30 September 2012

Spying E-Readers

by Louis Willis

Are we Americans overly paranoid about corporations and government collecting information about us?

I’m not sounding an alarm, but based on two articles I read in the online journal The Guardian, our reading privacy and reading freedom, it seems, are being threatened.

Like many people, I worry about privacy when I use the Internet. The article “Big e-Reader is watching you” (July 4, 2012) by Alison Flood has increased the worry gremlins running around in my head. “Retailers and search engines,” she writes, “can now gather an astonishingly detailed portrait of our book-reading habits: what we buy, what we browse, the amount of time we spend on a page and even the annotations we make in an ebook.”

As the article suggests, if you use an E-reader or computer, the Big Brothers--book publishers, booksellers, the government, and maybe even authors--are watching what you read, how long it takes you to finish a novel, and what parts you highlight. I read an article (forgot to copy the URL) in another online publication or blog that a small publisher of E-books has gone so far as to allow readers to chose their heroes, heroines, and plots. It seems the publisher wants to make storytelling and reading what it is not and shouldn’t be for adult readers--interactive.

Jo Glanville in his article “Reader’s privacy is under threat in the digital age” (August 31, 2012) notes that the digital trail we leave behind when we download an E-book to our computer or E-reader is a source of information for the government to track us and for business to see us as potential customers and thus profit. California is tackling the problem of government spying head on. The legislature passed “The Reader Privacy Act” that requires government agencies to obtain a court order to collect information about a reader online or from bookstores. We can solve the problem of the government gathering information about our reading habits by following California’s example and forcing the government at all levels to obtain a court order before gathering information about what we read.

Authors, publishers, booksellers, and E-reader makers are a different matter. Authors already cater to readers’ taste in novels that have series protagonists. Authors want two things: to be read and to be paid for what they write. Publishers, booksellers, and E-reader makers want one thing: to make a profit. The E-book sellers for now, through E-readers, are in the driver’s seat. I can’t share an E-book with friends without the seller’s permission, though I suspect some smart geek will eventually, like music sharing, find a way around the restrictions, and, like the music producers, publishers, E-book sellers, and authors will fight back. Authors and publishers are challenging E-book sellers for control of E-book pricing. I hope the authors win but who ever wins, I also hope it benefits us readers.

That our E-readers are spying on us should be no surprise, for our computers have been spying on us for years. We will, because we don’t have a choice, accept the spying because the control of E-books and what we read is in the hands of manufacturers and sellers of E-readers. I have not yet made up my mind as to whether this is a good or bad thing. I don’t like the gathering of information on me by businesses or government, just as I don’t like authors posting fake reviews or bullying reviewers and critics (see Leigh’s September 9 post), but I’ll keep reading E-books on my three E-readers.

I tried but couldn’t write a humorous post on the threat to our freedom and privacy to read. There has to be some humor in the situation, doesn’t there?

29 September 2012

Mystery Week



by John M. Floyd



Our home, at the moment, is a bachelor pad.  Yes, it's true that I am married and have been for forty years--but my wife's out of town for a couple weeks, and I've been left to my own devices.  As of this writing, it's been ten days since her departure, and so far I have (1) read most of a novel and a dozen short stories, (2) written a story of my own, (3) watched five movies and a lot of series-on-DVD, and (4) consumed nine TV dinners and two lunch specials at a nearby pizza place.  What I haven't done is wash many clothes or dishes, but hey, I haven't yet had to use a lot--and besides, I've got several more days before the boss returns and does an inspection.

The best thing about all this couch-potatoish activity is that most of it has fallen into the mystery/suspense category.

Reading

The short stories I've read this week were actually re-read, from two of my favorite collections: Little Boxes of Bewilderment by Jack Ritchie and Small Felonies by Bill Pronzini.  Bewilderment features thirty-one mysteries by one of the true masters of the short story, and Felonies contains fifty (count 'em, fifty) mystery short-shorts.  Every tale in both books is delightful, and some are brilliant.

The novel I've been reading is also a re-read, and even though it's not a mystery it includes a hearseload of suspense and mayhem.  It's Stephen King's Wizard and Glass--I'm giving it and Wolves of the Calla a second go-round because I recently finished his fairly new The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is positioned between W&G and WOTC in the Dark Tower series.  (Dale, I am once more on the path of the Beam, thankee-sai.)  For those of you who are not familiar with Roland of Gilead and his In-World adventures, Wizard and Glass is--like all of King's novels--well-written and packed with action, although it's a strange kind of action: the novel might be best categorized as a fantasy/Western/romance.  And I was pleased to find that revisiting it has been as much fun as reading it the first time was, years ago.

At the top of my to-be-read stockpile of novels are A Wanted Man by Lee Child and Winter of the World by Ken Follett.  I bought both of them the other day and will get to them as soon as I finish my return to the King.

Watching

My movie and TV viewing this past week has also been mostly mystery/crime/suspense: Man on a Ledge, Lockout, Get the Gringo, HeadhuntersSafe House, and the second season of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.  Sadly, none of these are what I would call top-notch except for Boardwalk and (if you don't mind subtitles) Headhunters.  Just for the heck of it, I also re-watched the pilot episode of Lost--probably the only network series of the last ten years that I've really enjoyed.


Lest I mislead you, though, the movies I've mentioned were viewed not in a proper theater but in my home theater, and from the comforting depths of my recliner--and all of them (the TV shows as well) either arrived in a red Netflix envelope or were streamed in via Apple TV.  Give me those conveniences and a snack and my remote and my pair of wireless headphones, and I'm a kid in a candy store.

Next up in my movie queue are Touch of Evil, A Kiss Before Dying, and the U.S. (2011) version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Writing

The short story I wrote this past week is a 3200-word mystery called "Secrets: A Ferry Tale."  It's sort of a Strangers on a Train kind of story with a different mode of transportation.  It's also the first piece of fiction I've ever written whose title has included a colon--but the truth is, I couldn't decide between the two titles and this was a way to use both.  (I've always been more devious than smart.)

Like so many of my shorts, the rough draft for this one happened fast, within a couple of hours, and then I spent the next two days rewriting it.  I wish I could do as some of my writer friends do, and pop stories out of the oven fully baked, but with me it just never works that way.  My babies are usually ugly, so I do a lot more rewriting than writing.  The good thing is, the revision stage doesn't bother me; I'm one of those crazy people who actually enjoy the act of trying to polish a story until it shines.

I also sold another mystery to Woman's World and came up with ideas for two more--those are not yet written down, but they're fully formed in my head and awaiting birth.  Now that "Secrets" is finished and languishing on my hard drive, I'll type the two short-shorts up in the next few days and start the editing process.

I'll also start the housecleaning and dishwashing process.  Before the return of my better half I'll probably even make the bed, water the plants, and mow the lawn.  (I might be crazy, but I ain't stupid.)

Now what did I do with that remote . . . ?

