31 March 2016

Barney Got a Gun

by Eve Fisher

I hope everyone had a Happy Easter, Good Passover, and other appropriate holiday.  Up here, one of our Easter Eggs held indictments - at last - for three in one of our South Dakota scandals - Gear Up!


(Wouldn't you know it, the cheap one, only a few million missing, whereas EB-5, with $120 million missing taxpayer dollars, is still blamed on the guy who supposedly shot himself in the stomach in a field while hunting...)  
But let us rejoice in small favors.  What happened was that our own Attorney General, Marty ("I'm going to be running for governor in 2018, so I need to get something on paper") Jackley held a press conference and announced that three, count 'em THREE people were responsible for aiding and abetting Scott and Nicole Westerhuis in their embezzlement and fraud.

Quick reprise:  Early in the morning of September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota.  It was later declared ed by AG Marty Jackley that Scott Westerhuis shot his entire family, torched the house, and then shot himself. There is still the ongoing mystery of who called Nicole's cell phone in the middle of the night, right before the fire, and what happened to the safe that apparently got up on its hind legs and trotted out of the house before the carnage.

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.
Further reprise:  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, including Gear Up.  Nicole also worked there.  Scott Westerhuis set up as many as 7 non-profit corporations related to Indian education, including - but not limited to! -  the American Indian Institute for Innovation, a/ka AIII.  Scott Westerhuis was incorporator of all of these, CFO of some, including AIII, and his wife Nicole was business manager of at least some of them.  And 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.

Okay, back to the news conference!  On March 16, 2016, Marty Jackley announced that he filed charges against and arrested: 

Daniel Mark Guericke, MCEC Executive: 2 counts of falsification of evidence, class 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment in the state penitentiary and/or $4,000 fine, 4 counts of conspiracy to offer forged or fraudulent evidence, class 5 felony, punishable as a Class 6 felony, with a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine.  Full transcript of complaint here: (PDF of Complaint filed)

Stephanie A. Hubers, Former MCEC interim business manager: 1 count of grand theft, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine, 2 counts of grand theft by deception, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine, 3 alternative counts of receiving stolen property, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine.

Stacy Lee Phelps, Former AIII (see above)/GEAR UP operator: 2 counts of falsification of evidence, class 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine, 2 counts of conspiracy to offer forged or fraudulent evidence, class 5 felony, punishable as a Class 6 felony, with a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine.
NOTE:  Mr. Phelps' lawyer is mounting a vigorous defense, based on the idea that Mr. Phelps is a scapegoat.  Perhaps he is.  (If so, he should be thanking his lucky stars that he isn't lying in a field somewhere...)  

Among other things, Guericke, Phelps, the Westerhuises and “other unknown co-conspirators" were all accused of falsifying and backdating contracts, including those of 
  • Dr. Rick Melmer, the Dean of Education of the University of South Dakota, who (memorably) couldn't remember nine $1,000 in payments live on South Dakota television, and 
  • Keith Moore, Governor Mike Rounds' director of Indian education. 
So far, neither Dr. Melmer (who as Secretary of Education under Governor Mike Rounds, moved supervision of Gear Up from the DOE in Pierre to MCEC in Platte), nor Mr. Moore (who also received a good chunk of change), nor former Mid-Central board chairman Lloyd Persson (who actually signed the bogus contracts) have been indicted, and Jackley has indicated that they won't be.

Nor has anyone asked Secretary of Education Melody Schopp to resign, even though she let MCEC continue their interesting approach to funding for three years after she noticed that something smelled a little funny.  Apparently, they are still looking into at least two other MCEC staffers who (according to Hubers) blackmailed some money out of Westerhuis.  Cory Heidelberger suggests that Mr. Jackley look into the board members of the American Indian Institute for Innovation, which was, apparently, the hub of moving stolen money around.  And no one has mentioned my favorite, Dr. Joseph Graves, Mitchell, SD School Superintendent, who received money from the MCEC for teaching "Teaching American History" in a state that has made it optional.  

Also, we're down to only $1 million missing, instead of $14 million, but hey, it's still better than the EB-5 mess.  Right?  

Angela Kennecke, KELO-TV
Well, right now, we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Sources who have first-hand knowledge within the Department of Education tell KELO-LAND News there were questionable expenses involving GEAR UP grant money as early as 2006 that were brought to the attention of department officials."  Angela Kennecke, 3/23/16

What this means, in South Dakota speak, where no one ever admits anything is actually WRONG, is that there's something else coming.  Possibilities:

(1) People ('sources') know that more hell is about to break loose and are getting ready to get out from under it.
(2) It's possible that someone ('sources') in the higher-ups is authorizing a leak, which is the first step to a flood.
(3) They found the safe.  

Okay, the last one's HIGHLY unlikely.  And if they do find it, it'll probably just be full of pork.

And there's the recent news that "There have been several million dollars diverted out of school funding at Lower Brule [reservation] and as a result they had to go into restructuring which is a federal requirement when you have really low school performance. And so they hired AIII Stacey Phelps, which at the time was the head of AIII, and Scott Westerhuis was the COO. So they (Lower Brule) brought in AIII to manage Lower Brule schools and that had been going on for about two years."  (Thanks again, Cory Heidelberger and the Dakota Free Press!)  And people wonder why the Reservations up here are still in a world of financial hurt...

Anyway, that's the latest update from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 


30 March 2016

The Fatal Cup Of Tea

by Robert Lopresti

Arlo Guthrie tells a story about performing in a bar in Chicago in 1971.  After the show a stranger came up and said he wanted to play him a song he wrote.

Well, Arlo had experienced that before and as a result had heard a lot of bad songs.  So he told the stranger, you can buy me a beer, and for as long as it takes me to drink it, you can do whatever you want.

Today he notes, dryly: "It turned out to be one of the finer beers of my life."   The stranger was Steve Goodman and his song was "City of New Orleans."  Arlo's recording of it reached the Billboard Top 20 and made them both a nice chunk of change.

I was reminded of that while pondering a dose of beverage that had a profound effect on my life, albeit not such a lucrative one.  It was tea, not beer, and I drank it in a little cafe in Montclair, NJ, about 30 years ago.

I was with my wife and a friend and while they were chatting I found myself looking out the window at the street and, being a writer of the sort I am, wondering: what if I saw a crime taking place?  And what if there was a reason I couldn't just leap up and do something about it?


Cut ahead two decades and "Shanks At Lunch" appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (February 2003).  I mention all this because the hero of that story, conceived in that Montclair coffee shop, is making his ninth appearance in AHMM  this month (well, the issue date is May 2016, but it is available now).

"Shanks Goes Rogue" was inspired by three different things.  First of all, I wanted to bring back Dixie, a character who had appeared in the story "Shanks Gets Killed."  She is an eccentric woman who runs the charity favored by Shanks' beloved wife, Cora, which gives her plenty of opportunities to annoy my hero, and that's a good thing for my stories.

The second inspiration was this: I had thought of a clue.  Clues are hard for me and I wanted to use this one.  I figured out how Shanks could take advantage of it.

And finally, I had a hole in the book of stories I was putting together.  To be precise: the last story ended on a gloomy note and that would never do for a book of mostly funny stories.  As the saying goes, the first page sells this book and the last page sells the next one.  So "Shanks Goes Rogue" was created to round out my collection of tales.

