31 January 2018

The Biggest of the Best

by Robert Lopresti

Once again awards time has come around, and I am prepared to list the best short mystery stories of the year. This is my ninth annual wingding and either I am going soft or 2017 was a particularly good year for the field. You will find 18 stories listed below, up five from last year, and one ahead of my previous record. What can I say? May be this was just a year that needed distractions.

The big winners were Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, tied with five stories each. Akashic Press and Mystery Weekly Magazine each scored two.

Four of the authors were women; fifteen were men. Four authors are appearing for the second time on this august list. Two completed the hat trick. More remarkably, one author scored two on the list this year. The only other time that happened it was achieved by Brendan Dubois in 2012.

Six of the stories are funny (says me); four have fantasy elements. Only one is a historical. I think one could be described as fair play.

Enough chatter, let's go down to the red carpet.

Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.

The narrator has just arrived in a town and quickly discovers that the cops are corrupt, the wealthy run things to suit themselves, and the employers rip off the workers. Just like thousands of other crime stories.

But he gets a job at the Water Works where people get paid in brightly colored scrip. He doesn't earn enough to rent one of the identical houses on New York or Kentucky Avenues. He almost gets sent to jail for not paying the poor tax. And the Parker Brothers run everything. It's like they've got a – What's that word again?

Cohen, Jeff. "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Elliot runs a movie theatre that shows nothing but comedies, most of them old. That may explain why Sharon, a doctor, divorced him years ago. Harder to explain is that she's about to have Elliot's baby. Like today.

Elliot rushes her to the hospital and promptly bumbles into a supply closet where a man in scrubs seems to be in the act of killing a woman in scrubs with a knife. Awkward. Cohen writes funny.

Coward, Mat. "What Could Possibly Go Boing?" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Meet the staff of Fake Dog Dirt Etc, a rather low-end novelty shop. One of them just killed their boss, almost accidentally.

They hope to keep the dump open for a few more paychecks, if they can hide the body. And find the boss's hidden money. And avoid the cops. Did I mention the blackmailer?

Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Deaver is making his second appearance in my annual best of list. And by the way, something very unusual happened here: the Edgar judges and I agree on this one. It is a very surprising thing when one of my favorites gets nominated.

Lessing is an analyst for the CIA; a desk jockey. When an agent dies while preparing for a vital mission, Lessing is the only person with the knowledge to fill the gap.

So all of a sudden he is in a small town in Poland trying to attract the attention of the deputy to the Russian spymaster who is running a ring of seditionists in the United States. But he has to attract the man subtly. If he is too obvious they will know it's a trap. Play hard to get, he is told...

Deaver, Jeffery. "A Significant Find," in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

And here is Deaver again, with his second appearance in my Best of 2017. Greedy, greedy.

Roger and Della are having a crisis of conscience. They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference. Why the crisis? Well, let's put it this way. Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it. If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A? An ethical dilemma indeed. Worse dilemmas will follow.

Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017.

This is the third appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer David Edgerly Gates.

Montana deputy Hector Moody.is having a bad day. His truck breaks down in the mountains miles from anywhere. No phone reception. A thunderstorm approaching fast. And oh yes, unknown to him, two prisoners have escaped from prison and they have already killed to stay free...

Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.

Maddie, a teenager in Peachtree City, is sick to death of her privileged life among snobs, absentee parents, and the self-medicated. She decides to commit murder, just for excitement and power, and, let's face it, because she is evil.

Her reluctant partner in crime is Emma, who is not as smart, not as pretty, and desperately in love with Maddie. Is Maddie willing to use her sexuality to manipulate Emma into crime? Oh, yes.

Hayes, Peter W.J."The Black Hand," in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly, Simmons.
Brothers Jake and David fought over a girl named Bridgid and Jake left Pittsburgh for logging work in the midwest. David became a very successful mobster, until his body shows up in a river.

The story begins with Jake coming home to try to discover how his brother died and who is responsible. The first thing he learns is that Bridgid was murdered a few weeks before, and a lot of people think David killed her.

Is there a connection between the deaths? Can Jake stay alive long enough to find out?

Knopf, Chris. "Crossing Harry," in New Haven Noir, edited by Amy Bloom, Akashic Press, 2017.

Our nameless protagonist is a homeless person. One day he encounters a very strange man at Union Station whom no one notices except the homeless man and Harry. No one can see Harry except our narrator, because he's from another dimension. But Harry isn't the problem. It's the elegantly dressed man with a canvas bag full of–

Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.

This is the second appearance here by R.T. Lawton. My fellow SleuthSayer sent me this story for a critique before sending it to AHMM. I assure you the first version I read would have made this list, even if I never got my grubby hands on it.

Luckless burglar (and series character) Yarnell visits a pawn shop on the day after Thanksgiving to retrieve his wife's pawned wedding ring. Unfortunately there is a robbery going on, with a very nervous thief holding a gun. Eventually Yarnell's crafty partner Beaumont shows up, and finds a hilarious way of settling the issue.

Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Petrin's protagonist is an aging loanshark in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this story Skig has done an unnamed favor for a couple of Maine crooks and they send him the agreed upon fee. Unfortunately, half of it turns out to be counterfeit so Skig sets out to figure out who along the line of shipment shorted him. Bad things happen: Under the chairs a sight the media might describe as "distressing to some viewers."

Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.


This is the second appearance here by my old pal S.J. Rozan. Judah Loew runs a used bookstore on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Most similar stores have been killed by the Internet but Loew's specialties - including Judaica and mythology - have kept him holding on. Not much longer, alas.

But then a newly arrived book claims to offer a spell for creating a golem , the clay humunculus that a medieval rabbi, also named Judah Loew, built out of dust to save the Jews of Warsaw. Ah, but the dust in a bookstore is special dust...

Slaughter, Karin and Michael Koryta, "Short Story," in Matchup, edited by Lee Child, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

This is Koryta's second apearance on my best of the year list.

It's 1993 and Jeffrey Tolliver, is a young Birmingham cop. He is in a small town in Georgia on a long weekend that has gone terribly wrong. Before the tale has gotten fairly started he finds himself standing in a hotel parking lot in front of a busload of missionaries and…
"Holy crap,mister. You're in your underwear."
"Running shorts," he said, resisting the urge to cover himself. "Training for a marathon."
"With just one shoe?"
"Half marathon."
Tippee, Robert, "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.

