31 December 2014

Return to the Theme Park


by Robert Lopresti

Recently a friend told me that Barbara Kingsolver says she begins writing her books by deciding on a theme.

My reply was: "And you believed her?"

Not that I am calling Ms. Kingsolver a big fat liar.  But I always have my doubts about authors who claim their creations comes from what you might call a process of scholarly introspection. 

Prime example: this essay by Edgar Allan Poe explaining how he wrote "The Raven" (which is  the only poem to give its name to a pro football team).  He claimed that he chose the theme and worked out the details carefully, bit by bit, etc.  Personally, I think he woke up from a nightmare and grabbed for an ink well and quill. 

The one person I know who claimed to believe Poe's explanation was Umberto Eco, in the process of explaining how he wrote  The Name of the Rose.  And I don't believe his explanation either.

It all comes down to what D.H. Lawrence said: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

But I am not writing today merely to cast aspersions on my betters (although that's always fun).  The day after my chat about Kingsolver I blundered onto this piece I wrote in 2013 in which I attempted to analyze the themes of my five stories that were published that year.  So since the end of the year is a good time for reflection, I decided to look at my stories published in 2014 and go on a theme-hunt.  This time I will only point out the ones where I found something worth mentioning.

My most recent story is "The Roseville Way" in The Anthology of Cozy-Noir.  It contains one of my favorite themes, and shares it with "Devil Chased the Wolf Away," which appeared in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Devil" is about an elderly Kentucky fiddler who, in his previous appearance in one of my stories, did a bad thing.  In the new one he tries to make up for it.  "Roseville" is about a ganglord who retires to a small midwestern town and - contrary to the way such stories usually go - improves the lives of everyone he gets involved with.  The theme of both stories is the possibility of  redemption.

My other appearance in Hitchcock's, "A Bad Day For Bargain Hunters" is a story about an estate sale and it has a simple theme too: everyone is crooked.  Well, that isn't quite true.  The police officer in the story is honest; he's merely incompetent.

As for "The Accessory" which appeared in Ellery Queen,  and "Shanks Holds The Line," which showed up on Hitchcock's website, the only theme I can find is what Jim Thompson called the only plot: "things are not what they seem."

But looking at some of the stories that made their first appearance in my book
Shanks on Crime, I find some more suggestions.  "Shanks' Mare" is about misplaced priorities.  The motive for the theft of the horse is the criminal's bad priorities, and the reason he or she thinks it will be effective, is because of another character's equaly screwed-up ambitions. 

"Shanks At The Bar" and "Shanks' Ghost Story" consist of people sitting around telling tales, and they are both about the power of storytelling.  This theme also came up in "Two Men, One Gun" which appeared in 2013.

As you may know I also write songs and in those I have one overwhelming theme: guilt.  So, here are the lyrics to one of my newest songs on that subject.  And I wish you a guilt-free New Year.

I’m sorry you feel I misled you
I’m sorry you fell for my pose
I’m sorry you ate what I fed you
You have to admit you believe what you chose
  I’m sorry that after you helped dig the pit
  You fell in it unknowingly
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology
 
I’m sorry about my advisors
I’m sorry that I was betrayed
They lied to us through their incisors
I freely admit that mistakes have been made
  I’m sorry you think this is somehow my fault
  Though I take responsibility
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology
 
      How many times must I say that I’m sorry?
      It’s getting a little bit dull
      I’ve bent over backwards to show I respect you.
      When will you get that through your thick skull?
 
I’m sorry you found this offensive
I’m sorry you can’t take a joke
I’m sorry you got so defensive
If I knew you were thin-skinned I never would have spoke
  I’m sorry you feel that your feelings were hurt
  and sorry you blame that on me
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology

30 December 2014

The Ponsonby Post Office Murder

by Stephen Ross

On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.

Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.

The postmaster's inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.

It quickly became apparent that the postmaster's keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office...  It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.

On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation's fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).

No fingerprint match was found.

Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.

Dennis Gunn wasn't a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn's fingerprints were on file.

A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster's murder.

Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: "You'll have the devil of a job to prove it."

Three days after Gunn's arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother's house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn's was taken from the revolver.

Gunn was still confidently smug.

A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.

Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.

Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.

And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).

There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man's hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.

Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.

The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn's lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.

After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand's population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn's earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they'd have probably hung him for jaywalking.

A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.

On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: "He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature".

Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.

Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn't pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.

It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.

I've once or twice wondered if Gunn's keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve's code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off... It's unlikely we'll ever know.

Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn's mother never believed in her son's guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.


Be seeing you!


Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn :  Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920

https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

29 December 2014

What Would You Do?

By Fran Rizer


Yes, I had the flu shot.  No, it didn't keep me from having the flu.  What it did was put me to bed too ill to read, so I turned on the television.

