31 October 2015

A Monster Mash


by John M. Floyd


Just as I was about to sit down and type my column for this week, which would've dealt with a totally different subject (something dutiful, involving writing and mystery fiction), it occurred to me that the piece was scheduled to run on October 31. I slapped my forehead, ditched my notes, and changed course. No one can resist writing about scary things on Halloween.

And some of the scariest things I've seen in my life--my life has, I confess, been pretty uneventful in the excitement department--have happened in movies.

A quick note, here, about genre categories. Despite what we're told on imdb.com and Netflix, I'm not at all sure that films like MiseryCujoDuelJawsHannibal, etc., are horror movies. They might be frightening (Annie Wilkes and her sledgehammer gave me the hibbiejibbies for weeks afterward), but it might be more accurate to label those examples as suspense, or adventure. Horror films, to me, should have otherworldly elements, like Night of the Living DeadThe BirdsInvasion of the Body Snatchers, FrankensteinThe Dead Zone, Paranormal ActivityThe Thing, Nosferatu, The Mist, Trollhunter, The Shining, DraculaThe RingThe Sixth SenseA Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on and so on. And let's face it, some of the most terrifying stories are those about insane people, because they could actually happen: The Silence of the LambsThe Night of the HunterMagicAmerican PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Humans are sometimes the best (worst?) monsters.

Anyhow, without further ado, here are my top ten scary (not necessarily horror) movies, rated according to how high I jumped out of my recliner or my theater seat when I first saw them.


1. Psycho -- I believe the most frightening moment in movie history occurred when Norman Bates's mother swung around in that chair in the root cellar, 55 years ago. Bernard Herrmann's music helped.

2. The Exorcist -- The scariest scene in this one, for me, was when Father Merrin appeared at Regan's home in Georgetown, introduced himself to her mother and Father Karras, and then climbed the staircase to confront the devil. The whole time this was happening, if I remember correctly, we could hear the demon upstairs, roaring and lowing and calling the priest's name. Whoa, Nellie.

3. Halloween -- This movie probably isn't on anybody's "best" list, but it was seriously creepy, in part because of John Carpenter's outstanding soundtrack. It still gives me goosebumps when I hear it.

4. Alien -- I saw this in an Atlanta mall, on an IBM trip, and the guy who was with me almost passed out when Alien Junior popped out of John Hurt's tummy. The sequel, Aliens, was a better movie, but what made Alien so terrifying was the steady buildup of tension and dread, and the fact that the audience never even saw the creature until near the end of the story.

5. Wait Until Dark -- I saw W.U.D. in college, and I remember the entire theater screaming at one point, when Alan Arkin leaped out of the shadows to attack a blind Audrey Hepburn. In my writing courses I often refer to this movie as an example of the use of foreshadowing and suspense.

6. The Others -- Not many folks seem to know about The Others (not to be confused with The Other). I watched it via Netflix, with one of our sons, and it scared the hell out of both of us. It contains one particularly bloodchilling scene.

7. Poltergeist -- Another film that I saw on a work trip, this one to Dallas. This is Spielberg at his best, and it's hard to get better than that.

8. The Howling -- Unlike Poltergeist, this was not a great movie (few werewolf movies are), but it was truly scary. I was dumb enough to watch it at home alone on TV at about two a.m. on a summer night, which meant the back windows onto our patio were open and I could hear the night sounds outside. I didn't do that again.

9. Cat People -- The 1982 version of Cat People is a guilty pleasure, and I love it. If the opening credits don't give you the willies, you're braver than I am. Wonderful soundtrack, and the city of New Orleans (which can be spooky anyhow) has never been spookier.

10. The Omen -- I've never been fond of kids-in-peril stories, but here the kid's the villain. Sort of. The most disturbing scene in this film involves an actress named Holly Palance (Jack's daughter, if you're a movie buff).


That's the top of my creepy/crawly list. Any agreements? Disagreements? And more importantly, do you have any recommendations? I included only those movies I myself have seen; several that I've not yet watched but are on my soon-to-be-viewed list are The BabadookThe Cabin in the Woods, and 28 Days Later. Give me more.

I'll close with a goofy poem I wrote twenty years ago--it was published in a 1995 issue of Mystery Time magazine, and is titled "Stress Management":



I have a long history of reading a mystery
Each night before going to bed;
They're scary and tense, but I have enough sense
Not to let such things mess up my head.

At least I thought so, till one night a psycho
Leaped into my room, eyes ablaze;
It was just my dog Lad. but by then I had had
An accident in my PJ's.

Now should that deter a booklover? No sir!
I still read a lot, if the tone
Is funny and light, if it's not late at night,
And if I'm not home all alone.



The same holds true for movies.

Have a great Halloween.





30 October 2015

Old School, New Readers

By Art Taylor

A few years back, one of the professors in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too heart-breaking for her.

I'm currently teaching a class called "Five Killer Crime Novels"—a gen ed survey of some of milestone books in the genre, or at least books that serve to represent/illustrate some of the trends and range and depth of mystery and suspense fiction. So far, we've read Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with a sprinkling of short stories; still ahead are Ed McBain's Sadie When She Died and Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. (And yes, I know there are tons and tons of others that could've/should've made the list!)

Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far. "We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."

I'll admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of "You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.

(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)

Actually, I try not to take offense to these kinds of comments and criticisms, but instead try to transform them into productive aspects of class discussion. The complaint about Hound of the Baskervilles, for example—that quick movement from the hound's appearance in one paragraph to his demise in the next—leads to a closer look at serialization and how the publication schedule built suspense. The eighth installment of the story in The Strand ends strategically at the break between those two paragraphs, with these words: "Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog."

AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

A different effect, right?

Other reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included? What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence and authority.

"Red Harvest was just a bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We don't even get his name!"

OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.

My point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses of boredom, dismissal, dislike.

Is it that students have been so conditioned by today's various media—the pacing of a CSI episode, for example, or the short bursts of information that constitute news, or the structures and expectations of Facebook status updates, tweets, and IM exchanges—that older works become dated in more fundamental ways than just their vocabulary or dress or gender attitudes? Maybe today's modes of communication and storytelling are so different that the average student can't relate.

