Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

18 April 2018

Five Red Herrings 9

by Robert Lopresti

1. Little gun, big noise.  This weekend saw the announcement of the finalists for the Derringer Awards, presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Once again, it was a good year for the Notorious SleuthSayers Gang.  In the Flash category Travis Richardson was shortlisted for "Final Testimony," which appeared in Flash Fiction Offensive (ed. Hector Duarte, Jr. and Rob Pierce, July 10, 2017) and Elizabeth Zelvin scored for "Flash Point,"  in A Twist of Noir (ed. Christopher Grant, March 20, 2017).

Paul D. Marks is a finalist for the Novelette zone with "Windward, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea  (ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, January 2017)

And I made it into the  Short Story category with  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan"  Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, (ed. Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press, October 2017)

Congrats to all my fellow finalists, SleuthSayers or not!  


2. A Nonfutile, Nonstupid Gesture.  I recently watched the Netflix original movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  Some of you may recognize that title as a line from Animal House.  The movie tells the story of Doug Kenney who (with others) created National Lampoon, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a hilarious little book-length parody called Bored of the Rings.  The flick is narrated by Martin Mull playing an older version of the main character.  ("I'm a narrative device," he explains.)

The reason I bring this flick up is that at one point Mull points out something in the movie that is not true to life and then announces that they are going to provide a list of other inaccuracies.  It rolls up the screen quickly in tiny print but you can go back at the end and read them all.  They range from "Characters A and B met in a party, not in a bar," to: "Everyone was much more racist and sexist."

I loved this.  Whenever I see a movie based on true events I wind up going to the web to see what was real and what wasn't.  (I knew that tube scene in The Darkest Hour  was fake.)  Bravo to the folks who made Gesture, which, by the way, is definitely worth seeing.

3. You call that Justice?  Lowering the Bar is a wonderful blog about the quirks of our legal system.  The most popular piece last year was the true story of a lawyer whose pants literally caught fire while he was summing up the defense of his client, who was accused of arson.  This is the sort of thing that drives fiction writers to despair, because you couldn't put it in fiction.

But I want to tell you about this piece  which has everything for the SleuthSayers audience: a mystery, law, grammar issues, snark, and Sherlock Holmes.  The main topic is this portrait which resides in the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court, but no one knows who it is.  That's the mystery.  The rest comes from the newspaper quoting the Chief Justice urging the public to "put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats " and try to figure out who is pictured.  Kevin Underhill, who runs the blog, is outraged:

So. “Sherlock Holmes” is not a plural noun—unless you’re talking about several men named “Sherlock Holme.” If such men exist, and they have hats, and you collected the hats of more than one such man, then, my friend, you would have in your possession “the Sherlock Holmes’ hats” (that is, the hats of the men named “Sherlock Holme”). “By Socrates’ beard,” you could say then, “I have here all the Sherlock Holmes’ hats!”

4. Comic Sans and Brimstone.  This is a public service announcement. I just want to warn you do not go to the website Clients From Hell.    It is a hilarious time suck.  Anonymous people (mostly graphic designers)  report on horrifying encounters with horrifying customers. Here are some of the main categories (as judged by me).
The vague: "Make it more modern and traditional."
The clueless: "I can't find the ENTER button on my screen."
The Arrogant: "My friends  at NASA says this is a terrible website design."
The Holy: "We won't pay you but you will be working for God."
The Unholy: "Take out the pictures of Black people.  Our customers are White."
The Crooked: "Just copy it off our competitor's website."
The Greedy: "You're a freelancer.  I thought that meant you worked for free."

Stay away from this page, I beg you.  It will consume many hours of your life.

 5. Stop the Presses!  Do you remember how in newspaper movies they would announce that they had to stop everything and tear out the front page because of breaking news?

I had to throw out the last item I had set up today because it was just announced that my book WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT has won the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award.  That's the big prize for scholarship in government information.  The Government Documents Round Table said a bunch of nice things about the book here.  I would be happy to say some nice things right back.






04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

07 March 2018

Write in Haste, Publish at Leisure

by Robert Lopresti

There were so many killings that year I had to look up his name.  It was Philando Castile.

He was a Black man in Minnesota, killed by a Latino cop moments after telling the man that he had a licensed handgun in the car.  The police officer was acquitted.

The shooting happened on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.  The next day someone put up a link to this (already existing) video in which a jolly cop and cheerful civilian explain how to safely inform a police officer that you are carrying a weapon.  Someone had added in the comments, approximately: "For best results, be White."

The next day I went to synagogue and the rabbi's sermon was about the killing. As I biked home I remembered that video.  The plot of a story burst into my brain.

I am usually  a slow writer.  Very slow.  It takes me months to write a first draft and then a couple of years to turn it into something publishable.

