17 March 2018

25 Years in Shorts

by John M. Floyd

No, this isn't a post about Jimmy Buffett. But I'll tell you this: the topics of my SleuthSayers columns come from everywhere--books or stories I've read, movies I've seen, music or news I've heard, other writers I've talked with, etc.--and they're sometimes inspired by the columns written by my fellow bloggers at this site (probably because their ideas are better than mine). I was especially intrigued by some of the recent posts by Michael Bracken, Robert Lopresti, O'Neil De Noux, and others who've been reminiscing about their writing careers, their published works, and the way they'd marketed them. So, piggybacking on that subject, here's a quick look into the past . . .

I've been submitting short stories for publication for almost 25 years--longer than some of my colleagues but not nearly as long as others. Most of my stories have been mysteries, and while my so-called writing career is nothing remarkable, I've been able to reach a few of my goals: several awards, an Edgar nomination, two inclusions in Best American Mystery Stories, an appearance in Akashik Books' "noir" series, and the publication of half a dozen short-story collections.

I've also had some pretty crazy experiences with regard to submissions, sales, dealing with editors, etc,--but more about that in a minute.


As for frequency of publication, my hat's off to several of my fellow SleuthSayers for their many, many short stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm especially impressed with Robert Lopresti's back-to-back stories in the three most recent issues of Hitchcock. I'm not yet up there with my heroes regarding the two Dell magazines: I've so far sold 16 stories to AH and two to EQ. And only once have I had stories in back-to-back issues of AHMM: May and June 1999, with a story in their March 1999 issue as well. I did, however, have stories in four consecutive issues of The Strand Magazine (from June 2016 to Sep 2017)--the Strand's published 16 of my stories--and after the upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine I will have placed stories in the first three issues of BCMM. I've also been in the past six issues of Flash Bang Mysteries, I've had stories chosen for three consecutive Bouchercon anthologies, I've made Otto Penzler's top-50-mysteries list for the past four years, and between 2013 and 2015 I had five stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Though not primarily a mystery market, Woman's World has been kind to me as well--last week I sold them my 96th story there--and I've appeared in back-to-back issues of WW five different times. This is ancient history, but to those of you who remember the pubications, I had 17 stories and 20 poems in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 8 stories and 17 poems in Mystery Time, 19 stories at Amazon Shorts, and 7 stories in Reader's Break. Other long-defunct markets that featured my stories include Murderous IntentOrchard Press Mysteries, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker CasebookEnigmaDetective Mystery StoriesHeist MagazineThe Rex Stout Journal, Desert Voices, Ancient PathsCrime & SuspenseAnterior Fiction QuarterlyDogwood Tales, and The Atlantean Press Review. (We won't talk about how many rejections I've received from the above publications, because I honestly don't know the number--but it's a big one. A lot higher than my number of acceptances.)

One last statistic: my collections of short fiction--Rainbow's End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2015), Dreamland (2016), and The Barrens (coming in 2018)--contain a total of 240 different stories. As for novels, I've written four of them, all of which I like and two of which are out with an agent, but all of them, alas, remain unpublished. My heart's really in the short stuff.
Welcome surprises

In the icing-on-the-cake department, my story "Molly's Plan," which first appeared in the Strand, was chosen to be part of The New York Public Library's permanent digital collection, and another of my stories, "The Tenth Floor," was recently included in a 600-page book with 108 different authors from 11 countries, which is up for a Guinnesss World Record for the largest short-story anthology ever published. Several stories of mine have also been published in Braille and on audiotape, taught in high schools and colleges, and translated (last month) in Russia's leading literary journal, although I can't say any of those accomplishments were on my wish list. They were what we at IBM used to call "bluebirds": they just happened to fly in through the open window.

Okay, enough tooting of my own horn. The following is the goofy part of all this:

Weird tales

- Twice I've had stories appear in Woman's World under someone else's byline. Thankfully WW paid me and not the other writer, but it's strange to look at one of your own stories in print and see an unfamiliar name beside it. I never did find out whether the dastardly impostor liked my stories or not. Lesson #1: Once you sell a story and it's out of your hands, anything can happen.