28 September 2012

Borrowing from the Best

by R.T. Lawton

I sold my first story published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine back in 2001. It was a stand-alone set in the backdrop of the Golden Triangle. This story had been conveniently resting in inventory when I went looking for markets and started at the top with AHMM's Writer's Guidelines on their website. In part of her suggested story wants, editor Kathleen Jordan mentioned stories set in exotic locations. With the Orient having often been referred to in literature as exotic, I figured Southeast Asia was close enough for government work, especially since a lot of my story was based on articles from an English language newspaper out of Bangkok, plus some situation reports which crossed my desk over the years, not to mention that close-up experience of the twelve-month, government-paid vacation Uncle said I'd won back in the Summer of '67. Lots of background. Anyway, the story was submitted and bought.

I was ecstatic......for about ten minutes. And then, reality crashed the party. One sold story was great, BUT could I do it again? What if I was only a one-shot, flash-in-the-pan? Circumstances now called for a really good story to send in before the editor forgot me and her last purchase. The Muse of Writing forbid that I should mail in a second rate piece for my second submittal to such a prestigious mystery magazine. My brain turned, desperately seeking an answer as to what could possibly be new, original or even interesting.

Solution?

Borrow from the Best.

I had read Lawrence Block's Ehrengraf series about a crooked lawyer whose clients were always "innocent" of the alleged crimes, mainly because the lawyer did his nefarious and very unlegal work out of court and behind the scenes. This was a good starting point; I'd go with a crooked bail bondsman for my protagonist.

Let's see now, there was Isaac Azimov's Black Widower series and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Excellent, I'll have the proprietor of the bail firm solve the mysteries without ever going to the crime scene. His bail agent will bring him clues like the Black Widower supper group did (unintentionally) for the waiter and like Archie did for Nero. Each story will then be written in three separated parts: the problem, the clues and the resolution.

Since this series will tend towards dark comedy, the bail agent needs to be different. How about a resemblance to Peter Lorre's character in Arsenic and Old Lace? Nice, and I'll give him a broken left pinky finger which wasn't set quite right afterwards and therefore now permanently sticks straight out like an upright flagpole whenever he squeegees his sweating bald head with said hand during tight situations. It will be strongly implied that the proprietor was responsible for the broken pinky after one of the bail agent's indiscretions while operating in the name of the firm. The bail agent's name will be Theodore Oscar Alan Dewey, in which case the acronym speaks for itself.

And then there's Dashiell Hammett who wrote some really good stories. Plus, there's an excellent biography out there with good information about his time working in San Francisco. Seems he knew two brothers who were bail bondsmen. The brothers were also crooks who knew all the other criminals and used them to pull off jobs for the two brothers. Perfect, crooked bail bondsmen, fits right in. Now what brothers do I know?

Of course, the Black Mafia in Kansas City during the '70's had a set of twins who allegedly robbed banks, dealt dope, gambled and committed other illicit activities. Let's see now, their street names were Twin and Twin Brother. After they got arrested, Twin Brother said he would cop to the fall, but then Twin had to put half of the money he made from all his future crimes into a bank account in Twin Brother's name.  That way, Twin Brother would have a bankroll when he got out of prison. Twin agreed to the deal and hit the streets to bring in some dough. That's when me and Twin got to know each other quite well before he went off to join his incarcerated brother.

Great. I'll call it the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series. However, being the criminal enterprise it is, the firm will only take "special clients" who can put up high dollar bonds, usually in the form of stolen merchandise which can't yet be fenced. The majority of these clients will never go to trial. Seems they tend to fall from high places, go deep-water swimming without proper breathing apparatus, are killed by their suddenly enraged partners in crime or get run over by an errant taxi cab… although in all fairness it should be mentioned that the victim was outside of the clearly marked crosswalk at the time. In any case, the client is somehow rendered deceased, yet the bail firm makes an extraordinary profit.

Hope you kept up with all those dark twisted corridors and squeaky closet doors which only get opened by night when the house goes silent and honest folk are fast asleep. Just know that in this series, the Reader ends up cheering for a criminal protagonist, one who preys on other criminals.

By this fashion, "The Bond that Keeps," first in the series, was born. Kathleen bought the story and it appeared in 2002.

Now, you have to wait two weeks for… The Rest of the Story.

27 September 2012

Notes from the Penitentiary – September 2012

by Eve Fisher

Yes, I'm back from the ever-friendly South Dakota State Penitentiary, after another three day Alternatives to Violence (AVP) Workshop.  This one was training facilitators, i.e., turning outsiders (like myself) and insiders (yes, inmates) into trainers of other outsiders and inmates in the principles of AVP.

As always, exhausting, worthwhile, rewarding, interesting.

Also as always, the food is a criminal offense in and of itself.  Up here in South Dakota, they've outsourced all meals to CBM Managed Services.  Now CBM's website is a masterpiece of literary succulence - "High quality food service programs through utilizing fresh, high-quality foods, tested recipes, planned production standards, preparation practices and comprehensive employee training programs" - but in actuality it looks like dog food.  No fruit, fresh or cooked.  Industrial canned vegetables, one scoop per meal (maybe).  (This tray is semi-accurate; take out the red stuff, put in a slab of bread, double up on the brown stuff and take out the beans.)  But hey, it's cheap, and that's what counts. All I can say is that I wouldn't feed it to a dog.  And yes, I have first-hand experience, because we go in at 7 in the morning and get out at 6 at night, and we're not allowed to go out for meals or breaks.  So we share in the dining experience - twice a day - with the prisoners.

Speaking of food, sort of, Ramen noodles- i.e., "soups" - are still standard currency.  The workshop role play that got the biggest applause was one about an inmate who owed five soups to a storer inmate and couldn't/wouldn't (difference never was determined...) pay.  After considerable talk and a bit of shoving, the local lifer told them all the shut the f*** up.  Eventually he paid up the five soups for the owing inmate, which meant that now that inmate owed the lifer - not necessarily a good thing.  Everyone agreed the inmate needed to pay his debts, and learn who to owe and who not to owe.  I asked the actor (still in character) if he was going to pay the lifer, and he said "maybe," which got a lot of muttered comments from the audience about how he was going to get punked if he didn't.  (Getting punked ranges from getting beat up to rape.)  I agree - he needs to pay his debts.

I am always in admiration of the awesome ingenuity of prisoners and their families.  One of the ways to smuggle things into the pen is to have a friend of relative shoot stuffed dead animals over the wall into the yard with a potato gun.  (Proof that reality is stranger than fiction, because I'd never have thought of doing that.  And I don't know anybody on God's sweet green earth that I would do that for...)  Anyway, they stuff the animals with tobacco, cell phones, or drugs, which is why prisoners on the yard are always keeping an eye out for dead squirrels, birds, etc.  So are guards.  I gather it is often a sprint to see which gets there first.

We have workshops in October and November, and we already know they're going to be a bit hairy, and might even get cancelled by the authorities...  There's going to be at least one execution in October or November - Eric Roberts and Rodney Berget, both lifers, killed prison guard Ron Johnson in an escape attempt.  Both have been sentenced to death, and both have either rejected appeals or the appeals have been denied.  (Rodney Berget is continuing a family tradition, in that his brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000.)  Anyway, executions disturb the prisoners (there's a surprise), and the staff (who are worried about the prisoners and how they'll react), and the administration (who double down on security, thus upsetting the prisoners even more).  So the workshops will probably be more emotional and more strained than usual. Will keep you posted.