But I wrote the very short "Nobody Gets Killed" in two hours that Friday night.  I revised it the next day and sent it to a friend for editing.  By Monday it was on its way to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and you can find it in their current, March/April, issue.


I have said before that every piece of fiction involves two sides of the brain, the Miner, and the Jeweler.  Some people talk about conscious/unconscious mind, or left and right brain, but this metaphor is what works for me.  The Miner digs out the raw material and may do some of the work, but eventually he hands it off to the Jeweler who polishes it into something that is hopefully publishable.  Often when the Miner is running the show the writer has little conscious memory of the process.  "It's like I wasn't even there.  The words just flowed out."

A lot of the time my Miner comes up with only the bare idea and leaves the Jeweler to do everything else.  But "Nobody Gets Killed" was 90% Miner.  Doesn't mean it's a better or worse story for that, by the way.  You will have to read it and see what you think.

One more thing...  I have just had stories in three issues of Hitchcock in a row.  "The Chair Thief" was a short comic tale  of office politics, with an unexpected sting in its tail.   "Train Tracks" was a long historic semi-Western story of revenge and redemption.  And now "Nobody Gets Killed" is a brief ripped-from-the-headlines slice-of-life anecdote.  Hitchcock has purchased one more  but it is not yet scheduled; "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests" is a comic crime caper.

It would appear that I am having some difficulty establishing a consistent brand for myself.   But as long as Hitchcock keeps buying (I am up to thirty sales there) I guess I shouldn't complain.

By the way, I wrote another piece about writing "Nobody Gets Killed," and it appears on Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.



21 February 2018

There Was A Wicked Messenger

by Robert Lopresti

I have lots of friends on FaceBook, some of them I have known since childhood and some I wouldn't know if they bit me.  That's the nature of FB.

Not long ago one of that latter group contacted me on the FaceBook app called Messenger.  It became pretty clear that something shifty was going on and, checking out that friend's FB page I found a note saying "Ignore any messages from him.  His account has been hacked."  Well, by then I was too interested to ignore them.




Alas, I didn't spot the typos here. (I was in a restaurant wating for lunch to arrive.) I meant to say "I enjoyed their singing but frankly their dancework..."



??? indeed.

At that point I gave up.  But if I had sent one more message it would have gone something like this:

I contacted the sponsors and they said they left the names of some winners on the list at the request of the FBI.  You see, it turns out some real scumbags are trying to rip off the winners. I hate people like that, don't you?  How do they spend all day trying to rob people who never did them any harm and then use those same hands to caress their lovers or comfort their children?  How do they talk to their mothers knowing how ashamed those mothers would be if they knew the truth about them?  Please be careful, my friend. There is a lot of evil out there.

By the way, a few days after this happened to me the same thing happened to Neil Steinberg, one of my favorite columnists.  You can read about what he did here.

07 February 2018

No Fun Aloud

When my first novel was published I went to a regional booksellers conference to explain to those fine people why they needed to stock thousands of copies of my masterpiece.  Among the other naïfs in attendance was Steve Hockensmith, promoting his first comic-western-mystery.  We hit it off.  Steve has gone on to write fifteen more novels, receive two Edgar nominations, and has been spotted in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, as well as the New York Times Bestseller List.  Recently I asked Steve to write something for SleuthSayers about the importance of riboflavin in the human diet.  He countered by offering to discuss the writing process.  Since neither of us was sure what riboflavin is (is it better than regular flavin?), that seemed the better approach.  You can read more of his wisdom at stevehockensmith.com.
— Robert Lopresti



No Fun Aloud
by Steve Hockensmith

I think I might be a good writer partly because I'm bad at it. Not "bad" in the sense that my writing's turgid or confusing or cliched or wrong-headed. I'm not [AUTHOR NAME REDACTED IN THE INTEREST OF KEEPING THE PEACE...HEY, SOME PEOPLE LIKE TURGID, CONFUSING, CLICHED AND WRONG-HEADED]. It's just that writing's so damn hard.

Words don't come pouring out of me. They drip. Slowly. Like...like...aw, hell. I don't feel like spending 20 minutes trying to work out the right simile, so just take my word for it. They drip. Even the smallest project -- writing a tweet, say, or adding a message to a birthday card -- requires brainstorming, outlining, two pots of coffee and long, long stretches of absolute silence. And even then I'm going to lose my confidence half-way through and come close to quitting. ("'Enjoy your special day'? I can't believe I actually wrote that. I'd tear this card up and get another if it didn't cost me four bucks. Stupid Hallmark…")

The only thing that's more painful than writing is rewriting. Fortunately, I usually don't have to do much of it: Most of the needed rewriting already took place in my head while the writing was going on. Spend 10 minutes on one sentence, and there's a good chance it'll come out right. (Warning: There's also a good chance you'll lose your mind.) Rewriting can feel like taking a perfectly good cake and trying to turn it into a plate of cookies. Sometimes, of course, the cake actually sucks, and sometimes you have a contract calling for a plate of cookies. So you do what you gotta do. But I agonize in the hope that I don't gotta.

