31 July 2016

History behind the Story

by R.T. Lawton

(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)


Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:


Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.



30 July 2016

Rising Stars


by John M. Floyd



A few weeks ago, I did a SleuthSayers column called "Crime (and Other) Scenes," in which I listed some of my favorite movie moments. In the readers' comments that followed that piece, my friend Mary Ann Joyce mentioned the fact that I should do a piece on famous actors' early appearances, sort of an answer to the question "When did you first realize the person on the screen was going to be a star?"

Never let it be said that I cannot take advice given by the readers of our blog--especially when it sounds like fun. And though I've never known that anyone "was going to be a star," I have put together a list of some of the actors/actresses I've seen in movies that were made before their names and faces became immediately recognizable. These aren't necessarily debut performances; they're just roles that I happened to notice during the re-watching (I do a lot of re-watching) of movies I first saw long ago. Even now, I turn to my wife occasionally and point and say, "Look! You know who that IS?"--after which she usually gives me an eye-roll and goes back to doing something productive.

Some of the roles I've listed below are no more than bit parts that you'd miss if you blinked (they'd be called "cameos" if the actors were well-known), and some are too familiar even to include in the list, like Ron Howard in The Music Man or Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. Long or short, though, and memorable or not, I think those appearances are fun to watch.

Here are a few of the sightings I remember most:



Tommy Lee Jones as a college student in Love Story (1970). It's been said that author Erich Segal based Ryan O'Neal's character on two roommates he knew while attending Harvard: Jones and Al Gore. Is that true? Who knows--but it sounds good.

Viggo Mortensen as one of the Amish farmers in Witness (1985). In one of my re-viewings of this movie I saw him in several of the crowd scenes and realized that his was a familiar face, but it took an IMDB search to turn the lights on.

James Gandolfini as one of Christopher Walken's henchmen in True Romance (1993). He looked suitably Sopranoish even back then.

Kirstie Alley as a skinny and gorgeous rookie crew member on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). I remember Shatner telling her wisely, "You have to learn WHY things work, on a starship." So she could tend bar at Cheers, I guess, a few years later.

Jeff Goldblum and Denzel Washington as thugs in Death Wish (1974). They were onscreen at different times, and not for long. The thug mortality rate was unusually high in this film.

Harrison Ford as one of the drivers cruising the strip in American Graffiti (1973). Get in, but don't sit on the Wookiee.

Bryan Cranston as a paramedic in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). Yes, I watch movies like Amazon Women on the Moon. What can I say?

Ray Liotta as Melanie Griffith's creepy ex-boyfriend in Something Wild (1986). Jeff Daniels was the current boyfriend.

Anthony Edwards as Tom Cruise's best bud in Top Gun (1986).  This was before Goose went to medical school and became Mark Greene on ER. Meg Ryan was even on hand, as his wife.

Frances McDormand as a young wife doing battle with a hired killer in Blood Simple (1984).

Leonardo DiCaprio as a disabled teen in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1983).

James Earl Jones as Lt. Zogg, the bombardier, in Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Ethan Hawke as one of Robin Williams's devoted students in Dead Peets' Society (1989).

Clint Eastwood as a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature (1955). This was even before Rawhide went ahead and made his day.

Keifer Sutherland as the two-bit hood in Stand by Me (1986). Backstory, maybe, for Jack Bauer?

Robert Duvall as a cab driver in Bullitt (1968) (and of course as Boo Radley in TKaM).

Kevin Bacon as an ROTC cadet in Animal House (1978).

Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Crystal's ten-year-old son in City Slickers (1991).

Tom Cruise as the hero's friend in an endless movie called Endless Love (1981).

Matt Damon as a teenager in Mystic Pizza (1988). I think he had one line of dialogue.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as a prep-school student in Scent of a Woman (1992). He also looked really young in Twister, four years later.


Bill Paxton as one of several punks who pester (and wish they hadn't) Ahhnold in The Terminator (1984).

Johnny Depp as the ill-fated translator, Lerner, in Platoon (1986).

Scarlett Johansson as a disabled thirteen-year-old in The Horse Whisperer (1998).

Amy Adams as Leo DiCaprio's love interest in Catch Me If You Can (2002). Elizabeth Banks was in there, too.

Daniel Craig as Kate Winslet's love interest in A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995). His name in the movie was Kane, Master Kane.

Tom Hardy as a soldier in Blackhawk Down (2001). His combat training would pay off later, on Fury Road.

Elijah Wood as an eight-year-old playing a game in a video arcade in Back to the Future II (1989). Probably looking for Gandalf.

Steve Buscemi as a waiter in Pulp Fiction (1994). 



Hugh Bonneville as a bumbling stockbroker in Notting Hill (1999). What's Lord Grantham doing in a Julia Roberts comedy . . . ?

Season Hubley as the girl her then-husband Kurt Russell runs into in Chock Full o' Nuts, in Escape from New York (1981). 

Vince Vaughn as a football player in Rudy (1993).

Ryan Gosling as a football player in Remember the Titans (2000). I do, but only barely.

Josh Brolin as one of the Goonies (1985).

Helen Hunt as Kathleen Turner's and Nick Cage's daughter in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Jack Lord as Bond's pal Felix Leiter in Dr. No (1962). Jack later went to Hawaii to chase other villains with funny names, like Wo Fat.

Raymond Burr as the spied-upon murderer in Rear Window (1954). This wasn't really an early role--it was just surprising to see Perry Mason as a bad guy.

Kevin Costner as the dead friend whose funeral brought the old gang back together in The Big Chill (1983). Reportedly, his flashback scenes were all cut, so he appeared onscreen for only a few seconds, as a corpse.

Robert Redford as a prison escapee being chased in The Chase (1966). Butch, who are those guys?


Brad Pitt as the hitchhiking cowboy in Thelma and Louise (1991). Thanks, Earl Staggs, for reminding me of this one.

James Coburn and George Kennedy, as low-level criminals in Charade (1963).

And my all-time favorite long-ago celebrity appearance:

My friend and fellow Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe, as the lady in the bathroom love scene with Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff (1968). 



Okay, faithful movie addicts, who are some actors and actresses you've spotted in the early days, before they attained fame and fortune? How many did I miss? Are there any you remember seeing and didn't recognize? Did you think, at the time, that they were destined for greater things? Do you ever find yourself watching for appearances like this, especially in the really old movies? Do you have more important things to do? (I'm a lost cause, but there might be hope for the rest of you.)


Something else I like, although this is a bit off topic, is that actors are sometimes cast in parts far different from their usual roles. Such surprises were: Gene Hackman, Young Frankenstein; John Travolta, Pulp Fiction; Robin Williams, One-Hour Photo; Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West; Charlize Theron, Monster; Harrison Ford, Cowboys and Aliens; Liam Neeson, Love Actually; Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool; Jack Palance, City Slickers; John Lithgow, The World According to Garp; Sean Connery, The Untouchables; Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction; Nicolas Cage, Raising Arizona; Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou; Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner; Robert DeNiro, Meet the Parents; Jack Nicholson, Batman; Kirk Douglas, The Man From Snowy River; Al Pacino, Dick Tracy; Denzel Washington, Training Day; Jeff Bridges, True Grit (2010 version); Ted Danson, Body Heat; and Burl Ives, The Big Country. I love to discover performances like those.

Back to the subject: As Mary Ann suggested in that SS comment, I've put All About Eve into my Netflx queue so I can check out a younger Marilyn Monroe. Ah, the sacrifices I make.

One last thing: I've heard that George Clooney played a slasher victim in Return to Horror High, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was an eleven-year-old kid in A River Runs Through It, that Jack Black was Sean Penn's brother in Dead Man Walking, and that Robert DeNiro showed up as an uncredited diner in a restaurant in Three Rooms in Manhattan--but I think I might pass on those. Besides, I saw River and DMW in theatres before I even knew who Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jack Black were, and watching them again doesn't sound all that thrilling.

Maybe there's hope for me yet.



29 July 2016

The Joy of Writing

By Dixon Hill

I don't know if you enjoy watching the late Bob Ross on his PBS show The Joy of Painting.
 However, I really do.

I find it relaxing.  Which is sort of funny, if you consider that I probably couldn't even paint a realistic looking stick figure.

I'm also moderately capable in basic construction, and I understand the theoretical methods of joining wood via dove tails, biscuits, etc.  Yet, I stick to screws and nails, sometimes even screwing things together with metal plates or carriage bolts.  I've never built any fine furniture that actually LOOKED "fine."  In fact, I'm not sure I used the right "biscuit" word in the sentence above.  Which doesn't keep me from watching videos about fine furniture construction, or even tools for said work.  Because, these videos also relax me.  My wife laughed that a video I watched about the different types of planes, and how to use them, "relaxed me" right to sleep a week or two ago.

A short while back, however, while watching Bob Ross painting green trees against a violet background, I suddenly snapped upright, ears pricked.  I grabbed the PS3 controller and rewound the NetFlix video a few minutes back, to hear him again.

What he said was that he'd "agonized over paintings" many times in the past.  But, he no longer agonizes over them.  He just paints what he enjoys.

I've often stressed to my kids that we make decisions and choices in life -- even if we try to avoid making those decisions.  Part of my mantra was always, "Maybe I could have made more money doing something else, not focusing on my writing while working only part-time jobs and taking care of you guys.  But, this is what makes me happy.  Though we can't buy you every toy, or take you to the Taj Majal, I get my happiness from spending time with you, and by writing."

But, Bob Ross seemed to be saying more.  What I heard wasn't "I chose to become a painter because I liked it, or because it was easy."  Instead, the message I heard was, "My painting works best when I enjoy the work."

If you've read some of my past posts here, you may recall my mentioning the idea that I know I'm "in the groove" and writing well when the story picks up a force of its own and starts driving itself across the pages.  I liken this to a train having picked up speed and suddenly barreling down the tracks.  I just do my best to grab hold and hang on tight, hoping I won't get bounced off up ahead.

Bob Ross's words made me realize that this "train" begins to roar when I find my Joy of Writing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Just because something brings you joy, doesn't mean it isn't hard work.  If you don't believe me, ask a mountain climber.

Writing isn't easy.  Just as I'm sure painting isn't easy.  Or furniture making.  Certainly, neither one comes easily to ME!

Sometimes, at certain places in writing a story -- particularly a long one -- the road ahead can loom like the Matterhorn.  Even if my writing "train" is roaring down the tracks, if I spend too much time concentrating on that steep grade I have to climb ahead, my writing can just run out of steam.  Maybe this has something to do with why I don't like to outline extensively.  I'm sort of an "Well I'll cross that bridge or climb that mountain when I get there" kind of guy, anyway.  So, it makes sense I might not want to dwell on too many details, for fear I'll build a mountainous mental ziggurat that will knock out my will to put the story on paper -- flesh the thing out.

I also realized that The Joy of Writing is why -- though I hold a journalism degree -- I write fiction.  Fiction provides much greater joy, at least for me.  I'm not bound by strict facts.  I can write the ending the way I want it to end, not the way it really just seems to be struggling along.  Which is largely why I never felt satisfaction writing eight column inches about a story with roots twenty to forty years old and no end in sight.  No wonder so many reporters drink!

And, I don't think this means I can't write stories aimed at certain publications or editors.  I find joy there, too.

Where do you find YOUR joy of writing?  Or do you?

--Dixon











28 July 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins

by Janice Law

They are known by a variety of names, elegant like ‘evergreen’ or downmarket like ‘filler’ and ‘plugger’. However they are dubbed, these are useful columns and articles that have   long shelf lives. Good today, good tomorrow, good enough a year from now.

Sleuthsayer’s emergency columns are an example of the genre, and in an attempt to write something that will have a long literary shelf life, I recently thought of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, their heyday was probably six or seven hundred years ago, but look at it the other way, they were on the cutting edge of entertainment, morals, and religious thought for probably a millennia. And to be fair, what would mystery writers be without them?

Of course times and fashions change. Our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors in the scribbling trades leaned heavily on greed. Heiresses were married for their money; wards were cheated out of their inheritances, and last wills and testaments attracted skullduggery of all kinds. The modern writer, by contrast, favors wrath, all the better to dispatch multiple victims, and lust, a super reliable motive. If they are not enough, greed is certainly good, although gluttony has gone quite out of fashion.

This is not to say that writers do not have a personal acquaintance with the deadly sins, but their general poverty probably keeps most of us from greed and gluttony, while pride, although a temptation, gets its regular comeuppance from editors’ rejections, readers’ resistance, and critics’ complaints. I think the  scribbling tribe must make do most times with envy – self explanatory – and sloth, ditto.

For a different view, go back six hundred years and check out the medieval literary landscape. There were different ideas and different concerns, but then as now, popular writers tried to produce the stories that their readers or listeners wanted and needed. To us, a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins – even accompanied by Despair, the worst of all – or a battle of vices and virtues like the ancient Castle of Perseverance sounds like a dull afternoon. Where are the gun battles, the car chases, the seduction scenes, and the moments of terror?

Nowhere in sight! A superman – or superwoman – saving the world or a persistent detective bringing a felon to justice would have seemed to the medieval audience an irrelevant distraction. Secular justice was not their concern – wise enough since it was often in short supply. What they wanted was to avoid hell, about which they had an all too clear notion, and reach heaven, which they figured had to be better than much of medieval life. They understood that their souls were the battleground between angels and devils, and the plays they watched and the stories they heard pointed the road to salvation.

Which did not mean that their stories and plays were sermons with costumes. The people who built the great cathedrals, illuminated the great manuscripts, designed the wonderful stained glass windows, and, incidentally, created fashions to die for whenever they had money, certainly knew how to put on a show. When you read that a favorite feature was fireworks-farting devils, I think you can see that spectacle, as well as salvation, was a necessity.

 Looking back at plays and pageants featuring Pride, snooty and elaborately dressed; Wrath, red faced, bearing a club and no doubt mugging for the audience; Gluttony, fat and overfed and probably gnawing on a chicken leg, and the rest of the wicked crew, we see how a whole set of stories and characters flourished and then all but died. The battle between spiritual forces for the individual soul was replaced by struggles in the secular realm. The heroes of the old plays, Virtues like Fidelity, Chastity, and Mercy gave way to real men and women of less elevated character but more concern with righting wrongs within everyday society.

But, sad to say, Despair, that companion of the Seven Deadly Sins, suddenly seems more relevant than ever. In medieval theology, Despair, with its implied limitation of God’s grace, was the worst of sins. I used to think that curious and retrograde and psychologically unsound. No more. We don’t have to accept any theology at all to see that radical despair is a bad thing. What is it that drives people toward fanaticism, toward hatred, toward radical programs of destruction but despair? Not necessarily theological despair, but despair of society, of civilization, of humanity, itself.

I think no one can predict where literature will go next or what stories people will demand, but I am afraid that, just as the Seven Deadly Sins show up in contemporary disguises, Despair is going to feature prominently in our future.



27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost

David Edgerley Gates


I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,
DEG

*

A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le Carré before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.

*

I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers. 
http://www.chrismorganjones.com/

26 July 2016

I've Got the Rhythm In Me

by Barb Goffman

Hell is freezing over. Anyone who knows me even slightly well will certainly think so when they realize that this week I am writing about .... yes, it's true ... sports.

I've never been into most sports. I don't like playing them. Or watching them. I've never had good hand-eye coordination, and every time a game comes on, I'm always itching to open a book.

But there are some exceptions. I like watching figure skating. (The beauty of the skaters gliding on the ice, combined with making flips and jumps and landing them with lightning precision--wow.)
And I'm a big fan of gymnastics too. Who doesn't remember Kerri Strug during the 1996 summer games, running on an injured ankle and vaulting herself and her USA teammates into Olympic gold?

There's one sport that mixes the beauty and athleticism of both skating and tumbling, and it has become a favorite of mine. Rhythmic gymnastics. And it's coming to a TV (or computer or other high-tech device) near you in just a few weeks, courtesy of the summer Olympics.
Never heard of rhythmic gymnastics? Maybe you've heard of it by its alternate name, something I've heard people sneer at: ribbon dancing. The entire sport was trolled during the last summer Olympics, with people declaring it's not a sport, that it's just dancing on a carpet with ribbons. The sport has been trolled so much that if you go to Team USA's website, they have a whole page explaining the athleticism involved in this sport. And yes, it is a sport. A beautiful one.

So what is it, for those who don't know? Picture a gymnast doing a tumbling routine, but at the same time, she has to keep a ribbon, hoop, ball, club, or rope constantly moving. The athletes perhaps are too good, making their routines look easy, which has encouraged
some people to declare rhythmic gymnastics to not be a sport. But these routines require skill and endurance, beauty and passion--sure sounds like a sport to me.

Not convinced? Check out Team USA's Laura Zeng compete with a ball during the 2015 World Rhythmic Gymnastics championships. 



So I'm excited for the rhythmic gymnastics portion of this summer's Olympics. The competition is scheduled near the end of the games, August 19 - 21st. Want to learn more in advance? NBC has some information about this year's USA team on their website. Click here to check it out.

If you've ever participated in rhythmic gymnastics, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. What's it really like? How hard it is to learn to do? Please share for those of us who love this sport. And for everyone else, what's your favorite part of the Olympics?

25 July 2016

Moderate What?

by Jan Grape

A few days ago, one of my nieces read in  one of my post on Facebook about moderating a panel a couple of years ago with Jonathan and Faye and Jesse Kellerman. My niece, Linda, wanted to know exactly what did I mean about moderating a panel? She enjoys reading my books but had no idea what I meant about the panels. It occurred to me that this would be a good topic since Bouchercon is coming up very soon and many of the folks here on Sleuthsayers will be attending. The non-author types might wonder a little about panels. And the author types who have probably been on many panels might not have ever moderated one.

Like I told Linda, every moderator does things their way. Here's how I moderate a panel. Believe it or not, I just received my panel for Bouchercon and was assigned as moderator for a discussion of PIs. Gumshoes, Shamus, Private Investigator, Private Eye. Whatever you may call a person who investigates a mystery and gets paid for that investigation but not paid by a law enforcement agency. The PI probably is licensed by the state and may have previously been employed by a police or law enforcement agency. The founder of Private Eye Writers of America or PWA, Robert J. Randisi has often explained it thusly: if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Back to the panel. I have five authors on my panel for the upcoming mystery con. Two I know personally and three I've never met, although they may have been writing for some time. At any rate, I contacted each one via email and asked them to please send me a short bio, a list of their books and a hard copy of their latest book. I prefer to read each author's book prior to the panel if possible.

With the Kellermans I had read several of both Jonathan's and Faye's books. I had not read Jesse before. And the new one they were introducing was co-authored by Jonathan and Jesse, titled Golem of Hollywood. I had less than a two week window bu,t I got a copy of Golem and also a copy of Faye's latest. Her setting had changed but her characters were basically the same. I read the books and from that point was able to come up with what I hoped was some interesting questions or comments to ask each author. In the case of BCon, I'll try to send a couple of question to the panelist.

After a brief introduction of each author, which includes a brief bio of that person, and a short synopsis of their work, then perhaps hold up a copy of their book. Personally, I think the moderator is not there to promote their own work, the major object is for each panelist to shine. However, if the moderator has a new book they might want to mention it. It's usually nice to have one of the other panelist mention your very short bio and your book if that's possible. I've been a moderator when I've had a book and also when I have not.

Then you ask your intriguing questions and hope each author has an intriguing answer or comment to make. I always suggest to them that if they are able to inject some humor that's helpful. But also to keep their answers short because we have a set amount of time and I want everyone to be able to speak. If I have someone who wants to monopolize the time, I will try to nicely interrupt and keep the session moving along. I have been on a panel when that has happened and if the moderator doesn't interrupt, then I'm hopeful that a wonderful other panelist will do that.

Then if we have time the last 10 minutes or so, I will take questions from the audience. Then tell the audience where the book signing will take place. At most mystery cons there is a special place set up for author autographing.

When I wrote to the authors on my panel I sort of mentioned most of this except in a briefer form. The audience is there to hear the authors and it's important for the moderator to allow that to happen. Also if you have an author who is shy and hasn't had a chance to speak then the moderator needs to be sure that author gets a chance by asking something along the lines of "when did you first come up with your character or is your character based on anyone you know?" And the moderator guides the question and answer session.

That's more or less how I do it and I've probably done a hundred or more panels, counting both moderating and as an author. But as I mentioned earlier, every person does these things their own way, I'm only telling more or less how I do it.



Brief Personal Note
Some of you may have heard through Facebook that one of our very good friends and terrific writers, Bill Crider just found out this week that he has an aggressive carcinoma. Please keep Bill in your prayers and healing thoughts and send him positive energy. Thanks all.

24 July 2016

Albert 3: Gator on Vacation

Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly
by Leigh Lundin

Two weeks ago we told how Albert the Alligator came to live with a family in an Indiana farmhouse. Last week, we related his successes upon the stage and in public appearances. But, like many celebrities, Albert needed time away from his adoring fans.

Albert Takes a Vacation

Anyone could tell a teenage Albert was the product of a university environment. Each summer he’d clamor for the 5Bs: beach, babes, bikinis, beer and bratwurst. After intense negotiations, Dad compromised by giving him outdoor baths that the gator loved— hosed down then scrubbed belly and back with a stiff-bristled brush.

One day, Dad became distracted by a phone call. Never before had Albert shown any inclination to do a Kerouac, but when Dad returned, Albert was gone. Vanished. Poof. Without a trace.

My parents searched the yard, then the barnyard. The farm dogs, who hadn’t been trained to track overgrown reptiles, stood around looking bewildered and chatting among themselves. Like many teens, Albert failed to call home. My parents worried that if he returned, his little dinosaur arms weren’t long enough to reach the doorbell.

As evening approached, my parents had to admit the gator was decidedly missing.

The sheriff was known as a gossip, but my mother put aside her qualms and phoned his office, begging for discretion. Her concerns were this: An alligator in the house made them feel safe. See, knowledge that Mom and Dad kept a cold-blooded carnivore might have given a typical burglar or home invader pause. My parents felt his absence, both as a pet and as a guard dog.

Did I mention the sheriff wasn't known for discretion? Within two minutes, the sheriff issued an all-points bulletin, a BOLO:
Be on the lookout for a scaly renegade who answers to the name of Albert. Height between five and fifteen feet. Dark green, yellow eyes. Charming smile, big teeth. Known associates, the Lundin family and childhood friends. Subject is known to carry an alligator leather wallet. Suspect is considered armed and dangerous.
And as you might suspect, neighboring counties circulated the bulletin. Local newspapers picked up the story. A farmer in Hancock County called his sheriff to report an alligator had killed his sheep. A Shelby County rancher claimed a huge varmint– most probably a loose gator– had killed cattle and attacked his dogs. Word got out amongst door-to-door salesmen that pedlars known for wearing alligator belts and shoes had inexplicably disappeared without a trace. Talk started circulating about bringing in a professional tracker and hired gunslingers.

At that time, Albert was 40-inches long (a metre for you Pokémon Go participants) but about the diameter of the average cat, assuming either creature could be bribed to stand still long enough to apply a tape measure. Even by hitchhiking, Albert would have been hard-pressed to roam a dozen miles into Shelby County and another ten to Hancock.

Initially we fretted some hunter might shoot our Albert, but as the weeks dragged by, we guessed Albert had gone to ground. As autumn settled in, we grew concerned about winter, knowing Albert couldn’t survive a Midwestern freeze.

Our farm supported a small grove of fruit trees near the house. Sometimes Dad mowed the orchard and sometimes he didn’t. He’d neglected it that season but near the end of summer, he fired up the mower and attacked the tall grass between the trees.

Dad stopped the mower to pick up a thick branch and– you’re way ahead of me– it wasn’t a tree limb at all but Albert himself nestled deep in the high grass. The critter had dozed the entire summer no more than fifty feet from the house.

All parties celebrated the return of the prodigal son. Dad hugged the rascal and Mom cried. Albert croaked happily and asked about dinner. With Albert over 18, we broke out the champagne.

To be accurate, some ranchers still believed he stole a Dodge pickup truck to gallivant around in a tri-county crime spree slaughtering livestock, then sharing his ill-gotten ribs and roasts with hobos down by the railroad tracks. If so, nobody was talking.

Albert the Mighty Dragon

The years passed. Kids moved out and moved on, and Albert stopped appearing in public. He gave up saloons and dance halls and even church picnics. Worse, Dad, his best pal, became terminally ill, slowly dying of a rare lung disease. Albert spent hours listening to an old song popular when he first came to live in the house.
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
Winter came once again. Albert’s best friend, our dad, faded fast, succumbing to a rare, incurable cousin of tuberculosis.
One grey night it happened, his best friend came no more.
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
The now-grown children had long since dispersed, the rooms echoed emptily. Mom soldiered on, caring for the household. Albert felt bereft.
His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.
That’s how he died. An old bedroom led off the living room, a cold, unheated chamber my parents used for storage since my departure. Mom had gone to and fro, fetching odds-and-ends with the door propped open. Unbeknownst to Mom, Albert crawled under the bed. He was still there when she closed the door.

As a blizzard blanketed the region with snow, it took Mother a day or so to realize Albert had disappeared. Initially she wasn’t too worried… He occasionally hid behind the sofa when my father wasn’t around. He’d come out when he was hungry.

Except this time he didn’t.

In an echo of his first winter on the farm, Albert froze, only this time there would be no recovery, no artificial respiration, no heat lamps or restorative massages. Albert had joined his ancestors in that big bayou in the sky, that place where the days are always balmy and June bugs a’plenty await.

23 July 2016

Comedy and the Older Woman


Today, I’m writing a serious blog.  (‘NO!  Don’t do it!  Don’t’ <sounds of heels screeching on floor as body dragged offstage>)

I write comedy.  I wrote stand-up, and had a regular column gig for many years.  My published crime books and most of my short stories are (hopefully) humorous.  My blog…well, that sometimes goes off the wall.

But I’m noticing that as I get older, the comedy seems to become more shocking.  Or rather, I am shocking people more.  They don’t know how to take it.  I see them gasp and act confused.  Did I really mean what I said just then?  Was it meant to be funny?

I don’t believe it’s because I’m writing a different level of material.  Nope. 

So why?  Why does my comedy seem to shock readers more than it did twenty years ago?

It’s not the readers.  It’s my age.

Writing comedy when you are thirty is ‘cute’.  I can’t tell you how many people told me that I ‘looked cute on stage’ as I innocently said some outrageous things that made people laugh. 

Saying outrageous things on stage when you are over 50 is not ‘cute’.  Women over 50 are never described as ‘cute’ (unless they are silly and feeble and quite old. Not to mention petite.)  Women over 50 cannot carry off ‘innocent’ (unless portraying someone very dumb.)  Women over 50 are expected to be dignified.

Phyllis Diller was a wonderful comic.  She did outrageous things on stage, and we laughed with her.  But she dressed like a crazy-woman and had us laughing AT her as well as with her.  Some women I know dislike the fact that Diller made herself ridiculous in front of an audience.  I don’t, because I know why she did it.

Forgive me while I pull a Pagliacci.  Yes, I still write comedy.  But I don’t do stand-up anymore.  I’ve found that women my age are not well received by crowds (especially liquored-up crowds). 

Women who are young and pretty can get away with murder.  Even better, they can get away with comedy.

But this is what I've found: A woman over 50 who makes fun of younger women is (often) seen as jealous.  A woman over 50 who makes fun of men is (often) viewed as bitter. A woman over 50 who makes fun of other women over 50 can get away with it, but the big audience isn’t there.

So my hat goes off to women like Rita Rudner, who do it still. I admire her so (and not just because she is slim and petite.)  I’ll stick to combining comedy and crime on the printed page.  At least that way, I won’t end up murdering my audience.

Postscript:  I paid a tribute to Phyllis Diller, at the launch of my latest book, The Goddaughter Caper.  I wore an outrageous hat and a sign that said, "Return to the Holy Cannoli Retirement Home."  Everyone laughed and loved it.  I made myself look silly.  Which demonstrates that when a woman over 50 engages in self-deprecating humour, it is approved by audiences. 

What do you think?  Yes, an older woman can make fun of herself and delight an audience.  But is there a similar acceptance if she makes fun of others?  Ageism or sexism?  Both?

On Amazon



22 July 2016

The Thin Man Called

By Art Taylor

It's rare these days that I reread a story or book simply for the pleasure of it.

I do reread a number of things, I should stress, but almost exclusively because they're texts that I'm teaching in one or another of my classes (though perhaps there's some blurriness here, since I'm obviously assigning books on my syllabi that I enjoy or admire). This past semester, for example, I revisited—and marked up anew—several dozen stories and several novels, including works by classic writers Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Highsmith and McBain (among many others) and books by contemporary authors Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mark Haddon, Cormac McCarthy, China Miéville, and Steve Weddle (also among others).

But picking up a book I've already read and rereading it solely for fun? with no syllabi or lesson plans on the horizon? That's a luxury that seems tough to afford, when my TBR piles are towering with books I sometimes feel like I'll never get to enjoy. (It's a common problem for all writers and readers, I'd think, that we acquire books faster than we read them—something hopeful about it maybe.)

Given all that, a recent vacation brought a couple of treats. First, our good friends Barry and Meg Teasley passed along a very nice copy of the 1965 edition of Dashiell Hammett's complete novels, a terrific gift in so many ways. Barry and Meg hosted a baby shower for us nearly five years ago before our son, also named Dashiell, was born, and they'd given the book to my parents more recently, but I only got it myself when visiting over Fourth of July.

The second treat? Spur of the moment, I started reading The Thin Man again—a book I haven't taught and therefore haven't read in a long while. Just a couple of chapters, just to reacquaint myself, right? Then a couple led to a few, and a few led to a few more, and pretty soon I was engrossed again in the characters and the story while other books—new books, unread books, at least one I needed to read for the coming semester—fell at least briefly by the wayside.

It felt like playing hooky.

It felt good.

(And I should point out: I've recently been reading Karen Huston Karydes' provocative new study Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Their Detectives, and her analysis about The Thin Man opened up some new perspectives on the book during this rereading—particularly her comments on the "two leveled" nature of the book, where she measured out both its jauntiness and frivolity on the one hand against its undercurrent of sadness, loneliness, and dissipation on the other. Proof that rereading, especially with age and with greater contexts, can reward with enriched insights.) 

What's interesting about all this: While it's rare for me to reread books for fun, there are a number of movies that I've rewatched—and, in fact, several movies that when I've caught them while flipping the channels, I usually settle in to watch the rest of them. I think of Unforgiven, for example, and then a handful of Hitchcock movies—Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest—and then a couple of silly comedies which never fail to please, both classic (Sabrina) and newer (Blast from the Past, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You). But books? I'd be hard-pressed on that count.

I'm curious about others here. How often do you reread books? under what circumstances? and which books? And are you—like me—more likely to rewatch films than reread books? If so, why and which ones? 

Surely, with questions like that, I'll be adding even more titles to my TBR list—and my TBW list too, I guess!


21 July 2016

Summer Bites


by Eve Fisher

Movie poster shows a woman in the ocean swimming to the right. Below her is a large shark, and only its head and open mouth with teeth can be seen. Within the image is the film's title and above it in a surrounding black background is the phrase "The most terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller." The bottom of the image details the starring actors and lists credits and the MPAA rating.I believe that I have cracked the reason why summer brings out the apocalypse movies, not to mention movies and TV shows about killer sharks, vampires, zombies, serial killers, Animals Gone Wild, and (I'm still waiting) Batboy. It's a distraction from the fact that summer isn't all that it's cracked up to be.  What with mosquitoes (West Nile, anyone?  Zika?), ticks (Lyme, tularemia, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever), killer heat (more on that later), and trying to figure out what SPF actually works and what pesticide won't kill you as well as the bugs, we need something where humans eventually WIN.

Especially in the country.  I live in South Dakota.  We've got a lot of sloughs, lakes, and wetlands, not to mention feedlots, and up here we're well aware that "country fresh" isn't the dancing-wildflowers-in-a-can it's cracked up to be in air freshener/fabric softener ads or romantic movies.  The truth is, some days a good deep lungful of fresh country air will make your eyes water worse than a whiff of Junior's old sneakers.  And those summer cook-outs involve a lot of slapping yourself silly in between passing the potato salad.  It's one of the many reasons that beer was invented.

But this year is lusher, greener, wetter, and more infested than ever.  And hot.  It is very hot.  As you read this, it's 98 degrees outside, and the endless square miles of corn have increased our humidity to the point where we are outdoing Mississippi.  It's stiflingly hot.  Thank God for air-conditioning.
Willis Carrier 1915.jpg
Willis Carrier,
Our Hero
NOTE:  Let us all now give thanks and praise to Willis Carrier, who in 1902 invented the first air-conditioning system.  May his memory be eternally green.  And cool.  
But to get back to infestations.  We've seen them before, especially the Great Frog Infestation back in the 90s.  Personally, I didn't mind the frogs. They were small, they moved quickly, and they tried to stay hidden.  They only bothered me when I was mowing the lawn.  For one thing, they froze as I came near, hoping (as most of us do) that if they ignored the problem (me and the lawnmower), it would go away.  I got to the point where I'd carry a small broom and prod them into moving with it while I mowed. "What did you do Saturday?"  "Swept frogs." Sometimes when they still wouldn't budge, I'd just pick them up and move them, while they expressed their gratitude all over my hands. Frogs are not toilet trained.

Pseudacris maculata.jpg
Boreal Choral Frog
Photographer - Tnarg 12345 on Wikipedia
Still, I could deal with the frogs.  If nothing else, they weren't trying to feed on me.  They probably thought I was trying to feed on them, not knowing that I refuse to eat frogs' legs or anything else that someone tells me "tastes just like chicken."  (If that's true, what's the point?)  But the mosquitoes and ticks are trying to feed on me and every other mammal in the state.  (Do you think they ever tell each other that we "taste just like cow?")  Anyway, serious inquiries have been made - mostly by me - into how many mosquitoes it would take to drain a person dry, and in my objective conclusion it's only half of what we've got.

Healthywealthy.jpgThe mosquitoes alone would be bad enough, but they're getting serious competition from the gnats.  There aren't as many of them - at least, I hope there aren't - but their bites leave golf to softball sized swellings on ears, eyes, necks, etc.  It's getting unnerving to go out in public.  Half the people I see look like they've been in a fist fight, the other half are calomine-pink, and we're all in the same blithe mood the nation was in the night Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast.  The air reeks of Deet, Skin-So-Soft, Off, and every other insect repellent known to man and we still can't stand outside more than two minutes without acting like Larry, Curly, and Moe.

So what do we do about this enemy invasion?  Some people are moving down South, where they think all they'll have to deal with is cockroaches and kudzu.  (There are also fire ants and even more mosquitoes.)  Kudzu, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is a Japanese plant that some idiot imported for ground cover on poor soil.  It can't be killed by drought, floods, fire, pestilence, or famine, and it grows a foot a day.  There's a theory that it was left by UFO's on one of their human-tagging trips, but I think it's just a vicious predator.  The one good thing about it is that it can't stand severe frost, and so South Dakota is free...  until we get warmer...
Kudzu growing on trees in Georgia
Photographer - Scott Ehardt, Wikipedia

Anyway, back to solutions:

(1) Buy a bee-keeper's hat or a surplus space suit.  You'll sweat to death, but you will be bug free.

(2)  Don't go outside.  Summer is highly overrated.  It's hot, it's buggy, and people keep expecting you to do things, most of which involve a lot of work, which involves a lot of sweating, while overheated and in full sun.  What we really love about summer is our nostalgia for the days when we were kids and didn't have to do anything except go swimming and eat watermelon.  (What we forget is how much time we spent whining about how there wasn't anything to DO.)  So turn on the AC, the blender, grab a stack of mysteries - I know some very good authors, many of whom are on this site, so check them out! - and stay indoors.  All the fun, a lot less danger.

Photographed by
Latorilla at Wikipedia
(3) Raise bats.  They're quiet, unobtrusive, much maligned creatures, and they eat mosquitoes.  True, they look spooky, they only come out at night, and there are all those vampire movies...

But even if one of them does happen to transform into an orthodontically-challenged count with a bad accent and receding hairline, a little garlic and a wooden stake will take care of the problem.

The odds are good: one count vs. the swarm.
One against many.
Think about it.