- On three different occasions editors have contacted me asking to buy stories I sent them more than two years earlier. On two of those occasions I happily sold them the stories in question; on the third I had already given up and sold it someplace else. None of those editors ever explained why those submissions were still lingering in their records, and I didn't ask. My wife suspects they just fell behind the piano or the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, as some of our important papers at home tend to do.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories that I didn't write. In both cases I contacted the editors and said I wish this were me but it's not.

- I once published a short fantasy story, "Chain Reaction," in Star Magazine, and proudly appeared alongside accounts of alien kidnappings, Bigfoot sightings, and three-headed chickens. Lesson #2: If you've been paid, don't worry about it.

- I've had at least a dozen stories accepted by magazines that then promptly (before my stories could be published), went out of business.  See Lesson #1.

- Most of my stories seem to be in the 1000- to 4000-word (short story) range, but my three Derringer Awards were in the short-short, long story, and novelette categories. Yes, I know that doesn't make sense.

- I was once told by an editor that the 12-page story I'd submitted "should have ended on page 7."

- I've published poems in better-known markets like EQMMWriter's DigestGrit, The Lyric, Mobius, Capper's, Byline, Writers' JournalFarm & Ranch Living, etc.--BUT I've also published poems in Volcano QuarterlyThe Pipe Smoker's EpheremisBarbaric YawpHard Row to Hoe, Feh!, The Aardvark AdventurerBootsCreative JuicesAppalling Limericks, Tales of the Talisman, Nutrition Health ReviewMythic Delirium, SmileHadrosaur TalesOuter DarknessThe Shantytown AnomalyDecompositionsStarLineFirm NoncommittalACafeBreakThe Church Musician Today, The Pegasus ReviewBlind Man's RainbowKraxSophomore Jinx, And many other wild and crazy places. For the record, 31 of my poems appeared in Rural Heritage, 34 in Rhyme Time, 47 in Tucumcari Literary Review, 33 in Laughter Loaf, and 55 in Nuthouse. (Did I mention that my poetry is more lighthearted than profound? Bet you would've never guessed.) Anyhow, I challenge you to come up with more creative magazine names than some of those above.

- My short fiction has also appeared in publications with strange (and clever) names: Champagne ShiversMouth Full of BulletsShort Attention Span MysteriesAntipodean SF, Ethereal Gazette, Illya's HoneySimulacrumGathering StormMeet CuteScifantasticFireflies in Fruit Jars, Cenotaph, Thou Shalt Not, Dream International QuarterlySniplitsT-ZeroAfter DeathThe Norwegian AmericanLost WorldsFicta FabulaJust a MomentThirteenLines in the Sand, Phoebe, We've Been TrumpedHorror LibraryMatilda Ziegler Magazine for the BlindPebbles, Spring Fantasy, Eureka Literary MagazineSpinetinglerTrust & TreacheryPenny DreadfulSweet Tea and Afternoon TalesWriter's Block MagazineQuakes & StormsReadWriteLearn, Scavenger's Newsletter, NefariousShort Stuff for GrownupsListenThe Taj Mahal Review, Mindprints, Inostrannaya LiteraturaMad Dogs and Moonshine, and Yellow Sticky Notes.

- Years ago I was about to submit a story to AHMM, and at the last minute I asked my wife to read it first. She did, and said she thought I should change the ending. I changed it completely, sent it in, and it sold, Later, editor Linda Landrigan told me she bought it because of the ending. Lesson #3: When your spouse speaks, listen. Especially if she's smarter than you are.

- While most of my short stories are mystery/crime, I've also published 57 westerns, 20 romances, 103 SF/fantasy stories, and 23 "literary"/mainstream stories.

- The second story I sold to AHMM ("Careers") was less than 1000 words; the third story I sold to them ("Hardison Park") was more than 10,000 words.

- I have twice been paid in advance for short stories not yet written. (That doesn't happen often--at least not to me.)

- One of my stories, "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," came within two weeks of being filmed. The cast and crew were on board, the screenplay was polished and ready, locations had been arranged, I was told to invite friends to the set, original music had been written for it (I still have the CD), and suddenly everything stopped and everyone went home. Sad but true. Lesson #4: Don't trust the movie business.

- I once won a $30 gift certificate to Amazon in a contest for 26-word stories whose words had to begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. My story, called "Misson: Ambushable" was Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP. (Hey, what did you expect, in 26 words? Fine literature?)

- I've never published a story written in present tense. I don't mind reading them, but when it comes to my own writing, I guess I prefer the old "once upon a time" approach.

- One of my stories, "A Thousand Words" (Pleiades), has been reprinted seven times; two other stories, "Newton's Law" (Reader's Break) and "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" (Dogwood Tales Magazine), have been reprinted six times each; and at least four of my stories have been reprinted five times each. Lesson #5: Recycle.

- I once sent the same story to two different publications at the same time, then sent another story to two other publications as the same time. As it turned out, one of the two places I'd sent the first story accepted it, and one of the two places I'd sent the second story accepted that one. So all was well; I just sent withdrawal letters to the two markets that hadn't yet responded. BUT it made me think: What if both those first two places had wanted that first story, or if both the second two places had wanted the second one? I would've had to withdraw an already accepted story, which isn't the best way to get on an editor's good side. This is not really a lesson because everyone's mileage will vary, but ever since that time, I've been reluctant to simultaneously submit my work.

- My payment for one of my early story sales was a lifetime subscription to the magazine.

- When my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and I were having trouble coming up with a title for my fourth collection of short fiction (Joe has usually given those books the same title as one of the included stories), we solved the problem this way: we changed the name of an as-yet-unpublished story to "Deception," included it in the collection, and made that the title of the book as well. Lesson #6: Think outside the book-box.

- One of my stories in the Strand ("Bennigan's Key," 5000 words) featured only one character and had no dialogue.

- My longest published short story ("Denny's Mountain," Amazon Shorts) was 18,000 words. My shortest ("Mum's the Word," Flashshots) was 55 words.

- At our local Kroger store, I once went through the checkout line with three copies of a magazine that contained one of my mystery stories. The checker said, around a wad of chewing gum, "You got three of these." I told her I knew that. "But they're three of the same issue," she said. "I know," I replied. "Actually"--I stood up a little straighter and lifted my chin--"I have a story in this issue." She gave me a long, blank look and said, "That'll be $4.80." Lesson #7: You're probably not as big a deal as you think you are.

- One of my stories, "The Garden Club," was written start-to-finish between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, after I woke up sick and feverish and couldn't get back to sleep. I submitted it as soon as I got home from the trip, and the first editor I sent it to bought it. In the acceptance letter she said it had the best ending she and her staff had read in twenty years.

- A producer who was planning to film one of my stories called me and said he needed a logline for it, for marketing purposes. I said I didn't know what a logline was. He told me to find and read an old copy of TV Guide, and hung up. I found a copy in a back closet, and one of the entries said something like "Little Joe confesses to Hoss and Adam that he's fallen in love with an Indian girl." Understanding dawned, and I came up with what I thought was an effective logline. The producer even liked it. But the movie never got made. See Lesson #4.

- I once sold a story called "Wheels of Fortune" to an Australian magazine that published only on CD-ROM, and was required to read my story aloud and send it to them as a recording. I still have the magazine-on-CD that they later mailed to me, but I have never listened to my story.

- After my first submission to the Strand (the story was "The Proposal," the first one I ever sold them), editor Andrew Gulli phoned me and said he liked the story, but his staff was unfamiliar with the kind of poison I had used. I told him that was because it wasn't real--I made it up. He paused just long enough to really scare me, then said, "Okay." Lesson #8: If something in your story just won't work, invent something that will.

- More than 90% of my published stories were written in third-person POV.

- I appeared in every issue of the magazine Mystery Time from 1994 until its demise in 2002 (17 issues).

- One of my short stories was rejected almost two dozen times. I later heard that a national magazine was looking for Christmas stories, so I changed the setting of my oft-rejected story from summer to winter, included gloves and icicles and Christmas lights and gifts and carols, and sold it for much more than I would've made at any of the previously-attempted markets. Lesson #9: Don't give up.

And that's that. If you would, let me know about some of your own strange experiences, in dealing with editors or writing stories or novels or marketing them. What are some of the most unusual or notable things you've had happen to you, as a writer?

Lesson #10 (to myself): Don't write such a long column, next time . . .

16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck

"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
He didn't need no pony tail.

You do not have to write.

The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.


I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!

Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?

P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

15 March 2018

Babylon, Babylon

by Eve Fisher

Baker Banana.jpg
Baker - 1926
My husband and I have been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix.   It's a guilty pleasure, not because of the sex, which is actually pretty unappealing.  (NOTE to future producers to broaden your audience:  most women aren't turned on by naked women being taken by big fat slugs in kinky and/or violent ways, i.e., raped or whored. Just a thought.) 

No, my real problem is that it's so historically inaccurate. (Yeah, I think that way.)  For example, the video below (SPOILER ALERT - there is some nearly nudity).  My problem isn't with the girls in bananas - that's straight up Josephine Baker - but the people on the dance floor in the video, who are basically freaking line dancing.  I mean, it is a 1920's Berlin nightclub, full of smoke, alcohol, and opium, so there wouldn't be much coordinated syncopation going on, if you know what I mean.

Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role
The Blue Angel, 1930
Plus, like Cabaret, there's the constant effort to ram home (in more ways than one) how decadent 1920s Berlin was, but using modern Hollywood ideas of what kinky / sexy is.  Take a look at Marlene Dietrich:  that's her breakthrough role, as Lola in The Blue Angel.  That was the hottest, sexiest, kinkiest thing that had ever been seen on film in 1930's Berlin.  Well, let me assure you that, in Babylon Berlin everyone has been made up, eyebrowed up, thinned down, shampooed and conditioned, and generally made into someone entirely different than what was cooking in the Berlin stews of the 1920s.  They did the same thing in Cabaret.  Only in Cabaret, everyone's pretty clean cut - even Sally Bowles.

Liza Minelli doing Dietrich in Cabaret
Actually, you can tell that Cabaret's an American movie because it uses "divine decadence" to promote straight up family values.  Sally Bowles has Daddy issues, will do anything for money and/or love and/or attention, and is sleeping all over the place (I think it's the first movie where the word "syphilis" is used in a joke), even though she's "as fatale as an after-dinner mint".  But after she has an abortion, well, it's pretty obvious that Sally's going to end up on the skids, the streets, and the morgue.  In the same way, the menage-á-trois weekend with Sally, Brian and Max, is there to confirm how futilely, half-assedly decadent the German nobility was.  That's why, when the blue-eyed blond-haired youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", he seems like a refreshing change to the Cabaret Berlin Babylon.  And even after the camera has pulled back and shown the Nazi uniforms and swastikas - I'm not entirely sure that the director grasped that some people might still root for them.  Pauline Kael noticed in her review at the time that "Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy." (Wikipedia).  In other words, we're observers, safely at a distance, and at a distance, the Nazis can look good:  At least they'll clean the place up.

But back to Babylon Berlin, which does not have THAT problem, but instead suffers from massive PCS, a/k/a Plot Complexity Syndrome:  No one is ever who or what they seem, to the point where you can't help but wonder where they're buying all those disguises, and what phone booth are they using to put them on.  And why no one ever recognizes someone's long-lost whatever by their freaking voice, which wouldn't change, even if everything else has had plastic surgery...  And of course, every twist has another twist that twists back on itself and then corkscrews.  And it would take a silver bullet from the hand of Dracula himself to kill some people off.  Shooting them, pushing them off tall buildings, beating them to a pulp - it just makes them mad.

The problem with PCS, in movies or in novels, is that the excessive plot takes up all space for actual characters.  Yes, we're given heroes and heroines, but they don't have time to actually, think about anything, or have more than four basic emotions, fear, lust, anger, and...  well, maybe just the three.  They're too busy:  there's sex, there's violence, there's the few moments actually at work, there's more sex, there's drugs, and they're always running from or to or after somebody or something.  That's another reason I call Babylon Berlin a guilty pleasure:  there's no there there, except for the plot, and that'll just give you a headache.  Stick with the visuals, kid, it's a lot more fun. 

Pasqualino Settebellezze 1975 film poster.jpgThat cannot be said about my favorite of all "babylon" type movies:  Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Seven Beauties.

Seven Beauties is what they call a picaresque movie.  Episodic, and all revolving around our hero Pasqualino Frafuso a/k/a Settebellezze, i.e., "Seven Beauties".  He's called that because he has seven very unattractive, unmarriageable sisters, and his role as the man is to keep them all virtuous until marriage.  Meanwhile, of course, Pasqualino's doing every woman he can get his hands on.  Giancarlo Giannini is brilliant in the role:  Pasqualino is a self-obsessed dandy, a wanna-be Mafioso, and a fool - God, what a fool! - and we can't take our eyes off of him.

Here's the basic plot:  Pasqualino kills a pimp who's whored out his oldest sister.  That lands him in jail; he pleads insanity. That lands him in the insane asylum; he volunteers to fight in WW2. And that lands him in hell. He ends up in a German concentration camp, and how our hero survives that has to be seen to be believed.

How everyone who survives has to be seen to be believed.   (To the right is the clip shown at the Oscars.  While I couldn't find it with subtitles, I'm not sure that it needs it.)

Along the line, Seven Beauties expresses ideas about Italian manhood, womanhood, life, survival, and the long-standing difference... dislike...  sometimes war, between Northern and Southern Europe.  This shows up in everything European, literature, art, habits, war.  The Southern view of Northern Europeans is that they live so much in their minds and their jobs that they've lost all sense of nature, of humanity.  As Pedro, an anarchist in the concentration camp says:  
Pedro: But soon, very soon, a new man, a new man will be born. He’ll have to be civilized, not this beast who’s been endowed with intelligence and obliterated the harmony in the world and brought about total destruction just by disturbing nature's equilibrium. A new man… able to rediscover the harmony that’s within.
Pasqualino: You mean, put things in order?
Pedro: Order? No, no, the orderly ones are the Germans. No, a new man in disorder is our only hope. A new man… in disorder.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans look down on Southern Europeans as a lazy group of hedonists who work only enough to get in a harvest and then spend the rest of their time eating, drinking, and screwing.  They're poor, and it's their own damn fault, they're like rats or sheep or...  Why do you think the Germans enjoyed putting the economic screws to the Greeks so much?  They deserved it.

Look, the real war between the North and the South is, at base, the war between the rich and the poor.  And the poor win because they will do anything to stay alive.  The Commandant of the concentration camp in Seven Beauties says to Pasqualino, "You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you'll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”  

Seven Beauties has all of the decadence, sex, and violence that anyone could want - plus a hell of a lot of humor that pushes the boundaries of everything and everyone.  But it also has a thirst for life - a sheer enjoyment of life - that no other "babylon" movie I've ever seen has.  

Seven Beauties, dedicated to:

The ones who don't enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh yeah.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "Follow me to success, but kill me if I fail," so to speak. Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "We Italians are the greatest he-men on earth." Oh yeah.
The ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes. Oh yeah.
The ones who vote blank ballot in order not to get dirty. Oh yeah.
The ones who never get involved with politics.  Oh, yeah.
The ones who....  

Watch the rest of the opening sequence on the right and find out who the others are.

BTW - Lina Wertmüller became the first woman in history nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties (and it didn't happen again until 1993, with Jane Campion's The Piano) and Giancarlo Gianinni was nominated for Best Actor for playing Pasqualino.
John Avildsen won that year for Rocky.  Lina was robbed.

14 March 2018

The Girl in the Lagoon: Martin Cruz Smith

David Edgerley Gates

Martin Cruz Smith made his bones with Gorky ParkI remember its jaw-dropping singularity, almost a science fiction conceit, where the oddness of the whole is captured by tilting everyday detail ninety degrees from square. It got its effects from accumulation. There was also a slight alteration of rhythm, a kind of stutter or hesitation to the language, the words careful and exact, but somehow dealt face-down, like a card trick. You were surprised when they were turned over, showing a jack when you expected an ace. It felt, you might say, a little Russian, an unfamiliar alphabet, a new terrain to navigate.

Of the next two Renko books, Polar Star was terrifically compelling, and Red Square, for my money, delivered the most satisfying finish, but in between Gorky Park and Polar Star came a standalone, Stallion Gate. The guy gets my vote for sheer audacity. Stallion Gate is about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I've nibbled around the edges of this subject meself, and you can only go one of two ways, I think, either gnomic and allusive or full frontal. No half-measures. Smith takes the bet, all or nothing, and Stallion Gate is high-risk, spending the writer's own capital, not coasting on the interest. He almost recovers his investment. The book is just that - almost. You can make out the shadow it casts, and the signature of the wind scouring the sand, but it never quite fills its own sails.

There have been eight Arkady Renko thrillers in all, to date, and in between, three more novels without him. Rose, which came out in 1996, is to my mind very underrated, a Victorian historical Gothic (not at all pastiche), a steam engine of a book, a mechanical wonder, hissing and dripping with condensation, levers and armatures, drive shafts and metal fatigue, shaking the rails. Sort of a cross between John Buchan and Wilkie Collins. December 6th, from 2002, is a Tokyo spy story - the title gives that away - and a nice play on the gaijin as secret agent, first cousin to the Raj-boy Kim, echoes of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. I found it hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to the latest release, actually in 2016, The Girl from Venice. I'd call it a departure, or at least somewhat. It has the guileless and obstinate Martin Cruz Smith hero, marooned by his honor, and the ominously claustrophobic menace of the time period, the exhausted last gasp of Fascist Italy, the Americans clawing their way north, the Germans fighting a stubborn rearguard action. On the other hand, Cenzo, the lead, has an endearing sweetness to his nature, and to all intents, the book is at heart a romantic fable.

Magic realism isn't something you'd anticipate from this writer, and The Girl from Venice isn't, exactly. But there's an unexpected playfulness. I kept waiting for the darkness to swallow everybody up, and it doesn't happen. Yes, we definitely get some nasty, sinister people drifting in and out, and the girl Giulia is the last survivor of a Jewish family, lost to the fortunes of war. For all his clownishness, Il Duce has caused enormous human dislocation and suffering. You're not saddened in the least when the Red partisans catch up to him. This stuff happens, though, mostly off-stage. You don't get a lot of explicit. The heroics, too, are kind of muted and self-deprecating. like Cenzo himself. We know innocence is a casualty of war, and all too many innocents, but in this telling, basta.


I met Bill Smith at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, a few years back. He was getting over some grievous upper respiratory crud, his voice playing hide-and-seek, but he was extremely game and gracious. He did a long Q&A (the most recent book was Three Stations), and soldiered through with humor and patience. He gave good weight.

We talked briefly the next day, about the end of the Cold War, mostly, and when at one point I mentioned having been a Russian intelligence linguist, he admitted he didn't really speak much Russian. I think my jaw did literally drop. Bill ducked his head and smiled. He'd always used a wingman, he said, the better to get it right.

Red Square turns on a mistranslation from English to Russian, or more specifically, a misunderstanding by an American whose idiomatic Russian is almost but not quite native. "Square," a public space, vice "square," the geometric shape, but in Russian usage, two different words, ploshchad' for the place, kvadrat for the other.

Where did Bill Smith, whose command of Russian isn't what it might be, happen across the distinction? Perhaps it was luck, reaching out to pluck at his sleeve like an old Baba Yaga on the Moscow subway platform, trying to sell books of matches or locks of Stalin's hair.

13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens

Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.


How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?

12 March 2018

Viva la difference

by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
As a female writing about a female character I feel it is all natural because I am a woman. I can put my head into the mind of a young woman or an older woman.

I also think I can write a fairly good representation of a male character. Mainly because I had two boys and I had a husband for almost 40 years who was a great teacher about men and how they think.

Of course, I'm not an expert because I have never been a man. I did mention good maybe not great.

However, through the years of reading I have run across writers who I think are able to write strong and excellent characters who happen to be of the opposite sex.

Susan Rogers Cooper has a male character, Milt Kovack, who is a sheriff. He is such a realistic male character that Susan has even relieved a fan letter chiding her for publishing under a woman's name. The fan swore she had to be a man.

I have to agree in part because I know Susan is a woman, but she does write a very realistic male.

On the other side, John Lutz writes very realistic women characters. They are strong, independent and certainly never depend on a male to rescue them.

Robert B. Parker also wrote strong women. He often got into philosophical discussions with women leaving them surprised.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly has written a new book, THE LATE SHOW, featuring  Detective Renee Ballard. This is a female character he fully intends to be a series character.

In the back of the book is an interview. The question is asked if he can describe Renee with one word. He has described Harry Bosch as "relentless." Michael says he knows a real-life homicide Detective Roberts that Renee is loosely based on and he would describe Roberts as "fierce," which is close to relentless.

A woman detective working in a job that is predominately male has to be better than her male co-workers in order to gain respect. She must be fierce.

I think this is true and yet to make a female character more realistic she should show a little vulnerability. Unless your plan is to have her be a bitch. Personally, I think Connelly has done a fine job with Detective Ballard.

Viva la difference.

11 March 2018

The making of a psychopath - A vignette

by Mary Fernando

If Leigh Lundin suggests an article topic, it is always one that is both intriguing and complicated. His ideas keep me up at night. They get under my skin.

When Leigh asked me what creates a psychopath, I knew that was a question worth tackling. It is too big a question to answer fully. I would, however, like to present a small vignette, a window into this issue: please let me introduce Phineas Gage and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC.

In 1848, a railway foreman named Phineas Gage, had a horrific accident. An explosion shot a metal rod shot through his head. If you look at the diagram of how the rod entered his brain, the fact he survived was remarkable. At first it appeared that Phineas survived the accident with his physical and mental abilities intact. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that his personality changed. He went from being a well-liked, balanced man who was socially adept, to being socially inappropriate and uncaring.

Phineas and metal rod
Phineas and metal rod
What is interesting for the purposes of our question, is that Phineas developed an ‘acquired sociopathy’, or ‘pseudo-psychopathy’. Since then, we have noted that lesions to this part of the brain have left other people with similar impairments, with otherwise normal intellectual function. They have an absence of empathy. They lack interest in the well-being of others.

Every area of the brain is a true team player. No area functions independently, each receiving inputs from many areas and sending outputs to many areas. So, to just talk about one area is a little odd but for the purposes of this essay, I will treat the VMPFC as a sole player. It deserves a spotlight and to take centre stage.

We know that damage to this area causes a defect in empathy. However, few psychopaths have injuries to their brain like Phineas. There may be a genetic component to the development of psychopaths, but here I would like to concentrate on the development of this area.

The VMPC does not come fully developed at birth. It grows and develops, most rapidly before one year of age, and continuing during early childhood.

The VMPC changes in response to the relationships the baby has which can either enhance or diminish its growth.

Enhancing the VMPC growth comes from being loved, with hugs, holding and – most importantly – a responsive adult who says, hey, you are hungry, scared, alone, in pain, let me help. I will hold you, feed you, take care of you. That interaction is the opposite of neglect. It is love in action. And love for a baby is always love in action. From this, the baby gets the social information to form connections later on, and the happiness bathes the VMPC with growth enhancing substances released by the brain.

If an infant is neglected, the VMPC does not grow as successfully, in part, because of the lack of social information and growth enhancing substances. The rest of the story is that the stress of being unattended bathes the baby’s brain in the stress hormone - cortisol - that has a corrosive impact on brain development. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. However, true neglect, like that found in infants raised in orphanages with no interaction, results in true deficits. In some severely neglected infants, we find a functional hole in not just the VMPC, but in the area around it called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Abuse is another way that the VMPC gets damaged. The VMPC of a frightened infant will be bathed in corrosive cortisol and that does not bode well for future empathy.

Now that I have introduced a few of the players in the crafting of a psychopath, I would like to emphasize another one: nuance. Many neglected and abused people do not turn into psychopaths. There is something in the severity of the early experiences and also, likely, a genetic predisposition.

A final thought. For mystery writers, the issue is often about murder and, quite frankly, most murders are not committed by psychopaths. The vast number of murders are committed by people who forget to look into someone’s eyes and see another person. This can be momentary or it can be part of a general lack of empathy. So, nuance means that people who are neglected and/or abused may have a deficit of empathy that allows them to commit murder.

If Phineas and the VMPC have another lesson to teach us, I believe it is that we need to treat our infants well. We all make mistakes as parents but if, on balance, we love them, hold them and don't let them live in fear, we are likely to grow that part of the brain that allows them the most human gift of all: empathy.