31 July 2014

The Road to Damascus

by Eve Fisher

Every once in a while there's a high profile parole hearing, where everyone gets geared up on one side or the other.  (And yes, we just had one up my way.) They're usually murder cases, sometimes horrific.  There is press coverage, rehashing the crime in all its gory details.  The family (usually) protests vociferously to any parole.  The character witnesses for the prisoner are generally considered either bleeding hearts and/or easily gulled and/or sincere but mistaken. And usually the prisoner is not released.  Contrary to the television world, I would say that 90% of all violent offenders do not get released their first time up for parole, or second, or third.  And many violent offenders do not and perhaps will never get released.

This may not be a bad thing:  Charles Manson leaps to mind.  He is currently 80 years old, still residing in Corcoran State Prison in California, and that's fine with me.  The members of his "family" who participated in the Tate-LaBianca Murders (mostly tried in 1970, one in 1971) were:

  • Susan Atkins - 17 parole hearings, all denied; 22 years old going in; died at 61 in prison.
  • Patricia Krenwinkle - 13 parole hearings, all denied; 23 years old going in; currently 67 years old.
  • Tex Watson - 14 parole hearings, all denied; 25 years old going in; currently 69 years old.
  • Leslie Van Houten - 19 parole hearings, all denied; 19 years old going in; currently 65 years old.

Everyone agrees that they were manipulated by Manson; that he masterminded the horrible murders; that they were under the influence of drugs.  All had/have, over their 40+ years in prison, claimed to become born-again Christians, and/or worked with AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or transformed.  It is extremely doubtful that any of them will ever be paroled.  The crimes were too horrific (although no more horrific than others that have been committed against less famous people) and received too much publicity.

Okay.  So what about these cases?
  • A 16 year old tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole for shooting a taxi driver in cold blood in order to get the taxi and use it to flee from the scene of a robbery the kid had just committed.
  • An 18 year old Native American killed another man in a drunken brawl and was sentenced to life without parole because "he would never be a decent member of society."
  • Any of the many "three strikes and you're out" life convictions for committing three felonies.

What if they clean up their act, sober up, get saved, whatever, study, work hard, participate in AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or were transformed in various ways?  Two questions:
  1. Is there really such a thing as repentance and transformation?
  2. Does it matter?
First one:  Can people really repent, change, transform? You would think, given the title above, that everyone who claims to be Christian would say yes.  However, after years working in the judicial system, I can tell you that most people don't believe it, at least not for certain crimes and certainly not for others.  Why?  Well, here are a few options:
  1. They've - we've - all been taken one too many times; we've all been screwed big time and haven't gotten over it.
  2. They can't imagine another person's life, much less that life actually changing.  How can someone, anyone, think/feel/act differently than me without being dangerously crazy, and in need of serious treatment and/or incarceration? (Well, that's what fiction is for, to explain it.)
  3. Life is much easier when you maintain the "once a ___, always a ___" attitude.
But okay, say we do believe that people change.  Comes the second question, does it matter?  In other words, what is punishment really about?  I've read that it's a three-fold concept, incorporating
  1. retribution and/or incapacitation (as in Old Testament/Sharia law); 
  2. deterrence (although there have been studies that prove people aren't deterred by the severity of punishment; certainly in Restoration/ Victorian England, where people were hanged for stealing a handkerchief, there were still plenty of thieves because poverty was so endemic); and 
  3. rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation is the interesting one:  if rehabilitation (i.e., transformation) is the goal, and if people are capable of rehabilitation, does that mean we still execute them and/or keep them incarcerated for life? And if they are rehabilitated/transformed, shouldn't we let them out, to try again, to live again?  Or is rehabilitation, while a sweet dream, an ideal outcome, irrelevant to punishment as a debt that must be paid, using time instead of money?

(Although, speaking of debts, we all know, don't we, that prison is extremely expensive? Which is part of the push towards private prisons which, frankly, scare the hell out of me, because private prisons have quotas for occupancy...  And then there's the whole thing of trying to pry all the costs for our court system out of the accused and arrested - whether or not they are found innocent.  And then there's the infamous case of the woman who died in jail because her children skipped school and someone had to pay the truancy fines and they didn't have the money, so she got to go to the equivalent of debtors' prison in Pennsylvania.)

Look, I believe in rehabilitation.  I believe in transformation.  I am not the same person I was in my teens (thank God).  And yet, I have no answers, just questions.  There are some crimes for which I'd lock people away for life.  But they may not always be the same crimes that someone else would lock a person away for life.

And then there's Saul.  He was guilty, at the very least, of accessory to murder (he held the coats as Stephen got lynched), and he was going to kill as many heretics as he could find.  And then Saul got knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, and became a believer overnight, blinded and restored to sight by a miracle.  He eventually had to leave Damascus - in the middle of the night - and went to Jerusalem, with a new name - Paul - but that didn't fool anybody. The disciples didn't want anything to do with him, because they didn't believe that he had changed.  It was a big risk. They took some convincing.  So do we. So do I.  The question is, when is the risk worth taking? Is it worth taking? How do we know?