One of the programs that rolled across my screen was What Would You Do? This show is an American news magazine and hidden camera series that has been hosted by news correspondent John Quinones since 2008.  The idea is that actors perform scenes of conflict or illegal activity in public settings.  Hidden cameras videotape the scenes and focus on whether or not bystanders will intervene. At the end, Quinones appears and interviews the bystanders about why they did or did not step in.
John Quinones

Some of the scenarios have been:

A mother and her children are unable to afford their dream
Christmas tree, leaving the children visibly upset.  Many of the customers step in to comfort them or buy the tree for them.

While having dinner in a restaurant, a boy scout reveals to two other scouts that he is gay.  Diners step in to offer advice when the two other scouts threaten to tell their scout master.

A man accidentally drops an expensive bottle of wine in the ABC store and denies it, even pointing blame at other customers.

A young pregnant woman offers to sell her baby to people who pass by on the street.

Usually, at least one or two witnesses will step in and attempt to
mediate the situations.


I doubt seriously that I'll watch the show much now that I am feeling better, but it intrigued me because when my sons were younger, they were forever cautioning me, "Mom, someone will get mad at you for telling their children to behave."

Yes, I confess.  As a teacher, I had a tendency to suggest ideas for occupying children who were misbehaving in public.  Actually, I've had parents thank me when I offered paper and colored pencils with a suggestion that the child might like to draw while waiting for dinner to be served in a restaurant instead of crawling around on the floor beneath my own table. My own children were afraid I would offend someone, but most people smiled and thanked me.

A child's temper tantrum can spoil dinner at a restaurant.

Back to the topic.  The Sunday before Christmas, my family attended a live theater production of Dickens's A Christmas Carol as adapted by my friend James H. Kirk.  Sitting beside me were a Callie fan and her daughter who is in middle school.

The daughter told me that she's writing a book and asked, "How many pages should I make it?"

My response was, "Don't decide a number of pages.  Make the book as long as it takes to tell your story."

The next question came from the mother:  "What is the most important advice you can give to a beginning writer?"

That's a hard one, and my answer depends upon the age and writing experience of the person asking the question.  Most of the time, I answer that question with, "Learn all the rules so you'll know what you're doing when you break them."

My title today is What Would You Do? but what I want to know is What would you say?

My question for each of you:  What is the most important advice you can give to a beginning writer?



Until we meet again, please take care of . . . you.


28 December 2014

“Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone”

Today our friend and colleague, Louis Willis, announces his retirement.

I first came across Louis in his own blog, where he critiqued black mystery authors and novels featuring black protagonists. He contributed articles to Criminal Brief and, as SleuthSayers was being formed, we invited him to become a permanent member. I often thought of Louis as ‘our academic’, because he studied literature more than most of us.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1958, Louis never lost his joy of learning and pursued higher education at Illinois Institute of Technology. Halfway through a degree in engineering, his love of literature induced him to change majors to English lit.

There he encountered… or more correctly didn’t encounter studies of black authors such as he’d appreciated in high school. When made aware of this shortcoming in their curriculum, IIT invited him to lecture about black authors in American lit.

Louis was familiar with Richard Wright and had begun reading James Baldwin. As he immersed myself in the research, he discovered Zora Neale Hurston (whose Florida home is minutes from mine), Ralph Ellison and many more.

Following formal retirement from the government decades later, he returned home to Knoxville from Richmond, California with his youngest daughter and her son to care for his mother who died a year later in 1997. With time on his hands, he returned to his love of learning and enrolled in a graduate degree program at the University of Tennessee and graduated in 2004 with a Masters in English.

Louis also has a son who attended Lemoyne Owen College in Memphas and had three sons himself, the youngest born a year ago on 31 December, nearly a New Year’s baby.

Louis’ favorite authors are Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges. Recently, he's studying Eudora Welty. In crime fiction, his favorites are Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Richard S. Prather, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dame Agatha Christie, and of course all SleuthSayers authors.


— Leigh Lundin

The Long Goodbye that Isn't
“Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone”

by Louis Willis

I usually limit myself in writing an article to no less than 300 and no more than 700 words. Because goodbyes should be short, this post is under 300 words.

The title of this post is in quotation marks because I took it from a forgotten novel, a poem, or a line in a blues song. It expresses how I feel in having to say goodbye to all my SleuthSayers friends. I won’t be posting any more articles but I won’t be gone either, for I shall continue to read and occasionally comment on your posts. I’ll also continue writing critical reviews of African American crime fiction novels on my blog, which you can access here.

During the past three years, I’ve learned how writers think in constructing their stories. As I read your post, I experienced the sweet misery you go through while constructing your stories. Your posts also confirmed something I’ve always thought: writers write because they cannot not write.

As I write this post, I’m glad you can’t see me because I’m getting all choked up. Saying goodbye to good friends is not easy.

Thank you Leigh for giving me the opportunity to write for an appreciative audience.

Thank all of you for being an appreciative and encouraging audience.