But then I had an unpleasant encounter with a telephone scammer, which led me to write a quicky story called "Shanks Holds The Line."  I decided as a public service to offer it to Linda Landrigan  for Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine website.  She put it up the next day.  But there was no reason I couldn't use it to round out Shanks On Crime, so I did.

Which left "Shanks Goes Rogue" looking for a home.  Linda adopted it and here we are, happily ensconced in the annual humor issue.  I hope it gives you a chuckle.   Personally, I will celebrate with a nice cup of tea.





29 March 2016

Generosity

by Melissa Yi

I knew when I went to Left Coast Crime I might pick up some terrific books and make new friends. But I was surprised to meet someone who not only made me admire his writing but made me say, Yep, that’s how I want to live.

See, I felt guilty about going to a writing conference. I felt like I should be working in the emergency room, or raising my kids, or staying at home and working on my manuscripts. 

When you have three careers, the guilt never ends.

But after my favourite panel of police officers-turned-writers, I met panelist David Putnam in the book room. I told him how much I enjoyed his talk (no lie. Cops tell great stories. I was haunted by one of his stories about being called to a domestic dispute with a river of blood). David handed me his book, The Disposables.

Then he and his wife Mary marched over to the book table and bought my book, Stockholm Syndrome.

My jaw dropped.

We just met. He gave me his book for free. And he was buying my book.

“Sure. I want to get you hooked, and then you’ll buy the rest of ’em.”

Right. But wasn’t he worrying about money, space in his suitcase, his to-be-read pile, or the conference fee?

Clearly not.
My only complaint is that I look short. I feel normal-sized.
“We spend money on conferences every year. It’s what we like to do.”

That made so much sense. Intellectually, I know that I’m allowed to go to conferences. Emotionally, I felt like I shouldn’t. It reminded me of an article saying that, if you look at how children turn out, it doesn’t matter so much whether a mother works full-time, part-time, or not at all outside the home. The best correlation with the kids’ well-being is if the mother doesn’t feel guilty about her choice, whatever it is.

I wanted to be like David and Mary. I wanted to enjoy myself and be generous. I was also fascinated to hear that they owned an organic avocado farm and that Mary is something like a rocket scientist as well as a writer herself.

I tore through The Disposables on my flight home. It’s the story of a Bruno Johnson, once a much-feared and respected cop, now a man willing to work outside the law to save the poor and neglected children our society no longer cares for. Fast-paced yet emotionally rich, packed with characters you care about, with a tight plot and an ending that felt right.

And I’m picky about thrillers. I don’t like unbelievable plot twists, cardboard characters like materialistic and treacherous bimbos, and/or info dumps about some technological hoo ha.
The Disposables felt real. Real grit, real heartbreak, and real redemption.

I closed the book feeling good about the journey I’d taken, both in the book and in my own mind. It was even better to know that the author and his wife are mighty cool people.

How about you? Does guilt stop you from achieving more? Or are you already more evolved, like David and Mary Putnam?

If you comment, you could win a signed copy of The Disposables. I’ll send it anywhere in the world. If you like it, please tell a friend and/or post a review.

And if you like crafts, Mary made a video on how to make book cover earrings! https://youtu.be/836Nrrp9ko0

28 March 2016

Research Schmesearch

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm not an outgoing person. I'm not like my partner here on SleuthSayers, Jan Grape, who never met a stranger and can and will talk to anyone about anything and has friends all over the world. That's not me. I picked writing (or writing picked me) because I thought it was a solitary endeavor. I knew nothing about conventions, and book signings, and publicity. And all I knew about research was: Get in the car, go to the library and pick out a book on whatever I needed to know. Then along came the internet, and it was even easier. I didn't have to get out of my PJ's or put on shoes. My late husband told me everything I needed to know about guns, and, because he was the exact opposite of me when it came to interacting with people, I used him to make telephone calls and go visit people when necessary. He developed a friendship with the Travis County ME and even got an excellent murder device from Dr. Biardo that I used in a short story. Of course, I never met the man.

Recently I was able to use the internet for intense research into China Marines. My father had been a China Marine – U.S. Marines stationed in China in the 1930s before and during the Japanese invasion. My bad guy in the newest E.J. Pugh mystery DEAD TO THE WORLD, was not the upstanding jarhead my daddy was, but I took him to China and on to the Philippines, following the plight of the many who fell under the forces of the Japanese. Luckily my father was not among them. But this became a very personal research project and one I enjoyed immensely. Also, I didn't have to actually talk to anyone.

But that brings me back to the one book I wrote where I became totally involved with people and their stories, and their sights, and their sounds, even if I was being pulled into it yelling and screaming. Quietly, of course.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote two books with the character of a stand-up comic named Kimmey Kruse. In the second book, FUNNY AS A DEAD RELATIVE, I decided to take Kimmey to a place I knew. Port Arthur, Texas. Now I only knew this town because it was sort of an in-law. It was where my husband had been born and bred and where all my in-laws (and there were a lot of them) lived. My husband was part Cajun and that had always intrigued me (although my idea of a first married Christmas dinner was not goose and dirty rice dressing, but that's another story entirely). The story of DEAD RELATIVE was that Kimmey was called upon to deal with her Cajun grandfather who had broken his leg down in Port Arthur. Me-maw, his wife, had thrown him out many years before, so the cousins all took turns when it was time to deal with Pee-paw. Which meant, that although I knew all about Port Arthur – that it smelled of rotten cabbage from one refinery and dirty socks from another and that it had mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds – I really needed to spend a weekend researching the place.

And my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were happy to take on that challenge. They drove me all over the town, by the ornate homes of the ship captains who had started the town, to the beautiful Buddhist temple in the part of the city that housed mostly Vietnamese immigrants. They took me to a wonderful spot under the Orange Bridge (the bridge isn't orange but it connects Port Arthur to the city of Orange across the Sabine River) with funky restaurants and even funkier homes – Quonset huts and RV's and shacks decorated with art work made of junk. And I knew that this was where Pee-paw now lived.

While wandering around under the bridge, we saw some shrimp boats tied up there on the Sabine. I innocently said to no one in particular, “Gee, it would be nice to see the inside of one,” where upon my mother-in-law (from whom my husband inherited his tendency of never meeting a stranger) shouted out to a man on said shrimp boat, “Hey! Y'all! My daughter-in-law's a writer and she wants to see inside your boat!”

To say I was mortified was an understatement. Unfortunately my complexion lends itself to turning colors under stress, so I could feel the heat of the bright red shade I'd suddenly turned. But, having no other choice, I followed my family members onto the boat, shook hands with the captain and his wife, and got to see all there is to see on a small shrimp boat, and learn all about their lives and the vulnerability of fishing for a living. Thanks to my in-laws, I met several people that weekend, all with a story to tell.