30 July 2014

Staying Afloat

by Robert Lopresti

I recently got my hands on a hoard of very old Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, and have been skimming them for dusty gems.  Came upon a little oddity in the April 1969 issue.  The first odd thing is that the story was a reprint - it had first appeared in EQMM in 1947.  And the editor -- that would be Frederick Dannay -- reports that upon the original appearance "(a)lmost without exception, readers and critics disapproved of the story, and editor-EQ [Dannay], to put it mildly, was pilloried."  Now, he reports, people have been asking to see "that prophetic story."  He suggests that he and the author were ahead of their time.

Well, we will get into that.  The story was "The President of the United States, Detective," by H.F. Heard.  Now, I would bet a shiny new quarter, featuring the Everglades National Park on the reverse side, that that title came from the editor, not the author.  First of all, Dannay was addicted to title-tinkering.  Second, it stinks of special pleading:  "This isn't science fiction!  It's a detective story.  See?  It's in the title."


It is science fiction.  The story takes place in the year 1977--

Okay, let's pause for a moment and deal with this crazy-making real-life time travel.  The story was written (or at least published) in 1947.  It was reprinted in 1969.  But I just read it (while flying around in my jetpack, of course) in the year 2014, which means this reader is further removed from the date of the story than Heard was when he wrote it.  Mind-boggling.

The hero of the story is President Place, "a mammoth of a man.  His hands were bigger even than George Washington's, he was taller than Lincoln, he weighed more than Taft. 'The biggest president ever.'"  Clearly not modeled on Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, both of whom graced the Oval Office in 1977.

And now I should put in a SPOILER ALERT because I am going to reveal the plot of this almost seventy-year-old story. 

During one day President Place gathers info from several sources that convinced him that the Commissar of the USSR is up to no good.  The Commissar was Yang Chin, a Mongolian ("China, as usual, had swallowed those who rashly tried to get her into their clutches").  And as it turns out Yang had dropped atom bombs on his own permafrost, melting the ice, which would inevitably lead to parts of Europe and the Americas being flooded.

Ah, but he didn't count on shrewd President Place who, the same day, (apparently Environmental Impact Statements don't exist in this version of the 1970s) ordered the Air Force to bomb Greenland and Antarctica, causing their ice packs to melt, causing the land to be lightened, and therefore rise up.  

I told a friend about this and he said "Physics no do that."  He is a native English speaker,   but he was stunned.

An aside: the late author, H.F. Heard, also known as Gerald Heard, was an interesting guy.   His website, which doesn't seem to mention our target story, does tell us about a Sherlockian novel, A Taste For Honey, and a lot of religious texts.  Apparently he was a big influence on the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous as well.

Getting back to the short story, one interesting point, obviously, is its prediction of human-made climate change.  I went on the web searching for comments on the story and  found Cli Fly Central, a website dedicated to climate change science fiction, which it suggests should be called Cli Fi.  Mr. Heard's piece is one of the earliests entries.  There is even an award for Cli Fi novels: The Nevil. 

This is of special interest to me because it appears that my own contribution to Cli Fi will be published in the next year.  It is, I assure you, crime fiction, not SF.  Even though it doesn't have "detective" in the title.  In the mean time, stay dry.

29 July 2014

Making Movies

by Stephen Ross

I'm making a movie. No, that doesn't mean I've relocated to Hollywood. I'm making a short, no budget movie here in Auckland City, New Zealand. Short means 5-10 minutes, no budget means just that. Nada. The movie is a mystery story being shot on digital video, and its destination, once completed, will be a film festival or two (one day, it'll eventually wind up on YouTube -- the final resting place of all things video).

A moment for some history: When I was a kid, I lived and breathed movies and wanted to be a movie director. My father had a Super 8 mm camera, and I shot a bunch of short movies with high school friends. My first production had drama, romance, humor, skateboards, a car chase, clowns, and a gun. The one thing it didn't have was a plot. My desire to be a director evolved into the desire to be a screenwriter, and for over a decade I practiced and taught myself the art of screenwriting.

I'm often asked where I learnt how to write; well, it was there, in the pages between countless FADE INs and FADE OUTs of countless screenplays. Screenwriting taught me structure, plotting and pacing, the economy of language, and how to write dialogue.

The movie I'm making is called The Sandcastle. The story started in my head with a basic plot outline and three characters: two women and a man. I could easily have typed out the story as prose and submitted it to either the Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. There's mystery, there's a crime, there's a twist ending. Had I done, it would have become a different story to the one that'll wind up on the screen. When you write a short story, the characters don't usually come to life and start writing their own parts.

The movie was put together very quickly. And when I cast it, the script was no more than notes, emails, and a Google Doc of motivation and backstory. The principal characters didn't have names and were known simply as Woman 1 and Woman 2. By mutual agreement with the two actresses playing the parts, the characters became Olivia and Rose. The characters now had names, they had become real people, and they had input on how and why their characters were going to do the things they needed to do in order to satisfy the plot I had sketched out.
Olivia (Yisela Alvarez Trentini)
Film making is collaborative story telling. That's part of the fun of it. Even when I start out with a completed screenplay, actors quickly get into their roles and tease out their character's nuances and motivations. They bring a fresh mind to the story, and they'll suggest things I hadn't even thought of. That kind of input just doesn't happen when writing alone, when writing fiction for the page. Part of my job as the movie's director is to facilitate this, and to keep it on track.