27 December 2014

Don't Say You Weren't Warned




by John M. Floyd




                                
Mystery author Lawrence Block once told a joke about the use of foreshadowing. I'm paraphrasing, but here it is:

Officer: Okay, soldier. Suppose an enemy sub surfaced and ran aground on that beach over there, and suppose it offloaded fifty enemy troops. What would you do?

Soldier: Sir, I'd blow 'em off the sand with concentrated mortar fire.

Officer: What? Where would you get the mortars?

Soldier: Same place you got the submarine.

Foreshadowing, according to Block, is the technique of making both the submarine and the mortars acceptable to the reader.

Definitions vary. Merriam-Webster says foreshadowing is "a suggestion of something that has not yet happened." In the literary world, it's a little more complicated. Among other things, it means the early inclusion of information that makes later action believable. Because of this, and because our fictional plots must always be (or at least appear to be) logical, this writing technique is one of the most useful items in our toolkit.

It's a mystery to me

Mystery stories probably lend themselves to foreshadowing more than any other genre, because the clues in the narrative usually lead to the solution of the case--and if the reader pays attention, he is ideally given enough facts to come up with the answer himself. This is true of most crime/suspense stories, not just whodunits; the foreshadowing in thrillers and other non-traditional mysteries is sometimes used to telegraph to the reader the means by which the protagonist will get out of whatever fix the writer puts him in. Maybe there's a hidden gun in the kitchen cabinet, or the killer's henchman is really an undercover cop, or the radio button on the dashboard is the trigger for the ejection seat.

And foreshadowing isn't always used just to "explain" later events. It can also be a way to generate suspense and anticipation. If you read a story or novel or see a movie that mentions, during its first half, a particularly scary place, or an especially fearsome enemy, then you as the reader/viewer will dread any situation that might put our hero in that dangerous location, or put him in contact with that terrible person or entity you've been told about. Consider this: A group of hikers sees a razor-wire fence, or maybe a skull-and-crossbones sign, on a ridge as they pass through the valley below, and one of them asks their guide what it is. The guide looks up and frowns and says, "Oh, that? That's the border of the Forbidden Zone. We won't be going there." That of course is foreshadowing, and the Forbidden Zone is of course exactly where the poor hikers will wind up, before the story's done.

What does foreshadowing really look like, in some of the movies and novels and stories that we've seen or read?  (NOTE: The following examples contain spoilers . . .)

Hiding in plain sight

The Usual Suspects -- As Verbal is questioned by the police, he sees a number of newspaper clippings posted on their bulletin board. Those "clues" later add up to a great surprise ending.

Psycho -- Norman Bates tells his motel guest, early on, that his mother is "as harmless as one of those stuffed birds." Which turns out to be true, since she's as dead as they are. It's her son who isn't harmless.

Wait Until Dark -- The blind lady remarks to a visitor in her apartment that her old refrigerator growls when its door is open because it needs to be defrosted. Later, after the lady has escaped from a killer in her apartment and has frantically knocked out all the lights in every room so he'll be in the dark as well, he quietly opens her fridge's door so the light will come on and he can see. She, of course, doesn't know he's done this--but then the refrigerator growls. She now knows the door's open, and knows that he can see her but she can't see him. One of the best movies scenes I've ever watched.

The Empire Strikes Back -- "Much anger in him," Yoda says to Obi-wan, "like his father." He's talking about Luke Skywalker, who turns out to be the son of Darth Vader.

Jaws -- Hooper warns Chief Brody about the potentially explosive nature of the scuba tanks, and Brody says something like "What good is all this expensive equipment? Maybe the shark will eat it." Later the shark winds up with one of the tanks in his mouth (jaws?) and Brody shoots the tank, thus blowing Great Whitey to bits.

Reservoir Dogs -- An orange balloon is seen floating along in the street behind a car. As the story progresses, Mr. Orange turns out to be the impostor who's infiltrated the gang.

The James Bond novels and films -- Before most of 007's missions, the armorer demonstrates the newest lethal gadgets developed by Q Branch. Later Bond uses them to save his skin (and the world).

Fatal Attraction -- When Dan Gallagher says he has to go walk his dog, the lady to whom he is fatally attracted replies, "Just bring the dog over--I'm great with animals and I love to cook." She later cooks Gallagher's daughter's pet bunny.

Once Upon a Time in the West -- Several brief flashbacks show a mysterious blurred figure approaching the protagonist, in the desert. At the end, that image clears to reveal the villain--and the reason the protagonist has been searching for him for all these years.


The Edge -- An Alaskan guide explains to a group of tourists what a bear pit is, and points one out, saying, "Be careful--don't fall in." Afterward, when the two main characters are alone in the wilderness, and one is about to shoot the other, the gunman falls into a bear pit. The viewer accepts this turn of events only because of that earlier explanation.