That trip opened my eyes about research and what it can do. For one thing, it made it clear to me that Port Arthur, Texas, was more than a smelly place with big mosquitoes. It was the home to many, many refineries, with containers full of oil and gas and other flammables. It was only a stone's throw from the town of Texas City that had experienced the ultimate nightmare of living in that kind of world. The people of Port Arthur were brave souls, I discovered, living under the constant light of flames shooting from the pipes of the refineries, going to work, taking their kids to school, falling in love, getting married, having babies. Just living their lives, knowing that the horror of what befell Texas City could happen to them, at any time, in any of the many locations. So they drink a lot, eat a lot of sea food, and make bottle trees and paint tires white and bury them half way in their front yards. They listen to very loud zydeco music and still think Justin Wilson is the best comedian who ever lived.

I try to remember that experience when it's time to do research. I try to remember how ultimately good it really was. But I still need a little shove, a push in the right direction. That's where Jan Grape comes in. She shoves hard.

27 March 2016

The Glass Village -- Suspending Disbelief?

by Dale C. Andrews
Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.                                                                                             Aristotle
What do you know?! Haven't you heard of suspension of disbelief?                                                                                                    Ed Wood, Ed Wood 
Unfortunately, my disbelief is very heavy, and [at times] the suspension cable snap[s].                                                                     Roger Ebert
        It only seems proper on Easter Sunday for SleuthSayers to focus on Ellery Queen. What? Some of you may ask. After all, the Queen mysteries were written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were born Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively. Francis M. Nevins in Royal Bloodlines describes the two as follows: “Both were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, of immigrant Jewish stock in a crowded Brooklyn tenement district.” So -- how do you get from there to Easter? 

       Well, while the basis for this remains an unsolved mystery, the holiday Easter is repeatedly referenced throughout the works of Queen. Those references, often hidden, could easily provide the basis for an Easter article. Unfortunately for me, that is an article that I have already written. Anyone wanting to re-visit (or visit) that previous discussion of Ellery Queen’s hidden (and mysterious) “Easter eggs” can do so by clicking here

       My re-visit to the Queen library this Easter is a bit more attenuated. Easter is a holiday premised on faith and belief; acceptance of that which we might otherwise deem to be impossible. Faith is an oft analyzed foundation of religious belief. But it is there that mystery fiction and religion part ways. By and large mystery readers take little on “faith." Instead, mystery fiction requires a well-grounded basis for “belief” premised on demonstrable logic in order to explain the otherwise inexplicable and thereby keep the reader in tow. 

       When fiction is at its best it immerses the reader in a believable world, one in which we can live comfortably; where occurrences, clues and characters are of a sort that we would expect to encounter. But often laying the foundation for such a world presents a formidable challenge to the author. This is particularly so in Golden Age mysteries, such as those of Ellery Queen. It is hard to reasonably anticipate, for example, a reasonable world that offers up dying messages or locked rooms. When the otherwise unbelievable occurs in theology (think Easter) the devout among us often are able to answer incredulity with faith. For the mystery reader, however, it’s a bit tougher. And the preferred bridge to believe the otherwise unbelievable is the literary tool "suspension of disbelief.” 

       This handy little device -- which was excellently discussed in guest SleuthSayer Herschel Cozine’s recent article and by Fran Rizer a couple years back -- is defined by our old pal Wikipedia as follows: 
Suspension of disbelief, or willing suspension of disbelief, is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
The trick to the tool, as the above quote suggests, is that “semblance of truth” requirement. The reader has to be given just enough to go along with the plot device that otherwise presents as implausible. And as the quote from Roger Ebert at top of this article also suggests, if that semblance of truth proves insufficient to tempt the reader down the author’s intended path, well, the suspension cable snaps, risking the loss of the reader. 

       And that brings us back to Ellery Queen and a particular mystery where, at least for me, that cable has never been sufficient to withstand the load the authors demand of it. My reference is to the 1954 mystery The Glass Village.

       In over fifty years of reading Queen The Glass Village has always been my personal stumbling block. Recently I confronted The Glass Village again and, after previous failed attempts this time I finished the novel. But not without some grumblings.

       Before getting to all of that, a little background is in order.

       My latest confrontation with The Glass Village began a couple months back after I wrote a SleuthSayers article focusing on some underlying riffs in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town. Looking back on the completed article, particularly in light of some very erudite comments offered by some SleuthSayers readers, I decided that it was a good time to re-visit not only Calamity Town, but the Queen mysteries that immediately followed it. There was good reason for this re-visit. When I first started reading Queen in my teenage years the path I followed through Ellery’s adventures meandered a bit. Some volumes I checked out of the local library, but more often than not I acquired Ellery Queen mysteries piecemeal at used book fairs held often in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. (My Queen library still has many volumes from those book fares, each with a ten cent or twenty-five cent price inscribed inside of the cover.)

       The upshot of this approach was that I read the Queen library as I acquired it, which is to say out of order. I skipped from The Siamese Twin Mystery to Double, Double, and then proceeded to The Player on the Other Side before going back to Calamity Town. It was years before I reached Cat of Many Tails. It occurred to me lately, however, that it would be interesting to re-read these works, particularly those written in the 1940s and 1950s, in the order that they were published. I set this course so that I could more clearly follow the nuanced changes in Dannay and Lee’s writing, and in Ellery’s character, particularly his humanization as he coped with his own mistakes in the early Wrightsville stories, confronted those human foibles in Cat of Many Tails, and then moved on through other works, ending with 1958’s The Finishing Stroke, once intended as the last Queen mystery.

       In the midst of this span, is The Glass Village, published in 1954. 

       The Glass Village is a rarity among Queen mysteries. While there are many novels that profess to be “written” by Ellery Queen that do not feature Ellery and/or his father as essential characters, the vast majority of those books were not in fact written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Rather they were the infamous works franchised out to other writers. The Dannay and Lee contributions to these decidedly inferior stories amounted to little more than some final editing. But there are two exceptions to this rule. And aside from the 1968 police procedural Cop Out, The Glass Village is the only novel written by Dannay and Lee as Ellery Queen that does not feature Ellery or the Inspector.   

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
       As an aside, reportedly this almost was not the case. There is, some evidence that The Glass Village was originally intended as an Ellery Queen Wrightsville mystery that was then revised to remove Ellery and Wrightsville while the writing was already under way. (Indeed, the debut episode of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, broadcast on NBC on September 26, 1958, is based on The Glass Village and re-fashioned the story so that the detective-protagonist is, in fact, Ellery.) We can only speculate as to why Dannay and Lee decided on a different approach, but there are several possibilities. First, a key element of The Glass Village requires a finite and limited number of town residents, something that would not have been possible in the context of the larger community of Wrightsville. Second, Dannay and Lee frankly may have been uneasy concerning the descent into mob mentality that The Glass Village would have required of the residents of Wrightsville -- people Ellery often describes with admiration and affection. The story, after all, is an allegory to the McCarthy mania of the early 1950s, and Dannay and Lee may not have wanted the good citizens of Wrightsville to play the Mcarthy-ite roles required by the story. 