I think I know where a lot of that agony comes from, too. Fellow writers: Do you write out loud? Do you actually speak every sentence you're trying to construct? Do you test words by listening to them together?

Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. If every writer answered "Yes, yes, yes," none of us would ever be allowed in Starbucks again. Too many customers would be complaining about the weirdos muttering into their laptops.

And lots of writers do write in coffee shops. Which I've never understood. You know where I want to write? A closet. An isolation tank. The Batcave (when Batman and Robin are off POW-ing and ZOK-ing the Riddler's henchmen in a jigsaw puzzle factory and Alfred's upstairs baking bat-pizza).

I need to be somewhere I can hear the words and not get glared at by latte-slurpers for doing it.
Because writing isn't just stringing words together on a screen. It's speaking to readers. It's standing up and telling them a story the way we used to do it around the fire at night. Out loud. When we talk about a writer's "voice," it shouldn't just be a fancy way to say "style." For truly good writing, IMHO, it should be literal.

Not MHO at all, because it's a damn fact: That can make writing a lot harder. I think it's worth the extra effort and aggravation, though. In the end, it's the voice of your story people will hear, not all the mumbling, grumbling and cursing it took to find it.

Unless you’re one of those nuts who writes in Starbucks…

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.

17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

03 January 2018

Bizarre Bizarre

by Robert Lopresti


One of the dangers of the library biz is that you are constantly surrounded by attractive nuisances, by which I mean those flat things with lots of pages between their covers.  In a word, books.  You stroll on your merry way, glance at a shelf, and uh oh, there's something that will fill your lunch hours for weeks to come.

For instance, I recently noticed a biography of John Randolph, or as he preferred to style himself, Randolph of Roanoke.  I had heard of him before as a master of the instant insult, a sort of Winston Churchill for the Federalist period.  For example, here are his comments on a couple of politicians he didn't love:

John Randolph
"Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."

 "Never were abilities so much below mediocrity so well rewarded; no, not when Caligula's horse was made consul."

I picked up the book looking for more such wit.  Instead I stumbled into one of the strangest true stories I have ever encountered.  If you wrote this up as a gothic novel your editor would say, sheesh, tone it down.  No one's gonna believe it.

Once I got interested I went looking for a book specifically on the topic and found Cynthia A. Kierner's Scandal at Bizarre, which is the main source of what you will read below.

This is a bizarre story in more ways than one, because most of the characters lived in a house called Bizarre.
 
Start with this: The Randolphs were one of the oldest families in Virginia, and like many of the aristocrats after the Revolutionary War, were sunk deep in debt.  John's big brother Richard, head of the clan, was married to his second cousin, Judith Randolph.  (That was her maiden name.  The plantations of Virginia were stinky with Randolphs.)

Living at Bizarre with the newlyweds were John and also Judith's sister Nancy.

On October 1, 1792, Richard, Judith, and Nancy spent the night at the home of some friends, Mary and Randolph (!) Harrison.   During the night Nancy began screaming in pain.  Mary went to check on her and found-- Well, what you expect?  That Nancy's sister Judith was looking after her?  No, it was her brother-in-law Richard.

In the morning the Harrisons found blood on the stairs.  Later that day the family slaves reported finding a dead newborn on the plantation.  The Harrisons, oddly enough, did not check up on that story.  (Perhaps they had  a very good - or very bad - reason for that, as we shall discover.)

Patrick Henry
It seems clear that unmarried Nancy had either had a miscarriage, or an abortion (a few weeks earlier Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha,  married to yet another Randolph, had  provided Nancy with a medicinal herb which supposedly could be used as an abortifacient), or else she gave birth.  The vital question was: had there been a live birth and if so, how did the child die?  Was this infanticide?

The scandal rocked Virginia and most people assumed that Richard was the father, which made it a case of incest.  (Not because they were second cousins but because they were brother and sister-in-law).  Richard finally demanded to be put on trial in an effort to clear his name.

Nancy, by the way, was willing to admit to a stillbirth  and to claim that Richard and John's other brother Theo, who had died months before, was the father.  But that didn't really help Richard: as head of the family he lost honor if he had permitted such things to happen under his roof.  He wanted a court to exonerate them both.

John Marshall
And the trial is where it gets even more interesting.  (Richard's lawyers were the aging but legendary orator Patrick Henry and future Chief Justice John Marshall.)  There were no witnesses who could testify that they had seen a dead baby.  Remember how the hosts chose not to go look?  The slaves had seen it, of course, but slaves could not testify.  (Interesting fact: later Richard turned against slavery, and freed his own slaves.)