Imagine when you write a short story or book, that you could go to lunch with your characters and discuss their parts, their motivation, arc, etc., that they come to life and help you build the story. I'm not advocating working with a collaborator (I don't think I could write a short story or book with anyone else), but the change is refreshing. It's invigorating. It's why I've lately come back to making the occasional movie. Besides, it's fun to go outside, hang out with cool people, and tell a story in a completely different medium. Sitting alone at a desk day after day can, frankly, get tedious.
Rose (Kathleen Azevedo)
So, do I subscribe to the auteur theory of movie direction? No, I don't. And I get annoyed when I see "A Film by..." in the opening or closing credits.

The "auteur theory" arose in France in the mid 1950s. A group of movie critics, mostly connected to Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed that the director was the "author" of his/her movie -- that the director's personal style and artistic vision WAS the movie. The thinking went something like this: Picasso IS the voice of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Shakespeare IS the voice of Hamlet, Bach IS the voice of the Brandenburg Concertos... therefore, the director IS the voice of his/her motion picture. They didn't apply this theory to every director of the era, but certainly to the more notable ones like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was their poster boy.

But, is Hitchcock really the "author" of Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, or any of his other movies? What about the input of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for all those movies (yes, The Birds has no music, but Herrmann created the eerie electronic "bird" score). What about the input of the screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors who worked on those pictures? When I remember North by Northwest, I remember James Mason and Martin Landau quietly stealing the movie from Cary Grant. When I remember Vertigo, I remember Kim Novak in that green dress. When I remember The Birds, I remember Suzanne Pleshette's quiet despair, delivering lines written by Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain). Sure, Hitchcock directed all of them, but he was more the ring master of a creative circus than a sole individual alone with an empty canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a sheet of manuscript paper. An "auteur"? I don't think so.

That many of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went on to become directors themselves supports my theory that what really motivated them was elevating the artistic standing of the movie director in the arts community. Cahiers du Cinéma was based in Paris, after all. Revenons à nos moutons...


The Sandcastle
Making movies at the no-budget level (an actor's salary is lunch and a cup of coffee) means a lot is left to chance and serendipity. You really only have one or two chances at getting a scene right, and when you leave the house in the morning with the camera and the tripod, you hope for the best. But this can also be the best thing about making movies, and it's something that simply can't happen when you're alone with your word processor. It's the unrepeatable moments -- the moments you capture magic. You suddenly find you've put the camera in the right place, the actors are perfect in their performances, and even the weather is behaving. Everything is just right and is even better than you'd imagined. Later, when you review the day's footage, you see these shots and you think, Damn! That was good! A well written sentence really doesn't have the same effect.

There's a way to go before The Sandcastle is completed. There are a few things yet to be filmed and I've only just begun the editing process. And yes, I will be sharing the screenwriting credit.

If you're interested, you can check out our progress on our Facebook page (you don't have to be a Facebook member to see it):
https://www.facebook.com/info.Cinema555

You can also check me out on my brand new Facebook author page:
https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

Be seeing you!

28 July 2014

Moon Over Tangier

by Fran Rizer

Thanks to Janice Law and Leigh Lundin, I spent Friday suffering from self-induced sleep deprivation. When Leigh asked if anyone would like to review Janice Law’s newest novel, I volunteered. It arrived Thursday afternoon, and I didn’t stop reading until I completed it Friday morning. The official release date is the end of August, but I can’t wait to tell you about it. Here’s my review:

Moon Over Tangier


Janice Law
Janice Law
    Author Janice Law opens Moon Over Tangier with protagonist/narrator Francis Bacon bruised, bleeding, and wearing little more than fishnet stockings in the muddy Berkshire countryside. David, his partner, has once again erupted into a rage that the artist escaped only by running outside after a well-placed kick forced David to release the knife he held at Bacon’s throat.

    Third in the Francis Bacon trilogy following The Fires of London, a finalist in the 2012 Lambda Award for Gay Mysteries; and The Prisoner of the Riviera, winner of the 2013 Lambda Award Best Gay Mystery, Moon Over Tangier will impress many readers as even better than the first two.

    Eager to escape his situation and obsessed with David, Bacon follows him to Tangier. David—charming when he’s relaxed and mellowed with a happy level of alcohol intake—invites Bacon to a party where he introduces Bacon to his friend Richard who shows them a Picasso he has purchased. Unfortunately, Bacon realizes the painting is a copy, possibly an outright forgery. His telling Richard this leads to Bacon becoming an unwilling undercover agent for the police and barely escaping with his life after being locked in a closet while another man is killed.

    Caught up in murders, art forgery, and espionage, Bacon is captured and tortured physically by foreign agents and mentally by his love for David and David’s treatment of him, which he sums up in the words, “David liked me, but he didn’t love me.”

    This reader especially liked Francis Bacon’s witty narrator’s voice and appreciated Law’s treatment of David, “a brave, twisted man, half-ruined by the war and busy completing the destruction.” Law’s word choices are consistent with the post-war forties, and at no place do we see the term PTSD, but David is clearly a victim of that condition. In keeping with the time of the setting, Bacon and David do not flaunt their homosexuality, but they do “cavort,” the narrator’s term for their attraction to handsome beach boys and casual sexual encounters, which are not described in detail.

    Janice Law's Francis Bacon, the main character, is based on the real Francis Bacon, an Irish-born British bon vivant known for raw emotional imagery in his paintings. Throughout Moon Over Tangier the fictional character's references to his art are consistent with the real Bacon's isolated male heads of the 1940s and screaming popes of the 1950s. In previous Francis Bacon mysteries, his earlier life and close relationship with his nanny are historically accurate as are the descriptions of locations during the designated time periods in all three books.