Is the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out), and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups" do.

Is it that many of my students in this class—a gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be with some level of disinterest or even hostility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to hear what others think.

In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:

A few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them, mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the semester.

One student turned in her exam and then walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and held out her arms wide.

I have to admit, I find myself disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this? look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.

But I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester, I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."

I stood.

I hugged.

We're Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that she's reading to that daughter too.

29 October 2015

Being a Veteran

By Brian Thornton



(My next turn in the rotation comes on the day after Veterans' Day, so I hope you'll indulge me posting this a few days early. The thoughts expressed below are adapted from a speech I will be delivering at one of my local high schools, at their Veterans' Day assembly. - Brian)

My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran.

Before I published my first book, before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”
I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

And over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

And as the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served.
   
I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.
   
During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.
   
I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.
   
The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.
   
In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things.
   
None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.
   
Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when Ronnie died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered.

To be celebrated.

To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.
   
And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself.

A fraternity.

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.

28 October 2015

The Windsor Folly

by David Edgerley Gates


David Windsor came to the throne as Edward VIII, king of
England, in January of 1936. He gave it up in December of
the same year, to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was the celebrity scandal of the decade, what with the king throwing duty over the side, Mrs. Simpson under the misapprehension she could become queen, the ruling Tory party mutinous and ready to resign from government, the Archbishop of Canterbury discouraging any Anglican clergy from performing the wedding, the Royal Family caught up in both a domestic soap opera and a political crisis that threatened the monarchy - and just when you thought it was all a tempest in a teapot, it could well have affected the outcome of the Second World War.

You have to cast your mind back to the climate of the late 1930's, the consuming fear of Bolshevism and the rise of Fascist reactionary politics in Europe - the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania - but more particularly the Fascist states, Spain, Italy, and Nazi Germany. You also have to remember the strong isolationist and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. and Great Britain, and even overt sympathy for Nazism. (Sir Oswald Mosley married his second wife Diana Mitford in Berlin, at Goebbels' house. Hitler was there.) The most charitable thing you can say about the Duke of Windsor is that he was hopelessly naive.

Invited to Germany in 1937, after the abdication, the Windsors toured the Krupp weapons works, were Hitler's guests at Obersalzberg and Goering's at Karinhall, and gave energetic Nazi salutes. It was a general embarrassment to the British government and personally to David's brother Bertie, who'd succeeded him as GeorgeVI. Windsor, who was himself extremely sensitive to slights, apparently had no shame, or was simply insulated from questioning his own conduct. He led an unexamined life, immune to consequences and tone-deaf to anybody's grievances but his own.


The plot, however, thickens. Once the war began, the Windsors retreated first to the south of France, then to Barcelona, and then in July of 1940 to Lisbon. Spain and Portugal were neutrals, but Franco's regime was in bed with the Nazis. Windsor had made some extremely ill-judged and gratuitous remarks, proposing a negotiated peace, which came close to sedition, and the Germans pricked up their ears. David also insisted to his brother the king that Wallis be treated as a member of the Royal Family. It was this last bone of contention that suggested itself to the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, as leverage. What if, he reasoned, the Duke of Windsor were to return to England, and be crowned king again? Would it take England out of the war? In hindsight, it's hard to believe this ever got legs, but in the event, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Schellenberg, deputy chief of Reich state security, flew to Madrid. The operation was code-named Willi.


None of this took place in a vacuum, British intelligence not being utterly comatose, and Windsor known to them. He was never celebrated for discretion. It had been hastily arranged for him to become governor of the Bahamas, safely out of circulation. He was supposed to sail from Lisbon on August 1st, but mulish as usual, he was dragging his feet - his suspicions are being fed by German agents, who plant the idea that MI6 is plotting to assassinate him once he's aboard ship - and Schellenberg, now based in Lisbon, is wondering if simplest is best: why don't they just throw a blanket over the guy and smuggle him out of town? This admirably direct strategy is vetoed by Wilhelmstrasse, the Windsors set sail for the Bahamas, and the plan (such as it was) evaporates.

The issue isn't that Windsor was a vain and deeply unserious person, but that the Nazis, delusional as they were, had reason to think he might actually go along. David was a featherbrain,who probably deserved no better than the equally fatuous and self-absorbed Wallis. On the other hand, von Ribbentrop was generally regarded as a meathead by his own colleagues and in foreign chanceries - his one success the non-aggression pact with Stalin - and he lacked the imagination. Schellenberg, though, was nobody's fool, and wouldn't have chosen a fool's errand in Lisbon. So how did they persuade themselves? My guess is that it was wishful thinking. Hitler's main strategic objective was the defeat of Russia. He thought England would come to the bargaining table once Luftwaffe bombers began crossing the Channel, and it suited him to believe Windsor was more sympathetic to German aggrandizement than George VI. But as petty or foolish as David Windsor was, he must have realized he couldn't be a Nazi collaborator, a puppet king. It would have been beneath contempt.

We're left with speculation. Jack Higgins wrote a corker of a thriller about it. Schellenberg, in his memoirs, characterizes the whole episode as farce. Deborah Cadbury's recent book, PRINCES AT WAR, shows Windsor in an unflattering light, if she stops short of calling him a Quisling. In his memoirs, Windsor says he believed Germany was a military counterweight to the Soviet menace, but he never supported the Nazis. Which is it? There's no way of knowing. The man was shallow, written in water, and unexceptional. Only the circumstance of his birth gives him any historical weight, and simple accident put him in the crosshairs. Windsor had but one decent virtue. He was a stranger to himself, too oblivious to know better.




DavidEdgerleyGates.com

27 October 2015

Kids and Crime

by Barb Goffman
When I was in sixth grade, word spread through my elementary school that some fifth graders were going to put Spanish fly in their teacher's coffee. I didn't know what Spanish fly was, but it sounded bad. Dangerous. I waited to see what would happen and ... nothing happened. Did the students chicken out? Did someone threaten to rat them out so they called off the plan? Did someone actually rat them out but this information was kept quiet? Did they call off the plan themselves because they realized it was a bad idea? Or had it been a big rumor with no truth to it at all? I don't know. But it's certainly true that kids who may not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions can enjoy playing pranks, and they can get angry and want revenge. Teachers often are a prime target.