The Shawshank Redemption -- During the search of an inmate's cell, the prison's warden picks up a Bible and says, "Salvation lies within." It's later revealed that the rock hammer used for the breakout is concealed inside the hollowed-out pages of that Bible.

Goodfellas -- "Tommy's not a bad kid," Paulie Cicero admits. "What am I supposed to do, shoot him?" Which is exactly what happens.

Citizen Kane -- The word "rosebud" is spoken at the first, and its meaning is revealed at the end.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- At one point, the wealthy collector notes that they're only one step away from locating the Holy Grail. Indy replies, "That's usually where the ground falls out from underneath your feet." When at the end of the story they find the Grail, a huge earthquake swallows some of the party.

Aliens -- Lt. Ellen Ripley, who during training has demonstrated her proficiency with a powerloader, later uses a powerloader to battle and defeat the alien queen.

"The Lottery" -- The pile of stones at the very beginning of this short story later takes on a whole new meaning.

Cool Hand LukeGhostLove StoryCasablanca -- Bits of early dialogue are later repeated at or near the end, for closure: "What we got here is a failure to communicate," "Ditto," "Love means never having to say you're sorry," "Here's looking at you, kid."

L.A. Confidential -- Captain Smith asks Ed Exley whether he would be willing to plant evidence, beat a confession out of a suspect, or shoot a criminal in the back. Exley says no. By the end of the movie, he has done all three.

These are probably not the best examples, but they're some that came quickly to mind. Can you think of other cases where foreshadowing is effectively used? As a writer, do you find yourself using it in your own fiction?

Signs of things to come

I recently re-watched a film called Signs, made in 2002 and featuring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. That movie successfully uses more instances of foreshadowing than any other I've seen--so many that I plan to cover it in a separate column. Probably in two weeks.

How's that for foreshadowing?




26 December 2014

27.3%

by R.T. Lawton

     Okay, so I fudged a bit on the math by rounding up for the title, but it's close enough for government work. Anyway, my point is that three of the eleven stories published in the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine were written by members of the SleuthSayers blog. That's a nice percentage, and one of these days, the way we're all going, it may get even higher.

 Eve Fisher leads off this winter double issue with her story, "The Headless Horseman." How would you like to live in a small town where you were known by your nickname of The Headless Horseman, or even Headless for short? Clarence, a young man who lives two blocks away from the young female protagonist, is stuck with that nickname because of an earlier incident with the  protagonist. In time, the young girl believes Headless is involved in some not-so-nice activities, so she shadows him around town and starts collecting information about anything he does. Headless soon notices that he's being followed and tries to discourage her. This all comes to a head when the girl walks in on Headless standing beside the freshly dead body of a woman he worked with at a local restaurant. Headless must now decide what to do about the girl. It's another excellent story set in small town South Dakota.

     For "The Irish Boy," Janice Law continues the adventures of Nip Tompkins, the orphan boy who works for Madame Selina, one of the city's most famous mediums. Madame allegedly has the services of Aurelius, an old Roman emperor, to assist her in answering people's questions or in finding people or lost objects. In this episode, the brother of one of Nip's female friends has gone missing. Madame locates the missing brother in another town where he has joined a rough crew of Irishmen who are about to cross the river on a dangerous and violent mission into Canada. The problem soon becomes how to convince both the girl's brother and the Irish crew he has become a part of that he shouldn't cross the river on this mission. Are Madame and Aurelius up to the situation and if so, how can they do it? Read the story and find the outcome. As for me, I can scarce wait for the next episode of Madame Selina and Nip.

     The third contributor is...well...me, with "Elder Brother," the second story in my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. [NOTE: The editor of AHMM has already purchased the third story, "On the Edge," so this is officially a series, plus Rob Lopresti recently critiqued the fourth story, "Merit Making," which is now on it's way to the e-submission slush pile.
     In this series, two half-brothers constantly jockey to be first in line to inherit the title of opium warlord upon the demise of their mutual Chinese father. The elder brother, Kang, is the offspring of a hill woman of the Shan tribe. Kang has grown up in the savage jungles of East Burma, while the younger brother is full-blood Chinese educated in the private British schools of civilized Hong Kong. At this point, a White Nationalist soldier under the command of our protagonist (the younger brother) has been kidnapped by some of Elder Brother's men from the Shan Army. This kidnapped soldier knows secrets that younger brother would prefer to be kept quiet. A squad of picked men is quickly formed to go on a rescue mission. But, in the deadly wilderness of the Golden Triangle, anything can happen.

Have some Happy Holidays, enjoy your reading and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas, a Brief "Best of" List and a Happy New Year!

by Brian Thornton

Greetings

First things first:

Season's Greetings! Joyeux Noël! Feliz Navidad! Frohe Weihnachten!

Memories

Merry Christmas from the wilds of Central Washington (my folks' house- thanks for the bandwidth, Mom and Dad!).