    It is not, however, necessary to know anything about the real Francis Bacon to appreciate reading about Law's fictional version, nor is it necessary to read the first two novels before Moon Over Tangier. This book works just as well as a stand-alone, though anyone who reads this third in the trilogy first will probably then read The Fires of London and The Prisoner of the Riviera.

    Historical fiction has not been my favorite genre, but in Moon Over Tangier, Janice Law weaves in the historical facts so skillfully that I am not distracted from the adventure and mystery of the story. With the talent and expertise that Law has displayed in previous works, her writing captures me and takes me into a less than familiar world where the setting and characters become real and exciting. I read Moon Over Tangier for entertainment, and Janice Law's Francis Bacon entertains me five stars.

Moon Over Tangier
Author: Janice Law
Publisher: Mysterious Press.com/Open Road
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4199-5

Until we meet again, take care of … you  (and read this great new book by Janice!)

27 July 2014

The Workhorse Punctuation Mark

by Louis Willis

When I began researching the colon, I expected to find, like the other punctuation marks, some controversy. I googled “punctuation marks colon” and got only about 30,000 hits (semicolon resulted in about 101,000 hits). The websites I visited defined the colon’s many uses and explained how to use it. I didn’t find any negative or positive articles about the little ubiquitous punctuation mark. To generate conversation don’t you need two opposing views, something to argue against? On the other hand, I could just provide information with the hope it may be useful.

The academic website of the Russia Federation says, “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” Since the information is in English, I assume it is aimed at students learning to write English. The site goes on to note that an Italian Scholar, Luca Serianni, “helped to define and develop the colon as a punctuation mark, identified four punctuational modes for it: syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive, appositive, and segmental.” Serianni wrote the guide for the Italian language, but the rules are applicable to English as well as many other languages.

A definition wouldn’t feel right without something from that authoritative website, Wikipedia:

The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line. A colon is used to explain or start an enumeration. A colon is also used with ratios, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in bibliographies, business letter salutation, hours and minutes, and formal letters.

More from Wikipedia: “Use of the : symbol to mark the discontinuity of a grammatical construction, or a pause of a length intermediate between that of a semicolon and that of a period, was introduced in English orthography around 1600.”

As usual, the Internet finds a way to use a punctuation mark in new ways. I turn again to the Russian academic website for an example: “A colon, or multiple colons, is sometimes used to denote an action or to emote, similarly to asterisks. In this use it has the inverse function of quotation marks, denoting actions where unmarked text is assumed to be dialogue. 
“For example: 
“Tom: Pluto is so small; it should not be considered a planet. It is tiny! Mark: Oh really? ::drops Pluto on Tom’s head:: Still think it’s small now?
“Colons may also be used for sounds, e.g. ::click::, though sounds can also be denoted by asterisks or other punctuation marks.
“Colons can also be used to represent eyes in emoticons.”

But the field that most interest me and, I think, you is English syntax. In this respect, it is used to introduce a logical consequence (syntactical-deductive); a description (syntactical-descriptive); an appositive independent clause; and the segmental i.e., introduction of speech (at one time, it did so for quotations without the marks).

I think I knew all these syntactical uses of the colon without really thinking about them. I certainly never thought about the “syntactical-deductive” or “syntactical-descriptive,” although I suspect I must have encountered the terms in one  or more of the many books on grammar I’ve read.
The colon is not neglected. It should be but is not praised for its versatility. It’s just there, always present, used without thinking, which means it’s probably occasionally misused. I probably misuse it more often than I misuse its cousin the semicolon.

In my next post, I shall return to detective stories. This punctuation stuff gives me a headache.
:)

26 July 2014

Stranded Again

by John M. Floyd

As I was trying to decide what to write for today, it dawned on me that some of the columns I have enjoyed the most by my fellow Sayers of Sleuth were those that revealed the "story behind the story" for certain pieces of their fiction. In fact I've always been interested in behind-the-scenes, how-I-do-it peeks into the processes writers use to come up with their creations. So, to make a long story short (pun intended), I'm going to try to do some of that today.

First, a little background . . .

In November 2011, not long after SleuthSayers began, I posted a column called "Stranded." In it I mentioned one of my short mystery stories, "Turnabout," that had recently been published in The Strand Magazine. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have five more stories in The Strand; the latest, called "Molly's Plan," appears in the current issue (June - September 2014). Down here in the Southern hinterlands, I saw a copy of this issue for the first time at our local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and bought one for me and one for my mother (my Biggest Fan).

The glimmer of an idea for "Molly's Plan" began long ago, when I worked for IBM. My job title for many years was Finance Industry Specialist, which sounds more important than it really was; what I did was work with IBM banking software applications, like teller networks, ATMs, check processing systems, etc., which required me to spend most of my time with clients at their business sites. For me, those sites--or work locations, if you want to call them that--were banks.