       So there were many reasons that I could have opted to avoid The Glass Village when I revisited Queen, principally revolving around the lack of Ellery. But it seemed to me that would be a bit unfair. The book was widely heralded, when published, as a celebration of 25 years of mysteries authored by Ellery Queen. And even though it is not directly part of the “Ellery as detective” canon, the authors made certain that it did not stray too far.  Shinn Corners, the locale for the novel, is geographically close to Wrightsville, the town Ellery frequents, and we know this from references in Ellery’s Wrightsville novels. There are other hints that also tie the mystery back to those in which Ellery is present, and the young detective protagonist in Glass Village is fashioned with several knowing winks to the avid Queen reader.  That character, “Johnny Shinn,” approaches the mystery as would Ellery, sports a name with the same number of characters as “Ellery Queen,” and one character in the The Glass Village persists in mispronouncing that last name as “Sheen.” In light of all of this I could only conclude that Dannay and Lee intended that I should read the book. So I (finally) did. 

       This brings us back to my problems with The Glass Village, which involve suspension of disbelief, how it works, and how sometimes it doesn’t.  The Glass Village begins very well, and contains some excellent prose and believable characters, but to me it grinds to a halt mid-way when it asks of the reader a suspension of disbelief that simply cannot easily be delivered.

       Specifically, a major premise of the story is that in order to calm the near riotous citizenry of Shinn Corners it is decided that a trumped-up trial must be conducted. Over the years each time I have attempted to read The Glass Village it is at this point that I roll my eyes, sigh, and set the book aside as my suspension cable snaps. I admit that a lot of this may be because I am an attorney, and the utter silliness of the kangaroo court imagined by Dannay and Lee and then convened in Shinn Corners has a particular personal grate to it. But there are problems here regardless of the reader’s background, and those problems (I believe) are sufficient that any reader, when asked to suspend disbelief, predictably would reply oh, come now

       For the “kangaroo trial” that is at the heart of The Glass Village to work the reader must accept the novel’s premise that the small town of Shinn Corners is so geographically remote from the rest of the world that, over a course of days, no higher authority could or would enter the town to rescue a prisoner threatened by an enraged town bent on mob vigilantism, and further that no higher judicial or legal authority would intervene to stop a trial so strangely assembled that jurors also serve, at times, as witnesses during the proceeding. Indeed, the story requires us to believe that governmental authorities outside of Shinn Corners in fact agree to step back and leave the town to its own devices in order to forestall mob violence. The attempts to explain away this citadel isolation of Shinn Corners -- largely that the town has become a mob that threatens any outside authority that attempts to intrude -- is simply not credible.  When would this ever occur in such a setting?
   
       What police force, what State government, would back down in such a situation? In effect, Dannay and Lee ask us, the readers, to buy into a thinly concocted premise, since that premise is necessary in order for elements of the story to work. But the leap of faith, at least for me, is too great. All I can do is roll my eyes. The premise fails the “semblance of truth” requirement for suspending disbelief. 

       Sadly, this flaw in the mystery spoils the whole endeavor for some, myself included. And it needn’t have. All the plot needed was a better “semblance.” Queen did this well, for example, in The Siamese Twin Mystery, where the setting is necessarily isolated from the rest of the world by a forest fire. That provides enough of a semblance of truth for us to suspend disbelief and proceed with the novel. So, too, in And on the Eighth Day it is not difficult to accept the premise that the town of Quenan is geographically (and historically) isolated from the rest of the world for a reason, again, necessary to the story. 

       Could Queen have provided a better “semblance of truth” in The Glass Village? Well, clearly. Stephen King did so in his miniseries Storm of the Century, in which a town, located on a remote island off of the Maine coast, is isolated from the mainland by a believable storm. And there are models for Glass Village-like seclusion in the real world -- towns located on islands off the coast of England, for example, that are inaccessible for months during winter, or Smith and Tangiers Islands located in our own Chesapeake Bay. Constructing such a locale, and then using it as the setting for The Glass Village could have provided that “semblance of truth” and thereby saved countless rolling eyes. 

     Many, including my friend, Queen scholar and emeritus law professor Francis Nevins, profess to have been able to move past this credibility stumbling block in The Glass Village without grumblings, and have praised the rest of the work as a very superior mystery. And I recognize their point -- the character development and cluing are fine; the narrative otherwise sparkles. But for me, that is still a pretty significant “otherwise.” Some things I can take on faith. But for a mystery to work, I need a reasoned basis to stay on board the ship.

       Ahh well. After all of these years I have finally completed The Glass Village. Eyes well exercised from rolling, it is time to move on. 

26 March 2016

What to Eat When You Read (They let me off my leash again...)

by Melodie Campbell

I like to get in the mood, when I’m reading. Here’s my list of how to pair your nosh to your book:

Westerns
Riders of the Purple Sage. Cow country. This would suggest a certain menu. Steak, medium rare. Tempting, but hard to cut a steak while simultaneously holding a book and turning pages. Really, Mel Brooks had the right idea. Beans, and plenty of them. Make sure you’re NOT reading in public.

Chick-lit
Slipping into the realm of the unknown here. Chicks are slim young things, right? They would eat salad. I hate salad. Ergo…hand me a western.

Action-Adventure
The trouble with Bond-clone movies and books is you’re apt to spill your martini with all that racing around in the plot. Things blow up a lot in the action-adventure genre. This might suggest popcorn. But make sure you pop it before you eat it. Keep the explosions to your book. (Or switch to westerns.)

Horror
This is obvious. Ribs. Dripping with BBQ sauce.
Herself's personal additions: Cilantro and goat cheese <<shivers>>

Romance
Chocolate.

CanLit (Literature, for all you American types.)
It will be unusual, expensive, and unpalatable. You won’t “understand” why others think it is so good. Your palate has not been suitably developed to appreciate such fineness. Caviar. Escargot (it always sounds so much better in French.) Duck liver (you can look up the French spelling.) If you get beyond the first bite (er…page one,) Yay for you. Hard to read – hard to eat.

Mystery
Should be obvious, right? Chinese food! Get someone else to order it for you, so the mystery deepens.

Fantasy
Try to find Ambrosia. They really dig it on Olympia. If you can’t find that, substitute ice cream. (I know. You thought I was going to say wine. But my fantasy is ice cream with a suitably delicious Greek God-ling. Okay, he doesn’t have to be a God yet. Just young and Greek. Okay, this is slipping into erotica…

Erotica
Forget the oysters, artichokes, or other silly vegetable-type aphrodisiacs. (Fish is almost a vegetable. Trust me.) The answer is more chocolate. (Silly. That’s the answer to almost anything.)

Sci-fi
KIND nut bars. Okay, is the metaphor too obvious?

What to Eat if you’re a Writer:
Coffee.
And humble pie.

Melodie Campbell’s latest mob comedy, TheGoddaughter Caper, has just been released. It’s an offer you can’t refuse. Available at all the usual suspects.

25 March 2016

The Hatbox Baby Mystery

The Hatbox Baby, then . . .

By Dixon Hill

The mystery of the Hatbox Baby has intrigued Valley residents for decades.  That such a tiny personage could engender such widespread and enduring interest, perplex so many -- and even work to damage innocent lives -- can seem almost inexplicable.

Yet:  One baby.  In one hatbox.  Managed to do just that.

Christmas Eve of 1931, a young couple, not long married, was driving home though the desert. They had taken their cousins up north to see snow, and were on their way back home, when their car broke down about seven miles west of the mining town of Superior, a town not far from the Superstition Mountains, home of another Arizona legend.