The nameless narrator is a young man who has mastered the art of disappearing. He dresses in black, with a stocking cap that hides his face. And as the story begins, it is after ten PM and he is sitting in the darkness near a city tennis court, watching a young man and his beautiful girlfriend as they volley, flirt, and discuss Facebook.

It's clear that there are bad things in our narrator's past, although it is not clear at first whether they were done to him, by him, or both. The last paragraph just slayed me.

Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.

Sisters Hannah and Lynn have deep roots in British organized crime. They also have a year-round-Christmas store, The North Pole, which cleans up dirty money from various family businesses. But the sisters have a special sideline. The store has Santa's Mailbox where kids can ask the fat man for help. And while Hannah and Lynn can't promise the latest video game or a pony, if the request is desperate they may offer a special solution…

Vardeman, David. "The Last Evil," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2017.

Mrs. Box believes that suffering is good for the soul. She also believes in doing "a lot of good in the world. But there was another tinier but just as important point, and that was to get the leap on people. In her own life she felt a lack of people leaping out at her. In the past forty days and forty nights, not one soul, nothing, had given her a good jolt. Mr. Box certainly had not."

Which is why she keeps a live tarantula in her purse, and pulls it out to shock people. As a good deed.

Wiley, Michael, "Making It," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.

When Skylar Ricks carjacked Gerald Johannson's Ford Taurus on a February morning in Chicago, climbing into the passenger seat at the corner of Granville and Clark, his hand wrapped neatly around a .44 Smith & Wesson, an unlighted Marlboro between his lips, Gerald said, "Oh, now you're in trouble."

Well, that took an unexpected turn, didn't it? As the story goes on we will learn the reason for Skylar's rash act and a good deal about the personality of Gerald. He is an older man, missing his late lover, and remarkably imperturbable. Even when being carjacked.

30 January 2018

Curses, Boiled Again!

by Barb Goffman

I work full-time as a freelance editor, which means that I get to spend my days helping other people's dreams come true. I don't have a magic wand like Glinda the Good Witch. (Wouldn't that be fun!) But I do have a hardworking red pen, which I use to help make novels and short stories shine. But publishing is a hard business, and for authors aiming for traditional publication, there's no guarantee a book will get picked up, no matter how good it is.

That's why it's wonderful when one of my clients gets a contract with a traditional publisher. And it's especially wonderful when that publisher is one of the big ones in New York, and the deal is for three books. And it's even more wonderful--wonderful to infinity and beyond!--when that client is also one of your closest friends, and the contract is for her first published novel, and that first book finally comes out.

Well, today all that wonderfulness is wrapped into one with the publication of Curses, Boiled Again! by Shari Randall. The book, the first in the Lobster Shack Mysteries, went on sale at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia last weekend where Shari appeared at a signing, but today is the day folks everywhere can buy a copy of this book, published by St. Martin's Press.

So what's it about? This is a cozy mystery whose main character, Allie Larkin, is a ballerina who's back home in Mystic Bay, Connecticut, recuperating from a broken ankle. Her beloved aunt Gully has recently opened a lobster shack--her dream come true. But it soon turns into a nightmare when Gully is involved in a foodie competition, one of the judges dies after eating a competitor's entry, and suspicion turns on Gully. Did she tamper with the food? Allie isn't going to let her aunt be railroaded, and she won't let a broken ankle keep her down either, so she sets off to solve the mystery and find the killer.

Signing at Barnes & Noble
The book is filled with delightful characters, delicious food, twisty twists, and Connecticut charm. What's not to like?

So take it from me, who edited the first draft of this book, the final version is sure to knock it out of the park. How do I know? I've also edited two of Shari's short stories (one in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, and the other in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies, which is coming out in April). And I edited a fabulous, unpublished stand-alone novel Shari wrote, which could be the start of a separate traditional mystery series--hint hint to any acquisition editors out there. So I know firsthand not only how well Shari writes, but also that Shari is an author who takes editorial notes and runs with them, making her work better and better. I have no doubt she took what was a good first draft of Curses, Boiled Again! and turned it into a great book, especially after working with her editor at St. Martin's.

But don't take just my word for it. Here's what some other authors who've read the book think:

"Not only is Curses, Boiled Again! a suspenseful and entertaining mystery, but Shari Randall left me longing to visit the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack―even though I'm allergic to crustaceans!" ―Donna Andrews, author of the multiple award-winning Meg Lanslow Mysteries

Cheers to Shari Randall!
"Delightful! A fun whodunit full of New England coastal charm and characters who feel like friends. Warm humor, a delectable plot, and clever sleuthing will keep you turning the pages." ―Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries

"A mystery as richly layered as a genuine Connecticut lobster roll!" ―Liz Mugavero, Agatha Award-nominated author of the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries

"Curses, it's over already! Shari Randall introduces a lively cast of characters who had me dancing through this book. Allie Larkin charmed me with her sense of humor when faced with a heartbreaking injury. The climactic scene is like nothing I've ever read or seen and I loved it!" ―Sherry Harris, author of the Agatha Award-nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries

And if you head over to Goodreads, you'll find around twenty-five reviews of the book, and they're all good. That's no surprise to me, of course.

The only disappointment is that the next book in the series, Against the Claw, won't come out until July. But at least it can be pre-ordered now. And I'll get to see the first draft of the third book in the series this spring. I can't wait to get my editorial claws all over it. Yes, sorry for the pun, but we're talking cozy mysteries here. It was a given!

****

Let me take a moment for a little BSP: Yesterday my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet was named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. I have stiff competition from four writers whose work I admire: Gretchen Archer, Debra Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. Woo-hoo for us all! I'm sure all the nominated stories will be available online for you to read soon (if they're not already), but in the meanwhile, you can read mine by clicking here.

29 January 2018

Would I Lie To You?

by Steve Liskow

If a story uses a first person narrator, the most important action in that story is the telling. The narrator arranges the people and events in a way that serves his purpose. Since he has a stake in the story, sometimes he cheats. That's where the fun begins.




Many of the classics gain their power from the irony of a dissembling story-teller. Lockwood, the secondary narrator of Wuthering Heights, is too conceited to understand that Nelly Dean passes the buck in her tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's star-crossed love. Through negligence or prejudice, she causes every tragedy in the book and blames Heathcliff, whom she admits she loathed at first sight.