One of the zillions of financial institutions I visited in the course of my career was a big gray lump of a building with white columns along the front, at the end of a narrow street that was always jammed with traffic. It was a branch of a regional bank, but it looked more like the fusion of a plantation home and a medieval prison. Even its layout was strange: it offered very few parking spaces, no drive-up windows, and limited access in just about every way. Simply stated, it was hard to get to and hard to leave. Because of this--and because my devious mind leaned toward deviousness even back then--it occurred to me that this bank would be extremely difficult to rob. Or at least difficult to escape from, after being robbed. I mentioned that to the branch manager one day, who confirmed my observation. He told me there had never ever been a robbery there, not even so much as an attempt, and probably never would be. As I later noted in the short story that resulted from all this, "Smart rustlers tend to avoid box canyons." The manager was so confident he didn't even bother to have a rent-a-cop on guard duty.

Bottom line is, my impressions and memories of that real-life location formed, years later, the setting for my story. As you might suspect by now, the plan in "Molly's Plan" was to steal a fortune in cash from the vault of this bank, and get away with it.

In the eye of the beer holder

The only other thing I might mention about the story is that, unlike most of my mysteries, this one includes a lot of different points of view. One scene is from the POV of an unnamed narrator, several are from the bank robber, others are from his wife, from a police officer, from a teller, etc. That's a lot of POV switches, for a story of around 5000 words. Most of my short mystery stories, certainly most of the ten that have so far appeared in The Strand, have only one POV--that of the main character.

So why are there so many points of view, in this story? The answer is simple: I felt it would take that many to properly tell the tale. In this case, I wanted to introduce suspense on several levels, and even though I understand the advantages and intimacy of the first-person and third-person-limited points of view, the one big advantage of third-person-multiple POV is that it allows the writer to build suspense and misdirection in ways that are not possible otherwise. Handled correctly, it can be a win/win situation: the writer can conceal certain facts from the reader by revealing only what a particular character sees and knows at a particular time--and the reader, by seeing the action through the eyes of several different characters over the course of the story, can know things about the plotline that the other characters might not yet know. Maybe there's a burglar hiding in Jane's basement, or the money John found under the park bench belongs to the mafia, or the friendly neighborhood cop is actually one of the killers. Or--as Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview--oh my God, there's a bomb under the table!

Does that approach work, in this instance? I hope so. All a writer can do is try to sell the editor or publisher on his story, and then trust that if it's accepted the reader will enjoy it as well.

Questions:

Do you, as writers, find yourselves calling on personal experiences to come up with most of your fictional settings? If so, how close do you come to the real thing? Do you think that kind of familiarity is necessary, or do you let your imagination supply most of what you need? How much detail do you include?

What type of POV do you use most, in your fiction? Does it depend on the form--flash, short, novella-length, novel-length? Or does it depend mostly (as in my case) on the plot? I once heard someone say that your choice of POV should be dictated by how much you want your reader to know and how soon you want your reader to know it.

Have any of you tried submitting to The Strand? If you've not sent them something, I hope you will. They publish three issues a year with four or five stories in each, and their guidelines say they prefer hardcopy submissions of 2000 to 6000 words. (All of mine so far, I think, have been between 4000 and 5000.) Contact information: Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine, P.O. Box 1418, Birmingham, MI 48012-1418. And here's a link to their web site.

Try them out--it's a darn good publication, with a great editor.

As for me, I hope to be Stranded again someday. One never knows.

25 July 2014

Botched AZ Execution?

By Dixon Hill

When I picked up the Arizona Republic newspaper at Circle K, at four Thursday morning, the headline screamed: "Botched Execution!" in bold caps.

Later, online, I saw that news of what transpired in the death chamber, here in my home state, had been broadcast on national morning news programs.

But, what really happened?  Different media outlets seemed to cover different parts of the story. Some observers claimed that Joseph Wood spent the last hour, or more, of his life, after being injected with a lethal concoction, gasping and struggling for breath, while others claimed he was merely snoring, evidently sleeping away the last hour or so of his life in no pain.

Lack of sound, to go with the video picture being watched by some witnesses, is evidently at least partly to blame for this disagreement.

One positive note (depending on how you view executions, that is):  It seems everybody agrees that he wasn't clenching his fists in pain, the way a recently condemned prisoner in another state was, when it took him a long time to die from lethal injection.

What's your take on it?

I thought, since it was my turn to blog, and I live in the state where this happened, and SS is about crime and punishment, as well as detection and writing, a discussion of this situation might just fit for today.  There are links below for those who want more information.

You can click HEREto read the Arizona Republic coverage of this story, which includes an explanation of how the state withheld certain information concerning the execution from the prisoner, as well as interesting information concerning exactly what got Joseph Wood put on death row.  There is a local news television coverage here also, because the Republic is associated with the TV station in question.

If you click HERE you'll be taken to an excellent article in the L.A. Times about a Federal Appeals Court judge who suggests executions should now be conducted via firing squad -- and even in more surprising manners.  His reasoning might strike a chord with you . . . believe it, or not!



The condemned man was not the only person to pass away, this week, however.

I'd like to take a moment to say goodbye to a man I never met, named James Scott Bumgarner.

You probably know him by the name he legally adopted later in life: James Garner.  While Jim Rockford will continue to live on in The Rockford Files and Maverick reruns, I can't help mourning the loss of an actor who could portray such a person so well, I felt as if I knew him.

Wallace on left; Ladmo on right.
Also:  Beneath the fold, on Thursday's front page, I found an article about the passing of another good man.

Bill Thompson, who played Wallace on the long-running local "Wallace and Ladmo Show" for kids, had died on Wednesday (from old age, of course, not of lethal injection).