This is the time of year that lends itself to memories. Good, bad, funny, poignant. Everyone has memories of the holiday season.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of mine:

My Uncle Bob, terminally ill with cancer, and about as politically conservative as they come, getting a "Vote Obama" sweatshirt as a white elephant gift and playing it up for laughs. I have the pictures of him wearing it.

A good memory of a man I miss terribly.

My son is 2 1/2 this December, and is in the "Train Love" stage of toddler development (Thank you, Thomas the Train Engine!). All afternoon I've been watching him play with a wood block train my brother got him this year. He's a little iffy on the whole "Santa" thing, but he loves the lights and he likes the tree, and has yet to turn down any chocolate or cookies that have come his way.

Atta Boy!

Christmas 1986, spent with a wonderful Australian family in Perth who called up "Dial-a-Sailor" and opened their home to four of us from my ship (I was in the Navy). Wonderful people, wonderful meal, wonderful day.

And Now For a Brief (and completely RANDOM) "Best of" List

(Hey, everyone ELSE is doing it!)

2014 was a terrific year for mysteries! Here are a few that I consider the "Best of 2014":

Best Police Procedural: The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

This is the best thing Connelly has done since The Lincoln Lawyer and the best Bosch book since The Closers. THIS BOOK IS NOT TO BE MISSED!

Best "Caper" Novel: Duke City Split by Max Austin

"Max Austin" is a pseudonym of the (usually) hilarious Steve Brewer. If you're not familiar with his work, Duke City Split is a wonderful intro to his considerable canon. But fair warning, this new series bears a closer resemblance to the best work of Don Winslow and Bob Crais than to the comedic stuff for which Steve/Max is usually known.

ALSO NOT TO BE MISSED!

Best Historical Mystery: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

I yield to no one in my admiration for Ruth Downie, whose Roman Britain-set novels feature a medicus (army doctor) named Gaius Petreius Ruso and his Briton wife Tilla. In this, the sixth in this fine series, Ruso and Tilla are stationed with one of the legions tasked with building Hadrian's Wall. A clerk goes missing, the natives (whose lands are being bisected) are restless, and then a body is found hidden in the wall....

And then things really get interesting!

Downie knows how to keep a series fresh and her characters continue to be wonderfully engaging. DEFINITELY NOT TO BE MISSED!

And that's it for my brief and decidedly eclectic list of best mysteries of 2014.

And in the spirit of the season, I'm going to keep this post brief.

After all, those memories ain't gonna make themselves.


Daddy's Little Memory Maker


Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Brian

24 December 2014

Away in a Manger

David Edgerley Gates


I stopped being particularly religious about the age of fifteen, but Christmas still casts a spell. There's something about the narrative. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." (St. Luke) The rhythms of the King James have enormous grace. They may not reflect the Aramaic, or its later translation into Greek, which is what those English guys in the early 1600's were working from, but I don't think it matters. The same is true of the Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer, also revised under the same roof, by James I. Whether or not you follow the doctrine is beside the point. What counts is the cadence of the language, its discipline and ambition.

Years ago, I'd go with my mom to the Christmas service of lessons and carols at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. it was a somewhat severe venue, low-end Episcopalian, with the names of Harvard men who'd died in the world wars engraved in panels on the walls, a chill presence, bearing witness to their sacrifice, but at Christmastime the church was decorated with a lot of warmth, holly boughs and aromatic pine swags and poinsettias, all brightened with candlelight. It was comforting. And the familiarity, too. O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Good King Wenceslas looked out (I always finished the verse mentally with on his feets uneven, a nod to Walt Kelly). The effect on me wasn't ceremonial, but a conjured myth of childhood, surrendering to innocence. I've got no argument with sentimentality. Sentimentality's okay by me.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we cast a colder eye on the narrative, and give it a more sinister spin. David Morrell, in THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, does a little back-to-front, where the guy retells the Nativity as an espionage story. This works pretty well, if you think about it. The circumstances of a clouded birth, then the Flight into Egypt, to escape Herod's assassins, the boy later apprenticed to his carpenter father, God's witness protection program. (What did Joseph imagine in all this, anyway? He didn't knock the girl up.) The kid's head gets turned - John the Baptist an active recruiter for some as yet unnamed spook outfit, so to speak - and the Nazarene starts to preach sedition. Jesus, in effect, mounts a false-flag operation, and draws Rome's attention away from Barabbas, who by all accounts is politically more dangerous and puts his money where his mouth is. In this reading, Jesus of Nazareth is the Lee Harvey Oswald, a patsy, or a stalking horse, and not the hero at all. I know this is irreligious, of course, but why spoil a good story for lack of the facts?