The Hatbox she was found in.
Ed Stewart pulled over in the open desert and, while he worked to get the car running (some say he had to clear the fuel line) his wife, Julia, walked around through the brush and cactus.  She heard a noise, similar to a baby's cry, and walked over to find a hatbox sitting by a clump of mesquite.

She called for Ed.

Ed came over and looked more closely.  Inside the hatbox, lay a 10-month-old baby.


. . . and "The Hatbox Baby Now."
83 yr old Sharon Elliot in 2013
Once Ed got the car going again, the young couple took the baby to Mesa Constable Joe Maier.

Maier temporarily placed the baby in a maternity home run by a woman known as Ma Dana.  A few days later, she was adopted by a couple with no children.

The story made national news in 1931.  Valley newspapers usually ran Christmas stories about her discovery each year.  For decades afterward, Valley residents and newspapers asked, "What ever happened to the Hatbox Baby?"

The answer: she had a full life and even raised three kids of her own.

For most of her life, Sharon Elliot didn't know she was the famous "Hatbox Baby."  In fact, she didn't even know she was adopted.  She finally learned the truth in her mid-fifties.  Yet, she still doesn't really know who her mother was, or how she came to be abandoned, in a pasteboard hatbox, in the middle of the open desert on Christmas Eve.

But what of the couple who found her?

Rumors flew!

The couple hadn't been married long, and wagging tongues claimed it had been a "shotgun wedding," the baby "discovered" in the desert so they wouldn't have to own up to their premarital misdeeds.

In the end, the couple fled the Valley, moving elsewhere, seeking land where no one had heard of the baby they found in the desert.  It became a point of contention between the two of  them, and they constantly refused to answer interview questions from reporters who hunted them down years later.

Thus, while we ponder who could have left a baby in such an inhospitable place -- in only a hatbox -- we are also faced by what may well be the greater mystery of the Hatbox Baby:  Why did folks allow wagging tongues to do so much harm to a young couple who did nothing but save a baby from near-certain death?  In one sense, the Stewart's lives might have been much simpler if they had simply convinced themselves that they had heard nothing crying out there in the lonely desert on that Christmas Eve.  But, then again, they would have had to live with the guilt.

This quandary filed not in the Twilight Zone, but in the SleuthSayers blog, under "A" for Arizona oddities.

--Dixon

24 March 2016

Everybody's Gotta Start Somewhere

by Brian Thornton

I published my first book (nonfiction) in 2005. Sold my first short story a year before that, in 2004.

And now, a full decade into the writing game, I find myself in the position of serving as mentor to a couple of fledgling writers who are looking to me for advice on not just how to write fiction, but how to start writing it.

Now bear in mind that these are both people with an extensive amount of experience writing nonfiction. Millions and millions of words written and published in one form or another. So they know how to write a proper sentence, and they understand how to edit themselves, etc.

And coincidentally they both approached me, as the only really "experienced" fiction writer they know (they are not acquainted with each other), and asked whether I would take a look at their first pieces and give them some feedback.

It occurred to me as I was writing up my responses to their initial forays into writing fiction that what I was writing likely applied to the work of pretty much anyone who's ever decided, "Hey, I'd like to write something like that..."

Hence this blog post.

So here they are, in no particular order. Some rules to start by:

– Writing narrative is hard work. Writing first-person narrative is even harder. Writing it without starting most of your sentences with "I" (as in "I got up. I went to the freezer. I put my head inside. I closed the freezer door on my head repeatedly. I died.") unless you're keeping this sort of thing in mind is damned near impossible. So keep it in mind.

–People do not speak in complete sentences over the course of casual conversations. Make sure your casual conversations sound "casual." Embrace sentence fragments and dropped "g"s – "I was just teasing you," sounds more realistic/authentic if written as "Just teasin'!"

–Show, don't tell. If your character is telling the reader in the course of her narrative how she moved to town and quickly made friends, and how important those friends now are to her, have her think it in the course of a conversation with one of those treasured friends. It helps break up the dialogue (See below).

–Dialogue–Great for exposition. Easy to abuse. If you're writing pages and pages over the course of a single conversation, you're not writing fiction. You're writing a screenplay, which is a completely different animal. If you've got a conversation this long in your novel and it's not broken up by some action, you don't have exposition. You've got an info–dump.

–Info–Dump. Learn this word. Hate this word. Avoid this word.

–Info–Dumps don't just pop up in dialogue. They're pernicious and can sneak into narrative as well. Like this:

I never got along with my mother. She knew how I felt about her and made sure that I felt guilty about it. I fled her house as soon as I graduated high school, and worked my way around the world, cooking on a tramp steamer, hoeing rows and toting an AK-47 on a kibbutz north of Ashkelon. I got a tattoo in Hamburg, a piercing in Belize, and a social disease in Rio. When I'd had enough of wandering, I settled in New York City. Too many people. Then I moved to Death Valley. Too few. Then to Kansas. Too flat. And Wyoming was too cold (and also had too few people). Then my dad died and left me this diner on the Oregon coast...

I think you get the idea. These details are potentially interesting, but not coming all jumbled together.
Learning to tease them out and parcel them out in a naturalistic (not the same thing as "natural") manner is a skill. Work at it. KISS guitarist Ace Frehley once famously said that when his band first got together they weren't very good musicians, but "Playing 300 gigs a year will get your better fast." (Or words to that effect.

He was right.

But, you can't practice, practice, practice, until you start. Hopefully these few tips will help the rookies among you to avoid so-called "rookie mistakes" in your writing, and save you some time and sweat on your own road to publication.

Good luck!

23 March 2016

Nomads

David Edgerley Gates

War novels and war movies are a genre, and military settings in peacetime, as well - SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, or REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, for example - but there's a special subset, stories about dependentsmilitary families and their dynamics, their tensions and dislocations.

The gold standard, most military brats seem to think, is Pat Conroy's THE GREAT SANTINI. I have to say, though, that I've never warmed up to Conroy as a writer. The one book I like is THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, and that itself is another genre subset, the military academy book, Calder Willingham's END AS A MAN, Lucian Truscott's DRESS GRAY (my personal gold standard in this category). And meanwhile, Conroy's also among the fallen, having died only this past week, so it feels mean-spirited, or anyway inappropriate, to damn him with faint praise. In any case, people who grew up on the inside, with career military families, will tell you THE GREAT SANTINI sets the bar pretty high. Sarah Bird, who's an Air Force brat, calls it the Rosetta Stone.

Sarah Bird's sixth novel, THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, came out in 2001, so I'm a little late to the party. Her dad, a flyer, was stationed at Yokota AFB, outside Tokyo, and later at Kadena, on Okinawa. He flew recon missions, which I take to mean RF-101 Voodoos and RF-4C's. The target was North Viet Nam. Nine out of ten crews in his squadron were eventually lost, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sarah says it was years before she realized his DFC wasn't just given for perfect attendance.

As an aside, I was once penciled in for flight status out of Yokota, an assignment that never materialized, but it would have meant flying ELINT missions out over the South China Sea and down along the coast of North Viet Nam, lighting up the SAM sites as we came into range. Which leads me to suspect that Maj. Bird flew what were known as Ferret Flights. He never explained to his daughter exactly what he did, it was classified, and she filled in the blanks after the fact. My point, here, is that I've got some inside dope, but it's actually not entirely pertinent. As a matter of fact, in the novel, the mysteries of the dad's duty rotation, and sometime absences, is part of the fabric of uncertainty his family lives with.