Meantime, stay out of trouble, and go enjoy a really good meal. I did.

26 September 2012

Five Red Herrings III

by Robert Lopresti

1. What Not To Wear To A Murder Trial
File under too-weird-for-fiction.  You probably heard that former policeman  Drew Peterson was convicted of killing his wife, but did you hear about the odd thing about the jury?  They dressed  alike.  One day all business suits.  Another day sports Jerseys.  Sometimes red, white, and blue.  Apparently they were having a lot of fun, but does this show the proper attitude when judging a man  who is accused of murdering his wife?

Apparently the feeling during the trial was that no one could ask them about it.  "If they came in wearing T-shirts saying 'Drew's Guilty,' it'd be different," said one attorney.

2. Encounter with Number 6.
I recently met a writer named Stephan Michaels.  Naturally I took a peek at his website and found a terrific piece about his friendship with one of my favorite actors, Patrick McGoohan.  For any fans of Secret Agent or The Prisoner, I highly recommend it.

As we walked back to our cars, Patrick asked if I thought I’d ever have any real money, and - as I had already confessed to being a bachelor - if I thought I’d ever get married. I answered optimistically to the first and shrugged off the latter. The valet pulled up in his silver BMW and Patrick offered that he and his wife had been married for forty years. “And do you know why it works? Because we don’t agree on a thing!”

3.  Satire by the Illiterate

This has nothing to do with mystery fiction, but if you love great writing, oh my, invest a few minutes.    After the Civil War ex-slave Jordon Anderson apparently received a letter from his old master inviting him to come back to the plantation and work for wages.  For those who still maintain that slavery was Not So Bad (such people do exist) his response is a cold dose of reality.  Anderson was illiterate; he dictated lis letter to an abolitionist friend.  Be sure to read the last sentence.

4.  Ghost writing

Courtesy of Sandra Seaman's invaluable blog My Little Corner, here is the web's premium dating service for dead people...  Ooh, spooky.


5.  The Rules

Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios in history.  Their rules for successful  storytelling are a lesson for us all.

25 September 2012

A Bouchercon Mystery

 
by Dale C. Andrews

    Bouchercon, the annual mystery-writers’ convention, convenes next week in Cleveland, Ohio, and runs from October 4 through 7.  John Floyd is the only SleuthSayer contributor that I know is attending.  I was at last year’s convention in St. Louis – and was on a short story writers’ panel with R.T. Lawton there the week before SleuthSayers first hit the internet.  I won’t be attending this year, but in honor of the event, and as a salute to John and Leigh, who have made their marks in the area of mini-mysteries, I offer up the following SleuthSayer Bouchercon mystery – not so much a “whodunit,” as a “how did that happen?”


                                         *           *           *           *           *           *           *

    The mid-day traffic on Huron Road finally eased enough for the Yellow Cab to swing into the driveway of the Radisson Hotel.  The car lumbered to a stop under the reception awning and the cabbie caught the eyes of the three passengers wedged shoulder to shoulder in the back seat. 

    “That’ll be twenty bucks, gents.”

    The slender man stuck in the middle of the rear seat already had his wallet in his hand.  He reached across the top of the front seat and pressed a twenty and a five into the outstretched hand of the cabbie.

    “Keep it and have a nice day.”

    The three men clambered out of the back seat, each grabbing a bag from the trunk that the cabbie had opened.  With their bags in hand the slender man turned to his two companions.

    “That works out to $8.33 each for the cab ride.”

    “You know, John,” one of the men noted, “it would have been easier if you had just tipped $4.00.  Then we would each owe only $8.00.”  The third man muttered his assent.

    John rolled his eyes.  “Look, Dale and Leigh, the guy deserved the five bucks.  If you have trouble making the change you can each just give me eight.”

    “Well, this whole thing is expensive,” Leigh grumbled.  “I mean, it’s not like mystery short story writers are raking in the dough.”

    The three men approached the check-in desk and gave their names to the uniformed attendant smiling over her computer.  “Yes,” she said.  “I see we have your reservation.  Three of you sharing a room, two twins and a pull-out sofa.  That will be $300.  Do you want this on a credit card?”

    John, Dale and Leigh shook their heads in unison.  Each pulled $100 in cash from their respective wallets and handed the bills to the receptionist. 

    “Thank you.  A bellhop will show you to your room.”

    The three writers dutifully followed the bellhop to the elevator.  On the 5th floor they exited and followed him down the hall to room 543, which the bellhop opened with a key card.  The bellhop handed a key card to each of the writers, showed them how the air conditioner worked and then paused at the door. 

    Dale spoke before the others could.  “Thanks.  We’ll call you if we need anything.”  A crestfallen look passed across the bellhop’s face as he nodded politely and left the room.

    “Guys,” John said, shaking his head.  “We should have tipped him something.  I mean, it’s expected.”  Dale and Leigh, already intent on claiming the single beds in the room, did not respond.

    Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door.  John, who had been trying to figure out how the fold-away sofabed worked, was closest to the door and answered the knock.  Standing in the hall was the bellhop.  Before the still-embarrassed John could say anything the bellhop spoke.

    “Hello, again, sir,” the bellhop began with an engaging smile, “Sorry to bother you folks.  But I overheard the receptionist check you guys in and charge you $300.  That didn’t seem right to me since there is a Bouchercon writers’ special of $250 per night.  So I mentioned that to the receptionist and said you were overcharged.  She checked the rate and found out that you are entitled to that discount.  Since you paid cash she sent me back up with $50 to give you.”  The bellhop handed five crisp ten dollar bills to John. 

    “This is greatly appreciated,” John stammered.  He took two of the ten dollar bills and thrust them toward the bellhop.  The boy smiled gratefully, eyes wide, and pocketed the bills.

    John closed the door and turned back into the room only to find Dale and Leigh hovering behind him. 

    “Pretty steep tip,” Dale muttered as John handed each of them a ten dollar bill, pocketing the remaining one himself.

    Leigh’s eyes narrowed, and it was obvious he was working something over in his head.  “Wait a minute,” Leigh finally said, a look of incredulity spreading across his face.  “When we checked in, and the room was $300, we each paid $100.  And now, with the special rate, we each got $10 back.  This means we each paid $90, and. $90 times three men equals $270. John just tipped the bellhop $20. That only equals $290!”

                 CHALLENGE TO THE READER

    So:  What happened to the extra $10?  And perhaps more importantly, why does John travel with these two cheapskates?

