31 August 2015

Trouble with a Capital T

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

I don't know why, but it gets more difficult for me to get to the SleuthSayers site or our Sandbox. What I get most of the time is a message that says that page is not available. or that site is not available. Or I get my name and it says I'm unknown, even though I'm signed in on google blog. It sometimes takes me 30 to 40 minutes just to figure out how to get here.

I'm still having to use my tablet as I couldn't  get on site at all with my laptop. I really got screwed up by downloading Windows 10. Do not do it until you have to unless you are a computer nerd or guru. This seems to be a more recent development. I used to have a hard time but finally found a easy path, but since you guys made it accessible to phones, etc. I've had this trouble. The first time I tried my regular way it wouldn't  work. Then I stumbled onto the secret. Then last night and today none of that worked. However, finally, a few minutes later I stumbled onto a new way. OK, enough whining. I don't even have any cheese to go with.

I suppose life is supposed to hand you lemons now and again. That somehow teaches us to learn how to make lemonade. But does it help in writing?  In many ways it does. I heard an author say once that he didn't trust a writer under forty-five. He did not think a writer had enough experience in living life to qualify as a good writer. 

Do you think that might be all wrong? Or does it make sense to you? I can agree in some way. Not only life experiences come into play, but I think your writing improves with age. That doesn't necessarily mean "your age."  I'm  also talking about writing maturity. I personally began to realize after I'd been writing for a few years that my writing changed about every six months or so. It got stronger, better as I learned the craft. As I learned how to develop stronger, more realistic characters. Also as I learned more natural sounding dialogue and how to create tension. You don't have to age chronologically, but your writing matures if you keep writing daily or at least every few days.

The chronological age can help also. Yet some people have life experiences at an age earlier than others. A loss of a parent or a sibling. A family's loss of a good job, changing the family 's economic standing. A young woman or young man dealing with abuse, emotional, physical or sexual can certainly make life experiences change. Sometimes the person has to grow up and learn to deal with life at an early age.

In that respect, I don't necessarily agree with the author who said, not to trust any writer under 45. I can also see a person's age can bring about a maturity of writing about life as in real life. 

In reality I don't  think you ever grow to full maturity with your writing. And some folks never grow up emotionally.  As a writer I think it is a lot of fun to keep growing and as an older adult I think being grown-up is much more trouble than it's  worth. I think I'll  just stay a kid a few more years.

30 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder, PhD

by Leigh Lundin

With this, the fifth and final in our Rocky King, Detective series, we’ve brought you the five examples available in the public domain. UCLA archives contain about two dozen more episodes salvaged before a disingenuous lawyer destroyed DuMont’s film library, virtually erasing collective memory of the pioneering broadcaster and its teleplays.

In this episode, you may wonder about the haunting blues harmonica that starts off as a nice touch but grows slightly tedious. It’s not used as filler in the ordinary sense. Besides giving organist Jack Ward a break, the jail cut-scene serves a purpose: a staged transition giving actors a chance to rush to their next location, sometimes on a different floor of the DuMont Tele-Centre in Manhattan. The harmonica/jail insert at the four-minute mark gives Roscoe Karns time to jog from the domestic setting of his house to meet Detective Sergeant Lane (Earl Hammond) in their office. Imagine writers and directors forced to not only plot a viable story, but to plan for actors reaching their scenes in time as designated cameras went live.

Mistakes were inevitable, although this episode is relatively free of errors. As we saw in an earlier episode when a picture fell off a wall, things sometimes went wrong during live presentations. Falling props and scenery were not uncommon. Not only did scenery problems afflict the early 1949 BBC broadcast of Miss Marple, the murdered victim rose and walked off the set in the middle of the broadcast.

Tip back your chair and watch how crime stories appeared in homes in the nascent days of television in this episode titled…

Murder, PhD
broadcast: 1953-Dec-13

in which a possibly innocent man is due to be executed in 180 minutes…

29 August 2015

OPs and No-OPs

by John M. Floyd

I have read with great interest the recent SleuthSayers columns by Melissa, Jan, and others on the subject of outlining. It's a fascinating topic, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to offer a few more views.