Well, enough of that nonsense. Taken at face value, unto us a child is born - no room at the inn, the shepherds tending their flocks by night, the journey of the Magi - it still works its magic. You don't have to believe it's the hand of God, necessarily. Probably doesn't do any harm, either. The hopes and fears of all the years. We bring a lot of baggage to any story. Maybe we bring more to this one than most. It's an investment. We all believe in a child's native innocence. The loss is our grief. If, for sake or argument, we don't know the story's end, but only how it begins, then the birth of Christ is the stirring of hope. We embrace the myth because it's our own, each of us born, each of us begun. Destiny waits to be chosen.


http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

23 December 2014

A Very Tom Waits Christmas

by Jim Winter

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the lonlieness, the lonliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the lonliness
The lonliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all
There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

22 December 2014

A Diamond Jubilee




Jan Grape by Jan Grape

The movie Gone With The Wind came out in 1939, so it's now seventy-five years old. (Or sixty-fifteen as I say about my age since that was also my birth year.) A Diamond Anniversary as we might say of a marriage lasting 75 years. The movie has long been considered one of the greatest movie achievements of all time. I'm not knowledgeable enough to talk about that statement and I'm sure many Star War or Avitar fans might dispute that.

What I'd like to discuss is my first encounter with the movie. In trying to determine exactly how old I was when I saw the movie. I researched the release of the movie and there was a release in 1954 after about eight years of the movie not being showed in the USA.

People nowadays can't imagine movies coming out and then not being seen for several years. I suppose the idea back in the forties and up through the eighties for movie studios was to distribute a movie and then hold it back for a few years, then crate a buzz for a new release time. Thereby creating more revenue by creating a huge desire to see the movie.

I had read the Margaret Mitchell book, Gone With The Wind and fell in love with the whole story, but especially with the character of Rhett Butler. My movie watching at that time was fairly typical for that time period. We did have a movie theater n Post, Texas, the small town where I grew up. Early on I watched cowboy/westerns with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hop-a-long Cassidy, Lash LaRue, and the  Lone Ranger. After that, I fell in love with big musical productions and movies starring Esther Williams, the swimming movie star.

Sometime in 1954 my mother discovered that Gone With The Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in the leading roles was in theatres. Mother had seen the movie, probably sometime in the early 40s when it was released and she wanted me to see it. It would only be shown in a Lubbock, TX theater, forty miles from our town of Post. We really couldn't afford for the two of us to go see the movie, and actually mother had two little girls that she would have to take or leave with a baby-sitter. My little sisters were too young to see and enjoy the movie so mother came up a plan.

Mother bought a round trip ticket for me to ride the Greyhound bus to Lubbock. (It might have been a Trailways bus, I don't actually recall.) I have no memory of how I got to the movie theater but it probably close enough for me to walk. Mother gave me enough money for the movie ticket, probably $1.50, enough for popcorn and a coke because this movie is four hours long and even stops in the middle for an intermission.

This sweeping epic that cost over three million to make is remembered for the beautiful plantation called Tara, where Scarlett O'Hara grew up. One of the most costly and famous scenes is the burning of Atlanta. The movie is certainly faithful to the book as much as an epic novel can be, not exactly word for word, but close enough to scenes and actions in the book.

It tells the story of a manipulative Southern belle spoiled by her rich father. It relates she used men and loved a man she couldn't have, Ashley Wilkes, and even when she married Rhett Butler, she denied him love, although he loved her more than any man ever could.

I remember quite a bit from seeing the movie then but I know I fell madly in love with Rhett Butler. What a handsome, charming, wonderful man. Women loved him and men loved him, too. Hollywood called him a man's man. I could understand that. He didn't let anyone push him around yet could be tender and kind and loving all wrapped up in those rugged good looks.

This movie won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress-Vivian Leigh, Best Supporting Actress, Hattie McDaniel. One of the most quoted lines came from Butterfly McQueen, "Miss Scarlett, I don't know nothing about birthing babies." And Rhett's famous line: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." But we'll never forget Scarlett's line: "Never mind, I'll think about it tomorrow."

That actually was the only time I saw that movie (until 2004) but the Christmas before my Elmer passed away, he gave me a four disc copy of Gone With The Wind.  I watched it then but not since. However, now that I have it out of the file cabinet, I think I should watch it once again.

These pictures were taken from my CD collection box and a booklet that was part of the package. All copyright credit goes to Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros.

21 December 2014

Keeping the X in Xmas

by Leigh Lundin

When I was a kid, a controversy arose regarding the abbreviation of Christmas as Xmas. Many argued it was disrespectful or downright sacrilegious.

This issue surfaced again in college. With large numbers of scholars around, the consensus turned out differently. Those who studied history and Greek deemed the Χ dated back to the earliest days of Christianity, that the Greek letter chi was used among the sect to identify themselves. Even illiterate adherents could recognize and use the letter Χ, the first letter of Χριστός ➟ Xristos ➟ Krīstós ➟ Chrīstós ➟ Christ.

So not only is Xmas not blasphemous, it’s actually blessed. One of our favorite web sites, Grammerly, discusses it further.