Dickens's Great Expectations thrives because Pip believes that Miss Haversham is polishing him to be worthy of Estella. By the time he understands that Magwitch is his real benefactor, he also realizes that Estella is a miserable woman who would be a horrible match for him.

Critics have argued about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw since its serialization in 1898, and James did little to settle the argument, calling his story merely a "pot-boiler to catch the unwary." His prologue (He almost never used a prologue) shows us a series of narrators who are either biased, lazy, or irresponsible, and the story seems to be an exercise in covering everyone's tush. Is it a ghost story, or did the governess hallucinate the shades of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? The visions first appear when she daydreams about the handsome master who hired her under strange circumstances, so I tend to side with the Freudians even if they do get heavy-handed. I used to love assigning this story in my honors American Lit classes, especially those who had read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the previous year and picked up on the allusion to Peter Quince, the rude mechanical who wrote the hilarious play they perform at the end. Musician Quince Peters, who appears in my two novellas with Woody Guthrie, comes from the same source.

The danger of using irony is that readers may not understand. Contrary to increasingly popular mis-reading, Huckleberry Finn is NOT a racist novel (for that, I suggest Uncle Tom's Cabin, which portrays the black characters as docile and stupid, more like Labrador retrievers than people). Huck has been raised by a white-trash drunk and he repeats what he's heard about black people all his life. At the same time, he shows us that Pap, Tom, Boggs, Sherburn, the Grangerfords, the Shepherdsons, and the King & the Duke are lazy, greedy, stupid, violent, dishonest, or most of the above. Jim, on the other hand, is brave, loving, loyal, honest, and patient.

Never trust what someone tells you if he shows you something else.

If you write mysteries, the unreliable narrator should be near the top of your bag of tricks. Agatha Christie showed how far you can take this idea in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). You don't have to go as far as Dame Agatha, but since people lie in mysteries, why deprive the narrator of so much fun?

Remember, you have to let the reader understand that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. A careless reader won't catch on (so much the better), but if you play fair and suggest along the way that narrator X spins more than bottles, you have lots of possibilities.

So, how do you play fair?

One way involves having the narrator say right up front that he prevaricates. In Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden is a paranoid schizophrenic in a mental hospital. He ends the first chapter by telling us, "It's the truth, even if it didn't really happen."

How much clearer can you get?

Holden Caulfield is a direct literary descendant of Huck Fin and a close relation to Chief Bromden. It still surprises me how many readers of Catcher in the Rye miss that Holden delivers his narration to a therapist after he's had a nervous breakdown.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, the narrator of Shirley Jackson's underappreciated We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is almost as crazy as Chief Bromden, but not as straightforward. "Merricat" tells us on page one that she's often thought she should have been a werewolf and that she likes Richard Plantagenet and the death's-head mushroom. We see her obsessive rituals to ward off "trouble," too. She lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian; the rest of the family died from eating sugar laced with arsenic on their strawberries. The small town shuns the family because they believe Constance evaded prison because of insufficient evidence. It's nearly the end of the book when those townsfolk trash the sisters' home and Merricat snarls, "I will put death in their food and watch them die." Constance says, "The way you did before?" and Merricat answers, "Yes."

She hasn't lied to us before about who poisoned the sugar. The subject simply hasn't come up in conversation. By the time it does, we've had ample opportunity to see that Mary Katherine Blackwood has more issues than the archives of the New York Times.

Gillian Flynn is equally clear in Gone Girl. Early in the book, Nick Dunne starts counting the lies he tells other people. This implies that he lies to us, too. Sure enough, when the police and Amy's parents call him out on various inconsistencies, he admits the truth...eventually. What makes the book so powerful is that Amy, the missing wife, lies even more than Nick...and even more skillfully.

Sometimes, the narrator shows you subterfuge without actually saying he lies. Chuck Palahniuk gives us a huge disconnect two page into Invisible Monsters. The macabre tableau involves Edie Cottrell's wedding reception--and Brandy Alexander bleeding out at the bottom of the stairs from a shotgun blast. Palahniuk's scene is horrific because it's so specific. Then the narrator shows her true colors: "It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the blood stain."

He's even clearer in Fight Club. 200 words into the story, he says, "I know this because Tyler knows this." Think about it. He repeats the comment throughout the book, too. That's fair.

Some narrators don't deliberately lie, but their background cause a bias that clouds their vision. I've mentioned Huck Finn, but think also of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Nick tells us his family is wealthy. His unconscious bias against the poor explains his letting Gatsby take the blame even though they both know Daisy drove the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. It's worth pointing out that Nick, who tells us he's the most honest person he knows, has two affairs during the book and came east to avoid marrying the woman he seduced back home.

Never trust what a character tells you if he shows you something else, remember?

In The Perfect Ghost, Linda Barnes shows us apparently agoraphobic Emily Moore, who mourns the death of her writing partner, killed in what might not have been an accident. At the same time, she starts sleeping with the famous director she and her partner were interviewing so they could write his biography. It may not be dishonest or unethical exactly, but it's poor enough judgment to make us examine the rest of her story more carefully.

Barnes, Flynn and Fitzgerald all use flashbacks, which delay the revelations because an altered chronology puts more pages between the contradictory details so readers are less likely to notice them. I generally avoid flashbacks, but nothing is off-limits if you do it really well. All three of these writers do it really well.

Another way to justify an unreliable narrator is to make him dumb or naive. Ring Lardner's short story "Haircut" (1926) features a barber telling a stranger about the events in a small Midwestern town. The story lasts as long as the customer's haircut, but Whitey the barber is too thick to understand how the people and events he describes fit together. By the end of his story, we understand that a murder has been committed. We know who did it, how, why, and that he will get away with it, too. Great stuff. And the unreliable narrator is the only way to make the story work.

Lardner's tale inspired my own story "Little Things." The two main characters are a bright eight-year-old boy and a shy six-year-old girl who meet when their respective single parents bring them to a miniature golf course. Amy lacks the wider knowledge to know that her experiences are not "normal," and Brian is too young to grasp the significance of what she tells him. Amy's mother and Brian's father are wrapped up in each other and don't even hear the little girl's revelations.

Everybody lies. But first person narrators do it better.

Trust me.