However. What the guy does is both central, and secondary. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is mostly about the oldest kid, Bernie, for Bernadette, and her relationships with the other kids, and with her mom. The military environment is a constant presence, but it's a gravitational influence, like a planet in unstable orbit. Even if you don't see it, you feel its tidal pull.

This is the thing I liked best about the book, the sense of immersion, and at the same time, apartness, or isolation. Bernie's center of gravity is her immediate family, but although she's in this larger institution, the military and the airbase where they're stationed, she's not entirely of it. She says to her sister Kit, at one point, You know it's all transitory, you have to detach, how can you take it seriously? Meaning, the next assignment takes you to a new installation - a new school, a new set of people, a new kind of landscape to navigate, and yet the same constraints of behavior, and how you present yourself. And the rules are all the more restrictive because they're unspoken, half the time. You absorb it by osmosis.

This is a life experience I'm guessing you can't really inhabit unless you've been there. You can come close, you can approximate it, and Sarah Bird does a pretty amazing job of making it enormously vivid and convincing, with never a false note, but all the same, no matter how well you describe it, or reimagine it, breathe it in and breathe it out, some part of it will elude the rest of us.

She says, Sarah, that she's perhaps paying back an obligation. She calls the novel a Valentine. In an interview, she remarks that "All of this made us [her family] something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America." I find it a very telling observation that she pictures the serving military as outsiders, and I think she's right. Permanently passing through. In, but not of.

Don't mistake me, though. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is anything but a niche novel. I'm obviously relating to it on some kind of metabolic level, simply because it rings so true to me - and that's not to suggest you have to see it through my eyes. It opens a window on an unfamiliar world, and makes it seem utterly intimate and organic. Partly this is Bernie, who's a wonderfully engaging narrator, but also the choice of exact detail, although coming at you from an odd angle, and not quite what you expected. Then again, the book as a whole works against your expectations. That's its charm. And there's the word I've been looking for all along. Charm. In either sense, too. Both the goofy, flirty, adolescent voice, and the sense of casting a spell. It holds you captive.

22 March 2016

Dynamic Duos - Part Two

by Barb Goffman and Sherry Harris

Songwriter Paul Simon may be an island, but for many authors we know, writing works better when people work together. Whether it comes from an editor or a critique group, feedback and brainstorming can be a hugely important part of writing. They also can be an important part of sleuthing. Characters usually need feedback as they try to figure out whodunit, which is one reason why the sidekick character is so prevalent in crime fiction.

Yesterday on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog, author Sherry Harris and I discussed dynamic duos in the writing process and how we've worked together. We also talked about dynamic duos in fiction, including my character Job and his unusual sidekick, God, from my story "The Lord is My Shamus" (available in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). Sound interesting? Pop on over to the other blog by clicking here. But then come back, because now we're going to wade into Sherry's fictional duos and then discuss some of our personal favorites by other authors.


Sherry, in your books, your main character, amateur sleuth Sarah Winston, has two friends who serve as her partner, but they both play very different roles. Can you talk a little about Carol and Stella?

Sherry: Sarah has known Carol for twenty years. They met right after Sarah met her now ex-husband, and they bonded as military wives. Fast forward to the present, and they've ended up living in the same town, Ellington, Massachusetts. Carol is invested in Sarah and her complicated relationship with her ex. She likes going to yard sales with Sarah, and Sarah knows that Carol will always be on her side. It's this long-time friendship that has prompted Sarah to step in when Carol is accused of murder (The Longest Yard Sale), and it's why the two work so well together when Sarah needs to think things through. And Carol's the kind of friend who tosses her car keys to Sarah without hesitation when Sarah's running away in All Murders Final! (coming out from Kensington on April 26th).

Stella is a new friend and Sarah's landlady. She isn't judgmental, listens, and is thoughtful with her answers. Since Stella is also single, she's usually up for a last-minute adventure, whether it's going to a karaoke bar or heading out in the middle of a blizzard. Because Stella is a new friend, Sarah sometimes feels more comfortable doing things with her that she'd never do with Carol, simply because their friendship is built on different interests. As you pointed out recently, Barb, the three of them have never hung out together--that might be something for a future book.

Do you have a favorite duo in a series, Barb?

Barb: There are so many great ones, but a duo that jumps immediately to mind is Stephanie Plum and her friend Lula in Janet Evanovich's seminal series about a New Jersey bounty hunter. Lula is always up for anything (especially going through the drive-through at Cluck-in-a-Bucket). If
The book that started it all
Stephanie needs to go on a stakeout, Lula's there to serve as a second pair of eyes. If Stephanie needs to find and capture someone who skipped court, Lula's there to help with the takedown. And if Stephanie needs to eat a snack, Lula is definitely there to eat the leftovers, and then some. Having a fearless friend when you're a bounty hunter is awesome. And having a friend who's a hoot is great when you're the star of your own series--readers love humor. What about you, Sherry? Is there a duo that stands out to you?

Sherry: I love Stephanie and Lula too. Another interesting duo is in Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak mysteries. (Chris, if you are out there, please, I'm begging you, write more!) (Barb here: Me too!) The duo in this series is John Ceepak and Danny Boyle. John is a West Point grad and military
The first John Ceepak mystery
veteran with a strict moral code that he won't deviate from. Danny is a part-time cop, part-time party boy. Their relationship starts out with John as the mentor, and Danny idolizes him. But Danny brings something to the relationship too--smarts and a zest for life. They both approach the world very differently, but ultimately they learn from each other.

Barb and I both love the relationship in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries. Here is a completely different way to approach a duo from our first two examples. Barb, what makes them work?

Barb: Chemistry. It's one of those rare things that's hard to teach how to do, but wow, does Julia Spencer-Fleming do it well. These two characters are so wonderful together. They start out as friends, a sexual tension grows over the series, and then as their lives change, their relationship changes and grows. (I'm being vague because I don't want to ruin things for anyone who hasn't read the series yet. Go forth and buy all the books right now. You won't be disappointed.) Russ is the local police chief. Clare is an Episcopal priest. They're fun characters to spend time with--not
We love this book!
preachy. They both care about people and their town and are willing to stick their necks out for others, and for each other.

Sherry, am I missing anything?

Sherry: I love that Clare was an army helicopter pilot before she became a priest. It adds another layer of depth to her character. Also that Russ is married--that dynamic--priest and married police chief--is brilliant. I wish I could think of something as interesting and pull it off like Julia does. The first book in the series, In the Bleak Midwinter, has one of the best opening lines ever written.

It's amazing to us how different each of these examples are, yet how well they all work. Readers, do you have a favorite fictional duo?

21 March 2016

Blood Dreams

Jan Grape here: Bill agreed to help me out today as I couldn't manage with this bad sinus headache. I don't care what he says, he's a best seller in my book and been a good friend for almost 100 years. Thanks, Dr. Crider.

Bill Crider here. Jan Grape’s a bit under the weather, and she asked me to fill in for her today. I didn’t have time to dash off any deep thoughts, but I did have something for her. It’s a piece I published on my own blog 10 years ago, and I was considering reprinting it soon. So instead of reprinting it on my blog, I’m using it here.

