, transportation (barges were the equivalent of modern semis), power (mills), and the occasional cleaning.  This meant there was lots of water to fall into while drinking, either from the banks, bridges, or well.  You combine drinking with darkness, and stumbling along home after a few pints at the pub could lead to serious injuries and more drownings.  And the Middle Ages were not known for their seating:  it was common to sit down on a bridge or the edge of a well and have a long pull at a noggin, and tip back, back, back...  Well, watch Oliver Reed in "The Three Musketeers" above...
(3) All that alcohol and water gave you a handy place to toss someone you were tired of, whether it was your spouse, your friend, or the occasional stranger.

Cruel wars...  Well, there's still, sadly, a lot of those.  Of course, back then men were often pressed into service at sea or land, against their will, or deliberately inebriated by recruiters and signed up, or ran off to join the wars, any wars.  Most of the sad songs are about peasant lads being pressed into service and never seen again by their own true love...   Sometimes the loved one goes off in search of her true love, but that rarely ends well, either.

NOTE:  The most amazing story is a real one:  "The Return of Martin Guerre" is about a peasant who went off to the wars, leaving his wife and family, and returned many years later and resumed his life as husband, father, peasant and all was well...  until the real Martin Guerre came back from the dead, years after that, and booted the imposter out and up onto the gallows.  The movie, starring a young Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, is magnificent.

Execution...  not so often, and usually NOT for being a highwayman or a footpad.  Although there are lots of serial killers, then and now.  And there are songs about the victims of said serial killers, such as "Reynardine", in which the lass is led over the mountains by a serial killer werefox cannibal "whose teeth did brightly shine". 

But most are about escaping Bluebeard types in the folk songs, legends, stories, and fairy tales:  a man who marries successive wives and kills them all, except the last who somehow figures a way out of it.  My favorite version is Grimm's "The Robber Bride".  I was fascinated as a child by the three glasses of wine the Robber gave his victims (one white, one red, and one yellow, which knocked them out), grossed out by the dismemberment (read it yourself HERE), and cheering when the Bride cleverly exposes him at the wedding feast, and he and all his band are executed.

Another version of nailing Bluebeard is a very old folk song called "The Outlandish Knight". Flora Thompson quoted hugely from this in her memoir "Lark Rise to Candleford", because she heard it almost every night from the local inn, as old David sang it to wind up the evening's drinking:



"He turned his back towards her  
   To view the leaves so green, 
And she took hold of his middle so small 
   And tumbled him into the stream.
And he sank high and he sank low 
   Until he came to the side. 
'Take hold of my hand, my pretty ladye, 
   And I will make you my bride.' '
Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man, 
   Lie there instead of me, 
For six pretty maids hast thou drowned here 
  And the seventh hath drowned thee.'


"The Outlandish Knight" is a variation of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight".  (See Steeleye Span's version.)  There's a lot of songs about Elf Knights, Elf Queens, and elves in general, and all I can say is, you don't want to go there.

Except you do.  Because it's an incredible place, full of mystery, beauty, glamour, and as long as you're there you'll never get old.  And who knows?  You may be as lucky as Thomas the Rhymer, who returns with the gift of prophecy and poetry...

Nonetheless, it can end badly, unless your true love comes to fetch you, like in Tam Lin ...  Otherwise...  I'd stay home.

And now we come to the last two:

"Wandered off, lost in the woods, and died".  One variant is the Babes in the Wood, a/k/a Hansel and Gretel, who were either murdered or driven out to starve to death in the woods... and do.  (The frequency of these tales can make you wonder about human nature.  Then again, having just seen this on the news, maybe not...)

The other variant is Rip Van Winkle, who drank the wrong wine / ale given to him by ghosts / elves / trolls, falls asleep, and awakens a hundred years later, which means that all his generation thought he died.  While Washington Irving based Rip Van Winkle on a Dutch story, "Peter Klaus", it's a very old legend.  The first go-round apparently was when, in the 3rd Century BC, the Greek historian Diogenes Laertius told the story of a shepherd, Epimenides of Knossos, who fell asleep in a cave and woke up decades later. But it might well be older than that.  There are tales of long sleepers in the Orkney Islands, where a drunken fiddler meets up with trolls, in Ireland, China, Japan, and India.  The Babylonian Talmud tells a version of it.  Who knows?  There are probably some in ancient Egypt and Sumer.  This is VERY old stuff.


Also (imho) old, old, old stuff is "being mistaken for a swan by a trigger-happy hunter."  I totally buy this one.  For one thing, swans used to be eaten, in ancient Rome, in Elizabeth times, and on.  They were apparently a delicacy.  Anyway, hunting them used to be common.  And God knows it still happens, although they're not taken for swans anymore.  Back in November, 2017, a Pennsylvania woman, out walking her dogs, was shot by a hunter who mistook her for a deer.  (Newsweek)  November was actually an interesting month for mistaken shootings:  another hunter in New York shot a brown pick-up that he mistook for a deer, still another up in Hebron, Maine killed a woman on the opening day of hunting season, and yet another hunter in Oxford, Maine shot a man in the arm.  Personally, I'm staying away from the Northeast during hunting season.

