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

19 April 2017

I don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means



by Robert Lopresti

Not long ago I had an embarrassing moment.  I discovered that the word erstwhile means former.  You may think: well, he's easily embarrassed if that bothers him.  The problem is that I had managed to get to the age of mumbly-mumble thinking it meant alleged.

In one of my stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer, I said:
Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.

Exactly.  I agree with myself completely. I wondered if anyone else had the same experience so I asked my Facebook friends, and got an earful.  Here are some of their examples of words that fooled them.
Toothsome means delicious not toothy.


Nauseous does not mean nauseated.

I used to use venal to mean generally nasty or snide, when it really means to commit crime for money.

For years I thought svelte meant the opposite of what it really means.

 Livid? I always thought it meant flushed red, but it means pale.


Querulous means whiny. I always thought it was about being picky, or a fuddy-duddy.

Enervate. Thought it was kin to energize.

I used to think hoi polloi meant the snooty upper crust. Then I learned some Greek...

How the heck can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?


Noisome means stinky, not loud.

I used to have a boss that referred to a very crowded space as fulsome.  It means over-the-top flattery.  When she  referred to a fulsome audience I winced.

 Georgette Heyer, in Black Sheep, uses sallow and swarthy interchangeably several times to describe the leading man's complexion (which was swarthy, not sallow).

I tend to mix up chartreuse and puce.

Rather than saying self-deprecating, I'd been using self-depreciating for years. 

dearth

secular

sanguine

obviate 

Although I knew what it meant I always read hyperbole as hyper bowl and couldn't figure out what that meant.


I was an adult before I realized pinochle was pee-nuckle - a card game I used to play with my father - and not some unknown card game pronounced. pin-o-ch-lee.

I was in college before an English teacher told me that AP-ruh-PO and apropos were the same word.

Rob again now: While I was writing this I got an email from someone who said he was "vehemently in favor of" something or other.  I didn't know that was possible.  I knew vehement meant forceful, emphatic, but I thought it was inherently negative.  I regret my erstwhile (ha!) misunderstanding.

So, confession is good for the soul.  What words have you misunderstood all your life?



05 April 2017

Brit Crimes

by Robert Lopresti

Recently I was watching a movie called Redirected and I realized I have become a big fan of a certain kind of flick, which I call Brit Crime.  Redirected is a reasonable example of the  genre, although it is not a great movie.

Quite simply I am talking about British movies about contemporary organized crime.  They tend to have a lot of humor, a lot of violence, and they often involve amateur criminals coming up against more experienced villains.

Redirected (2014) is a joint British-Lithuanian  production (and how many of those have you seen?)  The hero, Michael, is a member of the Queen's Guard, which means his biggest challenge is wearing that tall stupid black hat and keeping a straight face while tourists gawk at him.

But on his birthday three friends play a hoax on him. Except it isn't a hoax.  They are pulling off a robbery on a gang of major crooks and they need a fourth.  The next thing he knows Michael is waking up in... Lithuania?  He is more than baffled and he knows there are very nasty gangsters on his trail.  Crazy things happen.  My favorite is the scene in which a naked man beats a priest with a radiator.  Well, he has his reasons.  And here is a memorable line from a Lithuanian bride-to-be:

Simona: I'm no slut.  I have dreams.  I want to be a film critic!

So, that's Redirected.   But when I think of this type of movie the model in my head is Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Guy Ritchie wrote and directed this one, and won the Edgar Award for it.  Like my first movie, this one involves four lightweights who try to rob some big timers in order to deal with a cash flow problem.  It also involves two antique shotguns that get swiped. And it's pretty hilarious.

  Gary: Shotguns? What, like guns that fire shot?
  Barry the Baptist: Oh, you must be the brains of the operation. 

Two years later came snatch, Ritchie's follow-up with many of the same actors (in fact, Vinnie Jones is in all three of these movies... a reliable mobster man), but a different plot.  Everyone involved seems to be having a great time, especially Brad Pitt who says not one comprehensible word.  Another well-known actor spends most of the flick with a bag over his head.