Now and then someone asks me (though maybe not in these exact words), "How is it that somebody who's been consistently publishing for over 30 years, who's done three or four series, and who's sustained one of them for 30 years now, remains a complete unknown?"

As Mike Hammer says, "It was easy." I just never had a hit. People who ask me to blurb their first novels sell more copies of it than I've sold total. People who started writing well after I did are now on the New York Times list. Maybe I just don't write the right kind of books, or maybe my books just aren't that good. (I'd like to disregard that second possibility, but there it is.) Reviewers like me (mostly), editors like me, readers (when they can find the books) like me. But here I am, unknown.

I've come close to being known, though, a couple of times. When my evil twin, Jack MacLane, was writing for Zebra Books, the editor there really loved his work. After the first two books, I didn't have to offer a synopsis or even a title. My contract just said, "two books by Bill Crider." At one point, I was about to get The Big Push, with Blood Dreams. Die-cut cover with embossed inner cover. A dump in the front of all the chain stores. Publicity! The works.

Didn't happen. The editor got pregnant and left the company. Another editor came in. The book was slapped back to the regular list, with a regular cover. The dump in the chains? Publicity? Forget it.

What proof do I have of this? Not much, except for a cover flat that I got when the big plans were being made. That's it in the pictures, both the outer cover and the inner cover. Pretty cool, right? I sure thought so at the time. I thought Jack MacLane was on his way. And he was, straight to oblivion, which is where he remains. My brief brush with fame was pretty short, but it was fun while it lasted.

20 March 2016

Duping Delight

by Leigh Lundin

He lied for pleasure,” Fuselier said— Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, a clinical psychologist and an FBI investigator.

In this case, he was talking about Eric Harris of Columbine notoriety. But millions of people who aren’t mass murderers also lie for pleasure. They tread beyond compulsive, they go beyond obsessive– they lie for enjoyment, gratification, and amusement.

Telling Lies by Paul Ekman
Psychologist Paul Ekman says lying represents a key characteristic of the psychopathic profile. He calls it ‘duping delight’.

It’s rare for the average person to get to know a criminal mind. I’m not talking about the desperate committer of crimes or those who’ve lost their way, but people who deliberately set out to steal or defraud for no other reason than they wish to.

Oddly enough, most fraudsters I’ve personally known have been disbarred lawyers. Truly. Wait, I’m not picking on lawyers as a class nor am I providing fodder for lawyer jokes– we can do that another time if my friend Dale turns a blind eye. But for unexplained reasons that seem beyond coincidence, the major swindlers I’ve encountered have been former attorneys and one a former judge. They all hail from Florida as well, formerly a haven for con artists and scammers selling underwater parcels of land.

My friend Sharon sent me an Orlando Sentinel article titled “Husband of disbarred attorney sues her, alleging fraud, forgery.” Strange as that sounds, it barely hints at the machinations involved… you’ve got to read the article.

It put me in mind of another lawyer whom I’ll call Dr. Bob Black.

Judge Not Lest… an opinion piece

I met ‘Dr. Black’ at a local college campus. We chatted between breaks. He failed to let on he’d been disbarred, although he mentioned numerous times he’d been a judge. He shared he was raised in financial comfort and had been well educated. His relationship with his parents, especially Bob Sr, sounded complex and later left me wondering about the residual effects.

Black had bought a minor mansion in an Orlando historical district. He’d gutted it and was in the process of slicing its interior into small apartments when the Historical Society called a halt, pointing out that ruining a historical building and establishing multi-family residences in a single-family zone was forbidden. Unfazed, Black put it up for sale, advertising it as partially converted to apartments but possibly not mentioning the legal stumbling blocks.

At the time of his real estate ventures, Bob was also hawking a computer he called the Macintosh XLS. I recognized the machine as an Apple Lisa, the forerunner to the Mac, although Black claimed it was not a Lisa but a super-advanced product that outclassed other computers— especially its price of $10 000, about five times the price of a Mac at the time.

A little research showed he was buying refurbished units from a company in Shreveport, bundling them with freeware and shareware, and offering training worth “thousands of dollars.” As it happened, he was paying less than $40 for adult classes at Winter Park Tech where my friend Geri taught. Geri found herself with more than one of his victims in her classes, including one man whose wife was dying of cancer and was barely holding together emotionally.

The Scheme

Black was buying outdated, refurbished computers for a few hundred dollars, adding freeware (free software) and $40 worth of classes, and then selling them as high-end products to the unsuspecting.

Dr. Black was a snappy dresser. Even at casual gatherings he wore suits, and under his suits he wore sweater vests, not a common sight in Florida.

He liked talking to me, even when I’d call him on some of his shenanigans. When I asked barbed questions, he showed a politely bland face, no anger or irritation at all. I wondered if he masked his feelings or felt nothing at all. Did he choose me just to have one person to talk to?

He claimed to have been a judge, and apparently that was true. The ‘Dr’ part he tacked onto his name– He liked the sound of it. Beyond the connotation of ‘juris’, it had no more meaning than the ‘Dr’ in Dr. Pepper.

Judgment-Proof

Black confided he was ‘judgment-proof’ and explained he maintained real property in his wife’s name and kept all his other assets offshore. The topic of disbarment didn’t disturb him… he simply acted as if he didn’t hear those questions, although once he hinted at a political misunderstanding.

One of his controlling peculiarities was to arrange meetings with clients at odd minutes on the clock, say 9:42 or 10:13. Black claimed he was too tightly scheduled to waste appointments on the half or quarter hour.

His attitude toward ripping off people was entirely incomprehensible to most observers. Black exhibited zero contrition but especially no shame whatsoever. He displayed a bullying arrogance toward anyone he could. He may have fancied himself superior to lesser people; others were merely ants that he righteously stepped on if they got in his way. Bob seemed to typify a sociopath in every sense of the word.

The Detective and the Reporter

A pair of related calls came in on my consulting line. Geri had referred one caller, a former New York City homicide detective who’d been defrauded by Black. The other was from our local WCPX star consumer crusader, Ellen MacFarlane. The detective happened to know Ellen’s mother, a NYC judge, and her sister, a force within the New York Department of Consumer Affairs. They asked me if I would provide technical knowledge for an exposé of Dr. Bob Black.

Ellen suffered from multiple sclerosis, but she was a fighter. I sat in on the interviews, sometimes feeding her questions. Black’s strategy was to answer no question directly. If she asked him about reselling obsolete equipment, he would respond with a rambling discourse on Steve Jobs, Reaganomics, and local gardening regulations. He exhausted the lady, but Ellen managed to air the segment.

The detective wasn’t done. He sued Black and called me as a witness.

We sat waiting for Black in the judge’s chambers. At nearly half-past the hour, the phone rang. The judge put it on speaker phone: A whimpering Black claimed he was deathly ill.

The judge said, “Frankly, Mr. Black, you don’t have much credibility around this court. However, I’ll continue this case if you get a doctor’s note to me within three days.”

Upon my return to court, I bumped into Black. He always acted polite to me and he did so this time, impervious to my cool nod. This time, the parties indicated they were considering a settlement. I wasn’t called to court again so I don’t know what, if any, judgment or restitution was involved.