First, let me--like Donald Trump--clearly state my position. I always outline my fiction. Having said that, I should point out that I don't usually outline it on paper. I write mostly short stories, so I outline them mentally. But believe me, the result is still an outline, and I depend on that pre-determined structure to guide me through the writing of the story.

Decisions, decisions

I should mention several other things as well.  The first is, I don't choose to outline rather than fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. For me, it's not a choice. I outline because I have to--I couldn't do it any other way. Well, I suppose I could, but if I did, it would take me much longer because I'd go down all kinds of wrong paths and have to constantly retrace my steps and start over again. Life's too short for that.

Another thing. Although I always have an outline in my mind when I begin writing (in fact I never write a word until I'm pretty sure I know where the story's going), I often wind up changing the outline during the writing process. Sometimes I think of a better ending, or an additional character or two, or a reversal in the middle that adds something to the plot, etc. So my outline, unlike my head, isn't rock-hard. But I do have to have a map spread out on the dashboard before I start my trip.

And yes, I do plan things all the way to the end. I don't necessarily plot backwards from the end, as I've heard some folks do, but I have to know the conclusion before I begin. Again, it might change during the course of the journey--I might travel a little farther than I'd thought I would, or make detours, or stop a little sooner than planned--but I feel that knowing that destination before I start out helps keep me on course throughout the story.

Sneak peeks

Unlike my friend Janice Law--who is a wonderful writer, by the way--it doesn't bore me to "know" ahead of time what I'll be writing about. I've also never felt that that prior knowledge stifles my creativity. Instead, it gives me a feeling of security, an assurance that I won't stray too far off the path. Besides, the process of pre-plotting is probably (can you say "alliteration"?) the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, for me. I love coming up with the storyline. Since it's done in my head and not on paper, I don't go into painful detail with this mental preview, but I do spend a lot of time putting it together, and--again--when it's done, the framework is there for me to build on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying outlining is the only way to go, or that you should do it. Or even try to do it. In fact, I agree with another comment Janice made recently, in a different post: she said every writer must do whatever works best for him or her. We're all different. I think the need to outline or not is already wired into our brains, and that circuitry would be difficult--maybe impossible--to change. Some of us are always early to appointments and some are always late; some are night-owls, some are early risers; some of us squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end and some don't, or prefer the toilet paper hanging forward over the roll instead of backward, and so forth. Same thing applies here. You're an outline person or you're not (author James Scott Bell says you're either an OP or a No-OP). I've even heard that engineers, programmers, accountants, etc., are more likely than "ordinary" people to be OPs. Maybe that's my excuse.

Truth be told, I respect and envy those writers who don't find it necessary to plan things out beforehand, who just sit down and start typing away with no idea where things are going from there. How convenient that must be. I also envy their confidence, that things will turn out well. That ain't me. If I did that, I'm fairly confident things would not turn out well. And I confess that I find myself a little suspicious of famous writers who insist in interviews that they never, ever outline their fiction in any way or to any degree. My response would be that veteran writers have been through the process so many times that indeed they probably don't need a blueprint anymore in order to build the house. The plan is probably in their heads whether they realize it or not.

The same old song-and-dance

You know what I'm going to ask. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you ever go halfway, and plan only the beginning, or a few plot points, and then free-wheel the rest? Have you ever tried or seen the need to change your approach? If you're a No-OP, do you ever find yourself taking the wrong path, maybe to a blind alley? If you're an OP, is your outline on paper or just in your mind?

Either way, I wish you good writing and successful narratives.

And don't touch my toothpaste tube!

NOTE: My friend Art Taylor, who I'm pleased to announce will be permanently joining us at SleuthSayers in October, will be guest-posting in my slot on Saturday, September 5. I don't know if he's an outliner or not, but he's a fantastic writer. Be sure to stop in for his column next week.

28 August 2015

Where Cattle Are King

By Dixon Hill

In the great western films, the cattle baron may be a hero or a villain.

But, he is nearly always male.

And powerful.