The ‘i’s have it

poinsettia v poinsetta

Grammerly, which brings us the Ghost of Future Perfect Subjunctive (we understand even if Scrooge doesn't) is fun and educational for writers and readers, offering use and spelling snippets often in the form of graphics and fan contributions. The above represents an example of poinsettia versus poinsetta. The latter is flagged as an error both by my word processor but also by the Oxford Dictionary. I might add I was taught the red peppers in Spanish olives are pimientos, not pimentos. However, some people distinguish pimiento as the fruit and pimento as the plant itself.
Fox 35 Xmas weirdness

Danny Boy

Fox News has published a list of 35 Christmas practices from around the world. (See list at right.)

Far be it from me to suggest Fox News might be anything less than truthful (oh, God, my eyeballs are rolling uncontrollably), but I spent Christmas in South Africa and didn’t come across Numbers 1 or 34. I never encountered a single deep-fried moth nor an angry izigebengu (bad guy) named Danny.

Maybe they were fresh out of moth larvae, or possibly they were hiding in some township somewhere deep in tribal lands… We're awaiting confirmation from our South African correspondent.

Stop Presses!
Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Our African correspondent reports: “The Emperor Moth caterpillars, referred to here as the Mopane worm (moh-pah-nee), are a southern African delicacy, not traditionally Zulu, more a staple in Zimbabwe and northern SA. They are huge, as long as one's hand. Tried dried crispy in Zim— not too bad. The other offering of soft and squidgy made me gag – EEEUW!

As for the Danny story — never heard of it. Certainly not an English tale and Danny is not an African name. If there’s any substance to it, my guess is possibly Afrikaans / Dutch - from Daanie (pronounced Dah-nee) diminutive of Daniel.”

The Fox is at the door

Fox contends annually that a ‘War against Christmas’ is about to end the holiday any time now. As I’ve written earlier, Christmas for my family has traditionally been not merely ecumenical, but all inclusive and non-proselytizing. That’s worked pretty well. But yeah, there’s always someone who found coal in their stockings and Fox manages to track them down. Here’s an example from a couple of years ago.

Black Christmas

Here in Florida, when the State House allowed Christmas presentations, the courts held that any ‘religious’ organization could erect Christmas displays, even Satanists, bless their hearts. However, Fox chose to focus on the, er, Festivus pole, as highlighted by Jon Stewart. And then they go on to snivel about Santa and being white. They have no problem with a green Grinch? Listen folks, when I was a kid, my parents took us to black churches and we learned young that Father Christmas is whatever folks need him to be. That's the magic of the season.

White Christmas

Earlier this month, I encountered an Australian doo-wop group called Human Nature, now appearing in that soul of Christendom, Las Vegas. They’ve released a Christmas album, which is bleedin’ good. Their cover of White Christmas does Bing Cosby proud.

Here’s the live version if you have Facebook and audio-only from YouTube.

May your Chanukah wrap up wonderfully and your twelve days of Christmas be merry and bright.

20 December 2014

Have a Confusing Christmas!

By Melodie Campbell

The following story is true.  And it may explain the slightly manic sense of humour I have been displaying on these pages over the past six months.


Most of my life, I have been confused about Christmas.

This is because I am the quintessential Canadian mutt.  Four parts Italian, one part Irish, one part English, one part Chippewa, and the final bit was a surprise.  It overlaps with the English part (wait for it.)

The Italian part is easy to explain.  Every year, my Sicilian grandmother put the plastic lighted crucifixes (made in Japan) in glaring rainbow colours, on the Christmas tree.  I was a bit confused by that, not only because it was gawd-awful tacky and fought with my budding interior designer.  But the part in the 10 Commandments about ‘no graven images’ seemed to be at risk here.

Nevertheless, we all looked forward to the blazing orange, green and red crucifixes, unaware that it was a sort of macabre thing to do to a Christmas tree.  Did I mention Halloween is my favorite holiday?

The Chippewa part was a tad more elusive.  I first got a hint that there might have been First Nations blood in our family when someone asked why we put ground venison in our traditional Christmas Eve spaghetti sauce.  True, we had a freezer full of deer, moose, salmon, and not much else.  Later, it occurred to me that I actually hadn’t tasted beef until I was ten, when for my birthday, Dad took us to the A&W for a real treat.  “This tastes weird,” I said, wrinkling my nose.  “It’s made from cow,” Dad said.

Of course, if I had been more on the ball, there were other clues.  But at the age of six, you don’t necessarily see things as out of the norm.  That summer in Toronto, I loved day camp.  They split us kids into groups named for First Nations tribes.  By happy coincidence, I got placed in the Chippewa tribe.  When I got home and announced this, the reaction was: “Thank God it wasn’t Mohawk.” 

The camp leaders were really impressed with my almost-authentic costume.  (Everyone else was wearing painted pillow cases.)

But the real confusion about Christmas and my provenance came many years later.