A Not Guilty plea was delivered but the Randolphs remained under a cloud of disgrace.  Judith never forgave her sister and after Richard died years later she relegated Nancy to duties that were normally done by slaves.

Not surprisingly Nancy left her beloved Virginia and went north, where her fortunes changed dramatically when she met Governeur Morris.   Morris was quite a character in his own right.  He was a successful businessman and diplomat and one of the major writers of the U.S. Constitution.

Morris apparently told Nancy he was looking for a housekeeper for his home in what is now the Bronx. It seems apparent he had other plans for her as well.

Governeur Morris
Nancy arrived at Morrisania in April 1809 and apparently fit right in.  On Christmas day, to the astonishment of Governeur's assembled relatives, the lifelong bachelor took her as a bride.

The relatives were  not thrilled.  A kind interpretation would be that they were afraid this young poor woman of dubious reputation was taking advantage of their beloved kinsman who was, after all, a doddering old codger of fifty-seven.  A less generous explanation was that they had been expecting to inherit his considerable wealth and saw Nancy as an obstacle.  Which indeed she was, especially after giving birth to Governeur, Jr. three years later.

One niece, acting as what we would now call a concern troll wrote to her dear uncle worrying about what the world would think of his marriage.  He replied: "If the world were to live with my wife, I should certainly have consulted its taste; but as that happens not to be the case, I thought I might, without offending others, endeavor to suit myself."  What's the early nineteenth century term for "drop the mic?"

Some of Nancy's in-laws plotted against her (led, inevitably, by a crooked lawyer) and found a champion in no less than John Randolph.  Remember him?  It was his biography that got me into this whole mess.

Randolph of Roanoke wrote an 8-page letter supposedly addressed to Nancy but actually sent to her husband.  He warmed up by accusing her of infanticide, then suggested that she had poisoned Richard to death.  He claimed that she had slept around in Virginia, and even had an affair with a slave.  (This was apparently based on the fact that she had addressed a written work order to one with the words "Dear Billy Ellis."  Surely showing good manners to a slave revealed unbridled lust!) And when she went north, he said, she had been a prostitute.   Of course he was hinting that the Morris's son was illegitimate, a charge which if believed would boost the futures of  the spiteful shirt-tail relatives.

Morris apparently held on to the letter for several months before showing it to Nancy.  Now, I must admit I have become a fan of this guy.  For one thing he was the child of slaveowners but adamantly against that peculiar institution.  Secondly, he was a notorious ladies' man in his youth, but clearly wasn't the type who held women to a different standard than himself. So, my theory has to be a favorable one: I think he kept the hate note hidden until he suspected (correctly) that Randolph was spreading copies around.

Nancy did not suffer in silence.  Her cousin, the insult master, was about to have his timepiece sanitized, by which I mean she cleaned his clock.  Two can play at the nasty letters game.

The only known portrait of Nancy Randolph Morris
She wrote her own 7,000 word letter and circulated at least twenty copies.  Since Randolph had called her alleged slave lover "Othello" Nancy replied that by whispering lies in her husband's ear Randolph was playing "honest Iago."  Switching plays, she said his letter was "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Then Nancy  pointed out that he had provided no evidence for his charges and then demonstrated that his own actions contradicted his assertions: If she was so horrible why would John allow his sickly nephew to be under her care for months at a time?  She also said that when she was young he had pursued her romantically but had been rebuffed because of his "mean selfishness" and "wretched appearance." She called his recent behavior "unmanly," which had to sting since he was widely rumored to be impotent.  She even mocked his pompous preferred title, putting "John Randolph of Roanoke" in scare quotes whenever she used it.

These letters appeared while Randolph  was running for Congress and were no help to his political career.  At that point he retired from the Nancy-libeling business.

Governeur Morris died not much later.  In his will he ignored his ambitious relatives and left most of his estate to his young son, whose paternity he clearly never doubted.  He left Nancy an allowance to live on with the caveat that if she remarried the allowance  would be --

Increased.  You didn't expect that, did you?  Morris explained that if she remarried she might have more expenses so he wanted to provide for that possibility. I think he was hoping she would find a new husband.  As I said, I like this guy.

But Nancy never remarried.  She raised their son and arranged for the publication of  her late husband's letters, which demonstrated the domestic bliss they had found together.  As it turned out the strongest testimony about Nancy's fidelity was her son, for the boy looked more like his father every year.

Young Governeur became a successful businessman and when his mother died he built a church in her honor.  And so ends the bizarre story of the residents of Bizarre, back in the days when politics was clean and southerners were chivalrous.  Or something.