Ladmo died some years back, so now -- for those who know the characters -- only evil Gerald is left.




Damn it, Jim!  I'm going to miss both you guys!  And I never even really knew either of you.


 See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

24 July 2014

To Tweak, Or Not To Tweak...

By Brian Thornton

...that is the question!
With apologies to THIS guy!


If you've ever written anything from a novel to a laundry list, you know the conundrum: leave well enough alone, or go back and "improve" your work.

I will admit up front that I am by nature a relentless reviser. I tweak, and edit, and add and cut and am constantly looking to make my prose smoother, better, more concise. It can get exhausting!

So how interesting is it that, as I close in on the third and final draft of a book project that I began plotting seven (yes, that's right, SEVEN years ago!), I have begun a new regime–born in large part of necessity–that includes minimal revision.

In other words, I'm gonna finish this sucker and then go back and fix what needs fixing.

Now I've heard it all from a variety of quarters on this subject: that's the common sense thing to do! Why haven't you done it all along? What sort of sick-o perfectionist can't leave well enough alone? How do you ever expect to publish anything with that self-defeating attitude?

My response: I am the author of nine published books, the co-author of several more–with all but one of them still in print. I've also got half-a-dozen short stories (every last one sold for actual money to actual venues that actually pay) completed and out there in the world as well.

How come this book project is different?

I have some thoughts on that. (Obviously, otherwise this would be a very short blog entry.)

All of my previously published book-length prose is non-fiction. For those of you not in the know, that does make a difference. From the time I sold my first book in 2004 until I sold my latest two in 2011, publishers would cut a contract for a nonfiction book based on an outline and a writing sample.

Not so with fiction. That sucker needs to be pretty close to completed before you see a nickel for it.

And that's the thing: this new book project is a novel.

I have no idea if these rules still apply to nonfiction. Like I said, the last two books I sold were in here). That's a lifetime ago in publishing, the way things go these days.
My Most Recent Sale
2011 (one was a nonfiction work and the other was an anthology of crime stories that can be found

And while I have enjoyed my forays into nonfiction, and am proud of what I've produced, this book, my novel is still different.

It's far and away the most creative thing I've attempted (at least artistically). I am far more invested in it than I was in my nonfiction.

So why haven't I finished it yet?

Well, for the first few years after I conceived it, I had a choice: work on the novel or work on something that would pay me that very year.

No contest- my nonfiction got the bulk of my writing time/attention/energy.

Then in 2009 I got exceedingly lucky and met my future wife. We married in 2010, bought a house in 2011 and had a child in 2012. All great things, and the money from my last three books helped fund all of the above, to say nothing of a terrific honeymoon touring the UK.

Now with my regular full-time job, my mortgage, my marriage and my toddler, I find time far more at a premium than I did in my days as an apartment-dwelling bachelor. This, more than anything else, has dictated my letting go of my obsession with trying to "perfect" my work.

Which is not to say that I don't revise my work anymore. I do plenty of it on the fly, and schedule a full run through the book once the draft is finished. I just can't afford to keep grinding and grinding on any one part of it anymore.

Ace Frehley, getting better.
For me, it's like Ace Frehley, lead guitarist of KISS said of his early days playing in that band: "We toured all the time. We weren't very good when we started out, but you play three hundred dates a year, and you're gonna get better."

So I have the benefit of experience. There really is no substitute for it. It helps me trust myself to get it right more efficiently than with my first "mistake" novel (that one will never see the light of day- in my metaphorical desk drawer it lies, and there it shall remain!)

So how do I manage to accomplish both? Make good progress while also ensuring that the things that need fixing later do actually get fixed?

Two things: first, I keep a writing journal–one that deals specifically with the challenges I'm facing on any given day (it's hand-written in a series of Moleskine journals. Hey, works for me!). I also use a tactic that my friend and colleague (really a terrific writer, this guy!) Michael Jacobs introduced to me: when there's a spot that I know will need fixing later, but I need to move on: I type [TK] in and around it.

This makes these places in the work that need a revisit later, once the draft is completed, easy to find. A word search on a document that runs in length anywhere from 60-100k words can be a challenge, unless you recall exactly which words you're looking for.

[TK] occurs almost nowhere in the English language as part of a word (and definitely nowhere else than where I place it as a marker with those brackets included). This makes it easy to find as part of a quick word search.

And there you have it. The answer to the question contained within the title of this blog post is: "Yes to both."

Just so long as it gets done!

23 July 2014

Chuck Greaves' The Last Heir

by David Edgerley Gates


THE LAST HEIR is the third in Chuck Greaves' series of legal thrillers that began with HUSH MONEY and GREEN-EYED LADY. The hero of the books, Jack MacTaggart, is of course a lawyer, but he's neither a bottom-feeder - a skip-tracer or an ambulance-chaser - nor is he Atticus Finch. He's not above mischief, on the one hand, and his ethics can be relative, shall we say, but he sometimes disappoints his clients when he turns out to have more principles than they expect him to. He's a stand-up guy in a tilting world.


THE LAST HEIR is, at least on the surface, about a power struggle in a California wine-making family. (Think, say, the Mondavi clan.) The aging pere, Philippe, has three kids, two boys and a girl. The older son has disappeared and been declared legally dead. The next in line drowns in a wine vat. And the daughter can't inherit, because her dad, a stiff and unyielding control freak, won't leave the estate to a woman, no matter how capable she is. There's a fair amount of bad blood, and complications set in.