   

24 September 2012

Childhood Memories

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

This week I opened a quart carton of orange sherbet. Yum. I've had orange sherbet through the years yet, somehow, this time my childhood memories flooded back (maybe old age kicking in, who knows?) I suddenly felt as if I were eleven again, visiting my dad for the summer in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents divorced when I was young. Both parents remarried and during the whole school year, I lived with my mother, step-dad and two little sisters, out on the high plains of Texas, forty miles from Lubbock in the small town of Post, TX. Post then had a population of about three thousand folks and this was back in the olden days when ice cream was only available in grocery stores and drug stores. The most flavors I remember were vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, and strawberry. In the summer, when I went to visit my dad in the big city of Fort Worth for a couple of weeks, one of the first things we did was to drive over to Baskin Robbins where, at that time, they offered thirty-one flavors of ice cream. I'd look at everything they had and every single time order the same thing...orange sherbet, served in an ice cream cone. I have no idea why. They had banana nut, peppermint, chocolate mint, cherry vanilla, regular vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, peach, Neapolitan, and something with nuts, maybe butter pecan. They also had orange, lime and pineapple sherbet. I don't remember any of the other thirty-one flavors but for some strange reason orange sherbet really seemed like the best of the best to me and that's what I'd buy.

This nostalgic trip got me thinking about my childhood memories of reading. I honestly don't remember not liking to read and really not sure when I began reading. A little before first grade and then from first grade on I read and still read as much as I can now. I lived with my grandmother in Houston for my first grade and then my mother remarried and I moved to Post, TX when school was out. I spent a lot of the summer playing outside, but I also spent a lot of time reading...sometimes reading outside. My parents bought me books. Post didn't have a library then but there was a small library at our church. Most of the books at the church were biographies but written for children. So I learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington Carver from these bios. At home mother bought, Heidi, Black Beauty, Grimm's Fairy Tales and Bible Story books. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and a series called The Sugar Creek Gang, which was about a boy and his pals but I liked adventures and the boys were always having those.

I probably started reading Nancy Drew when I was nine or ten years old and devoured those. I think I tried the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belton, but Nancy was my idol. She had a really cool dad, an even cooler convertible and she solved mysteries. But my big love for mysteries really grabbed me totally when I was twelve and my father handed me a stack of his paperback books: Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott and Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and his Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detectives, and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I thought Private Eye books were awesome and Perry Mason was so exciting by the revelation of the murderer in the trial.

Soon I matriculated to high school and devoured as many of their mysteries as I could find...Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christi, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammet, Rex Stout. I could go on and on but you get the idea. I still read spies and thrillers, Ian Flemming, John le Carre, Alistair McClain and I soon discovered John D. MacDonald wrote other books besides the Travis McGee series. In the meantime, Post TX got a public library and my mother became one of the volunteer librarians and when they were able to hire a librarian full time, my mom got the job. She had only gone to the 8th grade in school but she had gotten a GED and she took some college classes by correspondence. She took many of the continuing education classes the library offered. That was her dream job and also helped add to my "have read" growing list of books. Is it any wonder that I wound up writing mysteries and owning a mystery bookstore?

In exploring my childhood memories which I decided to share with each of you I reveal how I managed to fall in love with mysteries and private eyes in particular. What about you?

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to the kitchen to have a bowl of orange sherbet.

23 September 2012

Adventures in South Africa

by Leigh Lundin

I'm spending the better part of a year living in South Africa. If you're anything like me, you probably harbor pre-conceived notions and yet wonder what the land is really like.

I've lived and worked in Europe and South America. Each country has a 'personality' not to be defined by or confused with their nation's politics. A national personality is both amalgamation and generalization, a distilled broad-stroke synthesis of millions of people.

South Africa… I've never visited a land whose personality so closely matches that of North America– the friendliness, hardiness, sense of humor, spirit of industry and entrepreneurism, a determination to conquer prejudice, and the will to persevere when times get tough. And, everyone speaks English.

To many Americans, South Africa must appear exotic, even strange, but I have a surprise for you– it's more familiar, more 'ordinary', more like America than you can believe. To be sure, I've spent almost all my time in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (birthplace of the Zulus), which is like a tourist spending their entire visit in one American state and thinking all of the US is like (shudder) Florida. KZN is the most English of the nine provinces, so my perceptions may differ from parts of the country that are dominated by, say, Dutch Afrikaners.

isiZulu

People pepper their speech with Zulu words. I love the expressive sound of isiZulu– the actual name of the Zulu language. For example, a rattletrap vehicle is a skadonk and a bad guy is a sigebengu (prounced 'skabanguh'). The onomatopoeia word for tractor is gunda-gunda… anyone who's familiar with older farm machinery can't help but smile.

One word I adopted is muti (moo-tea), meaning medicine, but it can also mean any liquid put to good use, such as 'dishwashing muti'. Americans use at least one isiZulu word without realizing it– fundi, an expert.

South meets South

Three weeks ago, our friend Geri came to visit. She's the epitome of the Southern lady, soft-spoken and very easy to underestimate as some have learned to their surprise or dismay. She travels perhaps twice a year and accepted Cate's invitation to visit.

Fortunately Geri travels well and is patient, since the textbook publisher seemed to ramp up the workload at the same time the deadline loomed like a plunging vulture. But family was good to us, Tig and Sue, who lent us their home. Geri, Cate and I lived on the beach, sunbathed and waded in the Indian Ocean, and visited the Oribi Gorge, a scenic combination of horticulture, agriculture, and wildlife. Geri rode a Segway along the beach in Durban and into Moses Mahbida Stadium.

Thanks to friends Dave and Shirley, we visited Springbok Lodge in the Nambiti Game Reserve. Among other bragging rights, Nambiti boasts the 'Big 5', the five most dangerous animals to hunt. South Africa's bank notes portray the Big Five: rhino, elephant, lion, cape buffalo, and leopard. This is even more impressive when you realize the Egyptians considered the hippo and crocodile to be the most fearsome. These aren't animals to fool around with– even the ostrich has been known to kill men.

Four out of Five

On my first visit to the game reserve weeks earlier, locals told me I was amazingly lucky to see the Big 5, all except the leopard. And these weren't distant sightings: A mother and child rhinoceros galloped along side the Land Cruiser. We were close enough to grazing cape buffalo to see oxpecker birds cleaning their coats. Only days later, bad tempered buffalo turned on a Jeep and wreaked thousands of dollars of damage upon it. And the lions– a pride of three strolled past our Land Cruiser so close you could have flicked a booger at them, had you been so foolish.

During that visit, herds of zebra and giraffe seemed to be everywhere, and it's an amazing sight to see giraffes browsing above the treetops. Cate calculated we spotted 13 different kinds of buck– the South African term for deer and antelopes– from the small bush buck, to impala, hartebeest, wildebeest, and the largest of all, the eland.

On this trip with Geri, we again saw all the Big 5 except the elusive leopards. Birds surrounded us. Bachelor rhinos eyed us warily. As we watched, mother elephants taught their calves how to uproot trees: In the winter, roots contain more nutrients than barren branches, so elephants require a goodly supply of trees to munch upon.

Normally, hippopotami soak in ponds like huge inert hogs, imitating boulders. Not this time– hippos rumbled ashore during an early morning stretch. One juvenile postured and played with another, putting on a show.

Meanwhile, Geri was busy snapping photos. For example…


You may notice a theme here. Every time Geri raised her camera, subjects would spin around and pose: "Wanna see my butt?"

