24 October 2017

Not Named

by Fran Rizer                                                                


"To Kill or Not to Kill" was the intended title of this column. The topic was how to end a series since I'd just launched the eighth Callie Parrish mystery. thinking it might be Callie's final adventure.


Ring Around the Rosie, A SKULL FULL
OF POSIES
is the eighth Callie Parrish
mystery, and I planned it to be the last.
Guests each received a new bookmark,
modeled on the right by a reader at the
the book signing.


















I took the long way home from the launch and something happened that changed my mind about what to write.  I passed a familiar house.

This house was flipped back in 2010, but it's changed hands frequently since then. How much do the current residents know about the place?  Property values are based on more than location and physical condition. Real estate can be stigmatized by such things as phenomena stigma, public stigma, and murder/suicide stigma. This house would be classified as stigmatized.

Phenomena stigma refers to property "known to be haunted."  One famous case about this is Stambovsky v. Ackley.  Stambovsky sued Ackley because he bought property without knowing it had been featured in magazines as haunted.  He claimed this decreased the value and made the sale fraudulent.  The final decision in that case didn't determine the validity of the haunting, but the court did void the contract and refund Stambovsky's down payment.

749 15th Street, Boulder, Colorado, was 755 until 2001 when
owners requested a change of address from how it was known
when Jon Bonet Ramsey died there in 1996. The house has
changed hands frequently since the six-year-old's murder.
Murder/suicide stigma refers to property with decreased value because a murder or suicide has occurred there.  Milliken v. Jacono dealt with Milliken paying full value to Jacono for a house Jacono had bought far below market value because it had been the scene of a gruesome murder/suicide.  Randall Bell, a consultant on this case, had been involved in marketing the condo where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed as well as the Ramsey home where Jon Bonet died.

Jacono claimed Milliken should have researched the property before he bought it.  Milliken claimed he'd been cheated.  The court determined it would be impossible to determine the degree of loss of value from a murder or suicide in a home. Would it be greater based on the degree of violence of the murder? Would an ax killing decrease value more than a poisoning? They ruled in favor of Jacono. essentially "buyer beware." Perhaps prospective buyers should have structures inspected for termites and call Ghost Busters. Since then, many states now have laws requiring sellers to reveal murder/suicide property stigmas.

Known as the "Amityville Horror" house, the street number of
this house was also changed by new owners, but the place is
too well known for a different address to matter. It also goes
up for sale frequently.
To me, the house on Long Island where a man killed his parents and four siblings claiming "voices in the house" told him to do it, would be a case of both phenomena stigma and murder stigma, but when the situation is so well-known, there's a special name for it: public stigma.  Made famous as the Amityville Horror, this house is the perfect example of public stigmatized property in which the stigma is widely known. Another example is the home of the Menendez brothers.

In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders says, "Crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract . . . to know that murder is possible, just not here." Flanders spends 555 pages telling how people in the 1800s satisfied their fascination with murder through serialized handbills, tours of murder sites (both real and simulated), and stage plays. That fascination remains.  It's evidenced in books, movies, and television shows from Murder She Wrote through How it Really Happened to Forensic Files (where insomniacs can watch murder after murder all night long.)

I've been reading murder mysteries since childhood, but in 2009 my lifelong best friend was brutally beaten to death during an in-home invasion.  Her death brought the harsh, painful realization that murder in reality is far different from fiction or even true crime books. I was asked after her death if I would write about her homicide. The answer was and remains an emphatic "NO!" When I discussed this SleuthSayers column with a friend, he asked, "Would you live in a stigmatized home?"

10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon near Beverly Hills,California, was so
stigmatized by the murders of Sharon Tate and four others by the Manson Family
in 1969 that it was completely demolished in 1994. Years later, David Oman
bought adjacent land and built a new house 150 feet from where this one had
been. He claimed the Manson victims haunted his new house and made a
movie about it in 2011.   
After my friend's death, I helped her daughter with the house.  That's when I learned that law enforcement officers don't tidy up after themselves.  I cleaned the black fingerprint powder off my friend's headboard and other furniture. Could I live in her house?  I wouldn't want to because it would be a constant reminder of the sadness of her loss.  Would I live in another stigmatized home?  I don't really know.

Thoughts of stigmatized property rose from passing my friend's house on the way home from my most recent launch.  Suddenly Callie popped into my mind with an idea for a ninth Callie Parrish mystery. It will involve stigmatized property but will not be about my friend or her home. I'll probably be back in a year or so to tell you about it.

How about you?  Would you live in a stigmatized house?

Until we meet again, please take care of … YOU!

23 October 2017

Writing and Reading

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?

22 October 2017

Black Friday

by R.T. Lawton

Walking into a pawn shop in the middle of a robbery can be a hazardous experience, especially if the robber is a relative amateur in these types of situations. That's the circumstances that Yarnell, a professional burglar, finds himself in when he goes to redeem his wife's diamond wedding ring from the shop. Fortunately for him, his wife doesn't know that her ring has been hocked, and he intends to keep it that way.

Anyway, it's hands up, hands down, hands up, then hands down again for Yarnell as he converses with the robber. And just when Yarnell and the robber come to some sort of  understanding about proper procedure, in walks Beaumont, Yarnell's partner in crime, who has his own thoughts about robbery etiquette.

Meanwhile, behind the counter in the back of the pawn shop, the recipient of the robbery, Lebanese George, who is also the owner of the pawn shop, has developed a case of tired arm muscles. So now, one of his hands has slowly declined to a half-raised position while he slurps coffee out of a mug held by his other hand.

The robber soon decides he wants everybody's money, in which case Yarnell tries to hand his money to Lebanese George first in order to pay off the hock on his wife's wedding ring. George, knowing he is going to lose the money anyway, refuses to accept the cash as payment to redeem the ring. That's when Yarnell learns his wife's ring is already part of the jewelry the robber is stealing. Thus, the robbery progresses. Up to a point.

"Black Friday" is the tenth story in my Holiday Burglars series, all ten of which have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Short story critic Rob Lopresti has remarked that this one is the funniest story of mine that he has read to date. Who am I to argue with such a great mind?