I spent most of my life not knowing we were part Jewish.  I was about forty, when the designer shoe (a bargain on sale at David’s) finally dropped.  Dad and I were eating pastrami on rye at Shopsy’s Deli one day (which we did on a regular basis, once a month – a reasonably intelligent person might have considered this the first clue) when Dad wiped a drip of mustard off his face and said:

Dad: “I haven’t heard from my cousin Moishe Goldman in a long while.”

Me:  “We have a cousin named MOISHE GOLDMAN??”

Of course, if I had been thinking, all this made sense.  We had lived in a Jewish neighbourhood.  Our last name is Hebrew for antelope.  And I was only the only kid in school who got Halvah in their Christmas stocking every year.  (Damn straight.  I really did.  I still do.)

So I’m hoping this may explain why we have a five foot lighted Christmas peacock on our front porch this year, and a lighted Christmas palm tree in our back yard.  “A Peacock in a Palm Tree” may be confusing to you folk who know the song and are expecting a partridge with pears, but to those of us who have been confused about Christmas all our lives, it is mere icing on the proverbial Kugal.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books. You can buy them at Chapters/Indigo, Barnes&Noble, Amazon, etc.  Sometimes even at the discount table at Zehrs and Walmart.)

The Peacock.  You thought I was kidding.

19 December 2014

The Cell Phone as Murder Weapon

by Dixon Hill

Melodie Campbell's post on December 6th gave me the idea for this post, so if you don't like it complain to her.  Because it's her fault!  (Just kidding of course.)

Surely everyone has read about cell phones being used to detonate improvised explosives, but I'm not going to address that issue in this post.  Clearly, too many bad guys already know how to set up such triggers, and -- though I think I have a pretty good idea how to rig one up -- I am not going to propagate such knowledge among more of them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There is an aspect about cell phones, however, that some mystery writers may be unaware of, which could potentially render them highly useful as items involved in fictional extortion plots, arson plots, and even potential murder plots.

I don't feel I'm letting anything out of the bag by writing this, because:

  1. This aspect is widely reported on the internet, complete with accompanying photos.
  2. Recent television newscasts have covered this aspect, and its associated potential for downing aircraft.  
  3. I have certainly never been trained in using a cell phone as an explosive device, as this aspect did not exist -- or, at least, was not nearly as wide-spread -- during my military career.
  4. Having a certain rudimentary knowledge that something is possible, is a far cry (imho) from having the technical expertise and equipment to successfully execute that thing.


The aspect of cell phones that I'm addressing is:  Exploding Batteries.

Now, you may have just scoffed, and asked, "How much damage could one little battery do?"
Below is a photo of a house reportedly gutted by the fire an exploding cell phone battery started:


Is there any question in your mind, now, that a cell phone battery could figure prominently in the plot of a mystery concerning arson?





These two photos show folks who have survived phone battery explosions or fires:

I recall being told of a case, in which terrorists set up a booby trap, which fired a small explosive device mounted behind the mirror on a car's sun visor.  The daughter of a man, whom the terrorists were trying to influence, owned the car and often used the flip-down mirror (which had lights on either side, that came on when it was flipped open) to do her makeup.  The idea behind the attack, was not to kill the daughter, but to maim her.  To mar her face.


This is a horrible thing to do to someone, but since we write about horrible people perpetrating crimes, consider:  Imagine how organized crime members might use a cell battery to carry out their threat to maim family members of someone they were trying to extort into doing something illegal.

Sound like part of a plot?

What if the explosion that hurt the man's ear, in the photo above, were amped-up to be more powerful?  The target gets a call, and when he answer it -- WHAM!  Of course, the device would probably be more effective if the battery detonated five to ten seconds after the target answered, increasing the likelihood that the phone was tucked tight to the target's head (Charge-to-target contact -- remember?).  Now, we could be talking about fictional murder.


To watch a BBC clip concerning exploding cell batteries (along with some interesting demonstrations) CLICK HERE

CLICK HERE to read about ways to prevent cell phone batteries from exploding.  The idea here is: Learning what prevents them from exploding, might help you get started, when it comes to plotting techniques that your fictional character can use to make his/her targeted cell phone battery explode, wreaking fictional havoc upon the opposition.

CLICK HERE for Times of India information about "call bombing" and how this might help a cell phone to cause damage.  Scroll down to "How and why do mobile phone blasts happen?" for the requisite information.

Now: Let's be frank.  If you've read through some of the links above, then you know that most phones and batteries are well designed and manufactured, and very seldom explode.  Further, even if a battery were to explode, I think it would be quite difficult to rig up a system that would make it explode at a specific time -- which is an important consideration when working with explosive or assassination devices.  After all, if the thing blows up when it's nowhere near the targeted individual or structure, the blast will not accomplish the desired results.

On the other hand, we're writing fiction here.  So . . . maybe -- using the links above, and possibly others -- you might figure out a way to sell such an exciting plot, in a way that's convincing to readers.  If so, I hope you "Have at it!"

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon