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

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...

21 December 2016

The Superhero Slept Late

by Robert Lopresti

I usually write these things weeks in advance.  Had one all set up, but I'm kicking it aside because of something that happened today (Tuesday).

7:30 AM.  Still dark out.  I was rushing around getting ready to go to work, when the doorbell rang.

It seldom does, and at that hour of the morning?  Almost unheard of.

I opened the door.  There was a girl, or young woman.  Middle or late teens.  I had never seen her before.

The term is flat affect; I looked it up.  No expression.  Monotone voice.  Symptomatic of schizophrenia, depression, autism, or brain injury. 

Not that I'm a diagnostician, of course.

"I was wondering," she said, "if you could give me a ride to Ferndale."  Ferndale is fifteen miles away.

"No," I said.

"Okay.  Thanks."  And she walked away.

I shut the door and immediately started second-guessing myself.  What should I have done?  What would  I have done if I was more awake and not rushed?

Drive her to Ferndale?  Not  a chance.

Invite her in?  I don't think so.

Ask her what was going on? (What was that lost soul doing, walking up or down my hilly suburban street in the dark on a chilly morning at, did I mention, 7:30?)

"The Mask" by W. H. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfgangfoto/3206913459
Offered her something to eat?  Offered to contact the social workers (which at that time of day, would have meant calling the cops)?

I realized, eventually, I should have offered to give her two bucks, which would have paid for a bus to Ferndale.  Maybe that's what she was hinting at/hoping for.  If she had asked for busfare I like to think that I would have  shelled it out, even in my semi-sleepy condition.

But by then she was gone.

I read crime.  I write crime.  My brain cranked out a dozen plots to explain the event, some with her as victim, some as villain.  I'll never know what really happened.

But I'll tell you this.  I think we all wonder from time to time how we would react in an emergency.  I seem to have gotten an answer, and it's not one I'm proud of.  This is, after all, the season to err on the side of trusting people.

Maybe I could have been a little more up-to-the-occasion if I had been more awake.  Maybe not.

But merry and happy to you and yours.





07 December 2016

Jailbird

by Robert Lopresti

 I should probably start by saying this is not fiction.  It happened last week.

I'm piecing this together from several news stories.  Craig Buckner was due for an appearance at the courthouse in Washington County, Oregon.  He had failed to appear previously on drug and theft charges.

When the cops found him asleep they suspected something and gave him a drug test.  The result was that he was arrested.

Buckner was upset.  Expecting only a short visit he had brought his pet to the courthouse.  His macaw, named Bird, was sitting in a tree outside, waiting for him.

The cops realized the birdy might not survive the chilly Oregon night.  They tried to coax him down, but Bird was not interested in talking to the cops.  He was no stool pigeon.  (Sorry, but it's going to get worse.)

Finally the police let Buckner out to call his friend down.  A deputy took care of Bird until another friend (this one unfeathered) came to spring Bird from the cage.  (They just write themselves, don't they?)

The cops took an unusual mugshot of Buckner with his pal, and that's what made the news.

The way human-interest stories work (especially those that involve non-humans), I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Buckner and Bird get a lot of offers of help.  I hope things work out for them.

And I hope whatever Buckner did in the past his future career does not involve robin people.  Let us not snipe at him but hope this event gooses him to reform.  Perhaps these toucan go on a lark and have only mynah inconveniences...

All right.  I'll stop now.  Before I do something I egret.

30 November 2016

Writing for Whackademia

by Robert Lopresti

When Leigh - or was it Velma? - suggested a theme week about writing for non-mystery magazines, I said I could contibute nothing.  Then I realized that if you include academic journals I have a bit to say.

You have probably heard of "publish or perish," the idea that college faculty have to do research to get tenure and keep their jobs.  And you are right.  The intensity depends on the field and the institution.  I know people who are expected to publish several short articles a year, and others whose job security hangs on making it into certain major journals.

Fortunately neither of those apply to me, but I am expected to appear in scholarly journals.  So what's the difference between one of those and a magazine?  At the most basic, a scholarly (or academic, or peer-reviewed, or refereed... they all mean essentially the same thing) journal is one where, rather than deciding on the fate of an article herself, the editor sends it to people who have written on similar subjects (peers) for their assessment.

This is considered the gold-standard, the most reliable and authorative type of publication.  And having said that, let me introduce you to Retraction Watch, a website that simply lists scholarly articles that have been renounced by their authors or publishers because of errors.  These errors could be anything from deliberate fraud to an accidentally screwed-up graph.  Some authors have been known to retract an article because, decades after publication, the science turned out to be wrong.

And don't forget Scholarly Open Access, a website created by librarian Jeffrey Beall, which reports on what he calls "predatory journals," which look like scholarly material, but will accept anything you will pay them to publish.  "Vanity publishing!" you shout.  Well, yes.  But it's more complicated than that because in some academic fields you are expected to pay a per-page fee for publication - or at least if you want the article to be "open access," so anyone can read it.  It is so common that many universities have funds to pay for their professors page fees.  Or if a grant pays for your research, you can figure it into the grant request.  But the non-predator journals still reject most articles that are submitted, and won't take your fee until their referees have reviewed your work.


If you have begun to suspect that publishing scholarly journals is a license to mint money, there are many who will agree with you.

Let's get to a few of my own experiences in the field.  Many years ago I did some research which I thought was interesting but probably not worth a publication, so I put it up on a webpage of my own.  The managing editor of an editor read my work and invited me to turn it into an article for his journal.  Great!  I updated the info and submitted it, and waited.

And waited.  And waited.  Eventually (I think a year later) the editor-in-chief contacted me to say he had found the manuscript stuck in a desk drawer.  If I wanted to update it again and resubmit it he would consider it (!).