Anyway, as you can see, the "Causes of Death in Traditional English Folk Songs" can all still be used today by the modern mystery writer.  Our victims can die of a broken heart, accidents, drowning, drinking (or drugs), execution, serial killers, escaping serial killers, Elf land (think cults of all kinds), babes in the wood, and hunting accidents.  The technology may change, but the ways, and the motivations, stay pretty much the same.

Related image

And you could do worse than to start with folk songs...











17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

16 January 2018

You Only Live Twice

by Michael Bracken

Though perhaps not as famous as her husband—at least not until portrayed by Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt—Althea Flynt served, until her death at 33, as publisher or co-publisher of Hustler and other magazines the Flynts produced under various corporate names. She was, at the time I placed my first mystery in the January 1983 issue of Gentleman’s Companion, that magazine’s co-publisher. Though I never had direct contact with her, Althea was responsible for the creation of my series character Christian Gunn and my brief foray into spy fiction.

Though not as famous as their brother Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse and other magazines, twin-sisters Jackie Lewis and Jeri Winston published a string of sex letter magazines and, in December 1984, stepped outside the sex genre with the launch of Espionage Magazine, a digest-sized periodical filled with spy stories. Editor/Publisher Jackie Lewis, through Espionage, was instrumental in the continued life and ultimate death of Christian Gunn.
   
THE GUNN GETS LOADED

I had, in January 1983, effectively jump-started my professional fiction-writing career with the publication of “City Desk” in Gentleman’s Companion (see “Ripples”), and I soon placed a second story in the magazine. Though for quite some time Gentleman’s Companion headed the list of publications to which I targeted new stories, I ultimately only placed three stories within its pages.

In a letter from Gentleman’s Companion Managing Editor Ted Newsom, dated March 11, 1983, in which he rejects “A Matter of Policy” (a story that later appeared in the February 1985 Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine), he notes, “The last word I got on what Althea wants [...] is that she wanted the stories ‘lahk Jaimes Bound ounlie sexier.’” In the letter, Ted also suggests that I submit stories to Hustler, Gentleman’s Companion’s better-paying sister magazine.

I had never written a spy story, but was game to try. Coincidentally, less than two weeks after I received Ted’s letter, “The Spy Who Lay Dead in The Snow,” by Kim Rogal and Ron Moreau, appeared in the March 28, 1983, issue of Newsweek. The article began:
“On a lonely Alpine road north of Nice, the snowplow operator found a parked Peugeot 305, empty, its radio still blaring. Nearby lay a dark bundle that might have been a crumpled overcoat, except for the red stain in the snow. When the gendarmes arrived, they found a body sprawled face down in the fresh powder. Six feet away, they picked up a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum that had fired three shots. The gas tank in the car read empty. Money and keys remained in the victim’s pocket and there were no signs of a struggle. The police suspected suicide—until they found out who the dead man was: Lt. Col. Bernard Nut, 47, a senior operative in the French Secret Service.”
Once I read that article, I knew I had a hook for my first spy story, and I began writing:
“Lt. Col. Eduard Paroldi, a senior operative with the French secret service, sat in his Peugot 305, nervously tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. He had been parked on the shoulder of the lonely Alpine highway for almost three hours and his stomach was growling. Eduard dug in the pocket of his heavy overcoat for the last bite of a chocolate bar he’d been slowly nibbling at during his wait.”
Paroldi is dead by the end of the first scene, and Christian Gunn, an American operative, is sent to determine who killed him and why. Gunn mixes with British, German, and Russian agents in a wild tale of cross and double-cross.

On August 8, 1983, I completed and submitted “With Extreme Prejudice” to Hustler.

Six weeks later it came back with a form rejection.

Why I didn’t turn around and submit the story to Ted at Gentleman’s Companion I can’t determine from my records. Instead, I removed the graphic sexual content and sent “With Extreme Prejudice” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and then to The Saint Magazine, both of which turned it around within a week of submission.

On November 19, 1983, I submitted the story to Mike Shayne, and a postcard from Editor Charles E. Fritch, dated May 6, 1984, notified me of the story’s acceptance.

“With Extreme Prejudice,” the first Christian Gunn story, appeared in the August 1984 Mike Shayne, the second of four stories I placed there. Unfortunately, the magazine was, by then, on its last legs, ending its run in August 1985.
   
THE GUNN GETS RELOADED

By 1984 I was writing for a handful of sex letter digests, including those published by Jackie Lewis and her sister. When the sisters announced they were acquiring stories for their new spy digest, I thought I had an in. I had already published a handful of mystery short stories, including one about a spy, and I had already written for their other publications.

So, I brought Christian Gunn back for “The Only Good Red”:
“Dmitri Sakharov, a low-level member of the KGB, sat on the upper deck of the McDonald’s paddle steamboat and stared out at the swollen Mississippi River. On the table before him was a half-eaten Quarterpounder and an untouched bag of fries. A small Coke was securely captured in one slender fist.”
True to form, by the end of the first scene Sakharov is dead and, once again, Christian Gunn is sent to determine who killed him and why. And, once again, Gunn is caught in a wild tale of cross and double-cross.