A review of news reports on Google bears this out. A small sample:
  • A thirteen-year-old student was charged with allegedly sneaking a sleeping pill into his teacher's coffee after she chastised him for disrupting class.
  • A middle-school student was accused of putting several of his asthma pills into his teacher's coffee.
  • An eighth-grade teacher was sickened after two students slipped a prescription sedative into her lemonade, police said.
The articles go on, including ones involving elementary school students even younger than the kids involved with the Spanish fly rumor from my elementary school. It was these types of stories that prompted my newest short story, "The Wrong Girl," about a group of elementary school girls who seek revenge on a mean teacher. Addressing this topic was cathartic for me because what happened to the girl in the story happened to me, except I never tried to get revenge.

What causes some kids to try to hurt others? Do they not truly understand the consequences of their actions? Or do they understand but lack sufficient empathy? I don't know, but it's a topic I like to explore in my fiction. I've had several short stories published involving children and teenagers. You can find a few of them in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, 2013). My newest story, "The Wrong Girl," is my first attempt at flash fiction. It's in a new anthology called Flash and Bang, which was published on October 8th by Untreed Reads Publishing.

This new anthology is the first one featuring members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Every story involves a flash or a bang. The publisher chose nineteen stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd called "Rosie's Choice."

I hope you'll check the book out and let me know what you think of my take on kids and crime. (The anthology is available as a trade paperback and as an e-book, so with a couple of clicks, you could read it right away.) In the meanwhile, as we head toward Halloween this weekend, when children are encouraged to beg for candy or else they'll supposedly play a trick on you, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on children and crime. At what age do children come to truly understand the consequences of their actions? And at what age should they be held accountable?

26 October 2015

Not a Cop

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I'm not a cop but I write about one named Zoe Barrow who works with the Austin Police Department. Zoe first appeared in my mind while I was out at the Austin Police Academy while playing a cop. Let me explain. 

The Citizen Police Academy was established in January 1978 and over two thousand citizens have graduated in 85 classes. I was in the class in 1991. At that time it was a 12 week program held out at the Police Academy Training facility. It now is a 14 week program and is held at Austin Police Headquarters. The CPA's slogan is "Understanding Through Education." The goal is to provide enough information to the public to dispel misconceptions and to increase rapport between citizens and police officers.

The instruction is comprehensive and each week separate areas of the department is covered. Communication, patrol, canine, fraud, firearms, bomb squad, etc each gives a small view of what is taught and how that department works. It originally, for Austin, was to help people who were interested in becoming neighborhood watch captains in their neighborhoods. Since I was interested in writing mystery and at that time specifically private eye stories. My book characters also dealt with a police officer and I felt this would be very helpful to me. I applied for the program and was thrilled to be accepted.

One of the fun things I was able to be involved with was the CPA Alumni Association. I'm not involved with them anymore and don't even know if they still exists. But one thing we did as alumni was to go out to the academy when invited by the police academy and pretend to be bad guys during the cadets training program. There were specific scenarios set up and the cadets had to react to the situation.

For instance, several of us we asked to play a group of people in a nightclub situation. We weren't really drinking, we were sitting around talking with music playing on a radio. There was to be a gun on the table we sat around, it was a fake gun. Supposedly a call had been made to the police department stating there was a disturbance going on in the club.  The cadets were to come inside the club two at a time,  assess the situation and hope that one of them saw the gun and calls out "GUN" to the other. And one of them would take possession of the gun. All the cadets come into the situation and respond and then afterwards a training officer critiques them.

Another situation is a theft argument. One person says they have been robbed and another person says they didn't do it. The cadet is supposed to search the thief and discover the "jewels." Sometimes a thief has a weapon and it's up to the cadet to discover the weapon. But sometimes the weapon is missed. The training officer can really jump on a cadet if they miss the weapon. One time I had a derringer in my bra and it was missed more than once.

One was a driving scene where the driver is driving erratically, the cadet is to stop the vehicle (in reality we were stopped to keep thing moving along faster) and when the driver gives the officer a driver's license and calls it in, the dispatcher says there is a warrant out for that person. The cadet is to get the driver out of the car and handcuff her/him and put her/him in the squad car. The passenger is just to stay in the car and is okay.

The training officer asked me to really jump on one of the cadets as he wanted to see how she would react. So when she handcuffs me I begin cussing her out. And I complain loudly that the cuffs are too tight. So she loosens them one notch. She didn't react to my calling her names and cursing at her but when she put me in the squad car I was able to slip the cuffs off. After the training officer critiques and tells her to get me out of the squad car, I hand her the cuffs. The training officer jumped all over her. The cadets are not supposed to talk to each other and help each other but of course they do it anyway. All day the other drivers had no idea why their hand cuffs were put on so tight. When I do talks about writing to groups I usually tell this story and tell them that this is only time I was ever able to cuss out a cop and get away with it. It always gets a laugh.

It was during these civilians being bad guys that my character, Zoe Barrow began talking in my mind and became the main character in two novels. In DARK BLUE DEATH, the opening chapter is set at the police academy with Zoe being a training officer and that scene is almost word for word what happened the day I played that scene recorded there.

If you ever have a chance to attend a Citizen's Police Academy training program, I hope you will do so.