One afternoon we found lions hidden in the tall grass, but a big male wandered off, his bum toward us,to check his kill because jackals were wandering the area. Minutes later he strolled back, at last facing us. Geri raised her lens and… the big lion paused and… Geri aimed her camera and… the lion squatted and…

Proceeded to take an excruciating minutes-long dump.

Cate burst out with "Dude, you need fiber."

Later– yesterday in fact– Geri and Cate found a calendar of animal butts. It looks like Geri's animals thought they were still posing for it.

When tracking, Rangers communicate 'visuals' over the radio in isiZulu so passengers don't leap out of their seats to spot the latest 'find' and scare off– or attract– the animal's attention.

Geri took great photos of a lounging jackal, rarely seen sunning. She also got a great snap of a warthog. They kneel when they graze and shuffle along on their foreknees. In another great bit of luck, rangers spotted the reserve's lone cheetah– just one cheetah in 22,000 acres– lions had killed the others.

Darkest Africa

Through poaching and hunting, populations of some big cats number in two and three digits. Elephants are threatened in many places, but may be stabilized. The black rhinoceros is critically endangered and other species are believed to be extinct. For what? For their horn, that bit of keratin thought to be an aphrodisiac in some Asian cultures.

Speaking of cultures, to Westerners, elephants, rhinos, and hippos are great lumbering beasts, but to Africans, they are elegant, powerful, imbued with history and mystique. They're like bison and bears to the American Indian, creatures to be respected and protected in a modern and hazardous environment.

This is the Africa of legends, of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Ryder Haggard, and perhaps of Lee Falk, Lyman Young, and Wilbur Smith. Like our state and national forests, this commitment preserves and conserves habitat so that species– some numbered in the hundreds, some in the dozens or fewer– have a narrow chance to survive and perhaps thrive.

So what do I think of South Africa? I love it. I love it here. I wouldn't be surprised if you would too.

22 September 2012

What If? The Heart of the Story


by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve heard it said that every story starts with a “what if,” a question in the writer’s mind that provides the seed from which all the rest grows. It makes sense to me. Let’s look at the classics. Romeo and Juliet: What if the children of two families engaged in a bitter feud fall in love? King Lear: What if a man divides his estate among his heirs while he’s still alive? Hamlet: What if a man finds out his uncle may have murdered his father—but he’s not sure? Pride and Prejudice: What if a rich bachelor moves into the neighborhood of a family with an entailed estate and five daughters with no dowries? Jane Eyre: What if a man with a mad wife locked in the attic falls in love with the governess?

In a whodunit or a novel of suspense, “what if” can trigger the action, the plot, the mystery itself. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: What if a foundling with a yearning to belong is persuaded to impersonate the missing heir to a family whose members look just like him and share his passion for horses? Stuart Woods, Chiefs: What if a serial killer is a pillar of the community who spreads his murders out over 40 years? The DaVinci Code: What if Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child whose descendant still lives in the present day?

But for some writers, the plot is not the starting point. A situation, setting, or relationship can generate a “what if” that becomes the stage on which the solving of the mystery is played out. Or the “what if” may generate a whole series. Laurie R. King: What if the aging Sherlock Holmes meets a young woman who’s just as smart as he is? Margaret Maron: What if a modern Southern woman whose father was a famous bootlegger becomes a judge? In science fiction, sometimes called speculative fiction, “what if” is the whole point. But mystery writers too need a reason to set their characters in motion, a burning curiosity that they can impart to the reader.

I didn’t consciously think “what if” when I sat down to write Death Will Get You Sober, the first mystery in my series. But when I applied the question to what I’d written, I realized that my central “what if” did not pertain to the murder and its solution but to the characters I had created to solve it and future mysteries in the series: Bruce, the newly sober alcoholic, and his friends, Jimmy and Barbara. What if there were two best friends, inseparable from childhood? What if both were alcoholics? What if one of them got sober and the other didn’t? What if 15 years later the other one stopped drinking too? What would happen to the friendship? What if we throw in a codependent girlfriend who cares as much about what happens between them as they do—and is much more eager to talk about it? To me, the relationships of the protagonist and his friends give life to the mystery.

In a series, the “what ifs” are limited what the author has already established about the characters and their world. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, I asked: What if, once he’s sober, Bruce goes back to his ex-wife, who’s destructive but compelling, while at the same time falling for the prime suspect in the latest murder? In Death Will Extend Your Vacation, I asked: What if Bruce, Barbara, and Jimmy get out of their familiar New York City environment and take shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons?

One difference between novels and short stories for me is that the concise form doesn’t allow me to ask what ifs related to character development. In each short story, there’s a plot what if that generates the mystery. “Death Will Clean Your Closet”: What if Bruce finds a body in his closet? (I had a helluva time figuring out how it got there and how to get it out again, once I started writing.) “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down”: What if a feckless, sexually compulsive Australian takes up residence on Bruce’s couch? (The Australian part was to satisfy the requirement to include one for a short story competition on Crimespace.) Et cetera.

There’s only one what if I’ve vowed never to ask: What if Bruce relapses and starts to drink again?

21 September 2012

To Weave a Tangled Web

E.B. White
by Dixon Hill

When is a children's book not just a children's book?

When it was written by E B White.

My youngest son and I are reading Charlotte's Web. And, to be frank with you, I probably hadn't looked at the thing since I was in the 4th Grade myself.  Maybe even the 3rd Grade; I'm not sure when we read it in class.

Why address a children's book on a mystery blog?

Because I wish, now, that I'd re-read it several years ago.  There's so much to learn about writing, inside.  And, so much the book keeps reminding me about.

A Bit of a Shock

"Well, pull the book out of your backpack, little buddy, and let's take a look at it."  That's what I told my son, when he said he had to read Charlotte's Web for a school book report.

A moment later, the book was in my hands -- and I was floored!

I'd read the book as a kid.  But, it was only as an adult that the author's name lept off the cover at me.  "E B White?" I cried.  "Son!  This is written by E B White!"

As if that would mean anything to him.

My wife stared at me, too.

I stared back, mouth open, no sound coming out, except a very thin: "But . . .  It's E B White."  How could I explain? How could I make them understand about those three or four copies of Elements of Style that I'd murdered over the years -- not through book burnings or neglect, but through long, hard, rough use.  Those little white paperbacks had been literally "dog-eared to death."

I felt a bit as if I'd just learned that God, himself, had taken pen in hand to write the Mother Goose Stories.

It was a much more powerful surprise, even, than the time I bought Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! at a garage sale, only to discover it had been written by Ian Flemming.  That's right.  In case you didn't know,: the same Ian Flemming who wrote the original James Bond novels wrote  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!Which makes sense in the context of the book, because -- when you think about it -- Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! (the car in the book) is really a kids' version of a James Bond spy car.  And, the novel (obviously quite different from the movie) reads (IMHO) as a children's spy or mystery/suspense story.