I submitted “The Only Good Red” to Espionage on June 21, 1984, and, in a letter from Jackie Lewis dated June 28, 1984, learned of its acceptance.

“The Only Good Red,” the second Christian Gunn story, appeared in the February 1985 Espionage, the first of two stories I placed in the magazine.
   
THE GUNN FIRES BLANKS

I aimed to feature Christian Gunn in additional short stories—I found in my files, while preparing this, notes for two stories (“Mockingbird Don’t Sing” and “Number Four with a Bullet”)—but I did not complete another before the 1987 collapse of Espionage effectively killed Gunn’s career and the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall sucked the life out of spy fiction.

Though Christian Gunn only lived twice, I did write two additional spy stories—“Only Heroes Die,” published in the November 1985 Espionage, and “Soft Focus,” accepted by Espionage in a letter dated March 14, 1985, but unpublished when the magazine ceased operation. “Soft Focus” saw publication, at long last, in the July 2002 Detective Mystery Stories.

So, was Christian Gunn “lahk Jaimes Bound ounlie sexier”?

I like to think so.

“With Extreme Prejudice,” “The Only Good Red,” and ten other stories from the early years of my career are collected in Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.
   
Learn more about the short life of
Espionage as told by one of its most prolific contributors: “I Spy: A Writer Remembers Espionage Magazine,” by Josh Pachter, appears in the January 2018 The Digest Enthusiast. Order a hardcopy or Kindle edition at Amazon.

15 January 2018

Second Thoughts and Second Best

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I read a Facebook post from a writer I didn't know, ecstatically proclaiming that his writing was so good he never revised anything. I went to his Amazon page and opened the "look inside" button on his most recent masterpiece. His claim was about half-right. I read a page and decided he really didn't revise. If he'd been in my tenth-grade comp and lit class when I taught, he might still be there, too.

Someone I know once compared a first draft to that stranger at the bar who looks a little better after every beer. If you don't look again in the cold harsh light of day, you'll never appreciate the bullet you just dodged.

One advantage of accumulating over 700 rejections (That's when I stopped counting) is that it gives you plenty of work in progress. When I published my first short story (I think it was my 23rd), I learned enough from it to go back and revise several of the others. Some of them have sold since then, but many didn't pass the sniff test.

I wrote twelve novels before I sold my first one, too. Three or four of those early attempts have undergone major surgery, since then, always for the better. Cherry Bomb, my second Zach Barnes novel in Connecticut, started as the second Woody Guthrie (He had a different name then) book set in Detroit. The last half of the book rocked, but the first half rolled over and almost died. Moving it to Connecticut solved a few problems immediately, but it took me six years to figure that out. Blood on The Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, changed the character's name three times and had four different titles over the course of ten years and 112 rejections. The cold case surrounding the dead rock singer stayed constant, but the original story had a cozier concept that confused agents, and setting it in 1991 forced the action to stretch out over abut three months and dilute the tension.

This is stuff you learn only by doing it wrong and getting called out for it. Then you have to find your own way to fix it. That journey is a personal quest, but most people agree that you start with the major issues (Plot, structure, setting, character arc) and gradually zoom to smaller details: prose style; dialogue; backstory and description; spelling, punctuation, grammar.

I like revision because it's working with something you already have. You can't make a cake without flour and sugar and various other ingredients, and it's the same with a story. Even if it's a half-baked mess, you can add more ingredients or change the proportions and cook it a little more until you get lucky. The more you do it, the luckier you get, too.

One advantage of self-publishing is that you can go back to a WIP if you're not happy with it and not have other people screaming at you to hurry up. You can put it away and look at it again after time gives you more perspective. When you do come back, you're not as invested in it so killing your darlings won't upset you as much.

I never throw anything away (Flash drives are a wonderful invention) and I recycle stuff fairly often. The October 2017 issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine features "Death by Water," which received its first rejection in 2009. My spread sheet says I sent out three different versions of that story before I got it right. Another story that first crossed the street in 2010 will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2005, I interviewed several people and did lots of research for a book that I thought would feature Woody Guthrie. I moved it to Connecticut in 2011, and discovered the plot didn't work. Several supporting characters worked perfectly for The Kids Are All Right in 2014. Postcards of the Hanging was my sixth-year project in grad school in 1980, and about 90% of what appeared in 2013 is what I wrote then, but re-sequenced with flashbacks to introduce the conflict earlier.

This week, Before You Accuse Me, the fourth Woody Guthrie novel, makes its debut. I first conceived of the story (Including the title, which never changed, a first for me) in 2004, but knew it was the fourth or fifth book because I had to develop the intervening backstory first. That took nearly 14 years, but about half of what I thought up back then remains and the rest is stronger for the time away. The biggest change is the move from San Francisco (which would have required LOTS of research) to Connecticut, where I live. That made geography easier to work with and allowed me to feature Hartford cops Trash & Byrne as supporting characters.

It never gets easier, but you get better.