25 October 2015

The Legends of October


by Dale C. Andrews
If you are interested in teenagers, you will print this story. I don't know whether it's true or not, but it doesn't matter because it served its purpose on me. 
A fellow and his date pulled into their favorite "lovers' lane" to listen to the radio and do a little necking. The music was interrupted by an announcer who said there was an escaped convict in the area who had served time for rape and robbery. He was described as having a hook instead of a right hand. The couple became frightened and drove away. When the boy took his girl home, he went around to open the car door for her. Then he saw — a hook on the door handle! I don't think I will ever park to make out as long as I live. I hope this does the same for other kids.
                                                            Letter to Dear Abby
                                                            November 8, 1960 
                                                            Quoted in Urban Legends

        There is something about October. It’s in the wind; it’s in the rustling dead leaves; it’s in the flames of the backyard fire.  Shorter days. Longer nights. The growing compulsion to retreat to the indoors, away from the lengthening shadows. It’s a time when the outside world -- our warm summer friend just scant weeks back -- turns a mercurial cold shoulder and casts a narrowed and appraising eye our way, a warning dare of things to come.  Is it any wonder that October is the time of Halloween? 

       And, once we are safely hunkered down inside, October is also a time to spit into the wind, to tempt fate.  We are safe -- so let’s spin some tales about those who are not. It’s a time to tell stories aimed at only one thing -- raising the hackles on the listeners’ necks.  Proving that, despite all of that civilization and infrastructure, despite the safety of our living rooms, we can still be reduced in a few hundred words to primordial horripilating fear. 

       “Ghost stories” are often set in the distant past.  They therefore are safely embedded in another time.  In this way, when we tell them, we insulate ourselves a little from the fear. This was frightening, this was horrible, but this did not happen here.  It didn’t happen now.  It is perhaps as a reponse to this historical distancing that a new genre of modern day horror stories evolved in the 1950s and 1960s. Popularly, these tales are often referred to as “urban legends,” a phrase that, according to The Oxford Dictionary, was coined in or around 1968.  In a sense the term is a misnomer, since many of these frightening, and often cautionary, tales do not share an “urban” setting.  For that reason sociologists and social historians prefer the term “contemporary legend.” 

     These legends, urban or contemporary, typically follow similar, and fairly constrained, narrative approaches.

       First, they are short. They can be told easily at a sitting. They are, in other words, “campfire length.”

       Second, invariably the stories are told as something that happened to someone two times removed from the narrator -- typically to “a friend of a friend,” popularly abbreviated FOAF. This narrative device provides just enough proximity to make the story seem “real” while also providing just enough distance to ensure that the narrator need not (and cannot) personally vouch for the truthfulness of the tale.  We are told to accept the truth of the legend as an article of faith.

      And third, in each legend all of this contributes to a frightening theme:  These are “common-man” stories.  The terror that is their backbone could have happened to anyone.  As we listen we shudder in fear because we know what this means:  this could have happened to us. 

Professor Jan Brunvand
       The term “urban legend” was likely coined by Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English (now emeritus) at the University of Utah.  Certainly Professor Brunvand is the master historian of the genre.  He spent much of his professional life researching and then cataloging urban myths, collected in a series of fascinating works, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings, The Choking Doberman and other “New Urban Legends, The Big Book of Urban Legends, The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends, Curses! Broiled Again!, The Baby Train and other Lusty Urban Legends, Too Good to be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, and (finally!) The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story

       While urban legends evolve by word of mouth (and now via the internet), and change through the re-telling, it is often possible to trace particular legends back to their origins.  As an example, according to Professor Brunvand the many variants of “The Hook” -- that story that found its way into that 1960 Dear Abby letter quoted above --  likely derived from a series of lovers’ lane murders that were committed around Lake Texarkana in 1946.   There is no evidence that those murders had anything to do with a hook.  That came later.  Beginning with a foundation in reality the stories grow, they gain embellishment, much as prose changes when whispered ear to ear in that birthday party game we all played as children.  Part of that growth was the addition of the hook.

       Often the common denominator of a particular urban legend, as Professor Brunvand teaches us, is a locale, invariably one that is frightening by its very nature, or that is linked historically to a crime, to a disaster, or to reported supernatural occurrences.  Such spots are by their nature fertile fields for the cultivation of urban myths.  And, since they can also be visited, they have spawned their own participatory variant on the urban legend -- urban tripping.  Why sit and listen when we can go there -- when we can go there at night

The Pope Lick Trestle
       Urban tripping therefore involves a pilgrimage, usually undertaken at night, often in October, to a site that has a notorious and frightening, often supernatural, past.  You won't need to look too far to find one convenient to you.  There are urban tripping sites all over the country. 

     In Louisville, Kentucky you may want to visit the Pope Lick Trestle, the reputed home to the Pope Lick Monster, described as a human-goat hybrid.  The monster (as the legend goes) escaped from a carnival where it (of course) had been cruelly mistreated. It now seeks revenge, and its vengeance is focused on any unsuspecting person who wanders (at night, of course) too near.
The Swift Mansion

       In Cleveland, Ohio why not visit the site of the Swift Mansion? According to locals the mansion was once the Gore Orphanage, where (again, as the legend goes) numerous children were killed by the staff, either murdered or allowed to die of malnutrition and neglect.  Historians dispute whether the mansion ever, in fact, was an orphanage.  But don't let that dissuade you -- it hasn't stopped the stories about those children. And they, too, are out for revenge. 

     
A depiction of the Jersey Devil
       In New Jersey the curious are drawn to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, home of the fabled Jersey Devil. The Devil is described as a flying biped with hooves that emits a blood curdling scream. And, again, this happens at night.  Often in October.

The Bunny Man Bridge
       In Clifton, Virginia, the Bunny Man Bridge (which is actually a tunnel) beckons. The bridge is where you need to be to see the Bunny Man himself (or itself?) -- a man (I kid you not) in a bunny costume who reputedly attacks (with an axe) any who stray too close. 

The Devil's Tramping Ground
     In a Bennett, North Carolina campground thrill seekers are drawn to a barren circle, known as The Devil's Tramping Ground. No trouble finding the circle -- it’s the only place in the forest where no plants ever grow. It is said that objects left in the circle overnight disappear by morning.  Dogs and other animals reportedly refuse to enter the circle at all.  

Old Alton Bridge
       In Denton, Texas, the place to be in the dark hours of October is the Old Alton Bridge, which takes its name from the abandoned Texas village of Alton.  Locally the bridge is known as "Goatman's Bridge," a name inspired by a legendary satyr-like demon that is said to inhabit the forest surrounding the area.
  