Further: For those who think only "little old ladies" write mysteries with recipes inside, I think it might be interesting to note that my copy of the book came with a recipe for brownies on the back page. And, clearly, Ian Flemming put it there, because, when the kids eat brownies, in the novel, there is a little aside explaining where to find the recipe, so the reader can try them him/herself.

But, what gets me about Charlotte's Web has nothing to do with flying cars or brownies.

It's the Subtext

Several SS writers (myself included) have touched-on or examined differences between "literary works" and what are often referred to as "genre" works.  But, one element I don't recall seeing explored in enough depth is that of subtext, or multi-layered meaning.  This concept is very near-and-dear (let me know what you guys think of the hyphenation there) to those who love so-called "literary works", and it's one of the hallmarks critics point to, in order to determine if a work has literary merit.

I'm not talking about "Theme" here.  I'm talking about the ability of a written passage, or passages, to be understood in an entirely different way, depending on the reader's viewpoint and experiences.  On the most superficial level, the passage is an integral part of the work, and reads and functions that way: it moves the plot forward, and characters continue to grow or change.  Perhaps the reader gets a better feel for important setting details, or clues. Yet, at the same time, the passage is also open to interpretation, as a metaphor for one or more other ideas; ideas quite different from the surface action or meaning.

My son and I have only made it to Chapter 4 or 5, so far.  Wilbur the pig just recently met Charlotte the spider.  And, this is a children's book; it's simple.  Or, at least, appears to be simple.  Yet, I was surprised to find several elements that veritably screamed at me with different meanings, all in such a short span of pages.  Leave it to E B White to sew this incredibly rich subtext in such a small plot of fertile words.

  But, a person may well ask, did E B White intend us to see this subtext?  Or did he write a simple children's story and I'm loading it down with ideas that were never planted by the author?  According to the literary critics:  It doesn't matter.  The fact that a reader can view subtext -- even if that reader had to bring his own baggage along, to do so -- is what counts.  Subtext is different for each reader, the idea goes, because everyone brings his/her own experience to the table, and this is how readers interact with literature.  It's an important part of what makes Literature literary.

So, please permit me to examine a little of Charlotte's Web in these terms.

Lassie?  Or something darker?

When Wilbur temporarily escapes from the barn, for instance, the farmer lures him back into his pen with a bucket of slop while the goose screams words to the effect: "Don't fall for it!  It's the old Slop Bucket Trick!  You'll be sorry."

My son, who looks at the book through the lens of an innocent nine-year-old, sees the farmer as acting in Wilbur's best interest.  The farmer cares about the pig, and worries about him -- for Wilbur's sake. He helps Wilbur by returning him to the safety and security of the barn, and by feeding him warm food.  My son equates the farmer with the way he would see a police officer or collie dog that helped him get back to the warmth of family and home, were my son to get lost.

As a nearly-fifty-year-old, who once had the dubious honor of slaughtering a cow with a sledge hammer, and has interacted in the sometimes (though not nearly as often as Hollywood would have us believe) duplicitous world of Military Intelligence and Special Operations, I understand that the farmer's caring has less to do with helping Wilbur, than it does with not letting Christmas dinner get away on the hoof.  The farmer only cares about Wilbur, at this point, in the context of the pig's usefulness. The return to warmth and security is important because these elements are necessary if the farmer is to get the ham he plans to harvest near the holiday season. And, the slop bucket that Wilbur is lured back by, is an important part of that plan.  Thus, Wilbur is lured back to a false security by his very love for the thing that will increase the value -- in the farmer's eyes -- of Wilbur's eventual slaughter.

So, my son views this passage in terms of Lassie Come Home while I view it as something more akin to Orwell's Animal Farm, in which (if I recall correctly) the leader-pigs sell the old draft horse to the glue factory.

Is Charlotte a Capitalist  . . .  Or just industrious?

Cavatica or "Barn Spider"
Shortly after Wilbur's return to captivity, he hears a disembodied voice that promises to be his friend.  The next morning, he discovers that this voice belongs to Charlotte, the spider who built her web overhead, in the eaves of the barn.  Her full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

Now, I'm constantly fascinated by the thought process behind naming fictional characters, and may explore the field more fully in a later post.  In this case, however, a quick online search yielded a photo of a Cavatica spider -- otherwise known as a Barn Spider.  Thus, Charlotte's name tells the reader (and the pig, if he has internet access or a good encyclopedia at hoof) what Charlotte is.  At least on the surface.

But, what is she really?

Almost immediately after meeting Charlotte, Wilbur is horrified to watch as she sews-up a fly that got stuck in her web.  And, he's further shocked and disgusted when she tells him that she plans to suck the fly's blood.  When the little pig expresses his feelings, however, Charlotte basically tells him:  "Well you may talk.  You have your food brought to you.  But, I suffer a much more precarious existence than you do, and have to work for my food.  It may seem mean and vicious, but it's what I have to do to survive."

On the surface, a main character is introduced and we learn about her.  We also see the beginnings of Wilbur's horrified loss of innocence.  And, a key theme -- the seeming necessity to kill for nourishment -- is introduced.

Just beneath that surface, however, the two passages -- which comprise two back-to-back chapters -- can be read as a metaphor similar to The Ant and the Grasshopper.  Here, Wilbur is an ignorant version of the lazy grasshopper, in pig-form ("swine-a-morphised" perhaps??), while Charlotte is cast in the industrious ant's role (aracnimorphised? ;-). And, Charlotte is trying to explain these facts of life to a lazy (or simply ignorant) little pig.

On a third level, however, (And perhaps my earlier comparison to Animal Farm, which sprang during the reading from I know not where, contributed to this interpretation.) the two chapters can be seen as an allegory for political, social or even economic ideas.   Charlotte and Wilbur, who live in such close proximity, yet experience life in vastly different terms, may perhaps be considered to represent citizens of Capitalist nations (Charlotte), who have to fend for themselves and face the reality of quite possibly starving if they don't work hard and effectively to secure food and shelter, and citizens of Communist or Socialist nations (Wilbur), in which people tend to be more state-reliant for their sustenance

That Charlotte has to build and maintain her own web (which might, therefor, be seen as belonging to her), while Wilbur is housed and fed by an authority figure (the farmer, who clearly owns the barn and food, which  keep Wilbur alive and well), lends further credence to this view.

A right-wing reactionary might even view Wilbur's state of false-security (He's warm and happy now, but the farmer will kill him when the time is right) as being illustrative of the "evils of communism."  Wilbur has been "tricked," in this viewpoint, into surrendering his freedom for what seems like security.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is the rugged individualist who stands on her own eight legs.

A left-wing radical, on the other hand, while still viewing the selection as a comment on Capitalism vs. Communism, might note how it stresses the innocence and trusting nature of the (socialist) pig, versus the greed and callousness of the (capitalist) spider.

Two chapters in a simple children's book.  But, at least three or four different ways of looking at it.  Such a tangled web of meaning, in so few words.  Now that, to me, is Subtext.

Deconstructing a children's book may seem ludicrous on a blog that's about writing for adults. . .