The interesting thing to me, about this third MacTaggart book, is that it takes something of a right-angled turn from the first two mysteries. HUSH MONEY is about an insurance scam, and GREEN-EYED LADY is about a politician who gets caught with his pants around his ankles, but in both cases there's more to it than meets the eye. The thing is that in both books there's a large cast of shifty characters, any one of them with a motive to stab someone else in the back, but in THE LAST HEIR the suspect pool is very shallow - three to five at best - which makes it a closed system, in a way like one of those English country house mysteries, where it's either the least likely, or the most obvious suspect winds up being the next victim. The other tricky sleight, or reversal of expectations, the author pulls off, is that the crime doesn't appear to have a motive. Nobody profits by it. In point of fact, the other way around. The scheme, for lack of a better word, results in a net loss for everybody, which suggests none of them cooked it up in the first place.

Greaves winds the spring, and sets up the contradictions, and then at the end, when he shakes the tree, an enormously satisfying solution falls at your feet. And there's no cheating, no deus ex machina, no hidden secret held back until the final revelation. It's a terrific example of how character drives plot, even in a puzzle story.

Speaking of, MacTaggart is wonderful company. Jack's basically a wise-ass, and half the fun is listening to his voice. He's something of an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that he keeps anything from you, but that he's as much in the dark as you are. Which is another instance of how skillfully Greaves deploys the pieces on his chess board. You're not entirely sure the bishop always moves on the diagonal or whether the knight can jump an intervening pawn. In other words, MacTaggart begins to recognize not the pattern of a plot, per se, but the dynamics of inner history, family grievances, personal loss, the template of sorrow. One of the things about Jack himself that seems very true, to me, and true to life, is that he internalizes these other griefs. He lets them inhabit him.

He's also snort-coffee-out-your-nose funny - which, when you think about it, is quite possibly a defense mechanism, and a very sly way of revealing Jack's own character.  Here he is on meeting the local eminence grise.
     "There's a unique odor - an oleaginous mingling of dust and wood polish, incense and candle wax - that's instantly familiar to anyone, anywhere, who was raised in the Catholic faith. I'm thinking they must manufacture it in the basement of the Vatican and ship it out to the various dioceses in fifty-gallon drums. If they were smart, they'd bottle the stuff and sell it as a perfume, or maybe as an aftershave.
     "They could call it Guilt. They'd make a fortune."

There's a confidence, and an engagement, in the writing. Jack is both sympathetic, and the kind of guy who holds you at arm's length. You might say the same of the author. Chuck Greaves invites you in, he makes you comfortable in his invented world, you feel you're in good hands, and then he sandbags you. THE LAST HEIR fools you not because of its artifice, but because it's genuine. The characters who people the story aren't generic conventions.

This is a guy who gives good weight. It didn't surprise me to learn he'd been a trial lawyer, in a previous life. It did surprise me to learn he gave up his practice and left L.A. and moved to the boondocks and started a vineyard of his own, growing grapes.


Like being a mystery writer. Stony soil, but it pays off.

[I should explain, in the interest of full disclosure, that Chuck Greaves and I know each other personally, and even did an event together, at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe, back in the late spring, where we essentially spent an hour trying to crack each other up, like Bob and Ray, or Lucy and Ethel. Chuck is hugely personable, and tells very funny stories, many of the NSFW, but I hasten to assure you this has nothing to do with my giving his book a strong review. On the other hand, I do expect a case of wine one of these days, from his vineyard, Stark Raven.]

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/


22 July 2014

Search And Seizure

by David Dean

A few months ago I had the honor of presenting at the annual Pennwriters conference in Lancaster, PA.  As some of you may remember, I had definite qualms about whether I was up to this task as it lay outside my comfort zone.  In the event, nothing was thrown at me, and those that had not actually fallen asleep, said they found my talk very soothing.  So I counted my class on short story writing an unqualified success.

The attendance at my next scheduled effort, a presentation on police procedures and crime fiction, was much better attended.  The organizers had apparently spread the rumor that this event would feature an open bar.  They failed to specify that it was a coffee bar.  Still, the attendees remained, perhaps thinking that the "real" bar would be thrown open as soon as I finished talking.  In order to hasten that moment, several of the more enterprising began asking questions almost as soon as I was introduced, thinking no doubt that the quicker they talked me through this, the better.  These had probably attended my earlier lecture.

Their questioning revolved largely around a central theme--what the police can...and can not do...legally.  In other words, police power.  This is an issue which police officers themselves wrestle with on a daily basis.  If we rely on crime fiction (especially the Hollywood style of fiction) to inform us, then we would conclude that there are no meaningful limits or controls on law enforcement officers.  If the featured officer is a good guy, then he is justified in doing almost anything to achieve justice--and he does.  But benignly, of course.  When the opposite is true, the bad officer is characterized as an out-of-control criminal in uniform, and suddenly rules matter once more.