      And what trip to Vincennes, Indiana (my wife’s hometown) would be complete without a visit to the legendary Old Purple Head Bridge spanning the Wabash River? The bridge, believe it or not, is still open to vehicular traffic, a fact I know all too well, as previously recounted.  (A longer piece on Old Purple Head, and the legends it has spawned, was the subject of a Halloween piece several years back.) 

Old Purple Head
       Anyone looking to experience a more packaged urban legend this time of year need look no further than the nearest corn maze or haunted forest. There is a profit to be made almost everywhere, and that includes the provision of that October "chill fix" so many of us seem to crave.  But for the connoisseur, those looking for a more elegant blood chilling experience, there are some select urban tripping experiences -- spooky locales, just there for the asking.

       For a price, of course.

       For those on the west coast perhaps nothing can beat the Winchester Mystery House. This 116 room mansion, which has been termed the creepiest house in Silicone Valley, was built by Sarah Winchester, the slightly deranged widow and heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Reportedly, there was never an overall design for the Winchester Mystery House, or even an architect. The mansion, instead, is a bizarre and immense congeries of rooms built to the whims of Sarah herself.  Rooms were added daily or weekly, inspired by Sarah's own nightmares and warnings from her medium concerning how to best construct the house so as to allude supernatural spirits from following Sarah as she moved from room to room.

        The resulting mansion was continuously under construction for over thirty years, right up to the day of Sarah's death.  It has been described as “a 6-acre labyrinth of false doors and stairs that lead absolutely nowhere – ad-hoc additions reportedly made by Winchester to confuse the evil spirits of people shot and killed by the firearms of her dead husband's namesake.” Tours are available daily, but special flashlight tours -- so-called “Fright Nights” -- are conducted at night every Friday the 13th and regularly throughout the month of (you guessed it) October. 

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
      Closer to the other side of the continent is the infamous Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, which sprawls across the landscape of Weston, West Virginia. This massive, now-abandoned, 150 year old hospital is a monument to the horrors to which its inmates were subjected.  It has been the site of scores of reported paranormal encounters over the years and is now a very popular tourist attraction.

      The hospital has a daily schedule of tours, but what you will want (I know you) is the overnight tour. Here is the description offered on the asylum’s website: 
Ever thought about spending the night in a haunted Lunatic Asylum? Our Ghost Hunts last from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. . . . . After everyone is registered and divided into groups, guides will assist you in your exploration of this massive Gothic asylum.  After a brief paranormal tour you may either hunt alone or with our experienced ghost hunting guides. Our guides are here to ensure that you have a positive and safe evening. Make sure to bring your camera, digital recorder, EMF meter . . . . 
I have not taken this tour, but I certainly understand why payment is required in advance.  The most popular time to experience the asylum?  October, of course.  October at night. 

       The legends and sites discussed above -- only a few of those that are out there -- share a thread common to most "ghostly" encounters:  Actual evidence of supernatural happenings is available only in wisps and shreds.  And the psychic experiences associated with each are all potentially explainable – over active imaginations, stimulation brought on by atmospherics, coincidences that align just so. All of this is expected, after all, when we choose to view the surroundings through the shadows of midnight.  Particularly midnights in October.  But, in any event, solid evidence of an actual haunting is generally pretty hard to come by. 

       But not always. 

       There is a stretch of road in Southern England that for centuries has been the site of reported supernatural occurrences. Horseback riders and carriages traveling through the countryside over two hundred years ago avoided this stretch of road not just because of some inexplicale sightings, but also because horses simply refused to travel the road.  They would grow increasingly agitated and then bolt if spurred to continue.  Travelers who did brave the road at night sometimes failed to reach their destination and, indeed, sometimes were never heard from again.

       More recently some drivers have reported that as they steer around a particular “s” turn in what now is a paved road, a flickering figure can, at times, be discerned hovering in front of their car. Eventually, in an attempt to prove that something might, after all, be out there, a team of investigative reporters from the BBC set up a camera on a hillside overlooking the turn. The camera automatically recorded many cars rounding the curve over a stretch of weeks.  Not surprisingly, for days the camera recorded nothing out of the ordinary.

       Nothing that is until the clip below was filmed.

       Even then the investigators were not certain that anything ghostly had been captured on their film.  They began to change their opinion when they were able to carefully view what they had filmed back in the BBC studios.  This is the clip that convinced them that something really might be there. Watch very carefully, or you may miss it.  Pay particular attention to the area right in front of that car as it rounds that final turn. 


{

        . . . four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.  Okay.  Deep breath. 

       Some of you will recognize that clip from an article I posted this same October week several years back. Sorry about that!  I couldn't resist trotting it out for one more spin.  It’s always fun to offer up one's own re-telling of an urban legend long about this time of year.  And, as the clip shows, you never know when you might trip on one right there on your own laptop!


       

24 October 2015

Murder is More Fun with an Accomplice (The Case for Co-writing)

By Melodie Campbell

To the elderly man in the khaki sweater who lifted his reading glasses to stare open-mouthed…

To the unknown person who gasped and knocked over a chair behind me…

To the woman with the stroller who stared with horror, and then wheeled her toddler frantically away toward the exit…

False Alarm Alert: The two middle-aged women whispering about murder in the Orangeville library were not fiendishly plotting how to do away with a tedious husband.

They were writing a murder mystery!

I’m perhaps best known for writing the mob comedy caper series, The Goddaughter.  But I also write classic whodunits with my close friend Cynthia St-Pierre.  Our first book, A Purse to Die For, was great fun to write.  And happily, it was a Top 100 Mystery on Amazon.com.  Our second, A Killer Necklace, is just out.

Thing is, I live in Oakville and Cindy lives two hours away in Newmarket.

Much of what we do is by email and Skype.  But every few months we like to get together to hash out plot problems in person.  This means meeting somewhere in between, like Orangeville.  And where better, than at the place we feel most comfortable, that hallowed home for books, a library?

But my apologies to the patrons we may have alarmed.  I can imagine the dinner conversation at several houses in Orangeville that night.