Bullet Tooth Tony: You should never underestimate the predictability of stupidity.

While those two Guy Ritchie movies are my imprint of what a Brit Crime movie is, I think the best of the genre is In Bruges (2008)Two British hitmen are banished to Belgium after a job goes horrifically wrong.  Their boss (Ralph Fiennes) is not a man to annoy.  (When he gets bad news he beats his telephone practically to molecules.)  As I have said before, I am a sucker for stories about redemption and each of the main characters in this flick turn out to be slightly better than we (or even they) suspect.

Ray: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't. 

Here are some more.

The Long Good Friday (1980) Bob Hoskin is a crime boss suddenly under attack by unknown enemies.

Harold: You don't crucify people! Not on Good Friday!

Mona Lisa (1986) Bob Hoskins (I love me Mr. Hoskins) is fresh out of prison.  The crook he went to jail for gets him a job as chauffeur to a call girl.  Things get complicated.

Simone: I'm the girl they rush home from..

Sexy Beast (2000) Odd title, quirky movie.  Ray Winstone is  a retired mobster.  Ben Kingsley, a million miles from his usual roles, is the insanely nasty recruiter sent to drag him back for One Last Job.

Don: I won't let you be happy.  Why should I?



Layer Cake (2004) Just before turning into James Bond, Daniel Craig plays a cocaine merchant with One Last Job to do before retiring.  He should have watched Sexy Beast.

Eddie: England.  Typical.  Even drug dealers don't work weekends.

So, tell me your favorite Brit Crime movies that I missed.  Or I'll send Ben Kingsley to persuade you.

29 March 2017

Beyond the locked gate

by Robert Lopresti

Saturday will be April Fool's Day, which makes this an excellent opportunity to talk about Mulla Nasrudin.  I am amazed to find that in all my years of blogging I have only discussed him once, and  that, in passing.

The concensus is that the real-life Nasrudin was a Sufi born in Turkey in the 1200s.  But since he is known in folklore from the Middle East all the way to China there is obviously much debate about that.  (Also about his name: Molla Nasreddin, Nasr Eddin, Nasrudeen Hodja, or just the Hodja, to name a few variations.  The catalogers at the Library of Congress settled on Nasreddin Hoca.)


What is certain is that the character belongs to the tradition of the wise fool: the spiritual leader who passes on his message by behaving in eccentric ways, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not.

I don't claim to understand Sufism at all but I think it is a mystical tradition within Islam which believes enlightment cannot be achieved by study or words alone.  It requires long-term commitment to a great teacher and one learns from the behavior of the teacher as well as from texts.  There is an interest in achieving the conditions necessary for grasping truth, not in merely sitting down with a text.  Everyone who has actually studied Sufism is now welcome to explain in the comments that I am full of beans.

Remember the old joke about the man who lost his keys at Point A but looked for them at Point B because the light was better there?  Classic Nasrudin.  And, if you think about it, clearly an allegory for the pursuit of truth (although, in proper mystical fashion, the message itself is debatable).

I had a friend who spend a year in Afghanistan several decades ago and he said that a day never passed without someone telling him a Nasrudin story. They were always told to make a point but they were so far from Western thinking that my friend sometimes could not tell when the punchline had arrived.

Here are a few stories relevant to crime fiction.  As far as I know they are all ancient and in the public domain.  Whether they have deep meaning I leave up to you, but the last story makes an interesting argument about the administration of justice.  (By the way, there is no relation between the books shown and particular stories.)

The Detective

One day Nasrudin bought three pounds of meat.  While he was out his wife cooked it and ate it.  When he came home he asked where it had gone.

"The kitten ate it."

Nasrudin pulled out a scale and found that the kitten weighed three pounds.  "If this is the cat, where is the meat?  If this is the meat, where is the cat?"