Tovrea Mansion ...

Tovrea Castle ...

The Wedding Cake Castle ...

These are the names normally provided when visitors to Phoenix ask, "What is that odd building?"

And, visitors DO ask.

Primarily because this house, once home to the locally famous Tovrea family, who were Valley cattle barons, is tucked right into a curve of the loop 202 freeway not far from Sky Harbor Airport.  Though the photo below is several years old, it provides a good view of the 202 curving around the top (north) end of the photo to run north-south along the eastern edge of the old Tovrea estate.  The castle, or mansion, is sitting on that raised hill near the center of the photo.

The road near the top of the estate (north end) is Van Buren, while the one running past the bottom or south end is Washington.

Incidentally:  That facility bordering the west side of the estate -- the one with all those white semi-trucks parked around its perimeter, and located on the left side of the photo -- is the main Phoenix post office.  This is about where the stockyards used to start, which did not make for heavenly scented air in or around the castle's location.

This, at least, was the opinion of Alessio Carrero who had made a sheet metal fortune in San Francisco after migrating from his native Italy.  In 1928, having also become a successful land developer, Alessio moved to Arizona with the dream of turning the area we see in that photo above into a subdivision and adjoining resort called Carrero Heights.  What we now call Tovrea Mansion (or castle) was initially slated to serve as a hotel.

The problem was:  The place stank.

Oh, it was pretty, alright.  But, the Tovrea stockyards and meatpacking plant sat right next door.  And that Tovrea facility was NOT SMALL.  In fact, it was a world-class operation, one of the largest packing plants in the U.S.  The company, founded by E.A. Tovrea, who began his cattle career at the age of ten, had the motto: "Tovrea - Where Cattle Are King!"

EA was not a man to shirk hard work.
He is seen here with his wife, Della.

EA Tovrea powerful cattle and shipping baron.
Though Carrero tried to buy Tovrea out, in hopes he might make his development work, such was not to be.  There are those who say Mrs. Tovrea liked the looks of that hotel Carrero had been building on a desert knoll not far from the stockyards.  On the other hand, there are those who say it was E.A. who had his eye on the place, and that his wife fought like a wildcat to keep from having to live so near to thousands of head of beef.

Whatever the truth, the hotel and the land around it changed hands in 1931.  E.A. and his wife moved in soon after, turning it into their home, though E.A. lived little more than a year longer.  His wife, Della, would stay on in the home until her death in 1969.

And . . .

There are those in The Valley who speak of a curse, because robbery and murder seems to track certain Tovrea family wives.

Which is why I mentioned Tovrea Castle at Correro Heights (as it is now formally known) here on Sleuth Sayers.  As I mentioned once before, I intend to post articles about crime scenes of interest to those who might attend Left Coast Crime in Phoenix this upcoming Feb. 25th through 28th.

The castle, and the associated restaurant below are fairly nearby the hotel where the conference will be held.

The Tovrea Castle society runs wonderful tours through the old home, as well as the adjoining cactus garden, each day.   Additionally, you might want to spend an evening eating a great dinner at the old "Stockyards Restaurant" a place first opened as a cafe within the company's office building.

That building still stands to today, and the Stockyards Restaurant is still going strong -- along with a nice bar.
The restaurant today.  

I'll be getting to those crimes I mentioned, in the next installment.

See you in two weeks!

A sign from yesteryear, and how the place got its name.

The restaurant's hay-day.

That bar inside is pretty darn nice.

27 August 2015

Frozen Solid

by Eve Fisher

August is almost over, and so I think this is the perfect time to talk about Ice Ages.  Yes, Ice Ages, ice fishing, and all the things you kind of long for in a hot August.

A lot of people think that South Dakota's in the arctic circle, and this January (every January!) I tended to agree. The temperature, for those of you who chickened out and went south, sank to levels that broke all records since the last Ice Age, although after four days of highs at ten below zero I can state confidently that the Ice Age was warmer.