Which brings me to the question asked here:  Why write with a partner?

Simply put, it’s FUN!  There is someone sharing your lonely writing job every step of the way.  Cheering when you surprise her with a twist in a new chapter…moaning, when you both start the heavy work of editing.

Writing a novel is a lonely pursuit.  You spend months by yourself before anyone sees the work you have been slaving over.  Having a co-writer takes the loneliness out of being a writer. 

Yes, you give up a little autonomy over your plot and characters.  But you also share the delight of incorporating new ideas and plot twists that you would never have come up with on your own.

Take it from me: planning murder with a partner is much more fun than doing it yourself.  Even our (very much still alive) husbands agree.

Have you ever tried to work with a co-author?  I'll write more about how we actually go about it, in a future post.

Who is the dead woman at the bottom of the stairs? 
 A killer is determined to keep her identity secret, even if it means killing again...

"If Christie wore Armani and Louboutins..." (review of A Purse to Die For)


A KILLER NECKLACE (Imajin Books) is sold in all the usual places.
on Amazon
on Kobo

23 October 2015

Making the Minutes Count

By Dixon Hill

There have been some great posts, here on SleuthSayers, about the modus-operandi used by my fellow writers when jotting down notes for stories.

As many of you know, my time of late has been extremely limited when it comes to writing availability. This has caused problems for me, because I tend to need rather long periods of quiet to focus my mind before I manage to "get into the groove" of writing.  And, these periods of quiet usually need to occur after I've decompressed from the rigors of the regular workaday world.

Meanwhile, family life and unimportant things like the need to sleep tend to further compress my available writing hours into short blocks of only ten or fifteen minutes -- or during a twenty-minute break at work.  Trying to get work done in five, ten or fifteen minute blocks of time comes very difficult for me. Initially I found myself writing on napkins or loose leaf notebook paper, only to find that my longhand wasn't fast enough to capture what my mind might fit into those few minutes.

After decompressing from work, I'd sit out on the patio (it was pretty hot by that time of the day), and would begin to form the dream-like procreation that is the catalyst for my writing--only to realize I needed to get it into the computer.  This I bemoaned, because, once I got my computer and all the cooling paraphernalia outside, I had done so much work that the spell had been broken. I often found myself at those times sitting in front of the computer, which was all ready to go, but without the muse speaking to me.


I tried dragging my computer out onto the patio, before I began musing.  This worked well during the late fall, the winter and in early spring.  But, not during the heat of a Phoenix summer afternoon. There have been several excellent suggestions from folks here (particularly from Leigh), on heat-combating hardware that might help my computer keep chugging when it's 110 out.  However, as this summer progressed and the heat not only rose this year, we also encountered much higher humidity than normal.  My computer began to suffer problems.

This is how I wound up writing in longhand, on my patio, in an effort to tap into that forming story in a manner that would allow me to bring it inside and enter it into my computer later.  Unfortunately, this left me struggling with paper that quite honestly was being sweated through, or alternatively seared (to something a bit more crisp than it should have been) by the Sun.  Plus: I still couldn't write fast enough.

 I was stymied until an idea finally struck me, and I began to dictate those passages, which I created in my mind on the hot patio, into the email apparatus of my cell phone.

 I only came up with this concept a few months ago, but have already used it repeatedly. In fact, it's how I composed the first draft of this essay, and posted it on the Sandbox site.  Initially, I tried using the text app on my cell phone, but I quickly realized, while I cannot very easily highlight copy and paste a TEXT from my cell phone into my computer, it is relatively simple to open my computer, bring up my email, then copy and paste the text of that EMAIL into Word, and use it in a story I am constructing.

Anyone who has used cell phone dictation, of course, knows that the email I copy and paste into Word is rather a-fright with errors. but I have found it a far quicker method than jotting on paper or napkins and then trying to type everything I've written longhand into my computer.

Additionally, putting this information into my computer and properly editing it so that it reads the way it should, has actually wound up bringing me more quickly into the writing frame of mind when I do have my computer open.

 Each of us has, at one time or another, stated on this blog that every writer must find his or her own way.  Obviously, I don't know if this way would work well for others. But it seems to have been working for me . Far better than I expected, in fact. So I thought I would share it with the rest of you and any other writers who happen to read this blog.

There are drawbacks with using the voice translation software on a cell phone, of course.  I mean, sometimes the program just fails miserably to capture my words.

When I am drunk -- or half drunk -- not on alcohol, but instead from lack of sleep, not a drop of alcohol in my bloodstream, but my head swimming, my body listing, and my words running together... .

Well, this is when the phone fights me at its worst.   Words appear, sometimes reading similar to" the dog scratched Andy shed tell her," when it should have read: "I dogged the hatch and lashed the tiller."

These are the times that try my soul while I use the phone in this manner. I have found, however, that if I can transfer the text from email to story within 48 hours, there is usually enough there that I can recall what I was trying to say.  This normally allows me to retype it correctly.

Sometimes, when I'm stymied, it helps if I can reconstruct the sound of what I was trying to say by simply reading the mis-typed words aloud and running them all together as I speak. This often tends to reproduce enough of the cadence and tones to clue my ear to the proper words and phrases.

Of course, it doesn't always work out so well.  There is, unfortunately, the time I turned on my computer the morning after I'd dictated into my phone, only discover this paragraph:


The weather report, inside her, that's secret chord warm molten thick liquid
fudge that was why she had been drawn toward gloves boys in high
school and college. But Ted has been good man and Melissa had learn, through their relationship with
him.  Still that has been that's lights by
Sue missing from her life . Now, with the doctor, nada mike what's the simple
life red mill creek post she know china, your father, or mother home maker.
Melissa's on vocation teaching children topless beaches on the Riviera
come the best arid outback down south come the hot blooded South American .  She
had never known these, with the exception of that 3 months student trip through
Europe on her Eurorail pass between her freshman and sophomore year of college.


Sadly, I've so far been unable to fathom why this woman evidently had an inner "weather report" composed of warm molten thick liquid fudge, what "gloves boys" do in high school, nor why she evidently chose, as her vocation: teaching children about topless beaches on the Riviera.