To say Black was a scoundrel or a rascal is to diminish the impact he had on others. The Yiddish word ‘gonif’ comes close, implying a thief and a cheat.

Most of us would like to leave the world a better place. Besides social currency, reputation is a reflection of future self, the part that remains after we’re gone. We can’t all be great authors, musicians, artists, nurses, and teachers, but we can be good people. People who don’t care are alien to the rest of us.

I’ll bracket this article with “in my opinion,” but Black made a living from cheating people. He could argue he gave naïve people what they asked for (“They should have done their homework”) and what he promised (“So what if I sold them free software and who’s to say the $40 course isn’t worth thousands”).

For all that, my greatest astonishment centered around his lack of shame. I used to attend LegalSIG, a special interest group run by a local law firm concerning matters of business and law. Black would attend, showing no chagrin, no humiliation, not the least discomfort. Most people would not put themselves through such mortification, but Black felt no discomposure. He was internally ‘judgement-proof’ emotionally as well as financially.

Friends asked why ‘Black’ singled me out to talk. Partly, people found it easy to chat with me, even confide, but also I could listen without hating him, which I suspect many of his colleagues and victims must have done. From him, of course, I heard only fragments of his exploits. He never mentioned the word ‘victims’, but hinted those who’d fallen for his schemes were weak-minded. He sometimes suggested when his prey rose up, they were unfairly trying to victimize him for being the more clever.

I can’t read a mind like his, but I began to suspect that if he dealt with emotions at all, he might have felt no wrong. He might even have believed himself entitled, that he had the right to exploit lesser humans, those who could not harm others. If so, I feel sorry for him. But I'll never know for sure.

19 March 2016

Let's Hear It for MMs


by John M. Floyd


No, not mss (the plural of "manuscript").  MMs (the plural of "mystery magazine").  In fact, let's hear it for MM mss.

Several years ago I was Googling markets for short mystery stories (I do that from time to time) and stumbled upon a site called, believe it or not, Better Holmes and Gardens. When I investigated, I found submission guidelines for a publication I hadn't heard of before: Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. That's right--yet another MM.

Like all mystery writers, I love AHMM and EQMM, and I also submit a lot of stories to other current magazines that regularly feature mystery fiction, like The StrandWoman's WorldOver My Dead BodyCrimespreeMysterical-E, BJ Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, etc. But the truth is, there aren't a lot of markets out there anymore--paying or non-paying--that specialize in mystery shorts.

Holmes Sweet Holmes

Back to my discovery. Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine is a product of Wildside Press, which I believe also publishes the iconic Weird Tales. As soon as I found SHMM I sent them a story, a little mystery called "Traveling Light," and was pleased and surprised when they accepted it. They paid me promptly, and when the piece was published they mailed me several copies of what turned out to be a smart-looking magazine, with an attractive cover and a wealth of interesting stories inside. Since then they've been kind enough to publish four more of my mysteries, all of them installments in a series featuring a female sheriff and her crime-solving mother.

My latest is in Issue #19, and appears alongside tales by my friend Jacqueline Seewald and my fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law. I've not yet read all the stories in the issue, but I've read Jacqueline's ("The Letter of the Law") and Janice's ("A Business Proposition") and they're excellent as usual.

Anytime mystery magazines are the topic, I find myself thinking about those that have come and gone, over the years. A few were receptive to my stories and a few rejected everything I sent them (sort of like some of the magazines that are still around), but I think I tried them all. And I thought it might be fun to take a quick trip down MM-memory lane:

Mystery mags of the past

Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine -- One of my favorites. Margo Power, editor.

Crimestalker Casebook -- Andrew McAleer, editor. Boston-based.

Mystery Time -- a small but wonderful little magazine. Linda Hutton, editor.

Blue Murder -- I think I remember trying these folks and getting rejected every time.

Red Herring Mystery Magazine -- RHMM published two of my stories, accepted another, and disappeared.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine -- Sadly, before my time.

Mouth Full of Bullets -- BJ Bourg, editor. Loved this magazine.

Whispering Willows Mystery Magazine -- Short-lived. I barely remember this one.

Heist Magazine -- Australian, featured stories only on CD-ROM.

Crime and Suspense -- This had some fine stories during its short run. Tony Burton, editor.

Nefarious -- Online-only, if I remember correctly. One of the first e-zines.

Black Mask -- Again, before my time.

Raconteur -- Like RHMM, this one accepted one of my stories and then put all four feet in the air.

Detective Mystery Stories -- Print publication, editors Tom and Ginger Johnson.

Orchard Press Mysteries -- This was an early e-zine as well. I had only one story there.

The Rex Stout Journal -- Another short-lived print magazine.

Futures -- Babs Lakey, editor. Later became Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

NOTE: Please let me know if you remember some of the many that I've overlooked--or if any of these I've listed have taken on new life.

Square pegs, round holes

Besides the obvious choices, I also continue to try to sell my mystery/crime shorts to places that don't specialize in mysteries but that occasionally publish them anyway--and there are more of those than one might think. Here are some, from both now and long ago: GritDogwood Tales, Spinetingler Magazine, Untreed Reads, Writers on the RiverYellow Sticky NotesPrairie TimesMindprintsSniplitsPages of Stories, Amazon Shorts, Just a Moment, Kings River LifeReader's BreakWriters' Post JournalShort Stuff for GrownupsChampagne Shivers, and The Saturday Evening Post. (Remember, it's generally accepted that a mystery is any story in which a crime is central to the plot. It doesn't have to be a whodunit.)

Now and then, even so-called literary magazines will feature a mystery story: Pleiades, Thema, Glimmer TrainPhoebe, some of the college lit journals, etc. Tom Franklin's short story "Poachers," which won an Edgar and appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, was first published in The Texas Review.

Anthopology

Finally, any discussion of mystery markets should include a mention of anthologies. I usually find them by Googling "anthology calls for submission" and checking Ralan's Webstravaganza, which is advertised as a science-fiction site but doesn't limit itself to that. The two advantages of anthologies over magazines, I think, are that (1) anthos usually request submissions in a fixed window of time, which can be a plus if you hop in right away, and (2) they are often "themed." If you happen to have a finished story that fits their theme--or can write one quickly--you'll already have a leg up on the competition. Another excellent site to check, for mags as well as anthos, is Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner.

Anthologies that I've been associated with, all of which contained some mystery stories and most of which you've never heard of, include Seven by SevenTrust and TreacheryMagnolia Blossoms and Afternoon TalesAfter DeathFlash and BangCrime and Suspense IMad Dogs and MoonshineThe Gift of MurderQuakes and StormsShort TalesFireflies in Fruit JarsSweet Tea and Afternoon Tales, Ten for TenThou Shalt NotA Criminal Brief ChristmasRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and Short Attention Span Mysteries.

A leading anthology for mystery writers is of course the "noir" series produced by Akashic Books, in Brooklyn. Several of my SleuthSayers colleagues have graced those pages, and one of my stories will be in the upcoming Mississippi Noir. Other anthology possibilities are the annual "best of" editions that feature stories published during the previous year, like Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories series.

And that's it--I'm out of examples. I'll end with a question: What are some of your favorite short mystery markets, past and present?

May the ones we have now last forever.