This is Lebanese George's second appearance in one of my stories.His debut as a story character was in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series as a crooked wine merchant. In real life, the model for "Lebanese George" was a man who sold used cars with my Uncle Dick. Stories of some of their escapades were truly scam jobs on the general car buying public and hilarious situations in the telling. In his middle years, George had to go on the run from the Dixie Mafia and did his hiding out on a houseboat which traveled up and down the river as a means of frequently changing his address. I only met George once, and that was during his later years. At that time, he claimed to own a steak house in the city we were visiting. He did invite my wife and I to his restaurant for a free steak dinner, but we never made it to his establishment. I always wondered what that free steak dinner would've cost me.

George was a likable and very entertaining individual, which probably made him successful at whatever he did. With all that in mind, I'd say if he's still alive and you happen to meet up with him, keep one hand on your wallet and be sure it stays in your pocket. You can count your money before and after, but please don't count it in front of him.

Til next time.

21 October 2017

One More Time, From the Top





Please join me in welcoming my friend Michael Bracken as a guest blogger today. For those of you who don't know Michael already, he has written several books but is better known as the author of more than 1,200 short stories. He's recently had stories published in, or accepted for publication by, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery MagazineEllery Queen's Mystery Magazine, SnowboundNoir at the Salad BarPassport to Murder, Tough, Weirdbook, and other anthologies and periodicals. He is currently reading submissions for The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories that Down & Out Books will release at Bouchercon 2019. You can find the submission guidelines here.

One more thing: Michael will be officially joining SleuthSayers next month as a regular columnist. All of us at the SS asylum are of course thrilled about that, and hoping he doesn't come to his senses in time to back out. (As for me, I'll return in two weeks.) --John Floyd

_______________________________________________________

by Michael Bracken


I've had a good run. Since my first professional sale in the late 1970s, I've sold more than 1,200 short stories, and through October 2017 I've had one or more short stories published each month for 172 consecutive months. This long streak of good fortune may soon end.

In an October 23, 2013, guest post for John Floyd here at SleuthSayers, I wrote about the ladder a short-story writer climbs from being a "write-first, market-second" writer to becoming a "market-first, write-second" writer, and I gave several examples of how I had reached a point where most of my short fiction was written to order, to invitation, or for repeat markets.

I also noted that "[p]ublishing is changing and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends." I was only off by a few years.

During the past two years, the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. Anthology editors who often invited me to contribute are no longer editing anthologies, and magazines I counted on for multiple sales each month have ceased publication. Some genres in which I had established myself have disappeared or are clinging to life only in low- or non-paying markets.

In many ways, I am starting over, rebooting my career by once again becoming a "write-first, market-second" short-story writer. The only advantage I have over a beginning writer is that past sales prove I can write publishable fiction. What I do not yet know is how well I can write publishable fiction in new or long-neglected genres. So, for the first time in years, I am actually nervous when I submit stories, and each time I receive a response I have a moment of trepidation just before I open the email.

I'm not taking my situation lightly, and I have a plan. Following are the key steps I'm taking to restart my writing career:


FINISH WHAT I SET ASIDE

Over the years I left many stories unfinished because there were no discernable markets for them. Rather than let these stories continue to languish, I returned to several of them, finished them, and sent them into the world, following the traditional path of submitting to the best market first and working my way down the markets as rejections roll in.

Outcome: Since the reboot I have sold a handful of newly finished stories.


WRITE WHAT INSPIRES ME

Relying on inspiration as motivation is degraded as the amateur's approach to writing because perspiration creates more work than inspiration. Even so, a working writer should never dismiss inspiration. Occasionally, a story idea comes unbidden, and I am so taken by it that I find myself driven to write. In the past, I set these inspired stories aside in favor of sure-bet sales. Now, I let inspiration take me where it will.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold five inspired stories.


WRITE TO SPECIFICATIONS

This is what I advocated beginning and early career writers do back in 2013 when I laid out the steps for transitioning from a write-first, market-second writer to a market-first, write-second writer.

I spend time surfing the Internet seeking anthology open submission calls and submission guidelines from publications with which I am not already familiar. I study guidelines, read publications when they exist, and then, as best I can, write stories that fit the guidelines.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold three stories written to open-call anthology specifications.


REPURPOSE OR RESUBMIT UNSOLD WORK

In addition to seeking markets to which I might send completed but unsold stories, I also continually compare submission guidelines to finished work to determine if anything I have could be revised and repurposed. Occasionally, I can.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold one repurposed story and one story that had been languishing in my files before I discovered a new market.


EXAMINE THE RESULTS

Without detailing every sale and rejection since the beginning of my career reboot--and, trust me, rejections outnumber the sales--let's examine my experience with a single periodical: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Five years passed between my previous rejected submission to AHMM and the first submission after my career reboot, and I've submitted eight stories since the reboot. Three are awaiting a decision, two have been rejected, and three have been accepted.

The first acceptance, published last year ("Chase Your Dreams," AHMM, June 2016), is a repurposed story originally written in another genre. The first third and last third are essentially as first written, but I extensively revised the middle third before submitting to AHMM, and then revised the middle third again at Linda Landrigan's suggestion to move it even further from its original genre.

The second story accepted by AHMM is an inspired story, one that came to me as an opening image with a character facing a life-altering loss.

The third story accepted by AHMM is one I began, set aside, and returned to several years later.

Outcome: Were any of these three written to specifications? Other than representing various sub-genres of crime fiction and fitting within the magazines's length requirements, no. I have yet to find strong commonalities among the stories AHMM publishes. On the other hand, the three stories AHMM accepted share something the two stories rejected do not, so I am developing a profile of which stories are more likely and which stories are less likely to be accepted if submitted to AHMM.


CHANGE MY ATTITUDE

There is a fine line between being confident and being cocky, and it was easy to cross that line when almost everything I wrote sold to the first editor who saw it. I'm still confident, but my wife tells me I'm not so cocky.

Previously, I would submit and forget, but now I fret about each submission, and I sweat rejections in a way I haven't for at least a decade. When rejections are more common than acceptances, they carry more weight, and that weight forces me to examine my stories and my marketing efforts to determine if rejected stories are flawed or if my submission targeting is flawed.

I am working harder than before because I want to regain my status as a market-first, write-second short-story writer. Alas, that may never happen. I worked for thirty-plus years to reach that point, and I enjoyed the ride for nearly ten years. Having just turned 60, I might not have another thirty years of writing left in me, and, having done it once, I know there is no shortcut back to that level.

On the other hand, I think I've written some of my best work since the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. I've been forced to examine the market for short fiction from a different perspective, and I've been forced to reexamine how and why I write. While I still have my eye on the markets, I'm producing more work aimed at pleasing myself first and then hoping I find editors to publish it.

And I have a plan. If I follow it, maybe--just maybe--it won't take thirty years to climb back to the top of the ladder and once again be a market-first, write-second writer.







20 October 2017

Capstone to a Career

By Art Taylor

Last week's Bouchercon in Toronto was terrific and memorable in so many ways, with one of the great highpoints coming on the final day, when our fellow SleuthSayers B.K. Stevens won the Anthony Award for Best Novella for her outstanding story "The Last Blue Glass."

As most folks in our community know, Bonnie passed away suddenly back in August, but her husband Dennis and their daughter Rachel were in Toronto for much of Bouchercon to represent her as an Anthony finalist—attending several short story panels and being part of the weekend generally.

In addition to sitting near them at the panel for Anthony Award finalists in the novella category, I was fortunate to join Dennis and Rachel along with author Debra Goldstein, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (Bonnie's longtime publisher), and Linda's husband John for dinner on Saturday night—a chance to get together with friends (part of a group that had gathered at several other conferences in recent years) but also, of course, an opportunity to remember Bonnie and her work. Dennis and Rachel shared some stories from years past, the early years of Dennis' and Bonnie's marriage, theirs moves from school to school and state to state, the years of raising kids—those stories from two perspectives, of course, with Rachel looking back on her own childhood. Many stories, of course, but one image that stood out related to Bonnie's commitment to her craft: her writing days when husband and kids were elsewhere so as to give her time and space, her family committing themselves in support of her work.

On Sunday, we gathered together again at the awards brunch, sat together along with Roberta Rogow, Deborah Buchanan, Michael Bracken and his wife Temple, and then Alan Orloff who arrived in time for the official presentation. Before the awards were presented, Roberta told us that she had always been good luck at awards ceremonies—that people at her table always won. Whatever role Roberta's luck played, we all erupted in cheers when Bonnie's name was called—and fought tears too when Dennis stepped up to the podium to explain what had happened to Bonnie, to talk about her long hopes of winning such an award, and to thank people in the mystery community for their support—those connections that he said meant so much to her, those friendships with her that meant so much to us. I say "fought tears" but that fight wasn't entirely won, as you might imagine.

Bittersweet is the word that kept coming up time and again at the brunch and again in the days since then. Poignant is the word that Dennis himself used, and it's difficult not to feel great sadness that Bonnie wasn't there to accept the honor herself, to enjoy the moment.

The Anthony Award is surely a fine capstone to Bonnie's terrific career as a short story writer, novelist, essayist, and more—but here's wishing again that it had simply been the next step in a career still being built, with more of her writings still ahead.

Congratulations to our fellow SleuthSayer and our too-soon-departed friend, B.K. Stevens.

19 October 2017

Seabury Quinn: More Popular Than Lovecraft & Howard

by Brian Thornton

With Halloween close upon us, I have been thinking quite a bit lately about Weird Tales. A contemporary of Black Mask, the early 20th century pulp magazine which launched the careers of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and a host of other early hard-boiled and noir fiction writers; Weird Tales had its own stable of big names for whom it proved a springboard: H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and Robert E. Howard, just to name a few.

The collected work of these authors has sold in the millions, spawned comic book and movie tie-ins, and has rarely been out of print in the half-century since the paperback publishing revolution of the 1960s. It was the advent of the paperback novel more than anything else which helped to posthumously revive the literary careers of so many pulp writers, and especially those of both Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, and Howard, the creator of Conan.

And yet during their pulp heyday none of these authors was nearly so popular, year in, year out, as a New Jersey native and longtime Washington, D.C. resident who specialized in mortuary law.

Meet Seabury Quinn.
Mortuary Law Specialist Seabury Quinn

The creator of an "occult detective" who frequently comes across as a more violent doppelganger for Agatha Christie's famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Quinn sold over ninety stories to Weird Tales between 1925 and 1950. Quinn's protagonist Dr. Jules DeGrandin ("Grandin" was actually the author's middle name) was featured in most of them.

Sporting a full head of blonde hair where Poirot was dark-haired and bald as an egg, French to Poirot's Belgian, and a man of action where Poirot seemed averse to most anything the least bit physical, DeGrandin was also short, fussy about his impeccable wardrobe, and given to repeating certain catch-phrases in French: all traits he shared with Christie's detective. He also had a faithful side-kick who narrated his stories, like Poirot (and like Sherlock Holmes' famous Dr. Watson, DeGrandin's side-kick was also a doctor).

DeGrandin's stories were initially set in a variety of exotic locales. When Quinn realized that the series was likely to have a long run, he settled DeGrandin and his friend Dr. Trowbridge in the latter's (fictional) hometown of Harrisonville, New Jersey. Over the quarter century the series ran, Harrisonville rivaled Lovecraft's creation Arkham, Massachusetts for the sheer number of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other monsters rampaging around the local countryside.

Quinn cranked out his DeGrandin stories at a rapid clip, and it frequently shows in the writing (he was much more careful with the novels he wrote over the course of his long career): his supporting characters are often thin (frequently ethnic) stereotypes and sometimes the plot resolutions were outright sloppy, and because of their sheer number, tended to get recycled.

But what they lacked in craft they made up in  energetic prose, action, gore, and young, pretty women in distress (a fact reflected in many of the Weird Tales covers dedicated to Quinn's work). DeGrandin was handy with both sword and gun, and always shot to kill. And while the stories always seem to start out with an eldritch element to them, the monster promised by such titles as "The Grinning Mummy," "The Great God Pan," and "The Serpent Woman" almost always turns out to be all too human. Evil, despicable, villainous, sure. But human.

There was also a fair amount of thinly-disguised kink in the DeGrandin tales: several of the stories revolved around the deeds of white slavers (cue the whips and chains), for example. In fact, whips play an outsized role in much of the hazards faced by the inevitable young, white, female kidnap victims in a number of the stories. Racy stuff for the first part of the 20th century.

Weird Tales' loyal readers ate it up. Quinn's pieces provided the cover stories for more Weird Tales issues during the magazine's heyday than the work of any other author. He consistently topped the magazine's yearly reader's poll, handily beating out authors we find more famous today, such as Lovecraft, Smith and Howard.

Unlike Lovecraft, Smith and Howard, Quinn seems not to have needed the money generated by his fiction sales. He was by turns a successful lawyer and journalist (including a fifteen year stint as editor of a mortuary trade journal entitled...wait for it...Casket & Sunnyside.). Also unlike Howard, who shot himself in his parents' driveway at age thirty in 1936, and Lovecraft, who died of cancer in the family home in 1937, aged 47, Quinn lived until 1969, dying shortly after his eightieth birthday.

By this time the DeGrandin stories were long out of print. And there they largely remained, in spite of several attempts to revive interest in them. Not even the paperback revolution, so good for the work of Lovecraft and Howard, especially, could do Quinn's little French occult detective much good.

This may have changed as a result of another paradigm change in publishing: the ebook. Nightshade Books recently published all ninety-plus DeGrandin stories in a five-volume collector's hardcover edition. The were able to do this based in part on the projected revenues they'll use to recoup that expense by putting out ebook editions of the complete DeGrandin collection. (You can find a link here.).

The stories are worth a look (and the price, as is so often the case with ebook republications, is definitely right.), especially such highlights of the series as "Murder on the Links," "The Devil's Bride," and "The Gods of East and West."

And just in time for Halloween!

18 October 2017

The Motive Motif

by Robert Lopresti

"I didn't go immediately, of course, as I hadn't made up enough reasons." - Don Berry, TO BUILD A SHIP

I recently read The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller.  It's about the United States' response to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which arrived in the months before the Civil War started, and was naturally used as a weapon by both pro- and anti-slavery forces.  It's a fascinating read although I thought at the end it got bogged down with the residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  (Granted those townies included Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc.)

But the reason I am writing this piece is a line Fuller wrote about another Concord-dweller (Concordian?  Grape?), Louisa May Alcott.  Fuller wrote that once the fighting started Alcott could not sell to the big magazines, because they wanted war stories.  Fuller explains:

In order to write about the war, she needed experience.  In the winter of 1862 she volunteered to work as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington.

That struck me as unfair, since it seemed to be saying that Alcott's only motive in volunteering for this nasty and dangerous work (it nearly killed her) was commercial gain.  No patriotism?  No desire to help the suffering soldiers?

That may not be what Fuller meant to say, but it's how I read it.  And it got me thinking about our tendency to assume that any piece of human behavior stems from a single motive.  Several people have asked me why I wrote my latest book.  Depending on the questioner and my mood I have given four different and contradictory explanations.  And they are all true.  Because people are complicated.

You may remember that in September both of my blog pieces  here featured John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I am going back to that well one more time.  In researching those other pieces I found a blog by someone going by the name of Malnatured Snay who attempts to clarify the plot of the movie.  The piece is titled, optimistically, I CAN EXPLAIN IT TO YOU.

Snay does her/his best, but there are still plenty of puzzled questions in the comments.  (And let me salute Raheel Guillia, whose comment points out the huge plot hole in the movie, which does not appear in the novel.)

Here's the key example.  A number of commenters were baffled  as to why the character  Jim Prideaux did a certain thing near the end of the flick.  Anyone who had read the novel could have told them, but the movie didn't make the point clear enough,  for some viewers, anyway.

And so the commenters offered multiple contradictory motives for Prideaux, some of them wildly missing the point.  All of which got me thinking about the fact that people can have more than one motive for their actions, which is why I wrote this piece.

Wait.  Didn't I say I wrote it because  of the sentence about Louisa May Alcott?  Turns out people can have more than one motive.

Years ago I wrote a tale that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Why" was a very short story with an even shorter title.  It consisted mostly of police officers speculating on the motive of a man who had killed several strangers.  By the end you know nothing about the killer, but a lot about the cops.

But I have been trying to think of any mystery novels or stories that play on the point that a single person could have more than one motive for what they do.  It seems like a natural thing for a mystery to discuss. After all, we're always being told that detectives look for a suspect with motive, method, and opportunity.  Doesn't motive deserve a little more attention?

The closest example I can think of is Rex Stout's Death of a Doxy, in which the murderer leaves a confession which includes an entirely false motive.  And that's not really the same thing.  Can you think of better examples?  Put them in the comments.  No spoilers, please.  And I hereby promise I am done mentioning John le Carre for a while.

17 October 2017

Puerto Rico nostalgia

by Barb Goffman

This blog is running the Tuesday after this year's Bouchercon convention in Toronto. Since I won't return home until that Monday night (last night as you read this), I'm writing this post in advance. With the trip to Canada looming, and with the struggles of the people of Puerto Rico still in the news after the recent devastating hurricane, I've been thinking about travel lately, and especially trips my family took in the 1970s and early '80s to Puerto Rico. I hope the island and its residents recover sooner than later from the storm damage. And I hope you won't mind me indulging in a moment of nostalgia now. I'm fortunate that I created a scrapbook as a kid of some of our vacations, and my dad saved it. It's helped jog some memories, as well as provided the source of some of the photos.

I was four years old the first time I went with my family to Puerto Rico. (My dad did business there, so he went somewhat often.) We flew on a Pan Am double-decker plane. Granted my perspective is skewed since I was so small then, but I remember the jet being huge. The top level was set up with a bunch of booth-sized tables, surrounded by four comfy chairs, where you could hang out and play backgammon and other games. Flying back then was, in a way, luxurious--in sharp contrast to the way we fly these days like sardines. That plane made going to Puerto Rico seem glamorous.

These were the types of cards we had back then.
So did the hotel casinos. Each hotel always had a casino, which I was never able to see because they were super strict about not letting kids in. I remember the adults all went there at night after dinner (especially in the '70s), and everyone got really dressed up to do it.

The hotels typically ran Bingo games by the pool for probably a half hour every afternoon. I won the very first hand I played. When I called out Bingo, my mom admonished me, reminding me that you can't just yell out Bingo, you actually have it. Imagine her surprise when I did. I won forty bucks -- a huge amount of money for a four-year-old, especially in 1973.

Back then hotels also had actual keys for their doors. I know this because, apparently, I took a key from every hotel room we stayed in when I was a kid (and put them in my scrapbook). The hotels might have rightly called me a thief had they known, but I'll prefer to think of those keys as mementos.

On one of our trips we found and fell in love with the Oasis restaurant. It was billed as a Cuban restaurant, and they served a fried plantain appetizer that we loved. I've looked for fried plantains elsewhere over the years, but I've never found a place that makes them as this restaurant did. Most places serve you mushy plantains when you order fried plantains. The Oasis served them crispy and thin, like potato chips. And they were hot, too (temperature-wise). A few years ago I asked a friend who was born in Cuba if she knew a restaurant near where we both lived in the DC area where I could find fried plantains like these. She laughed and said that the Oasis restaurant might have been Cuban, but those were Puerto Rican fried plantains. Alas, there are no Puerto Rican restaurants near me. I wonder if there are any in Toronto.

And on that note, I should pack for my trip to Bouchercon. I'd love to hear about any favorite memories of trips you've taken to exotic places, especially (just to keep this on point for the blog) any places that you've used or might use for a mystery setting.

16 October 2017

Whatever Happened to Fan Mail?

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

When I was a pre-teen girl (age 9 to 12 maybe) in a small West Texas town growing up I read fan magazines by the dozens. Falling in love with male and female stars both, No, I wasn't confused about my sexuality. I had no idea what homosexual or heterosexual was, I just loved to see beautiful movie stars and handsome movie stars and dreaming about being a movie star myself someday.
Girls my age wrote fan letters to stars back then: Dear Miss Monroe, I thought you were really, really good in The Seven Year Itch. I saw it 3 times. Sincerely, Jan Barrow
Yet my absolute favorite stars were in Westerns: Roy Rogers and Dell Evans.
Dear Mr. Rogers, Did you really fall in love with Miss Dale Evans when you first saw her? Sincerely, Jan Barrow.
We wrote letters to those we admired. Put them in envelopes, addressed them after we searched and searched for an address, licked a stamp to put on the envelope. We made sure we put out return address in big letters, both inside and out. Jan Barrow, Box 413, Post, Texas. Then walked the four long blocks to the post office to mail it. Surely you remember waiting and hoping day after day that you might one day get an answer back.

Just when you had given up hope a letter came. Oh no, it wasn't a letter BUT it was an autographed picture of Roy and Dell and Trigger. Does anyone remember the name of Dale Evans' horse†?? (Answer at the end. And I didn't have to look it up but it did take me a couple of minutes to remember it.) I would guess that Trigger was one of the most famous horses ever who wasn't some race horse. Oh yeah. How could I ever forget the Lone Ranger's horse Silver. He yelled, Hi-yo, Silver at least 3 times in every movie.

Even when I was a grown woman and had three kids I wrote two fan letters. One was to a television star, Dennis Weaver, who played in a series called McCloud. About a lawman working in Manhattan, riding his horse, cowboy hat and all. I wrote to him just to tell him how much we enjoyed his show and wished it was on every week. He wrote a nice note back, with an autographed photo and asking me to write to the network which I did. I think the show was on for five or six seasons, can't remember for sure now. But my husband and I really enjoyed that show.

The second fan letter I wrote as an adult was to Isaac Asimov. Thanking him for all the wonderful stories and books he had written through the years. Told him I was hoping to be published one day. He wrote me back on a postcard thanking me for writing and telling me to keep writing. I was lucky enough to meet him in 1988, the first time I ever went to the Edgars in NY City.

Jan Grape and Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov. Yes, that's me in my fancy hat.
The first ever fan letter I ever got was from Tom Piccirilli. He and I had appeared in a couple of anthologies. I don't have that letter anymore. Wish I did, since Tom has passed away. Tom became one of my non-favorite, favorite writers with Choir of Ill Children. I'm not really a fan of horror and yet this book is so beautifully written and it's proclaimed as Southern Gothic. I personally like his crime noir books best. I especially liked The Last Kind Words.

I got to write to Tom when he was undergoing cancer treatment to tell funny story about his fan letter to me in hopes of giving him a laugh. A few days after I got this letter from Tom, I was visiting my daughter and her family in Ft. Worth. I mentioned the fan letter and since I had it in my purse, I pulled it out and read it out loud at the dinner table. Her husband, Stin asked me to repeat the man's name. I said, Tom Piccirilli. And Stin said, that sounds like the name of a newly discovered disease. "Sorry, ma'am. you have Pictorial. Hate to tell you we don't have a medication to treat Piccirilli yet, but the CDC is working on it and we hope to have a Piccirilli vaccine soon."

I only got a couple more fan letters after that because suddenly we had the Internet and people could write to you via e-mail. Now they write to you on FB or Twitter. They write nice notes but somehow I miss real fan letters.

† Dale Evan's horse was named, Buttermilk. Whatever happened to Trigger and Buttermilk and their German Sheppard, Bullet, I'll suggest you Google, it's interesting. If you're curious about that sort of thing.



Art Taylor, we congratulate for winning the macavity Award for Best Short Story “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, Wildside Press).

Bonnie Stevens, we congratulate for winning the Anthony Award for “The Last Blue Glass” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dell, April 2016).

15 October 2017

Curiosity

Leigh Lundin
by Leigh Lundin

It’s Bouchercon and no one’s left in town to read my article. Everyone’s in Toronto drinking Canadian whiskey, Canadian beer, and Canadian maple syrup, at least at breakfast, sadly recalling when one’s passport between countries was a friendly wave.

With no one to notice, we can talk about anything we want, free of political correctness constraints that galls thinking people. Okay, okay, all six of you readers remaining in the USA unanimously tweeted you never noticed I particularly restrain myself.

I want to mention a web site called Curiosity.com , a drug for the peripatetic brain. I first became aware of Curiosity as an app for Android, iPhone and iPad. Each day, Curiosity pulls together an eclectic handful of articles found on the web.

Subjects may range from the history and psychology to humanities and science. Curiosity provides a mental vacation from the political glut of news saturating media and minds. The also provide original content.

A number of articles aim at readers and writers… unique book reviews, the psychology of writing, crimes, and historically unusual books such as Ernest Vincent Wright novel Gadsby (written without the letter E), and another take on the Voynich Manuscript. Then there’s the touching article about the little girl who loves bugs– and God love her supportive mother. How can you resist? Walk with me…

Bullied for Loving Bugs, 8-Year-Old-Girl Is Now Co-Author of a Scientific Paper

Motivated Reasoning is Why You Can't Win an Argument Using Facts

Mandela Effect Is When Groups Have Same False Memories. How the paranormal plays into this effect.

Where Comedy Comes From (Chicago Podcast Festival) Curiosity Episode 014

What Is The Indecipherable Voynich Manuscript About?

Imaginary Friends Have Real Benefits. What imaginary friends might teach your kids.

Why Did Old-Timey Bikes Have One Giant Wheel?

Why Key West is filled with Hemingway's 6-Toed cats.

Scientists Exhume H.H. Holmes, America's first Serial Killer, "The Devil in the White City"

Why You Should (and How You Can) Read a Lot More


14 October 2017

How I Wrote THE BIG REWIND

Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore, the Girl with the Impish Smile
Welcome Libby Cudmore. She’s the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow, 2016) which received a Starred Review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly and USA Today. Her work has been published in Beat to a Pulp, The Stoneslide Corrective, PANK, The Big Click and the anthologies Hanzai Japan, Welcome Home and Mixed Up. She is a frequent contributor to Vinyl Me Please, Paste, Albumism and the Barrelhouse blog, and hosts the weekly #RecordSaturday.

Meanwhile, she answers those forever questions… How do you get your ideas? How do you bring them to fruition?

You can live-tweet her @libbycudmore.
— Velma



by Libby Cudmore

I spent the first few years of my crime writing career trying to emulate others. With The Long Goodbye, Sin City and a soundtrack of early Tom Waits albums as my bibles, my early stories dripped with pulp pastiche like a half-scabbed wound.  I was successful to some degree—short stories published across the internet, some awards and notoriety, a few close calls with agents and editors, but with three novel manuscripts wasting away on my hard drive, I knew I had to try something different.

The Big Rewind didn’t come to me as a fully-formed plan. Rather, it came as an exercise in late-winter nostalgia, on the bus home from work, listening to songs that an unrequited college crush had given to me on a mix CD. I got thinking about the mix CD as a piece of ephemera, wondering what someone might think of the relationship between us if they were to find this document 200 years down the road. I began to write a scene where a young woman, named Jett Bennett, came across a tape meant for her downstairs neighbor, KitKat, and goes to return it. But because I am me, and because I have a background in crime fiction, there had to be a dead body, and that dead body turned out to be KitKat’s.

The Big Rewind
I then realized that I had stumbled upon the greatest idea I had ever had.

It was a great idea because I was able to write it from my heart. I was able to create a modern, likable protagonist with none of the worn clich├ęs of the genre. And where there were conventions—the fact that she works for a private investigator as a temp—I was able to playfully twist those conventions to tell a story that felt true to me. Not to someone else. Yes, there are references to Raymond Chandler and The Shield, but I was able to look at the tools I had been given and use them to build something of my own design.

The book came together in about eight months, writing just a few hours a day, often doing my first drafts in a notebook on the bus and then typing those into the document at night. It was fun finding a voice for Jett, building her a world instead of trying to stuff her into someone else’s variation of New York or LA. Age had made me weary of violence, so I let myself have fun, keeping the book as lighthearted and generous as a murder mystery can be. And I was able to weave in my second love, that is, music. With references to Warren Zevon, The Vapors, Steely Dan and countless others, I shared my love of music with the reader, a narrative mix tape.

Libby
(FUN FACT: After the book was released, The Vapors, best known for their hit “Turning Japanese,” reunited. They have been playing gigs around the UK ever since. I’m not taking credit for this, buuuuut…)

And when I was finished, I cold-queried Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management, and he agreed to take me on as a client. Another quick polish and it was off to William Morrow, where editor Chelsey Emmelheintz acquired the book for publication in Feb. 2016. It received a starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and USA Today.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding your own voice. It’s easy to play in someone else’s sandbox because they’ve already done the hard work. But it is important to dig deeper, to find a narrative that is meaningful to you as a writer and as a reader.

13 October 2017

American Gun Mythology and the Role of the Writer

--Thomas Pluck

It's been a little over a week since once of the worst massacres in the history of the United States committed by a civilian. And there's been a lot of talk about "what could have been done" to stop him. Because it's nearly always a him, but that's another can of worms. Once the shooting began, there was little anyone could have done. The terrorist chose a high vantage point. He moved between two windows. He set up cameras in the hallway to alert him, and fired at the door once security arrived, and killed himself.

The Internet tough guys are out in force saying that "if only..." If only what? Anyone in Nevada who wants a gun can get a gun. They have extremely lax gun laws. The crowd was not disarmed. More guns would not have saved anyone, short of having snipers at every public event. Which I am sure, will be suggested as a solution by the arms dealer lobby of the NRA, over sensible legislation for consumer ownership of military hardware.

I am a gun owner. I live in one of the states with the strictest gun laws, and I do not think they are enough. But I don't want to talk about gun control. I know I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine.

And besides, what can writers do?

For one, we can stop promoting gun mythology. Guns are not the only solution to a problem. They are not magic wands. You don't get to decide if they wound or kill your target. You can try, but the bullet decides if it will nick the femoral artery and make that "leg wound in the meaty part of the thigh" bleed you out. The bullet decides if that shoulder wound passes through "just the muscle" ... and kills the baby in the woman's arms behind your thriller protagonist who started a gun battle on a crowded street. We perpetuate the myth of the gun as a protective talisman. It won't protect you.

After all, it's only a tool. "It is the hard heart that kills," as Gunny Hartmann would say. Sometimes it's the frightened heart that kills. I nearly shot a friend of mine one night thinking he was an intruder. I had been taught firearm safety. It was nearly not enough to save my friend's life. I train in self-defense with and without weapons. The majority of this training is to commit actions to muscle memory, because humans do not perform well under stress without such training. Yet some characters is cool as a cucumber in battle, never misses a beat, and the gun saves the day.

Horse puckey.

That's what that is.

Ask any officer about gun retention training and the "21 foot rule." That's the distance a determined individual can cross while the average officer clears their holster and readies their sidearm. It takes a little over or under a second. I've trained it. I'm a big, slow guy, but unless you're Quick-Draw McGraw, I'm going to flatten you like a rhino chasing an ice cream truck before you can get a bead on center mass. And yet, I recently read an otherwise fine novel where the protagonist shoots two armed people, one who has a battle rifle, with his .45, during a conversation. He's dead-eye dick. Never misses. And they never get off a shot. I kept reading, but this was a story that bought into our mythology about guns. Another fine novel had a character shoot four security guards "in the leg" and you know what I just said about that. This isn't Terminator 2. Those men will die or live in pain for the rest of their lives, but it's played off as merciful. It served to make the character seem a bad-ass and start things off with high tension, but all I could think of was four guys in physical therapy because that was the best the writer could do.

“We don’t sensationalize guns,” he said. “Society sensationalizes guns.”
“Have you ever watched a movie with guns and violence in it?” he continued. “Have you ever played Call of Duty, or any video game where there is shooting involved? I haven’t heard one person who said ‘no’.” --owner of Machine Gun Vegas, who advocates for stronger gun control.

Is it possible to write violence without glorifying it? Filmmaker Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because the excitement onscreen inevitably glorifies it. I'm not so sure. Fury by David Ayers stripped me of any desire to fight in World War II. When historians and pundits opine that they never got to fight in a war, they sound like petulant children. Are they really listening to veterans? My great-uncles, before they died, confided in me about cowardly acts during wartime without shame. Because they survived. Another cried for the Germans he killed, because "they were just doing what I was doing." And yet Couch Colonels want to see millions suffer so they can get medals? If historians are pushing this sociopathic garbage, what hope do we who deal in fiction have?

Here's an interesting anecdote from John McTiernan, the director of Predator, on "gun pornography":
There were some studio types who were basically into gun pornography. They wanted to sell gun pornography. They said I wasn’t doing enough close-ups of guns and stuff. So I said, “Why don’t I just do a whole scene?” But I also made it one that had something to do with the story, because all of these guys have giant guns and the whole point is that they’re helpless in the face of this monster. That’s the whole point of the story. They’re these enormously, heavily-armed guys, and they’re not prepared for this. So the whole point was, we hit nothing. But it also got rid of the gun pornographers because I gave them five minutes of nothing but guns. So they were quiet after that. - From this interview at Cinephilia & Beyond.

Violence will always be a subject for storytelling. Nature is brutal, and we are part of it. But we must look past the logic of the victor, the survivor, who looks back as if this was destined, just, and the only solution at hand. That's a defense mechanism. "I had to kill him. It was him or me."

In self-defense, we laugh at this. You couldn't cross the street? Shut the door and call 911? You had to stand your ground? Were you defending your life or your "honor"? We say the best defense weapon is a good pair of running shoes. If you must strike, you hit until they are down and escape if you can. Because people have friends. Even jerks who want to rob you or push you around have friends. And they may not like how you kicked their friend when they were down because it felt good to show that jerk who dared to threaten you what they get for besmirching your honor.

How many stories play fast and loose to give us a villain who simply must be killed? They won't give up! They have no fear of death. The endless henchmen who file into John Wick's house made me laugh. I mean, no one thought to toss a few Molotov cocktails and burn his house down? Or tell the boss to engage in aerial intercourse with a rolling pastry, then head home? Not saying you should feel bad about liking the movie, it was good entertainment, but it's the kind of fantasy we take for granted. The kind of fantasy that makes internet tough guys think they could hit a sniper on the 32nd floor, or make it past his machine-gun nest to get to his hotel room and get him.

No, the bad guy thought of that. The hotel room door was found riddled with bullets. Just enough time for the terrorist to take out "a large, silver revolver--probably his favorite, I wonder what he named it?--and blow his own brains out. As planned.

So how do we not glorify violence? By showing the consequences. By not going Shakespeare on our characters' behinds, and killing them off for convenience. You might think this is death for a pulp story, but Billy Jack laid a whuppin' on the bad guys and he was a pacifist. He was so kind he took off his cowboy boots before he kicked you in the face. Your bad-ass heroine can learn Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and use arm locks. Your super-agent can be tired of assassination and use the defensive aspects of tai chi. Or be a boxer who simply sidesteps and slips punches and gets out of there. If you've never seen a pro boxer dodge punches by street thugs and amateurs like myself, it is really funny. You can't hit those guys! Just ask Connor MacGregor...

I would've been much more impressed with the scene I mentioned earlier if instead of shooting the guards, he disarmed them. That's still violent, your trigger finger often gets broken when a gun is wrenched out of your hands, but I'll take a finger splint over a lifelong limp. But this is nitpicking, really. It's the big pictures that matter. Are our villains human, or caricatures? Are guns tools, or dei ex machina? Is violence an easy solution that gives us a place to end the story, or is it a trauma that affects the characters for the rest of their lives? And I don't mean one that's solved by all those whiskies they drink without seeming to be affected, but that's a third can of worms, and that's my limit.

These are questions we have to ask when we write a story.
Because stories matter.

12 October 2017

Fun With Funerals!

by Eve Fisher

I hope many of you watched the series "My Name is Earl" with Jason Lee.  I thought it was hilarious.  One of my favorite episodes was when John Waters did a guest spot as Walter Hamerick, a creative funeral director who liked to put his clients in familiar conditions:  hence the guy in this picture, who'd spent his life as a couch potato is surrounded by all his favorite things.  I watched that, and besides laughing my head off, thought THAT'S the way it's done.  Even if it does look like a spooky Duane Hanson retrospective.

Locally, we have a funeral home that offers a motorcycle hearse (shout out to you, George Boom!) which provides not only one of the best funeral billboards I've seen in years, but makes a whole lot of sense, considering that Sturgis, South Dakota, one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world.  (Yes, it's the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.)

NOTE:  You'd be amazed at the performers who've played at Sturgis.  From Bob Dylan to Ozzy Osborne, from Motley Crue to the late, great Tom Petty...  (here's Tom Petty's Set List from Sturgis 2006).

Anyway, back when I was a child, my father drove my mother and me to northern Kentucky every summer, where we spent at least a few weeks, if not the whole summer, with my grandmother.  She lived in a small town of probably 500 people (which was considerable growth from the 40 who were there in 1800), settled in the late 1700s, and everyone knew / knows everyone.  Everyone knew my grandmother, because she taught school there for 40 years.  And my grandfather worked in the bank as a teller until the late 1950s.

Image result for 1858 pennySide storyEvery time someone brought in a very old coin to the bank to deposit, my grandfather would take it and replace it with a modern equivalent from his own pocket.  The result is that I have a modest but authentic old coin collection.

Anyway, another family everyone knew was that of the local morticians.  The Walworths (the names have been changed so as not to embarrass anyone) had been burying everyone in Falmouth since the 1800s, and had / have every intention of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future.  Whenever Mother and I went to Falmouth, we stopped and paid our respects.  Mrs. Walworth, the matriarch, gave me lemonade and cookies, and the adults discussed old, literally dead days with great relish.  Mrs. Walworth especially like to reminisce about when she and Mr. Walworth first met.
"We didn't fall in love at first sight.  No, he had to work to get me.  But oh, those were sweet times.  Hand in hand, courting and embalming..."  

She also told the sad story of when her first son died, as a little boy, and having to lay him out and bury him themselves.  And, after the funeral, there was a tremendous rain storm, and she couldn't sleep thinking about how cold and wet it was out there in that grave...  (BTW, both those stories gave me a few nightmares.)

But back to Fun with Funerals.  Maybe.

Fast forward 30 years, and my grandmother died.  I went back up to Kentucky with my parents, in my one black suit, a 1930s linen number that I'd bought at the thrift store and gave my mother something to talk about instead of crying the whole way.  Randy Walworth (who was about my age, and had taken over for his parents a few years back) met us, and we finished making the arrangements:  lilies, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus", and cake as well as cookies for the viewing that evening.  Then we went and booked a room for the night at the local motel, because there weren't any living relatives left in town.

I swear to God everyone over 60 came that evening for the viewing.  The three of us went from little old lady to little old man and on to the next until I at least was dizzy.  At one point I stopped by the coffee and looked out on the sea of tinted grey, the chatter like the sea in my ears, and realized I desperately needed a cigarette.  So I stepped back into the office, where Randy was taking a little time off from his duties as well.

"I just need a cigarette," I said.

"No problem.  You want a drink to go with it?"

"Hell, yes."

funeral-humor-old-people-at-weddingsRandy pulled out a bottle of bourbon and poured us both a stiff one.  We sipped away, in silence at first, and then Randy started talking.

First about what a good crowd we had, because my grandmother had always been hugely popular.

We reminisced about Falmouth in the old days - we were very close in age - and how we'd run from house to house and race each other over the railroad tracks, which ran right through the middle of town.  Who lived where.  When.  When they died.  Where they were buried (his contribution).

And then Randy started talking about "restoration work" (we were on a multiple of drinks at this point), and how delicate it is, and what wonderful things he'd done for my grandmother, and how he'd done them.  He went into some detail, and I tried very hard to look interested while not hearing one single word of it.

He wound it all up with, "Now I want you to do me a favor."  "What?" I asked.

"Whatever you do, don't ever have an autopsy.  Autopsies just wreak havoc with a person's body, and the funeral director is stuck with the damage.  Please, please, please, whatever you do, make sure you don't ever have an autopsy, because I simply can't guarantee my work if you do."

Well, I promised.  Without pointing out that I'd have nothing to say about whether or not I'd have an autopsy, if the issue ever arose.  And then I went back to the party, because for some reason...

Well, it's interesting to chat with the man who plans to embalm you.  But it isn't really comfortable.  Even with bourbon.




 

11 October 2017

The Devil Loads Empty Guns

David Edgerley Gates


Back in the late Bronze Age, when I was a kid going to summer camp, the NRA was a sportsmen's organization. They taught firearms safety, and sponsored marksmanship competitions, and published The American Rifleman, which was pretty much the only gun magazine available, aside from maybe Shotgun News, which was basically classified ads. I learned to shoot at Camp Chewonki - I was ten or eleven, if memory serves - and I was awarded the NRA pins and patches for whichever level I got to.  I think Sharpshooter, that first year. We shot prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Single-shot .22 bolt actions. Paper targets at fifty feet. Ten rounds. You needed to score in the black. I want to emphasize, though, that riflery was one of a mix of activities, swimming, canoeing, lanyard-weaving, woodcraft. They wanted to keep us busy, that critical mass of boys.

My dad let me buy my own .22 when I was fourteen. He was from Ohio, he'd served in the war, and like a lot of people his age, it seemed perfectly natural for kids to learn basic shooting skills. How not? He and I shot up a lot of tin cans.

I went in the military, then, with a little preparation, and qualified Expert on the .30 caliber carbine. Now, the .30 carbine is a lightweight compared to the M-14 the Marines were still being issued at the time, or the M-16 the Army had transitioned to, and they were shooting at distances out to three hundred yards, but still. Iron sights on a little gun that fired what wasn't all that much more than a pistol load? I thought I did okay. 

In the years since that first .22, I've had a few other guns, a couple of single-actions, cowboy guns, a couple of auto-loaders. One of the things I've always liked about guns is their simplicity of function. I'm no good at working on cars, I couldn't take a carburetor apart, but guns are straightforward, mechanically, like a watch. The single-action Army, for example, a design that dates to 1873, has six moving parts, with three springs. There aren't that many more in a .45 auto, the 1911. Guns you can drop in sand, or salt water, and they'll still operate. That's why they were military-issue.

This is prologue. I'm telling you so you know where my sympathies lie. It's a familiar story. Anybody of a certain generation, or anybody with a certain background, is going to say more or less the same thing. They grew up in a culture where hunting and shooting were part of the metric. It didn't make you a nut. Of course, this is also a culture where military service was often the norm. So, it depends on your attitude toward that. If you can't see yourself in uniform, you might be unsympathetic. Same with guns. Or broccoli. 

But my actual question here is, What the heck happened to the NRA? How did they shape-shift from a generic bunch of hunters and recreational shooters, back in the day, into this pack of rabid crazies? (Exaggeration for effect, of course, but that's how they're perceived by many.) The answer is that there was a coup, at the national meeting in Cincinnati, in 1977. 

Forty years ago, a dissident group led by Harlon Carter waged a floor fight, and voted the NRA board of directors out of office. Carter's platform was simple: on 2nd Amendment issues, there's no room for compromise. Compromise means erosion, and the end result of gun control can only be confiscation and tyranny.

This is how the argument continues to be framed. If the gun-control advocates suggest banning high-cap mags, to take an example, 2nd Amendment absolutists say this is gradualism, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They've got a point. Once you start loosening the bricks in the wall, you hasten its collapse, and gun rights people simply don't believe it, when you tell them these are just common-sense measures. They know your real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. And when you come right down to it, there are people whose real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. It flies in the face of reason and experience to say that isn't true. So the problem isn't just the gun guys. The problem is that both sides believe themselves to possess the True Cross, and Satan rules their adversaries.

Where do I stand, personally? Like more than a few gun guys, I'm for gun control. But the dialogue, if you can call it that, is owned by the extremes, and what's in short supply is trust.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.