Severe weather strongly affects people, and there was a lot of grumbling, cursing, panic and depression.  But then I turned to more constructive outlets.  Besides making huge vats of soup, I organized unofficial parties of scouts to keep an eye out for ice monsters.  I was concerned about woolly mammoths, too, but after all, they were large, clumsy beasts that probably made a lot of noise as they crunched through ice, snow, and the supermarket parking lot. My private bet is that you can always get away from a woolly mammoth. Ice monsters, however, are sneaky, creeping silently to envelop whole villages in their icy claws.  So I asked the local ice fishermen to keep an eye out for them, and they agreed.  Though they probably wouldn't notice if a woolly mammoth came up and sat down beside them, other than to wonder why Jim smells kind of funny.

This is because ice fishermen are crazy.  It's one of the requirements, probably right there in the fishing license, in the small print along with this year's limit. "Must be over 18, a resident of South Dakota, willing to sink brand-new two-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle in the lake for two fish under six inches, and/or risk frostbite to all important bodily extremities in pursuit of the same."  AND THEY ARE.

The central reality of ice fishing is ice.  Now to most of us, ice is something we either put in our drinks or slip on and bust our fannies.  But to the ice fisherman, as to the Eskimo, there are innumerable grades and variations of ice, from "frozen solid" to "Just drive on out, she'll be fine." Their problem is in telling the difference, especially if they're driving someone else's car.

Image result for ice fishingYour average ice fisherman, trudging out on the ice with a pail of bait, sporting the uniform of ancient insulated body suit, hunter's cap, and gloves, with only his nose exposed directly to the howling winds and ferocious cold, is a harmless individual who simply doesn't like his nose as much as the rest of us do ours.  He says he has come to fish, which is sometimes true.  Mostly, though, he comes for that strange meditative state that comes only when he is crouched over a small hole in the ice.  "Om," might be running through his mind, or "Uff-da", or "There's a big one right under me, I just know it," or "I'm missing the game."  Sometimes he even thinks, "My nose is about to fall off."  But no matter what, he stays put on his little patch of holy ground, er, ice.

This is why he wouldn't notice a woolly mammoth if it came up and sat on him.  It also - FUTURE MYSTERY WRITER ALERT -  makes him a perfect target for murder.  Except that the problem is that no one would be able to tell that he was dead until he didn't show up for dinner, and even then they might not look for him.  (Ice fishermen are not always the most notable dinner companions.)

But you put this same shy, retiring man into a vehicle, preferably a big pick-up with a few concrete blocks in the back, and that meditative state goes flying out the window right along with his brain. Suddenly he's zipping up one end of the lake and down the other, doing figure eights and "controlled spins" (it's controlled as long as the truck doesn't flip).  Any slush (with, hopefully, ice under it) simply means a larger, better spray as he does a perfect 360 degree circle.  If he can scare some roosting ice fishermen, well, they needed to get their circulation going anyway.  And no one is more surprised than he when that last whoosh of spray comes from his front end going through the ice.

And you thought I was kidding!

"But it was frozen solid when I went by on my way to work!" he explains, ignoring the fact that he went by three days ago.  Since then there has been a major thaw, and the ice is now a series of little ice floes with water running around them.

I once saw a pick-up actually sitting on an ice floe.  It was large and new and expensive.  The driver was in the cab, staring out at the landscape while the motor idled, and the exhaust shrinking the floe as he smoked a cigarette.  What I couldn't figure out was how he got out there in the first place.  He had to have gone out the night before, when there was still a thin skin of ice on the water.  Planning, of course, to get an early start.  (Fishermen always want to get an early start, which is why they're always back so late.)

"You'd better just try to wade, I mean, walk your way out!" I yelled across at him.

He looked around and shook his head.  "Nah, I can just drive on out, she'll be fine."  He backed the truck up a little, and then gunned it.  Icy slush flew up and sprayed everything, including the required roosting ice fishermen.  The ice floe shook, dissolved, and the truck was hidden by walls of water and ice to where I couldn't look any more.  When I finally peeked, he was wading out of the lake.

He stared back at his truck and said, "Lake was frozen solid when I saw it on my way to work Tuesday."

"It's Thursday," I pointed out.

He shook his head in disbelief.  Then he grinned.  "At least I'm bringing home dinner," he crowed, holding up two six-inch fish.

Like I said, ice fishermen are crazy.

26 August 2015

The Whitechapel Murders

David Edgerley Gates

What is it about Jack the Ripper that continues to excite our collective imagination? The murders took place in 1888, after all, a hundred-and-twenty-five years ago. Everybody involved is long dead, the victims, the surviving witnesses, the cops, the newspapermen, the actual killer.

Well, foremost, the case has never been solved. There's an enormous canon of literature devoted to it. If you go the Ripper casebook website, http://www.casebook.org/, they name over a hundred possible suspects.

Secondly, it's widely considered to be the first documented serial killer case - although this in isn't true. Jack, however, generated a boatload of newsprint, and the image of a demented vivisectionist stalking Whitechapel for unlucky whores took hold.

More particularly, though, it probably is the first case to involve criminal profiling. In the late 1800's, forensic psychiatry didn't exist. Forensics of any kind, crime scene analysis, was primitive. Preserving the chain of evidence wasn't even on the radar. But in the Ripper case, a police surgeon speculated the killer was a
solitary, subject to periodic attacks of erotic mania, a "brooding condition of the mind." In other words, they were taking a stab (no pun intended) at ascribing motive. Jack wasn't simply possessed by evil spirits, he was diseased, as it's commonly understood. Mentally ill. Not an attempt to excuse his crimes, it was a means to an end. If they could isolate the Ripper's logic, they might identify him.

A couple of recent mystery thrillers explore this dynamic, David Morrell's MURDER AS A FINE ART (and its sequel, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD), and Stephen Hunter's I, RIPPER. Morrell's book isn't about the Whitechapel killings, but a guy mimicking the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which took place seventy-odd years before the Ripper. Hunter's book, as you can tell from the title, is very much about Jack.

It's interesting that two not entirely dissimilar writers have both chosen to do historicals, and Victorian era historicals, at that. I understand the attraction. It's also interesting that both Hunter and Morrell come at it from a somewhat similar perspective. Not a modern one, mind. There's nothing a-historical or anachronistic about their approach. But the period they've chosen is one of huge impending change. The coming of rail travel, say, the Industrial Revolution in full cry. Income disparity, the crushing burden of poverty, the displacement of populations and the rise of dense urban environments. All of this contributes to the rise of a phenomenon like the Ripper. And what the two writers both do, entirely convincingly, is to work out how you'd look for a killer's footprint, the shadow he casts. This is forensic science before it had a name. Reading the runes, or bottling smoke.

When we talk of Dickensian squalor, it's really a kind of shorthand, and an avoidance mechanism. It's hard for us to imagine how squalid and brutish life in the London slums actually was, in Victorian times. Social inequities were extreme, and the Ripper became a metaphor - a gentleman, it was said, preying on the weakest of the underclass. Jack embodies a nameless dread, an entire ruling class of predator. He prefigures, not the Ted Bundys of this world, but gangster capitalism. He represents a stacked deck.

Why was he never caught? Police incompetence, for openers. They weren't equipped to deal with somebody like Jack. Yes, he was a pattern killer, and there was method, and opportunity, and most importantly, repetition, but the cops never established his template, and he slipped the noose. Then again, there's the more sinister theory that Jack was a member of the Establishment, some go so far as to say a collateral cousin of the Royal Family, and a scandal had to be prevented. Because we have the lingering question of why the murders stopped. Maybe they found the guy, but his social position protected him, so instead of going for a short dance on a stiff rope, he wound up in the booby hatch. Which might go some way toward explaining why Jack has such a long shelf life. He eludes us. Not simply because it's the most studied of cold cases, and unresolved even today, but because he himself seems written in water.

Not so, his victims, In death, they have a disturbing physicality, exposed to the naked eye. Mary Jane Kelly was the last of the five, and a police photograph exists, the disemboweled girl lying in her bloody sheets. You can find the picture at the link below, but I won't post it here.

25 August 2015

Learning to Love the Element of Surprise

by Barb Goffman

When you read a novel, you'll often see an acknowledgments page on which the author thanks people who have helped in the creation of the book or in the author's career: friends, experts, librarians. Well, I'm here to say that we mystery writers have someone else to thank. Someone I've never seen thanked publicly before. So today, I give a hearty salute to ... cereal companies.
My current cereal has no prizes. Sob.

Since the mid-1900s, and particularly in the decade of my youth, the '70s, kids cereals often came with a prize buried deep in the box. I'd dutifully eat my cereal every morning, patiently waiting until the day I'd gotten far enough into the box that, joy oh joy, my new toy slid with my cereal into the bowl. What would it be? A fake tattoo? A small race car? A whistle? Whatever it was, I was eager to get it. And in the process of eagerly awaiting my prize each day, I was trained to be a mystery reader.

Think about it. Reading a mystery is just like anticipating the prize in the cereal box. Readers know a surprise is coming at the end, and they wait, happily turning pages, eager to uncover the bad guy or experience a big twist. Or both. Some readers try to figure out whodunit in advance, just as kids used to try to guess what the cereal prize would be. I was a big guesser, so it makes sense that I grew up to love mysteries, reading and writing them.

Googly eyes tattoo from a bandages box.
Of course there were all kinds of cereal eaters, just like there are all kinds of mystery readers. Some kids, like me, waited for the prize to tumble out of the box. We grew up to be readers who start on page one of a book and read until the end. But there were many kids who had no patience. They rammed their arms into each new cereal box, reaching around until they pulled the prize out. These kids grew up to read the last page of a book first.

Sometimes cereal boxes revealed right on them what the prize would be so you went into breakfast knowing what to expect, but not knowing when it would happen. When would the toy slide out of the box? Would it be as cool as you hoped? The kids who liked knowing the prize in advance and enjoyed the ride, waiting each day for the toy to fall into the bowl, became thriller readers.

Alas, the time of mystery prizes buried in cereal boxes seems to be over, which leaves me a little sad. But this development makes it all the more wonderful that the Frito-Lay company has taken up the mantle of training future mystery and thriller readers with their new, time-limited Doritos Roulette
Everything's better with Coke.
Chips. Most of the chips in these bags are normal nacho-cheese Doritos, but every sixth one is superspicy, and you never know which chip it will be until it's in your mouth.

Bob Harris's first bite.
I recently tested these Roulette chips on some friends. They started skeptically. How hot could the superspicy ones be? As you'll see in the photos, pretty darn hot. "One little taste and my tongue's on fire," author Sherry Harris said. "Ooh, I'm sweating," her husband, Bob, said. Ashley Harris added, "The regular chips have a slight kick, and then you hit the hot one and wow." But did they all stop after eating a superspicy chip? Nope. They liked the kick and went back for more. "I hurt myself, but it was good," Bob said.

Tasting a real hot one

Talk about teaching eaters--and readers--to love suspense and the element of surprise. Knowing the extraspicy chips are in the bag, but not knowing when you'll get that explosion in your mouth, is like reading a thriller, knowing there's a ticking time bomb under the table and waiting, heart pounding, until it goes off. And by putting more than one superspicy chip in each bag, the Doritos people are training readers to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of a good mystery, as the story waxes and wanes, and the main character faces greater and greater hurdles as she gets closer to the end of the story or book.

He's sweating!
That is excitement. That is the fun of reading a mystery. And that is the delight that cereal companies used to bring with the prizes hidden in their boxes, and that the Frito-Lay company is bringing now with their Doritos Roulette Chips. Alas, I understand these chips are only on sale through the end of this month, so if you want to experience them, run out and get a bag now, before they effectively go out of print. But before you do, please join me in thanking cereal companies and Frito-Lay, on behalf of crime writers everywhere, for priming kids and grown-up snackers to love mysteries so much that they come back, again and again, to read more. For mysteries are like any good chip--you can't just have one.

Do you recall a favorite prize you got from a cereal box? Or have you tried the Doritos Roulette Chips? I'd love to hear about it.