And, I question if perhaps her best student was from the Australian outback, or was instead a hot-blooded South American, when it appears she may never have known either.  (Maybe this is what motivates her to teach children about topless beaches on the Riviera.)

I've tried to figure it out for a few days now, but ...

The world may never know.

Still, I think it beats scribbling scrambled words on minute scraps of sweat-soaked paper.  So I think I'll stick to it.  Sure hope my phone learns to understand me better!

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

22 October 2015

A Little Light Corruption

by Eve Fisher

By gum, we folks in South Dakota really know how to keep things quiet.  Until someone dies, and then the whole thing comes boiling out.  Mayberry it isn't.

2013-2014

October 20, 2013 - Richard Benda was found dead from a shotgun wound to the stomach in a field in October.  The SD Attorney General, Marty Jackley, instantly ruled it a suicide.  Came out shortly thereafter that Benda had, apparently, embezzled pots of money from the EB-5 program, an immigration program set up by George H.W. Bush in 1990 that grants Visas to foreign investors for a minimum $500,000.00 investment. Quick money for the state, quick green card, and everything's hunky-dory.

Now Richard Benda was the former commissioner of then Governor Mike Rounds' Office of Economic Development. (Rounds is currently one of our two State Senators, the other being John Thune.)  He was also the one-time financial monitor of the Northern Beef Packers of Aberdeen, a $100 million slaughterhouse, funded largely by Asian EB-5 investors, which later was auctioned off in December, 2013 for $4.8 million in cash and $39.5 million in the cancellation of what's been called a “somewhat murky debt." Benda was soon accused of stealing $500,000 and "amending" grant proposals to give Northern Beef Packers more money. AG Jackley has refused to release the autopsy of Mr. Benda ("out of respect for the family"); and in July of 2014, after 9 months of increasing stink, Jackley waved a document in front of news cameras that he claimed were the indictments for Aggravated Theft and Aggravated Grand Theft by Deception that were about to be served on Benda right before he killed himself/was murdered. (Take your pick; we all have.)

Like any good crime fiction writer, I looked at the documents and recognized the simple fact that, without a signature or notarization, these documents could have been typed up at any time, say the weekend before the Monday July news conference, when the crap was piling too deep to ignore any more.  And, as more and more people demanded answers, the SD legislative committee declared in December of 2014 that Richard Benda was solely responsible for the $500,000 embezzlement and probably the loss of millions of dollars (last report, $140 million, but who's counting), but no one knows where that money went, and they were not going to investigate further.  They were especially not going to investigate a man named Joop Bollen, a Dutch foreign national who ran the EB-5 program for Governor Rounds and later set up his own private corporation, SDRC, which took over administration of the EB-5 program.  Mr. Bollen was asked some questions by the SD legislative committee, but was allowed to answer them in writing, and never had to appear.  He has never been charged with anything.  Anything at all...

But wait, there's more!  I've been on vacation, and while I was gone, the Feds, yes, the Feds! have decided that South Dakota is too corrupt to use EB-5 funds, and we are barred, yes, BARRED, from every getting EB-5 money again.  Plus, they're suing South Dakota:
http://dakotafreepress.com/2015/10/18/feds-say-south-dakota-too-corrupt-to-use-eb-5/
http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/news/state/3863619-feds-aim-kick-sd-out-eb-5-program-state-sues-bollens-records
And, at last, the State of South Dakota is going to sue Mr. Bollen.  Like there's any money left...

Meanwhile, there's a whole new bit of nasty coming out from under the rocks:

2015

Late at night on September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota.  It wasn't until a few days later that it turned out that all six had been shot to death.  SD Attorney General Marty Jackley declared it a murder/suicide/arson, perpetrated by Scott Westerhuis.  The only question was why.  Now, I'm writing this in early October, and this is only going to get messier.

Scott Westerhuis was the business manager of MCEC, the Mid Central Educational Cooperative, which is, among other things, a hub for distributing federal grand monies to other non-profit organizations.  One of these was South Dakota Gear Up, whose website was taken down after all the employees were fired...  Well, here's the deal, Gear Up received a $4.3 million dollar contract to help get Native American kids into college. On September 16, 2015, Department of Education terminated the contract after an audit declared bad reporting, bad accounting, and general bad books. On September 17, the Westerhuis family tragedy occurred.  On September 25, State Education Secretary Melody Schopp fired every surviving employee of Gear Up, and shut down the Gear Up website.
36705 279th Street, Platte, SD. screen cap from Google Maps, 2015.09.22.
36705 279th Street, Platte, SD.
screen cap from Google Maps,
2015.09.22.

But wait, there's more! The Westerhuis family lived on a $1.3 million rural Platte property that included a 7,600 square foot house, a $900,000 gym complete with basketball court, weight-lifting area, and computers, and a loft with a meeting room, rooms for guests, and a kitchen.  This was on an official combined MCEC salary of $130,549.82.

But wait, there's more! Scott Westerhuis set up as many as 7 non-profit corporations related to Indian education:




Some are inactive, but Rock Ranch Consulting, which has no easily identifiable online presence, may refer to the Westerhuises’ rock-decorated rural home, torched on September 17. Rock Ranch Consulting was the source of incorporation funds for “American Indian Institute For Innovation and Excellance,” [sic], whose 2014 Form 990 shows $2.7 million in revenue and $3.0 million in expenses, including $1.58 million in salaries and wages, $311K in pension and benefits, and $270K in travel, conferences, and meetings. Apparently very little education of Native Americans actually happened. And there's Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium (OSEC), formed in 2011 and still in good standing, whose 2013 Form 990, completed by Nicole Westerhuis on November 6, 2014, shows $965K in revenue and $935K in expenses. Scott Westerhuis was incorporator of all of these, and his wife Nicole was business manager of at least some of them.
(Thanks to Corey Allen Heidelberger for his incomparable fact-finding on Dakota Free Press: http://dakotafreepress.com/tag/mid-central-educational-cooperative/ )