The Victim

One night Nasrudin found a burglar in his house, stuffing objects into a sack.  Nasrudin immediately began to add more to the bag.

"What are you doing?" asked the burglar.

"I thought we were moving," said Nasrudin, "so I was helping you pack."

The Criminal

"Mulla, you are so wise!  Has anyone ever asked you a question you can't answer?"

"Only once.  It was: 'Why are you sneaking through my window in the middle of the night?'"

The Judge.

A woman came to Nasrudin's court and complained: "My son is addicted to sugar.  I can't make him stop eating and he is spending all my money.  Please order him to stop."

"This is a very difficult case," said Nasrudin.  "Come back in a week."

She did.  "This still requires more work," he said.  "Come back next week."

This happened twice more.  Finally Nasrudin called the boy before him.  "You are making your mother's life a misery!  I order you to stop eating sugar or you will be severely punished."

The mother thanked him.  "But Mulla, why couldn't you have done the same thing weeks ago?"

Nasrudin shrugged.  "How could I know it would take so long for me to give up sugar?'

****************************************************

There is a beautiful tomb in Aksehir, Turkey, supposedly that of the great Mulla.  It is guarded by a gate, sealed with a great padlock.

There are no walls connected to the gate.







23 March 2017

Cliffhangers

by Rob Lopresti

This appeared on a different blog seven years ago and was one of my most popular pieces.   I figured many of you haven't read it and the rest have forgotten it, so....

LOOK OUT!
 
Don’t you see that car fishtailing up the road, barely staying on the pavement? It’s heading straight to the cliff, zooming like the brakes have been cut, and it seems that in just a few seconds it will crash to certain doom. We may have just enough time to figure out what kind of a novel we are in …

If the driver is the local aristocrat that everyone in the village hates and has reason to kill, this is a cosy.

If the driver is a young punk who has just realized, too late, that the beautiful woman he slept with last night had no intention of sharing the dough with him, this is a noir.

But if that punk has in his pocket a compromising photo that implicates a millionaire’s daughter in a vicious murder, we’re in a hard-boiled.

If the driver and passenger are currently engaged in an activity that might feature in a compromising photo, this could be pornography. The Supreme Court will know it when they see it.

If the driver is in a mad rush to get Scruffy to the vet, and Scruffy will eventually have to drag his master out of the burning wreck with his two remaining teeth, this is a dog novel.

If the driver, nursing deep scratches on both arms, is steering with one hand while trying to stuff poor kidnapped Mitzi back into the carrier case, this is a cat mystery.

If the driver is attempting suicide because he just discovered (on the day he got his license!) that his sexy driver’s ed teacher was only pretending to like him to get the attention of the hateful football coach, this is a coming-of-age novel.

None of the above.
If the driver is scrabbling at the door handle, clawing at it with both hands in a desperate attempt to throw himself out before it’s too late, this is a suspense novel.

If he took the wrong road because he just heard his wife being interviewed on the radio, and he thought she died in South America ten years before, it is psychological suspense.

If the handsome young man races up in a jeep at the last moment to pull the beautiful driver out the car, it’s a romance.

But if she realizes that that handsome young man had been tinkering with the car just before she got in it and she has to decide right now whether she trusts him or not, this is romantic suspense.

If the only one who had the chance to tamper with the brakes was the handsome young man’s insane mother, it’s a gothic.

If the car is being chased by a crack squad of militant monks because the driver is in possession of the only extant copy of the Perth Amboy Codex, an ancient manuscript that claims St. Paul was a woman, this is a religious thriller.

If the car is being chased by a tank, it’s is a war novel.

But if the tank is full of Confederate soldiers, this is alternate history fiction.

And now the car is flying off the cliff…

If the driver, an elderly Byelorussian, uses his last strength to toss from the car a blurry photograph with the words “Storm Captain, Morocco” scribbled on the back, this is an espionage novel.

But if, on the other hand, the driver, a handsome man with a ruthless expression and an ironic smile, jumps out the window and, by pressing the right lapel on his tuxedo, turns his pocket handkerchief into a fully-functional parachute, then this is a spy novel.

If the car suddenly emits a pale green light and takes straight off into the sky, it’s science fiction.

If little Maisy in the back seat prays really hard and the car lands, unharmed, in a tree, this is inspirational fiction.

If the driver manages to scrabble out to safety but the car, weighted down by a trunkful of gold bullion, sinks forever into the swamp, it’s a caper novel.

If that same driver lands safely in a pile of pig manure, it’s a comic caper novel.

Attribution below.
After the crash …

If the brake cable was sliced exactly 17 centimeters from the pedal with an Entwhistle Model 22K cable cutter, which is sold only by three hardware stores in the northeast, this is a police procedural.

If the car crashed because of a design flaw which only one engineer in the whole world can detect, and he is a drunken has-been, living on hand-outs from the company that made the mistake in the first place, this is a legal thriller.

If the driver is found to have a temperature of 105 degrees, green splotches on his skin, and breath that smells like nutmeg and old firecrackers, we’re in a medical thriller, and I hope you had your shots.

If it turns out the driver, alone in the car with all doors locked and windows closed, was stabbed through the heart with a dagger which is not even in the car, this is a locked room mystery.

If it turns out the driver died for no reason and everyone spends the rest of the book feeling very, very sad about it, this is mainstream literature.

If the driver turns to ashes as the sun comes over the horizon, this is a vampire novel.

If the driver turns out to be the president’s best friend, who hasn’t been seen since the day after the election, it’s a political thriller.

If the driver’s sister discovers a tragic secret in the wreckage, and has to decide whether to share it with the family, this is women’s fiction.

If the driver got the heel of her Manolo Blahnik caught in the gas pedal, this is chick lit.

If there is no driver, it’s a ghost story.

If the trunk contained forty-seven jars of homemade jelly which were intended for a tasting at the new gourmet food store in town, this is a novel with an amateur detective.

If this is the fifth car to zoom over a cliff in the last two years, it’s a serial killer novel.

If the pulverized remains of the murdered driver meld with the shattered remnants of the ruined auto and together they go in search of vengeance, this is a horror novel.

If, on closer examination, the car turns out to be a Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses, this is a western.

If the Conestoga wagon was pulled by a team of llamas, this is a very badly researched western.

If the car bounces, it’s fantasy.

Did I miss any?

Photo: By Matchstik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex

by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

01 March 2017

Breaking into Showbiz

by Robert Lopresti


Usually I put a picture of myself at the top of this piece, figuring you should suffer in order to read my wisdom.  However, that is not me over there.  It is Charlie, who likes to sit on the desk between me and the screen.  He decided to co-author this piece, sort of.

Years ago  I saw an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg entitled ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, which was just what it sounded like.

And such is the case here, with me playing de Kooning and Charlie as Rauschenberg.  (You get to decide which is the bigger stretch.)

See, after I had poured hours of research into this piece and done most of the writing Charlie stuck his paw on my keyboard and erased it.  (Blogger is unforgiving about some things, as all of us SleuthSayers know.)    I put it back together as best I can.  When you go to Heaven perhaps St. Peter will let you read the Platonic ideal of this blog entry. Unless, of course, St. Charlie gets there first.


Today I am offering a quiz of a type I haven't seen before. I am going to give you a list of familiar characters from popular culture.  (You may not know all of them, but trust me, most will ring a bell.)  The question is: How did each of them start out?   The answer is, in one or more of the categories you see on the left.

Here is an example, not on the list below: Zorro originated in a short story by Johnston McCulley. See how easy?

One warning: Some of those categories on the left might get used more than once, or not at all.  Okay.  Go!

Rosie the Riveter.

Smokey Bear.

Harley Quinn.

Arthur Dent.

Topper.

Boba Fett.

Ma and Pa Kettle.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Cisco Kid.

John Henry.