28 January 2018

Who'd a Thought?

by R.T. Lawton

SOUTH DAKOTA - East River

It was Super Bowl Sunday 1980, when the bartender paged me to the phone. My boss was calling to let me know that a four-engine aircraft had come down in a wheat-stubble field just west of the Missouri River during the late afternoon. He then made a strong suggestion that I go to the scene.

SOUTH DAKOTA - West River

Just as the sun was peering over the horizon, I drove up out of a shallow ravine and there in the wheat-stubble field sat a four-engine aircraft with oil slicks from each engine dripping off the aft edge of both wings. The plane's fuselage was loaded with bales of marijuana, 26,000 pounds of the stuff.

As we later pieced it together, it seems that a group of entrepreneurs had purchased a couple of four-engine aircraft in Spain and had at least one of them flown to Panama where it was worked on. According to regulations, whenever a plane departed the airport in Panama, it was supposed to file a flight plan as to its destination, however there is an exception to that rule if the flight crew was merely going to take off, fly around to check out the maintenance work and then immediately land. So, that's what the aircrew told the tower they were going to do. They took off like they'd said, but then kept on going south, all the way to a clandestine airstrip in Colombia, an airstrip guarded by Colombian Army soldiers. Corruption at its finest.

The plane got loaded with pot bales and the aircrew was going through a pre-flight check list, when a jeep load of soldiers drove up and told the pilot to take off NOW. The pilot politely explained that it was too early to leave, that he had a certain two-hour window in which he was to take off in order to arrive at his destination at the correct time. At that point the conversation deteriorated.  The Colombian soldiers pointed their automatic weapons at the pilot and insisted it was time for him to depart their clandestine airstrip. Not having any weapons of his own, the pilot quickly cranked his engines and took off. The tenseness of this experience rattled the aircrew's nerves enough that shortly after wheels up on the landing gear, they commenced the consumption of rum.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, the plane lost oil pressure. This necessitated the crew chief hooking up a 55-gallon barrel of oil and hand-pumping oil to each of the four engines. They entered U.S. airspace at the Texas border and allegedly flew north over Omaha, Nebraska, over SAC Headquarters without our Air Force scrambling fighter jets to intercept them. So much for our national border security in 1980.

Meanwhile, the ground crew, out of Minneapolis, was busy that late afternoon, laying out a landing strip in the wheat-stubble field with lights hooked up to car batteries, when they suddenly heard the approach of a large aircraft. They immediately got on their radio and told the airplane they had arrived too early and therefore were supposed to fly into North Dakota and return after dark before landing. However, the pilot having been threatened with automatic weapons, having consumed a quantity of rum for his nerves, and tired from having flown a leaky aircraft for several hours in air space he wasn't cleared to be in, made a heated reply, something to the extent of they were landing now, so get the hell out of the way. And, they did.

Airplane Number
South Dakota people are friendly folk and have a tendency to help people in distress, thus the ice fishermen on the Missouri River (America's true first line of national border defense) saw the airplane come down in the field, and in their concern for their fellow man, they immediately put down their fishing poles and drove over to assist these unfortunate souls downed in the middle of nowhere. Turned out, the aircrew members were not grateful for this offered assistance. The fishermen became suspicious and one brave guardian of America's borders let the air out of the plane's front tire, and state radio then got a call.

Now, the pilot, having been previously involved in these types of operations, had it in his contract that he would be driven to a motel to wait out the unloading process, after which he would be driven back to the wheat-stubble field and would then fly out the airplane. He never went back. Also, a fuel tanker and a flatbed semi with hay bales on the trailer were on a side road nearby to refuel the aircraft and offload the pot bales to then be concealed among the hay bales. They never got to perform their functions.

That's me in brown coveralls
and black wool watch cap
Back at the wheat-stubble field, seeing that all was not going according to plan, the ground crew scattered into the hills. Being city boys, they were not suitably prepared to spend the night in the great outdoors. By morning, most of them stumbled out as best they could to country roads. Cold, shivering, some with hay sticking out of their hair and clothes from burrowing into hay stacks to keep from freezing, these future felons begged to get arrested just to get warm again. For them, their grand pot plane adventure was over. Their court adventure was about to begin.

A few months later, DCI Agent Tommy Del Grosso and I flew down to Tampa, rented a car and drove over to a county jail where the pilot had taken up temporary residence. He agreed to talk to us if we'd take him out for a real meal. Guess he didn't care much for jail cuisine. Tommy and I signed him out in leg irons and took him to a local restaurant. When his meal came, I watched him pick up the salt shaker and pour it all over his salad. Having not seen this act before, I inquired as to what he was doing. His explanation was that it was terribly hot in that Florida jail, no air-conditioning for the summer heat, therefore the inmates sweated a lot and the jailers did not provide any salt or salt tablets, so he was taking this opportunity to load up. We got a lot of details from him on the smuggling operation, so he was worth the price of a meal and an empty salt shaker.

In the end, we had an airplane from Spain, flown out of Panama by an aircrew from Florida and loaded with marijuana from Colombia. The ground crew, fuel tanker and flatbed semi came from Minnesota, The wheat-stubble field was scouted out by a local boy from West River. A group of Eskimos from Alaska helped fund this pot plane endeavor, and if all had gone well, then three more smuggling flights were planned.

It was several years later, when I learned from another source that one of the higher up pot plane conspirators, that we didn't know about at the time, who was from the Dutch Antilles, took a long walk off one of the upper floors of a high rise in Singapore. The rumor in the drug world at the time was that someone in upper management wanted to ensure that his own name never got mentioned for some of their clandestine marijuana deals.

In retrospect, will we ever win this war on drugs? Probably not, but then most of us working agents figured the best we could do on the streets was to try to keep the lid on the garbage can.

                                                                           #

On September 30, 2017, my old boss and I took a road trip to Pierre, South Dakota, to attend the first and only Pot Plane Reunion. I got to meet and shake hands with the now 98 year old rancher/ice fisherman who let the air out of the plane's front tire. Also listened to the defense attorney who represented the pilot from Florida all those years ago. Unfortunately, too many law enforcement and others who had participated in the case had already passed on and there was one more of us who probably wouldn't make it to January in order to have the reunion on the actual anniversary date.

South Dakota. Super Bowl Sunday. A wheat-stubble field. Who'd a thought?

27 January 2018

Bad Girl Book Club –
the book club you may want to join!

by Melodie Campbell

Yes, there really is a Bad Girl Book Club (although it might also be known as the Lazy Bookclub.)

Right here, in Southern Ontario, a group of gals meet twice a year (hence the ‘lazy’) to lay out a set of criteria for a year of reading.

Okay, yes, there might be booze involved. And possibly a pig-out of gargantuan portions. But reading’s supposed to be fun, eh?

Here’s the thing: Our ranks include two association CEOs and senior execs. We aren’t the sort of people who like to be told what to do. So we don’t all read the same book every month. Instead, we draw up a set of criteria that we agree to meet.

Want to try it yourself? Get together a bunch of reading mates (buds if you’re American) and try this list:

2017 Reading Challenge
Readers must read at least 12 out of 14
  1. A book publisher this year
  2. A book you can finish in a day
  3. A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller
  4. A book chosen by your spouse, partner, child or BFF
  5. A book you previously abandoned
  6. A book that has won a major award within the last five years
  7. A book that is based on or is a true story
  8. A book that was made into a movie
  9. A book that was translated from another language (forcing us all to leave North America)
  10. A book in a genre you never read
  11. A book about travel adventures
  12. A book written from a non-human narrative perspective
  13. A Giller Prize Winner
  14. A book that starts with the same letter of your first name
Alternative criteria from the 2016 list:

  • A book published before you were born.
  • A book you should have read in school but didn’t.
At each meeting we compare books read, and make recommendations. This year, I added a new dimension to my list.

Increase the number of books that feature female protagonists written by female writers, to 75%. That is, 75% of the books I read this year should be written by women and should feature female protagonists.

How am I doing on that issue? I tried hard. I really did. I’m sitting at 61 books out of 95 read. Not quite 75%. Very simply, I’m having a hard time finding books that meet this criteria outside of cozies and romance, both of which I’m not keen on.

Female crime writers often write male protagonists. Even our bestselling author at Crime Writers of Canada – Louise Penny – writes a male inspector. We have secretly discussed among ourselves whether she would have been as successful if Gamache had been a woman. That’s a heated discussion for another day.

What is notable is that there seems to be a trend for male writers to write female protagonists. These may be good books, but they aren’t women’s stories in the way that I mean. They are written with a different lens.

So I’m struggling to find 75 books in year that I want to read, that are by women telling women’s stories.

How did I do on the rest of the list? 14 out of 14, of course! And the wonderful thing – I forced myself out of the usual crime ghetto, to read an assortment of books that I never would have read otherwise. Some – like The Nightingale and The Alice Network – were terrific.

If you’re interested in the list of books I read to meet the above criteria, let me know and I’ll post it here.

Have a wonderful year of books in 2018!

(Here's the book everyone in my group read for the "A book you can read in one day" category:

26 January 2018

Throwing Raspberries

by O'Neil De Noux

In 1940, the last year of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, only seven copies of THE GREAT GATSBY were sold.



Edgar Allan Poe sold THE RAVEN for $20.

I have 36 books in print and many times my monthly sales are low. That happens. I haven't learned the tricks of selling online, but I'm still young. Writing well is more important to me than selling well, I suppose.

HOWEVER -
The next person who says I must be rich because I'm a writer with all those books in print will get a raspberry from me. Not the tongue-vibrating raspberry. I'm going to the grocery to buy raspberries to throw at people. Especially relatives who see me arrive at a family gathering in my 2004 Saturn SUV.

My writer friends know what I mean. We don't do it for money. We write because we were put on this earth to be writers. And don't think it's the quality of writing that makes those big-name writers sell more books than most of us. It's good marketing and readers too lazy to try someone new. Kudos to those writers who sell lots of books.

FOR YEARS I've been asking friends and relatives, acquaintances, people on the street, people on social networks to buy books as Christmas presents, birthday presents. Don't even go to a store. Just go online and order and it's delivered to your house. Books are ease to wrap. Books make people THINK and FEEL something, maybe even drag them away from depression into another world for a short while. If it's a good book, it'll remain with the reader. May even make them laugh or cry.

Remember IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - when you hear a bell ringing an angel got his/her wings?

Each time you buy a book, you're helping support someone who has struggled with our limited means of communicating to weave a tapestry of ideas and sensation and scenes that can be unforgettable.

I recommend books I've read all the time to acquaintances, friends, passersby, family. I buy books as presents.

Funny note about family. All of my books are dedicated to someone, often family members who I dutifully give a copy of the book to, family members who politely ask me at the next family gathering how my writing is going. I ask them if they liked the book I dedicated to them and they find lint to brush off their shoulder or a hem to straighten or a belt to pull up or they have to go to the bathroom.

Time to go to the grocery for raspberries.

Just as I put this posting together, my high school English teacher from ARCHBISHOP RUMMEL HIGH SCHOOL in Metairie, LA is so proud of me dedicating my latest book to him, he sent a notice to the school. Check it out.

Some people do appreciate a dedication.



www.ONeilDeNoux.com

25 January 2018

R.I.P. Ursula K. LeGuin

by Brian Thornton


Ursula K. LeGuin
Acclaimed fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin died last Monday at her home in Portland, Oregon. She was 88.

LeGuin was, by any measure, a great writer. I tore through her Earthsea trilogy while still a teenager. From there I moved on to her science fiction, which really didn't hold my attention. I daresay adolescent boys weaned on adventure fiction were probably not her intended audience while writing those works. Either way, I suspect the shortcoming was mine, and not hers.

When she added to the Earthsea chronicles decades after finishing the original trilogy, I tried the next book out, and didn't finish it. Again, I suspect the shortcoming was mine.

That said, I was, and continue to be, blown away by what is arguably her greatest work, A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in her Earthsea series. Completed in the late 1960s, it has never been out of print since.

And with good reason.

The book's plot pays homage to a whole raft of ancient and medieval hero cycles while also anticipating the likes of Harry Potter. It is the story of Ged, a poor boy from a poor island, who early on demonstrates a talent for magic, and so is hustled off by his bemused (and discomfitted) family and neighbors to the BIG TIME: a school for wizards.

Once there he (stop me if you've heard this before) makes friends and enemies, fails and succeeds at a variety of challenges set in his path, demonstrates tremendous potential and youthful arrogance which so often accompanies such potential. And then while showing off he makes a colossal (and freudian) mistake. Said mistake scars him both literally and figuratively. This mistake's immediate consequences are rectified only at tremendous cost to others. The long-term costs are borne almost solely by Ged himself.

The other two books of the trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore are terrific books in their own right, but don't really stand alone the way A Wizard of Earthsea does.

But for all that, LeGuin was a master stylist, with interesting and very public ideas about writing. She mentored several generations of writers, and was not shy about giving her opinion about the nature of inspiration, and the state of the publishing business itself.

I was reminded of this while working on this post over the last couple of days, and reading a fair number of wonderful tributes to Ms. LeGuin. While reading the indispensible Chuck Wendig's own take on this, I followed a link he posted to LeGuin's extended response to the question: "How do you make something good?"

I'll close with the portion of her response that speaks directly to the concerns of emerging writers concerned about catching on in the publishing business:

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And that, in and of itself, is pretty damned good.


24 January 2018

To Have and Have Not

David Edgerley Gates


Hemingway published To Have and Have Not in 1937, the picture was released in 1944. The book isn't unreadable, but the movie's a lot better. Watching it again, I'm reminded of a couple of things. Bogart and Bacall falling in love. Howard Hawks never shot a scene that dragged in his entire career. William Faulkner was one hell of a script doctor, drunk as a skunk or otherwise.

The story Hawks tells is that he was out on a hunting trip with Hemingway. Hemingway starts bitching about how Hollywood can't get his books right. Hawks says he's selling his books to the wrong people. "Hell," Hawks says to him, "I could take your worst book and make a terrific picture." We can imagine the long, stony pause. "Yeah?" Hemingway says. "What is my worst book?"


Going in, it's obvious they won't get past the censors, and Faulkner isn't even convinced there's a movie in it. What if, Hawks suggests, we wind the clock back and tell the story that led up to the book? They bring Jules Furthman on board. Furthman's got what, a hundred credits, give or take? According to Hawks, they come up with enough back story for a whole other picture (actually made in 1950, The Breaking Point, with Garfield).

Betty Bacall was eighteen when she made the cover of Harper's Bazaar, and her picture caught the attention of Hawks' wife Slim. It was Hawks who wanted her voice to be lower in register, and it became her trademark, a smoky, throaty purr. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?" Bogart rolled over and paddled his paws in the air.

The echoes of Casablanca weren't accidental.  It's wartime Martinique, but it's still Vichy. Bogart throws in reluctantly with the Resistance. His common sense isn't blunted by sentiment. When de Bursac's wife loses her temper and snaps at him, it's Frenchy who apologizes. "Forgive her," he says, "she's not herself." Bogart shoots him a look. "Oh?" he asks. "Who is she?"


Another common Hawks signature: the apparent throwaway scene, which is integral to character - character being everything, in Hawks. Here, the musical numbers, Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael, "How Little We Know" (which signals what we've already guessed from her body English) and "Am I Blue?" Seriously, you have to ask? It might put you in mind of Rio Bravo, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan on harmonica. The drunk, the kid, the gimp, each of them missing a piece, you might say. And then John Wayne, self-sufficient and contained. Or you make a different calculation, that Chance is not only set apart, but isolated. The other three have a vulnerability, a soft spot he doesn't get to show. Or share.

I saw The Big Sleep first, before To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep has a lot of the sexual dynamic, not to mention a better score by Max Steiner, but it doesn't have quite the same energy. It doesn't have the invention, or the novelty. The way the two of them look at each other. There's nothing contrived about it. It ain't the lighting, or the soft focus. Bogart and Bacall are there.

Movies are an artifice, a construction. The camera catches reflections. The images have already been decided, and they're waiting to be arranged. But as with all things, we have to allow for happy accident. Accidentally, To Have and Have Not is a document. We watch two people get lucky. You learn how to whistle.



23 January 2018

The Wound


Keenan Powell was born in Roswell, New Mexico, several years after certain out-of-towners visited. Her first artistic endeavor was drawing, which led to illustrating the original Dungeons and Dragons when still in high school.

A past winner of the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant, her publications include Criminal Law 101 in the June 2015 issue of The Writer magazine and several short stories. She writes the legal column, Ipso Facto, for the Guppies’ newsletter, First Draft, and blogs with the Mysteristas.

She lives and practices law in Anchorage, Alaska. When not writing or lawyering, she can be found riding her bike, hanging out with her Irish Wolfhound, studying the concert harp, or dinking around with oil paints.

— Leigh  


Karma and the Trial Lawyer
by Keenan Powell

My first job after law school was an associate with a formidable old trial lawyer.

In my very first jury trial, I sat second chair for her. Second chair is the young lawyer who sits beside lead counsel in court and doesn't speak. Second chair's job is to take notes and make sure that lead counsel has the exhibit she wants when she wants it.

The trial was a federal felony: a bank teller charged with embezzlement. On the last day of evidence, my boss told me I was doing the closing argument the next day. I was terrified. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I was convinced our client was innocent and that if I screwed up the closing, she could be wrongfully convicted. Not only that, I had never seen a closing in real life before. In the wee hours of the next morning, I dreamt the entire argument, got up, and wrote it down. That morning, I delivered the argument I had dreamt. The jury came back with an acquittal in three hours.

    Maeve Malloy debuts in Deadly Solution. After drinking sidelined her Public Defender career, attorney Maeve defends an Aleut Indian accused of beating another homeless man to death. With no witnesses and a client with bruised knuckles who claims no knowledge of the murder, the outlook appears hopeless.
    The unfolding case brings Maeve and her investigator Tom Sinclair to urban homeless camps, rough roadside bars, and biker gangs. Maeve finds more than enough people with motives for wanting the victim dead.
    The case takes an unexpected twist when the forensic pathology report shows the victim died of a prescription overdose, not a beating. Maeve and Tom link the murder to a string of earlier deaths among the homeless that had been ruled ‘natural causes.’
That was encouraging.

After knocking around for a few years doing different kinds of law, I found myself associated with another sole practitioner, a venerated criminal defense attorney. I had decided criminal defense was what I wanted to do: stand in front of a jury like Clarence Darrow and fight the good fight for truth and justice, just as I had for that bank teller.

One day, my boss told me that he and another criminal defense lawyer were taking me out to dinner that Friday. Oh, my, I thought, I've hit the big time! I had visions of a steak dinner on linen overlooking the glittering waters of Cook Inlet. Instead, they took me to pizza chain restaurant. I don't think those two guys even knew how to order, much less eat, a pizza. (I got the salad bar.)

As it turns out the purpose of the gathering was to warn me about karma, and it was a conversation that they didn't want overheard – which is why they took me to a virtually empty restaurant. (Later I checked the restaurant's health rating. It wasn't good.)

The gist of their warning was: Sure, you feel good when you win. But sometimes, and it can happen to anyone, you can get an acquittal that results in a bad guy going free and then that bad guy does truly evil things. One of those attorneys had, in fact, obtained an acquittal of a murderer who went on to kill three more people including a woman and her child. (He was later found in a ditch.)

Decades later, an idea struck me for a legal mystery. I wrote and I wrote. In 2015, I won the William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic grant.

With the grant, I attended the Book Passages Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera where my pages were critiqued by a renowned author, who said, "Your protagonist must have a wound."

So, my protagonist, Maeve Malloy, got two wounds: a childhood event that spurred her into criminal defense, and then, while working at the public defender's office, a good trial result that leads to devastating consequences.

Maeve will make her first appearance in Deadly Solution (Level Best Books, 23 January, 2018).

— ❦ —

22 January 2018

Saying Good-bye

by Janice Law

My view of Anna
There comes a time for good-byes in literary relationships. I’ve experienced this twice, first with Anna Peters, a detective who made my first novel a success and who explored mostly white collar crime in seven subsequent volumes. I liked her, I really did, but I’d made a serious miscalculation, I’d aged her with me.

Anna, professional illustration
That didn’t seem a problem when I began, but as the series extended and she got older and more settled and developed back problems, I understood that, despite an Edgar nomination, we had to make a break.

Fortunately for my artistic development and for her personal safety, the series was not the fiscal prop of some struggling publisher nor the passion of a legion of demanding fans. I didn’t need to kill her off, as some writers have done with heroes who hung around too long, but could settle her into a decent retirement.

Madame S in AHMM
More recently, I bid farewell to two characters who have done yeoman work in the short story markets, namely Madame Selina, Gaslight era NYC’s leading medium, and her assistant, Nip Tompkins, an orphan with a good deal of savoir faire. I’ve enjoyed them, and Nip, in particular, has a turn of phrase that is a pleasure to record.

But I have already explored many of the issues of their time, including spiritualism, the aftermath of the Civil War, exploited heiresses, Irish rebels, corrupt politicians, votes for women, and immigration.

There are, I know, fertile imaginations that can ring endless changes on a couple of appealing characters and the sins of a big city. Not me. Nip has grown up and, not having any gift for the spirit world, has entered the newspaper business.

My view of Madame S & Nip
Lucky boy, journalism is in its greatest days, and having appeared in a novella along with Madame S, he will perhaps have an afterlife. We will see.

I have been thinking about good-byes lately, because another big one is coming up: the last of the Francis Bacon novels. Mornings in London finishes the second trilogy with this character. The first trilogy debuted with Fires of London, set during the Blitz when Francis was scraping together a livelihood along with his beloved Nanny, and ends with Moon Over Tangier, when Francis is an established painter with a toxic lover and a big hole in his life following Nan’s death.

I could have said farewell then and had the perfect ending. But these things are not solely under the writer’s control. Francis, gay, alcoholic, promiscuous, and ambitious, was such fun. He was quite different from Anna, Madame Selina or Nip. Although he disliked the countryside and animals, both of which I adore, he was interested in the Greek plays and Shakespeare, and of course, in painting. So am I.

But I did not necessarily want to forge ahead. As a general rule, people of great achievement are more interesting on the way up. Their struggles to succeed are much interesting that the lists of greatest hits of the established artist. The solution was to head backwards, where I felt Francis was both more charming and more vulnerable, the latter an essential for any mystery, caper, or suspense novel. The Bacon books partake of all three.

Last Francis Bacon novel
His biography was a great help in the decision. He was dispatched with a truly funny uncle to Weimar Berlin in his father’s delusive hope that he would come back a heterosexual soldierly type. Then he went to Paris, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties and acquiring some basic art training, before he set himself up in London with his nanny and opened a design studio.

Three venues, three books. It worked out nicely. But now the Second World War is coming, and Francis is about to become an Air Raid Precautions warden and embark on the adventures of Fires of London. Although he’s been good for me, being a finalist three times for a Lambda award and winning once, it’s time to say good-bye.

As consolation, he recently acquired another life in the form of talking books, as the first four volumes have been produced by Dreamscape and are excellently read by Paul Ansdell. Francis could not have been better voiced. My Francis is pleased, and maybe the real Francis Bacon would have been, too.

21 January 2018

Lost in the Eighties

by Leigh Lundin

Scarecrow and Mrs King
Nope, not touching upon the implications here.
Last week, I reviewed Gin Phillip’s Fierce Kingdom.

The protagonist makes several references to a mid-1980s television spy series, Scarecrow and Mrs King. I’ve spent decades without television, so the program was unknown to me. Gin Phillips managed to sufficiently interest me, I streamed the first (out of four) seasons.

The principals, Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner, are attractive and humorous. John le Carré this is not, but it is fun, especially when housewife Amanda King cleverly thwarts baddies and their plots.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I offer this condensed version.
The Spy Who Came In From the Mall

June, 1983, Washington, DC. Intelligence Chief Billy Melrose calls an emergency meeting.

“A dastardly foreign-looking, culturally sophisticated attaché…”

“Culture, that’s suspicious,” says Agent Lee Stetson, aka Scarecrow. “And attaché… that seals it. Only foreigners use diacriticals.”

“Anyway, an undercover operative has stolen the last Galactic Man action figure in Washington.”

“Someone stole it?” Scarecrow asks.

“Well, not if you’re going to be technical. They used a coupon on top of a Toys-Я-Us diplomatic immunity discount card.”

“So what does that mean, boss?”

“It means I have to drive to Baltimore to buy another one for my nephew. The Soviets bought it as part of an incomprehensible kidnapping scenario. I’m foggy on the plot but their operatives, Putin and Pulitov, plan to sabotage national elections. That could never, ever happen, but we have to stop the kidnapping. I mean to send you, Scarecrow, but we need someone to pose as your wife.”

Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
“Me, me! I can do it.” Agent Francine Desmond frantically waves her hand in the air.

Scarecrow’s handsome brow furrows as he stares off in space. “Who could do the job?”

Francine jumps to her feet. “Me, me! I’ve worked here nine years; I can do the job.”