But wait, there's more! We are just now cracking (again, thanks, Corey!) the list of high-level education professionals who received significant monthly and annual payments ($150,000+ in some cases) for consulting and administration from Gear Up and/or MCEC, and are scrambling to cover their assets, er, what they did and when and why.  My two favorites:

  1. Dr. Joseph Graves, Mitchell, SD School Superintendent, received his money from the MCEC for the Teaching American History federal grant; what makes this especially sweet is that the South Dakota Board of Education has made teaching early American history optional in South Dakota.  
  2. Dr. Rick Melmer, the Dean of Education of the University of South Dakota, who simply couldn't remember nine $1,000 in payments live on South Dakota television:  http://www.keloland.com/newsdetail.cfm/melmer-answers-questions-about-gear-up-work/?id=185508   You really can't make this stuff up.  (I don't know about you but I've never forgotten a single thousand dollar check I've ever gotten in my life, much less nine of them...)
South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard
Governor Dugaard
Now I could go on into a tirade about South Dakota mismanagement of federal grant monies, i.e., the political cronies slurping on the federal gravy train.  (Meanwhile our distinguished Governor Dugaard refuses to expand Medicaid coverage because the feds might not have the money:  note to Gov - if so, it's because your pals have siphoned it all off to build large gyms.) Or I could discuss the shameful use of Native Americans to get grant monies.  I have, I will, and I will again.

I will go off, for a moment, again, on the fact that South Dakota has been ranked #2 for government corruption.  (New Jersey, eat your heart out!)  How can this be? Simple:  South Dakota is a one-party state:  the Governor is Republican, the GOP has a super-majority in the legislature, the districts are gerrymandered so that Republicans consistently keep their super-majority (this is especially farcical when you see the little corridor linking the entire Rosebud Reservation, votes 90% Democratic, to staunch Republican Pennington County, a/k/a Rapid City).  It helps that Pierre, our capital, is one of the few US state capitals which is not on a major interstate - it's literally out in the middle of nowhere - and there is no major news media located there.  This helps ensure that whatever happens in Pierre, stays in Pierre.

Until someone dies.  And the death toll is starting to rise.

Meanwhile, why does hell always break loose in autumn?  

I'll keep you posted.  

21 October 2015

Bouchercon: Good golly, I miss Raleigh

by Robert Lopresti

So, I spent a week in beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina.  We tacked on a few days before Bouchercon to attend the launch party for Diane Chamberlain's new book.  As I have mentioned here before my sister is a terrific novelist who happens to live near Raleigh.  This was her first Bcon, and I am happy to say she enjoyed it.

It was at least my sixth (New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Long Beach...I think that's it) but I enjoyed it too.  Among the highlights were meeting two SleuthSayers for the first time: John Floyd and B.K. Stevens, and saying hello again to three more: Art Taylor (see proof on the right) , R.T. Lawton, and Barb Goffman.

Last year I reported that one of the highlights was the Author Speed Dating Breakfast, which I attended as a reader.  This year I was back as an author.  I was paired with Craig Faustus Buck, a fine short story artist whose first novel has just come out. (He's the guy brandishing the book in the foreground.) At every table we each had three minutes to explain to the breakfasters why they would absolutely love our books.  Then a bell would ring and we would jump up and charge off to the next table.


What struck me as most interesting about this was the way Craig and I each changed our patter as we went.  Both of us saw what got a good reaction and what got blank stares and by the end of the two hours we had our pitches down perfectly.  At one of the last tables I suggested that for variety we should each do the other's speech, since we had heard them so often.  Cooler heads prevailed.

Every author attending the Speed Dating Breakfast was required to bring "swag," defined here as something for the attendees to take away.  This ranged from candy to magnets to band-aids printed with the book covers to pouches of lavender to book marks.  Congratulations go to Cate Holahan for the cleverest booty of all: a folder to carry the rest home in!

Kenneth Wishnia, Washisname, and Jason Starr, as photographed by Peter Rozovsky
Another highlight was the panel celebrating the anthology Jewish Noir.  Editor Ken Wishnia led us in a discussion of such subjects as the connection between angry prophets of the Hebrew Bible with  hardboiled private eyes (they all rail against corrupt society, for one thing), and the link between Jewish outsiderness and the noir sensibility.  Ken also discussed the importance of not including every Jewish food you know in every meal in your story.  Not get for your cholesterol or credibility.

I was proud to be one of the contributors to Murder Under The Oaks, the second Bouchercon anthology.  The eighteen or so authors who were present formed an assembly line, signing copies for hundreds of people who apparently failed to get the publishing industry's email explaining no one reads short stories anymore.

I even attended some panels I was not on.  (You may think that's a joke.  The biggest problem at Bouchercon is Buyer's Regret.  Whatever you choose to do, and no matter how much fun it is, you will wonder if you should have been doing something else... so I skipped a panel on short stories to have tea with SJ Rozan, one of my oldest writing buddies, for instance.  Can't clone myself yet.)

There was a panel on pairing your protagonist with the right antagonist.  Most of the participants denied that their books had typical antagonists at all.  Someone asked whether the writers had ever met anyone they considered truly evil.  The two who immediately replied that they had were Mark Pryor (a prosecuting attorney) and Diane Chamberlain (a former psychotherapist).  I guess they would know, huh?

There was a wonderful panel in which masters were asked which classics of the genre influenced them.   They all digressed into the non-classics they loved as well.  Bill Crider said: "I love the old sleazy paperbacks where the titles all ended in exclamation points."  Lawrence Block replied that he had always wanted to sell that company a novel titled One Dull Night!

Other highlights included meeting some of my favorite mystery writers for the first time: Margaret Maron, Chris Muessig (look to the right), Sarah  Shaber, Reed Farrell Coleman, Richard Helms, Bill Crider, and Jack Bludis, to name too few. 

I had another favorite moment but I can't tell you about it, because, heh heh, I will put it into a short story in the near future.  So you will have to wait until I get it written, edited and published.  Three, five years max.

Okay, this is getting too long.  Next time I will give you my inevitable collection of quotations from the festival, and I will offer one complaint about my favorite book convention.