Dr. John H. Watson

Made up your mind?  Here are the answers.

http://groundedparents.com/2015/05/08/a-fond-farewell-to-rosie-the-riveter/
Grounded Parents page
Rosie the Riveter.  Song.  The iconic symbol of women in the World War II war effort originated in a song created by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942.   The image most associated with her during the war was an illustration by Norman Rockwell, cheekily based on Michaelangelo's portrait of Isaiah.  The illustration we associate with Rosie now ("We Can Do It!") was created by J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse factories, and didn't get its Rosie connection for decades.

Smokey Bear. Advertisement.  A lot of people think Smokey started with the black bear cub rescued after a fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 1950.  But the cub was named in honor of the Forest Service symbol who first appeared in ads in 1944.  By the way, the real-life bear lived to old age in the National Zoo and was so popular he had his own zip code (20252).

Harley Quinn. Television.  In the Batman universe Harley Quinn was a psychologist who tried to shrink the Joker.  She went nuts and wound up as his sometimes lover/sometimes enemy. She was the only character who made the jump from the animated TV series to the comic book.  Her portrayal by Margot Robbie was generally considered a highlight of the unloved movie Suicide Squad and is supposedly scheduled for another flick this year.

Arthur Dent.  Radio.  Poor confused Arthur Dent has wandered  throughout the universe (usually in a bathrobe) in a multitude of media but Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started on the radio. It then became a series of wonderful novels, a clever TV show, and a dreadful movie.

Topper.  Novel. Cosmo Topper was the mild-mannered bank clerk who bought a car possessed by the ghosts of the Kirby's, a fun-loving, hard-drinking couple who dedicate their afterlives to making Topper's life more exciting, whether he wants excitement or not.  Before it became a movie and a TV series (with the wonderful Leo G. Carroll in the title role) Topper was a novel by Thorne Smith.  If Hollywood paid Smith fairly for all the ideas they cribbed from him, his descendants would be heating their mansions by burning thousand dollar bills, just to keep them from cluttering up the place up.

Boba Fett. Parade or Television.  Boba Fett, the iconic bounty hunter from the Star Wars movies, right?  A lot of people know that.  Some fans know he appeared earlier in the legendarily-despised Star Wars Holiday Special.  But two months earlier he marched, with Darth Vader, at the San Anselmo County Fair Parade.  Why?  Well, Lucasflm was headquartered at San Anselmo back then.  

Ma and Pa Kettle.  Real Life or Memoir or Novel.  You tell me.  In 1945 Betty MacDonald published The Egg and I, a comic memoir of life on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula.  Among the characters were the disreputable Kettle family, a lazy and not-too-bright couple with many children.  The movie version was a hit and the Kettles were so popular that they were spun off into a series of popular comedies.

Later the Bishop family, ex-neighbors of MacDonald, sued her, claiming that the Kettles were based on them and they had been libeled.  They settled out of court but when they sued the publisher MacDonald testified and swore she had made the whole thing up. Okay, she said the characters in the book were all composites, not based on real individuals. The jury believed her, or  maybe they didn't care for the plaintiffs, and found in her favor.  So: Memoir or Novel?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Advertisement.  Robert L. May created the ninth reindeer for an ad for Montgomery Ward in 1939.  A decade later May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the famous song, growing a number one hit for Gene Autry, and a permanent part of our holiday culture.

The Cisco Kid.  
Short StoryThe idea for this blog entry came when I read this piece in Dear Rich, a wonderful advice column about intellectual property issues.  Turns out the Cisco Kid originated in a story by O. Henry of all people.  In "The Caballero's Way," he was an American outlaw, and a nasty one at that.    By the second movie (1928) he was a Mexican good guy.

By the way, Dear Rich concludes that Cisco is in the public domain but his sidekick, Pancho, is still under copyright.