“I don’t know who,” Melrose says. “Barbie’s pregnant and Paula’s on assignment.”

“Me, me! I’ve got two masters and a doctorate in spyology.”

Stetson snaps his fingers. “What about Petunia Oggleswort?”

“Out sick. The entire steno pool fell ill. We’ve run out of options, Lee. Who do you think, Francine?”

“Oh, Chief, I’m so glad you finally asked…”

Whump! The door swings open. Amanda King bouncy-steps in carrying a tray.

“Hi everyone. I brought fresh cookies.”

Francine mutters under her breath. “Oh, no. Go away, you b-b-bitc—.”

Chief Melrose brightens. “Oh hi, Amanda. I’m afraid we’re too busy to chat. We’re in the midst of a crisis trying to figure out who…” He stops and looks significantly at Stetson. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Scarecrow selects an oatmeal chocolate chip. “I’m thinking we need coffee with the cookies.”

“No, I mean the op. Right in front of our noses: Amanda! We use Mrs King! She could pose as your wife.”

“Oh no,” says Stetson, vigorously shaking his head. “Not a civilian.”

Francine nods. “Exactly. She’s just a silly suburban tw—“ She stops as everyone turns to stare at her. “… uh, twenty-nine year old housewife.”

Amanda distributes more cookies. “Twenty-six and no, I don’t want the job. I have to run home to head up the birthday party for my son, uh, whats-his-name and my other boy, um, er… His name will come to me too. And my mother’s babysitting right now although she’d rather be cleaning the refrigerator and I have to take my station wagon in for the twenty-two thousand mile oil change and visit the book store where we killed that mafia guy and grab lunch at the tea shoppe where those foreign agents shot at us and and buy vegetables although I can’t understand why people like broccoli or eggplant, and do my nails and watch my soaps and MacGyver and Cheers and I never miss Columbo so you see I’m very busy.”

“Hmmph. Busy seeking endless praise and admiration, you attention craving c—…” Francine suddenly realizes she’s mumbling aloud. “Er, I mean cunning manipulator, just too perfect for poor spies like us.”

“It’s settled then. Scarecrow, you and Mrs. King check into the resort as a honeymoon couple. Francine, see to the details.”

Francine throws up her hands. “Oh, no, no. I’m not covering for that skinny-ass—“ She stops. “… assiduously slender housewife. Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Then shoot me.”


In his subtle silver Porsche 365 with NOT•A•SPY license plates to disguise the car, Lee Stetson speeds with Amanda to the Lake Coochy-Coo Resort. At the bar, he orders a ’78 Grand Cru des Saults Ste Marie.

Amanda sips a glass. “I’m afraid I don’t know these fancified wines and stuff. Now my mother loves colorful booze, pinks and pastels. I feel so outclassed. Really, that time you bought me steak tartare I thought it was raw hamburger, but that shows you my taste or lack of taste, as I’m sure you already know because I’m happy with Burger King where they cook the steak tartare and put it on a sesame seed bun with pickles and onions and…. Oh, look! There’s our quarry.”

“Shh, Amanda. Don't stare."

“But he looks so much like Francine.”

“It is Francine. She slipped into disguise to fool the bad guys. Let’s find our room and get some sleep.”

Once they unlock the door, Amanda protests.

“There’s only one bed.”

“Yes, of course. We share one bed in episodes 2, 20 and 33. Our cover is we’re on our honeymoon.”

“Not me, buster. I wasn’t raised that way. Maybe Mr. King said my notion of oral sex was endlessly talking, but that’s why he’s the ex-Mr. King ’cause he expected hanky-panky on our honeymoon and I’m not that kind of girl, I mean he’s still Mr. King I guess but I’m not his Mrs ’cause that’s not my sort of thing although you and I glow with repressed sexual attraction and everyone except McMillan & Wife has been bangin’ since the 1960s, well, 1920s and before, I mean look at the court of Louis XIV, but anyway I’ll take the sofa because you won’t fit, on the sofa I mean, or you can stay up and hide in the hallway closet– there’s a metaphor if I ever said one– and spy on the guy about to be kidnapped, anyway I think it’s wrong of the agency to put us together like this and… Are you snoring? Hey, are you awake? Well, I’ll just slip out and look for the kidnappers on my own.”


Next morning, Lee Stetson awakes to the sound of the telephone.

“Scarecrow, where are you? The kidnappers nabbed their victim along with Amanda. They made a run for the get-away limo, but they couldn’t unlock it. They’re headed for their escape chopper.”

“I’m on my way, now.”

Stetson arrives in time to see the helicopter start to lift off. Abruptly its engine chokes, coughs black smoke, and the whirlybird settles back to the ground as it backfires and dies.

The kidnappers fire several machine gun rounds before the doors burst open and the bad guys fall out, knuckling their eyes. Amanda steps down, holding a can of hair spray.

“Hi everyone! I haven’t been trained with mace, but I had my big-hair-spray can and let ’em have it. And I put fingernail polish in the limo locks so the bad guys couldn’t get in and I borrowed, well, purloined actually, maple syrup from kitchen and poured it into the helicopter gas tank. I didn’t know if it would work, but figured it worth a try, and it did pretty well, didn’t it? Didn’t it?”

“Congratulations, Mrs King,” says Chief Melrose. “I’m sure the President wants to award you another secret commendation.”

Francine stares daggers. “Why you scheming, sleazy, slu…” She stops under the glare of Melrose and Stetson. “I mean sultry, sultry and silky Mata Hari.”

“Matty Harry who? I’m just a simple suburban housewife and mother of uh, two, I think, let’s see… one… yes, two, and I’m so pleased I could stop the bad guys and speaking of stop, I should be at the bus stop to pick up my kids, no wait, maybe Mom will pick them up or they can walk. But any awards should go to Lee because he’s the best secret agent ever and I’d do him if we didn’t work together and I love Francine who alerted the bad guys we were on to them spooking them with that innovative disguise that put them on the run. Anyway, I promised to make meatloaf for next week’s royal heiress episode.”

“You’re adorable,” says Stetson.

“Winsome,” Chief Melrose says. “Isn’t she a darling, Francine? Francine?”

“Uh-oh! Francine’s choking,” cries Amanda. “Quick, I learned Cub Scout CPR.”

20 January 2018

Movie Music


by John M. Floyd



Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer


This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.

Questions

How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here . . .