But what are the rules?  It's a big subject as my fellow SleuthSayers who have been involved in law enforcement, or criminal law, know.  Still, one good place to begin is with the issue of search and seizure.  And for that, we must turn to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

In essence, this is the guarantor that our homes, persons, and property will be protected from unreasonable searches and/or  seizures.  For a search or seizure to be considered reasonable normally requires a search warrant.  Getting a search warrant, as R.T. Lawton knows I'm sure, is seldom something that can be accomplished quickly or easily.  It usually involves a good deal of investigation, followed by a written affidavit describing in detail the officer's probable cause for the search and its necessity.  Additionally it must carefully describe the premises to be searched, and as exactly as possible, the object of the search.  It then goes through several layers of review by prosecutors before it, and the investigating officer, must appear before a judge.  That same officer is often responsible for preparing the actual warrant, as well, which is the document that the affidavit supports.  Then the judge will give it the thumbs up, or no, and it isn't always a slam dunk.  Sometimes he will demand info that he feels is essential to the warrant but is not currently included.  Then it's back to the drawing board.  All of this can take hours, days, weeks, and even months to accomplish the goal of entering someone's home to legally search it.  This is most often the work of detectives and investigators. 

The uniform, or plainclothes street officer, works in a very different environment and often finds himself operating within the happening-right-now-and-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it world.  Decision-making gets telescoped into minutes or seconds, and there are no judges or lawyers working the night shift or responding to calls with the officer.

Because of this the courts have recognized that there must be exceptions to the warrant requirement.  On the face of it the idea may sound shocking.  But if some exceptions weren't carved out, an officer in hot pursuit of a murder suspect would have to wait outside the front door if he failed to catch up to him before he got inside.  That would be unsatisfactory in the extreme, and also boring. 
Warrant?  I don't need no stinkin' warrant.

So here they are--the exceptions to the search warrant requirement:

1. Search Incident to Lawful Arrest: Kind of a no-brainer, I think.  When a person gets arrested the officer is allowed to search both his person and the area within his reach, or "wingspan".  Of course you need probable cause to make the arrest, which can be defined as more than reasonable suspicion but less than the evidence required for a conviction.  That shines a light on it, doesn't it?  P.S.  Since this was written the Supreme Court has ruled that cell phones recovered in such situations are excluded from this exception and require a search warrant.  I need time to digest this one before commenting.

2. Plain View Exception: No warrant is required if the officer can see evidence in plain view (narcotics, for example) and  he is legitimately in a position to do so.  For example: He responds to a home to administer CPR to an unconscious victim, and sees on the nearby coffee table a mirror with a mound of white powder and a razor blade on it.  Plain view would probably not apply to that same officer using a pair of binoculars from a block away to see the same thing.  

3. Consent: Suspects can, and sometimes do, give their consent to enter and search their property.  The person giving the consent must be reasonably believed by the officer to have the authority to do so.  Here, in New Jersey, Consent to Search forms are used to document the transaction.  It helps to repudiate later claims that the consent was not freely given.  As for blood stains found on such documents, these are easily explained away as the result of paper cuts.  The suspects are also advised that they do not have to give consent and may stop the search at any time.  And yes, they do sometime give consent even though they are in possession of something naughty.  My theory is that they think cops are slow-witted and can never, ever figure out where they have so cleverly hidden the contraband.  Sadly for them, it is most often not the cop who is slow-witted.

4. Stop and Frisk: A police officer may stop and frisk a person if he has reasonable suspicion that he may be armed and dangerous.  This is more than mere suspicion, but less than the level required for probable cause.  That's illuminating, isn't it?  It is worth noting that a frisk is a pat-down of outer clothing for the officer's safety.  He could progress to an actual and more thorough search of the suspect if he encounters what he believes to be a weapon during the pat-down.  Kind of a "plain feel" exception.  Though the person has not been arrested, he has been "seized," hence the need for the exception.

5. Automobile Exception: This actually applies to any vehicle, including boats.  If the officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, contraband, etc...he may conduct a search for the item he believes may be present, but only in the areas where such an item could be hidden.  E.g. He can't look in the glove compartment for a robbery suspect; though he may search there if he is looking for a gun used in a crime.  This exception is allowed because of the highly mobile nature of vehicles.  If the car were parked in a driveway without an operator, a warrant would be needed. 

6. Emergencies and Hot Pursuit: If evidence is in danger of being removed or destroyed the officer can utilize this exception.  This is also the one that covers the fleeing suspect I mentioned earlier; allowing the officer to continue his pursuit onto and into private property without a warrant.  Even if the property is that of a third party.  Here's one for you: If during the apprehension of this fleeing suspect inside a very surprised John Q. Bystander's house, you see that John Q. is building a bomb, you can go ahead and arrest him, too, under the Plain View exception.  Then both men can be searched Incidental to Lawful Arrest.  What fun you're having!

The exercise of any of these exceptions often lead to a probable cause hearing after the fact.  This is the defense attorney's opportunity to have thrown out any evidence that the officer discovered as a result of the search.  The officer's interpretation of the search warrant exception utilized, as well as his understanding of the events leading up to it will be called into question.  This is not only a matter of checks and balances, but quite likely the suspect's best chance of beating the charge.  If the judge rules that the officer misused the exception, or otherwise overstepped the constitutional boundaries of the Fourth Amendment, the evidence will be thrown out and his case most likely dismissed.  The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine states that evidence illegally obtained is tainted and cannot be used in court against the defendant.

Well, that's enough for today.  I'll see you all back in your seats in three weeks.  Until then--Bar's open!

Next Time--WHY WON'T ANYONE TALK TO ME? or A FEW WORDS ON MIRANDA AND SUCH LIKE.