John Henry.  Real Life.  Most scholars seem to agree that the song (songs, really) about John Henry were based on an African-American prisoner working on a railroad tunnel after the Civil War.  (They have reasonable doubts about the steam drill contest, however.)  The problem is they disagree as to which tunnel was involved, with major candidates in Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I lean toward the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, because I have read Steel Drivin' Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  His choice was a resident in the state prison with the right name, although he was a slim young man from my home state of New Jersey. Nelson provides one convincing bit of evidence:  Some of the old versions of the ballad say that the hero was buried at the White House, which sounds like the craziest of fantasies.  However, see the postcard of the Virginia Penitentiary?  That white building in the middle was the work house and when they tore it down they found 300 skeletons in unmarked graves, just outside.  They realy did bury prisoners at the white house.

The ballad of John Henry became very popular during the left-leaning folk revival of the 1950s as a metaphor for the noble worker battling soulless automation, but the early songs about him written by and for African-Americans mostly had a different message: Don't let the bastards work you to death.  Tom Smothers spoke truer than he knew when he summed up the song as follows: "Dumb smart alec.  Thought he could beat a steel drill."

Dr. John H. Watson. Novel.  Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Didn't you know that?

15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



01 February 2017

All about me me me, not really

by Robert Lopresti

"A writer who claims to have a small ego is either not telling the truth, or lying." -William DeAndrea

In December John Floyd wrote a piece here about twenty years of Best American Mystery Stories and I was honored to get a mention.  But there was something in the comments that surprised me: several writers said they had not known they had been mentioned in the Distinguished Lists at the end of the book until John told them.

Not the case for me.  I doubt there has been a best-of-the-year mystery collection published in the last three decades that I haven't scoured for my name. This may be in part because my third published story, the first in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, found its way into the Honor Roll at the back of one of Edward D. Hoch's best-of-the-year collection, back in the days of hoop skirts and buggy whips.  James L. Swain, in one of his excellent mystery novels about a gambling consultant, says that the worst thing that can happen to a person in a casino is to win the first time they play, because it gets you hooked. So I am an innocent victim.

But I have not seen my name in such a book again until BAMS 2015 when I made the distinguished list, and then hit the big time in 2016.  It may be another few decades for anything like that happens again.

Of course, there are other ways to feed the  habit.  How often do you vanity-Google yourself?  Most writers I know do it, but they tend to feel guilty about it.  Nice to see if anyone is talking about you.  (Or not nice, depending on what they say.)

Sometimes I type in my name and the title of one of my books or stories to see if someone has said anything about them. Occasionally I have found that someone put up a copy of one of my stories on the web illegally.  That's always fun.

But what I am interested in today is people who show up who aren't me.  I'm not talking about identity fraud, but other people with my name.

For instance, there is a psychologist in my home state of New Jersey who probably wishes I had a different name or hadn't gone into writing, since our identities get tangled on the web.  He spells LoPresti with a capital P but Google doesn't recognize that as a difference.

And Google can also show you a striking mug shot of a guy with my name in Florida.  I'm not going to put it here though.

Oddly enough I have been Tuckerized occasionally, although I assume it was an accident.  "Tuckerizing" is when you put a person's name in your book, usually because they bought the rights with a donation to charity.

For example, my name appears in Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues, a novel by Michael Brandman about Parker's character Jesse Stone.  I don't know Mr. Brandman and assume he picked my name at random, but it's freaky to read about myself being, for example, handcuffed and unconscious.  (That hasn't happened in years.)

And in Bye the Book, a medical thriller by Frank Caceres, I show up behind bars as a murder suspect. Again, I don't know the author.

Someday I will have to read these books and find out what happens to me.  I hope I'm okay.

When I first moved to this part of the world people would ask me if I was related to the local sports writer Mike Lopresti.  I explained that I wasn't related and that he wasn't local; hje just worked for the chain that owned our local newspaper.

And then there is Phil LoPresti who started the LoPresti Aviation Company.  A lot of people have nice things to say about his airplanes.

But the reason I am dragging this out is to tell you this.  I have a nonfiction book coming out later this year entitled When Women Didn't Count (more about that closer to publication date).  I needed to send someone a link to the publisher's pre-pub page so I went to Google and typed in: Lopresti Women.  And what popped up first were a lot of pages like the one on the right. Aaron Lopresti, comic book artist, may be the most famous of my namesakes.  And no, we aren't related either. 



18 January 2017

The very best stories of 2016

by Robert Lopresti

I hope you have all donned your tuxes and/or gowns, because I am about to announce the best short mystery stories of the year.  Prepare to watch the winners sashaying down the red carpet and smirking at the paparazzi.

This is the eighth year I have conducted this ceremony.  I regret to say 2016 was not as good as 2015 (insert political joke here), since the number of stories dropped from 14 to 13.

Seven authors were men, six female.  The big winner was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine with four stories.  Ellery Queen scored three and Crime Plus Music, an anthology from Three Rooms Press nabbed two. Five stories are historic fiction.  Three are (loosely speaking) comic.

The biggest surprise may be that there were  no repeat offenders: none of these authors had made my best-of lists before.  One SleuthSayer is included, as is one first story.

Addendum: I should have mentioned that slightly longer reviews of these stories can be found at my weekly review site, Little Big Crimes.

Okay.  Start the show!


Barnes, Linda. "The Way They Do It In Boston,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2016.

Veteran Drew wants to be a cop in Boston but it's hard to make the resident-for-a-year requirement when you are living in your car with your only friend, a beat-up ex-army dog.

So she's working night security on a tow service parking lot, down by the river.  One night a crate of assault weapons washes up on the shore.  Something bad is going on.  Does it involve the lot?  Can she survive long enough to find out?

Bastable, Mark.  "Motive, Opportunity, Means,"  in The Thrill List, edited by Catherine Lea, Brakelight Press, 2016.

Congressman John Fuller left his wife for his secretary.  Said wife did not take it well.  Now she has plotted an elaborate revenge, and Fuller's future depends on the shrewdness and determination of an overworked cop named Pinski who just wants to spend some time with own wife. 

If this description sounds a little sparse, you are right.  I don't want to give away any of the secrets of this marvelous, convoluted plot.

Bracken, Michael.  "Chase Your Dreams,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016.

Picture a small town in Texas, one so set in its ways that the whites and blacks still use seperate cemeteries.  Cody is a gay man, deep in the closet.  His secret lover, Chase, on the other hand, was "leading one-man Gay Pride parades." When Chase disappears, Cody has to decide what is more important: finding out the truth, or staying safe?

Buck, Craig Faustus.  "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.

1960, East Berlin.  Our protagonist has been shot in the head, a grazing blow that erased most of his memory.  The cops want to know what happened and the deadly secret police, the Stasi, are lurking on the sidelines, up to God knows what. Will our hero figure out who he is before the shooter realizes he is still alive and tries again? 

Cajoleas, Jimmy.  "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.


Teenage Douglas  has come up with the perfect place to sell drugs: his church's youth group.  Pastor Jerry loves his enthusiasm and has no clue about what's going on... or what Douglas is doing with his young daughter. What I love about this story is that is is full of classic noir characters, but they don't all follow the noir rules, and their choices may surprise you.  Very nice piece of work.


McCormick, William Buron.  "Voices in the Cistern,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2016.

This is McCormick's  second story about Quintus the Clever, a thief in the early days of the Roman empire.  And Quintus is having a bad day.

It isn't enough that he is in a city under siege by the Roman's deadly Scythian enemies.  No, he also has to deal with Vibius, a large, nasty, unscrupulous rogue.  The brute has decided Quintus is the perfect co-conspirator to help him with a dangerous scheme.  The last person involved was actually killed by, uh, Vibius.  What could go wrong?

McDermid, Val.  "The Long Black Veil,"  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

Jess lives with relatives because, a decade ago when she was four years old, her mother murdered her father.  That's the official story, but it turns out the truth is a lot more complicated.  "There are worse things to be in small-town America than the daughter of a murderess," says her caretaker.  "So I hold my tongue and settle for silence."
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2016.

A nice story in the P.I. vein by my friend Terrie Farley Moran. New York City, the Great Depression.  Tommy Flood, unemployed bookkeeper is looking desperately for work, and surviving through family ties.

And speaking of family, he gets an invitation from Van Helden, the wealthy man who employs his cousin Kathleen.  He has a dangerously wild daughter, and Van Helden has decided the solution is to find an attractive but tame gentleman to escort her safely to the risky sorts of establishments she enjoys. Tommy meets the daughter by pretending to be a private eye.  And guess what?  Turns out he's good at it... 

Rogers, Cheryl.  "The Ballad of Maggie Carson,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  May 2016.  

A real sui generis tale.   Maggie Carson, newly unmarried senior citizen, is racing through the Australian Never-Never with a lifeless body in her car.  A retired police officer is on her trail.  And why, in such circumstances, is she so cheerful?

Rogow, Roberta. "The Perfesser and the Kid," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, issue 19, 2016.

At Nikola Tesla's funeral an aging politician decides to entertain the gathered reporters with the true story of the great inventor's first day in America. We know that Tesla was robbed on the ship and stepped onto dry land with four cents in his pocket.   The official version says that he then met a man on the street with a broken machine and fixed it on the spot, thereby earning his first dollar on these shores. But our politician's version involves  a pool hall, a gang of street toughs, and Tammany Hall.


 Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.”  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

When was the last time you read a story written in first person plural?  The narrator is we, the collective voice of an over-the-hill rock band. After a gig the band's equipment (including the titular guitar) is stolen but "we couldn't call the police because one of us was supposed to be home with an ankle monitor strapped to our leg."  Hilarious.

Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016.

My fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens has come up with a nice one. Cathy and Frank buy the titular set of six blue glasses as they are preparing for their first dinner party.  They are a bit fragile and expensive but Frank loves them and Cathy tends to go along with what he wants, which turns out to be a piece of the problem in their marriage, a marriage we see falling to pieces like, well, a set of blue glasses.

Thielman, Mark. "A Meter of Murder," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman makes 1661 London come to life.  King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or sided with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.

One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost.  The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet. When a royalist member of Parliament is killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive big trouble is afoot, unless Milton can get to the bottom of it.

04 January 2017

A Flood of Ideas

by Robert Lopresti

The town where I live is usually pretty soggy, but this was the wettest October in recorded history.  Then, the first Saturday in November we got two and a half inches of rain.  And that was too much for the walls of my sixty-year old house.

I should explain that I live in a raised ranch, with what is known as a daylight basement.  And about half of that basement flooded on Saturday night.  Luckily, it was mostly the unfinished section.  We emptied at least seventy gallons out of there with wet vacs.
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I collapsed around 1 AM but Terri stayed up most of the night.  When I got up to relieve her I found myself doing a mindless physical task while half awake.  And as some of you know, that is a perfect condition for a writer to start bouncing ideas off his skull.

* What would Shanks, my mystery writer character, do if his basement flooded?  Complain a lot, naturally.  It's what he does best.  But could he use that mess to solve a crime somehow?

* Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine just bought the third story in my "Bad Day" series, each of which is about a group of strangers in fictional Brune County getting tangled up in a crime.  What if my incompetent Brune County cop, Officer Kite, got called to a flooded house?

* What if a family turned off (or didn't repair) their sump pump, causing disaster to neighbors downhill?  A family feud begins...

* The cabinet in our back tool room got soaked and all the boxes of effluvia and paint cans had to be tossed.  What if a couple who was, say, renting a house, experienced the flooded basement and, in the process of cleaning up, found something they weren't supposed to see?

Hmm.  I like that one.  Maybe once things calm down I can wring out the computer keyboard and see what happens...