But Charlotte's Web has reminded me that my favorite books are those loaded with subtext.  Books and stories that have several layers of meaning; layers I can sit back and consider, weigh and examine, long after I've finished reading.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that my writing suffers from a certain lack of subtext.  And, putting it in there is a tricky business -- to say the least!  I'm reminded now, however, of the importance of trying to get it in there, of trying to push the boundaries of the meaning behind the words on the paper.

We often speak of the necessity of making words carry as much work as they can -- particularly in short stories, where the space is so limited.  But, are we succeeding to the best of our abilities if we don't try to make the work of those words include creation of subtext?  I can only answer -- with a guilty "No" -- for myself.

Meanwhile, my son and I will continue to read Charlotte's Web, and we'll continue to discuss the surface context, while I gently try to get him to consider subtext as we go along.

He wants to keep reading because the little girl who rescued Wilbur from being slaughtered as a runt hasn't visited Wilbur in quite some time.  My son and I both think she'll return for a visit before the book is over.  He wants to see this happen, so he can learn why she disappeared for so long, leaving the little pig lonely and sad.

I'm nearly fifty, and I've known a lot of little girls.  I'm not surprised by her disappearance. Yet, I too, await her return -- with great anticipation. Because I want to see how both the pig and the girl have changed in the interim.

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon

20 September 2012

Playing Detective

by
Deborah Elliott-Upton

Though it's not politically correct, I have a strong affection for the hard-boiled novel detective of yesteryear.

Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer keep me turning pages, wondering what it'd be like to be their Girl Friday (or any other day of the week.)

Women wanted them and men wanted to be like them.

Ian Fleming's James Bond character may have been the last of their kind. It seems most of our heroes in fiction today are showing their softer side. And for me, it just doesn't ring as true a hero.

Before you jump to conclusions, I am not some hater of the Feminist Movement. I believe in equal rights and that women detectives can be just as smart as the male detectives. I read and write about several women investigators, police officers and amateur sleuths. I just am not appreciative when women aren't allowed to be women and men men whether it be in real life or between the covers of a book or magazine.

I guess I like characters to be as real as possible just like my friends. I want them to react without thinking what people will think about them if they do. I want them to go with their gut instinct, go with their street smarts and figure out who the bad guy is and where to find him because they have brains to do so instead of someone feeding them information or a computer telling them what to do.

There is something about the 1930-1940's era. The clothes were appealing. Women wore billowing skirts that showed off their waists and legs. Men in hats (NOT baseball caps) just looks commanding. A man in a fedora is not overlooked, especially when he is in a trench coat. (Yes, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca gets my vote for a real man's man. He isn't really handsome, but a woman knows he is going to take care of her.) And while we're at it, let's discuss Ingrid Bergman in her own hat and trench coat in that movie. She didn't need Rick to save her either. They were equals and neither of them were namby-pamby. Emotional when they heard Sam play it again? Definitely, but that's part of the magic, isn't it. They touch our hearts because they are so darn real.

In the hard boiled stories, the men were sexist. They were also sexy as hell. My opinion is it took a strong woman to get them, keep them and make them happy.

There were two types of women populating these stories:

1. long-legged, voluptuous beauties who came on stage as a damsel in distress, but who could turn the tables on the detective in a New York Minute and become their adversaries

and

2. the long-legged, voluptuous beauties who had a heart of gold, could type as well as dress their wounds. They were usually the girlfriend/secretary who waited endlessly for their "guy" to figure out she was the one for him.

In the real world, everyone probably looked like the people living on Walton's Mountain, but that's what fiction does for the reader in transferring him away from the regular and straight into the glamorous life of a detective. (Real life detectives probably read mysteries for the same reason.)

Okay, so I said I want the characters to be real, but not so real that they don't offer me an escape from the day-to-day routine. If I am reading about a cop, I visualize a Bradley Cooper, not so much a Seth Rogen. 

I also believe women can be just as dastardly as men when it comes to crime. I actually welcome female sleuths as long as they are as smart, savvy and as sexy as I wish I were. Bring it on, Wonder Woman (who never had to stomp on a man just to prove her worth – although she certainly could have.)

I like Katniss from Hunger Games who had skills, bravery and the foresight to pay attention and learn from her mentor. I like Indiana Jones when he isn't standing in a classroom where he seemed less sure of himself. Give him a whip and let him loose.

I like to read and I am in search of a great old-time detective story that will take me away from the kid gloves approach of too many authors trying to make everybody happy.

Is that too much to ask?

19 September 2012

Lights bulbs, twelve for ten cents

by Robert Lopresti

So, let's say you're a writer.  One day you introduce yourself to someone and that person asks what you do.  Being an honest sort you say "I'm a writer." 

Nine times out of ten, that's fine.  But the tenth time you will see the face of your new acquiantance brighten wonderfully.  "I have a great idea for a novel/story/sccreenplay!"

Uh oh

Here's your best move: Point over his or her shoulder and say: "Look!  A silver-crested wookpecker!   They're supposed to be extinct.  I have to call the Audubon Society!"

 Then run like hell. Because this conversation is not going to go well.  Let's assume you stck around long enough for our  newcomer to explain his story.  One of three possibiities will likely occur.

1.  The idea is terrible.  Well, most are, mine included.

2.  The idea is good, but not one you could do anything with.  Most writers are inherently suited to write about the ideeas they come up with themselves.  Problem is if you tell your new friend that he/she will think this is an excuse you came up with because you realy think the idea belongs in category 1.

3.  The idea is good and one you could work with.  (Hey, it could happen.)  You tell acquiantance this and the person suggests you write it and spit the profits fifty-fifty with the person who did the hard work, i.e. thinking up the idea.

I have now managed to sneak up on myy point, catching it unaware, I suspect.  Here it is:  Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I know that isn't a popular point of view, but consider this example:

A boy discovers he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

Is that a billion dollar idea?  Nah..  What J.K. Rowling did with the idea is what made her richer than Queen Elizabeth.

In other words, the idea is not the precious pearl.  It is the grain of sand the pearl grows around.,  As the philosophers would say it is necessary but not sufficient..

I am pondering this because there is a grain of sand rolling around in my brain, irritating the heck out my cerebellum and medulla oblongata.

Basically, it is a new concept in blackmail.  (Suddenly I feel like I'm in the marketing department.  Exciting Breakthrough In Extortion Technology!  Ask your victim if it's right for you.)

So far the idea has not developed into a plot.  The pearl has refused to grow.

Now, let's consider another idea.

A young woman is brutally attacked by a son of power and privilege.  Her only parent seeks justice and, failing that, revenge.

That happens to be the plot of idea behind two of the best stories I have read this year.

The more litigious among you may now be thinking: Two stories with the same idea?  Author B stole from Author A!  Plagiarism! 

Well, yes and no.  I am fairly sure that Author B stole the idea from Author A but I don't think there will be a lawsuit.  Because in this case Author B is Author A.   Both stories were written by Brendan DuBois.

"His Daughter's Island," ( Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2012) is the story of Zach Ford, a mild-mannered accountant in a small town in Maine.  His beloved daughter goes off to a party at the home of a millionaire and dies.  The millionaire's son is whisked out of the country, far from the possibility of justice.

"The Final Ballot," (Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance) tells us about Beth, whose daughter suffers life-threatening injuries at the hands of the son of a senator and presidential candidate.  The candidate's fix it man offers her a couple of choices, but can she get what she wants?


 They are both excellent stories but I prefer Ballot, for two reasons.  In Island the revenge begins on the first page and stays fairly static throughout, but in Ballot the revenge comes late in the story, in a non-violent twist that nonetheless takes one's breath away.

Second, in Ballot the odds against the protagonist are even higher.   

Beth knew in a flash that she was outgunned.  This man before her had traveled the world, knew how to order wine from a meny, wore the best clothes and had gone to the best schools, and was prominent in a campaign to elect a senator from Georgia as the next president of the United States.

She put the tissue back in her purse.   And her?  She was under no illusions.  A dumpy woman from a small town outside Manchester who had barely graduated from high school and was now leasing a small beauty shop in a strip mall.

But my main point here is to demonstrate how a talented writer can produce two very different, but equally fine stories from the same idea.

And speaking of ideas, I wanted to tell you some more about that blackmail concept--

What do you mean, you saw a silver-crested woodpecker?  We're indoors!  Get back here!

18 September 2012

Saucy Jack

By David Dean

It was inevitable, I guess, that after doing postings on Lizzie Borden, the princes in the tower, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the child murders in the Bahamas, and even Uncle Jimmy, that I must, at last, come to this--Saucy Jack...that Jack...the Jack.  I do so almost reluctantly because of the emotions  he stirs to this day, and the controversy that continues to swirl round his legend.

By today's standards, Jack the Ripper's body count wouldn't even get him into the top ten of modern serial killers.  He had only five, though some argue there are one, or more, additional murders that should be attributed to him.  Whatever the true count may be, his savagery places him right up there with the heavy hitters of any age.  Additionally, he has the distinction of being both an original and uncaught.  After five (or more) unsolved murders of prostitutes, he simply stopped--his mystery remains.

Just like Lizzie, but much, much more so, there have been millions of words written about Jack--so much, indeed, that you might think he was still among us and practicing his devilish trade in murder.  There have been dozens of suspects offered up by writers and scholars that were unknown to the police of that time, or never considered by them if they were.  In fact, there has probably been no case in the history of recorded crime in which the public has done more second-guessing of the police than this one.  It went on during Jack's heinous career, and has continued to this day.  I will not be doing that.  I can't come up with a single theory or suspect that hasn't already been put forth by someone...somewhere.  So I'm not even going to try.  Why this case continues to fascinate us so long after the brutal acts were committed--that, I might can answer.


A number of elements conspired to make Jack the Ripper a household bogeyman during his own time: The emergence of the modern tabloid newspaper, a Victorian-era fad of philanthropic concern for the destitute of London's slums, the thwarting of the seemingly implacable Scotland Yard, and interest in the case from Queen Victoria herself.  For later generations, I would add that the glamor of a seemingly genteel, mysterious, and by-gone era, cloaked in fog and black lace, provided an irresistible backdrop to Jack's horrors.  He was a real-life Mr. Hyde, and the mystery lay in trying to uncover his Dr. Jekyll alter ego.

Of suspects, there is one for every taste; they run the gamut from butcher to surgeon, royal heir to crazed foreigner.  But Jack was no gentleman, whatever his day job might have been.  Though his murder spree only extended over a few months (much longer according to some), each killing was more brutal than the last.  The victims, all the poorest of prostitutes, were savagely killed, their throats sliced, their abdomens mutilated, and in several instances, organs were removed.  All, but one of the murders were carried out on the streets, the bodies left for a terrified public to discover.  The last was accomplished indoors, in a small, bed-sitter, as the British dub them.  There he was able to work without fear of discovery or interruption, and he, quite literally, destroyed the poor woman.  Then, he seemingly vanished.

There are as many theories about his disappearance as there are about his identity: he killed himself, he was imprisoned on unrelated charges, he was committed to an insane asylum, or he fled to another country; perhaps America.  These are just a few of the ideas put forth.  Of course, it is unlikely we will ever know who he was or what became of him, but his stealing away into the fog has impressed an indelible image into our collective minds; adding to his myth.

Jack was also his own publicist, which was a new wrinkle that contributed greatly to his legendary status.  He wrote several letters "From Hell," expressing his glee and enjoyment with mutilation and murder.  He signed himself, "Jack the Ripper" and also coined the coy moniker of "Saucy Jack."  The details leaked out to the public--the denizens of London may have been terrified of Jack, but they were also insatiably curious about him.  Jack was proud of his horrific deeds and didn't mind saying so; writing in  red ink, and once sending a piece of human kidney along with his message to the world.  He was truly a vile creature.

Much has been made of these letters, and like everything else about Jack, they have inspired debate and controversy.  The police and the professional ripperologists disagree over the authenticity of every letter attributed to the murderer.  Scotland Yard settled on two as being from the real Jack, the others they laid to "copycats."  None featured a return address, which  might have been useful.

Another factor that fueled the growth of Jack's hellish reputation was the slum of Whitechapel that he prowled.  This teeming, filthy neighborhood was no stranger to murder before, or after, Jack.  And the prostitutes that plied their trade there were often the victims of it, even as they are today.  But after the advent of the Ripper murders, every unsolved murder of a female in Whitechapel was laid at his door.  According to some his spree continued until February 1891; the police of that time lay only the five murders to Jack, the last being in November 1888.  In fact, the Metropolitan Police of London divide the murders into two categories: the Ripper murders and the Whitechapel murders.  They do so with good reason.  The details of many of the murders that took place in Whitechapel during the period of August '88 to February '91 show them to be clearly unrelated; the modus operandi, beyond the fact that the killing was of a prostitute, bore little resemblance to Jack's handiwork.  Ironically, some of these "Whitechapel Murders" may also have been the work of the same killer, an unknown person no less brutal than Jack who successfully operated in his shadow.  This, I caution, remains a possibility, not a proven fact.

In most minds, the shadowy, knife-wielding Jack remains the epitome, the touchstone of our acquaintance and fascination with serial murderers.  In spite of that, he was not the first.  Jack was predated by such bloodthirsty villains as Gilles de Rais, who may have murdered hundreds of children before being executed.  Sadly, there were others, as well...many, many others throughout history, and quite probably even before recorded history.  There's no particular reason not to think so.  But Jack remains the penultimate to much of the world because of a perfect storm of factors, not least of which was his penchant for self-aggrandizement and a voracious press.  Add to that mix a mysterious, fog-clad setting offering occasional and salacious glimpses of the seamier side of Victorian London and you have the makings of a dark legend.

On a personal note, I would add that Jack, just like those that come before and after him, was not, in any sense, a romantic creature.  He was a vicious, merciless killer of defenseless women--a monster, really.  You have only to look at the crime scene and autopsy photos to see that.  The last murder, that of Mary Kelly, is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.  Jack may have written his gloating letters "From Hell," but if there's anything certain in this case, it's that he's certainly there now.