Another time I felt obliged to explain to the committee who was evaluating my work for, say, 2011, that the reason I included an article  published in a 2010 journal issue was that the publisher had been running late and slapped the wrong date on  so a year would not be missing from the journal's run.  And yes, these were both considered respectable publishers.

Calvin C. Chaffee, House librarian, and luckless hero of my article.
But my favorite story of scholarly hijinks involved the Congressional Serial Set.  These books have been published since the 1830s and basically include reports to and from Congress.  I found something very bizarre in one volume and showed it to my friend August A. Imholtz who is an expert on the Set.  We wound up co-writing an article which was published under the name "'Reckless and Unwarranted Inferences': The US House Library Scandal of 1861."  As befitted such a pompous title we wrote it with great seriousness and a flurry of footnotes.

As soon as it was published in a scholarly journal, with August's kind permission, I rewrote the same bit of history for laughs and sent it to American Libraries magazine which paid me for it (now that's the direction money is supposed to flow in publising) and put it up on their website with the title How Overdue Books Caused the Civil War.


You can read the lighter version by following the link above.  In either version the story is this: After Lincoln was elected and southern states started to secede the New York Times published an article claiming that the southern ex-congressmen were stealing books from the "Congressional Library" to start their own. It turned out to be a mixture of wild gossip, bad journalism and shoddy library management.  Oh, and it involves the Dred Scott Decision.  Really.

Because when you dive into the academic swamp you never know what you will find. 

16 November 2016

The Night The Old Nostalgia Burned Down, Again

by Robert Lopresti

Last month I wrote about books I dug up recently  because I remembered them from my childhood.  I ended by saying "Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid."  But instead I talked about my non-conversation with a taxi driver.  So here we go.

If you are familiar with Crockett Johnson it is probably because of his wonderful books about Harold and the Purple Crayon which have inspired children's imagination (and the occasional wall-scribble spanking) for many years. Bill Watterson, the creator of the marvelous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip,  also said that Harold was all he knew of Johnson.

The reason he was asked about Johnson is that Calvin bears a certain resemblance to Ellen's Lion.  Both feature a young kid (Ellen is a preschooler, a bit younger than Calvin) whose best friend is  a stuffed animal.  In both cases the beastie has a completely different personality than the kid, but the animal can't speak if the kid's mouth is covered.  (And now that I think about it, it sounds like both artists were describing a child having a psychotic break.  But put that out of your mind.  Sorry I brought it up.)

What I like best about Johnson's stories is that the imaginary friend, so to speak, is the realist in the pair.  When Ellen asks the Lion about his life before they met she wants to hear about steaming hot jungles, but all he remembers is a department store.

By the way, Johnson also created one of the most brilliant comic strips of all time. Barnaby ran during the early forties and featured another preschooler who, in the first episode, wishes for a fairy godmother.  Due to wartime shortages he was instead assigned Jackeen J. O'Malley, a three-foot-tall fairy godfather with a grubby raincoat, magenta wings, and a malfunctioning magic cigar.  Mr. O'Malley introduces Barnaby to such characters as Atlas, a three-foot-tall giant (he's a mental giant), some Republican ghosts, and a talking dog who will not shut up.











The other book I hunted down for my kiddo has nothing to do with Crockett Johnson but does mention Atlas.  The original one.

d'Auliare's Book of Greek Myths, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, started me on my lifelong love of mythology.  Not only are the pictures unforgettable but the writing is very well done.

One thing I love about it is how cleverly they slip around, well, the naughty bits that you might not want to explain to an eight-year-old.  In the chapter on Theseus they explain that Poseidon, god of the sea, sent a white bull to the island of Crete, which King Minos was supposed to sacrifice to him:

But Queen Pasiphaë was so taken by the beauty of the white bull that she persuaded the king to let it live.  She admired the bull so much that she ordered Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow, so she could hide inside it and enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range....

To punish the king and queen, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë to give birth to a monster, the Minotaur.  He was half man,, half bull...

Every adult, I imagine, understands exactly what the dAulaires said that the Greeks were saying about Pasiphaë, but it goes right over a kid's head.  (Did mine, anyway.)

The book is still in print.  Unfortunately the binding is not as long-lasting as the text and pictures.  I have had to replace it about once a decade.

Ah well, no mysteries this week, unless you count the mystery religions.  Or Mr. O'Malley's encounter with the fur coat thieves...

02 November 2016

Things I Did Not Say To My Taxi Driver At Five A.M.

by Robert Lopresti

When he found out that I was headed to the airport to fly to a librarian's conference the taxi driver informed me: "I haven't read a book all the way through since Hedy Lamarr when I was fifteen."

What I didn't reply:

"I pity you."

"There's a lot of good books out there."

"Not even Kant's Critique of Pure Reason?"

"Maybe you should give another one a shot.  Some people write better than Hedy Lamarr."

"You must be so proud."

"Personally, I only read the entrails of sacrificed goats."


"To each their own, I guess."

"The books haven't missed you at all."

"I'll be back in a week.  Drop by my house and I'll give you a free copy of one of my novels."

"So, how about that local sports team?"

"You like DVDs?  The public library lends them for free.  Music CDs too."

"Stop the car.  I'll walk."

"Did you know Hedy Lamarr was an inventor and one of her patents made the cell phone possible?  I read that in a book."

"So, who are you voting for?"

"There are dirtier memoirs by newer actresses, you know."

"No tip for you, bucko."

"You like any movies that are based on books?  A lot of the time the books are better."

"Do you think you're bragging?"

"I've been reading a book about not patronizing people."

"To each their own, I guess."

"Hey, that Hedy Lamarr was some broad, wasn't she?"

What I actually said to him:

Nothing.  Nothing at all.