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

16 August 2017

Sartre, Camus, and Me

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks, before we get started, maybe you can help us with a technical question.  A reader recently asked how can she be informed when we put up a new piece at SleuthSayers?  Well, a short answer is we try to put up a new masterpiece every day at midnight eastern time. But do you have a system that reminds you that there is fresh wisdom waiting for you here?  If so let me know about it in the comments or email me at rob AT roblopresti.com  Thanks!

I am writing this on Tuesday, August 15. Normally I write well in advance but in response to the events of the last few days and Barb Goffman's column, I decided to write about existentialism.  Or my understanding of it, anyway.  Let's see if I can make that seem like it is reasonably connected.

This topic was on my mind because last week I had the privilege of hearing from some readers.  A book club had decided to examine my story "Street of the Dead House," and the organizer was kind enough to summarize the discussion for me.  Their reflections were full of insights, including things that had never occurred to me.  But I suggested that one element they missed, or at least did not mention, was the existentialist frame of the story.

The story is a retelling of  Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders on the Rue Morgue," from the viewpoint of the orang-outang.  In my version the ape has been experimented on by a mad scientist, giving him the power to think and, eventually to communicate via sign language.  The first sentence of the story is "What am I?"  and that is the question my character has to wrestle with.  He chooses to make the decision for himself. and carry it out through his own actions. More in line with Sartre and Camus than Dupin, I think.

So, here is my feeble understanding of existentialism, or the part that matters to me right now.  Consider this sentence.  I know you have heard similar ones:

I do bad things, but I am really a good person.

To which the existentialist says: no.  There isn't some hidden reserve, some secret part of you that is separate and unsullied by the things you do. You are what you choose to do.

Now move to a different sentence, one we have heard variations of in the last few days:

Yes, I went to protest the removal of a monument to the Confederacy, and I marched beside Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners, but that doesn't make me a racist.

And our existentialist might frown at labels like racist, but they would say, you showed your allegiance, you demonstrated which side you are on, and who you are comfortable with.  You can't claim that that isn't what you meant, because it is what you DID.

But on the bright side, implicit in existentialism is the idea of choice.  If you are what you do, you can always choose to be something different, by doing something different. 

Anne Frank, of all people, put it this way: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

So that marcher who says he isn't what his actions say he is can start to improve the world this moment  by choosing different actions.  He can apologize, renounce old associations, and make up for past mistakes. But talk is not enough: people will continue to judge  him by his actions, especially if they contradict his words.

I thought about ending this with something Kurt Vonnegut said in one of my all-time favorite novels:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. 

But the last few days have even made me rethink that.  It turns out that Vonnegut's thinking only works if you pretend convincingly.

For example, let's say you are a public figure, and in a moment of crisis when people are counting on you, you say something that was weak and offensive.  After heavy criticism you finally say something better, and that's a good thing.

But you have to say it like you mean it.  Ideally you should apologize for your first statement.  You should not immediately send out messages whining about how badly you have been treated, as if having your actions criticized was worse than people being killed or hospitalized.  You could even stop associating with people who advised you to say stupid things in the first place.

Because if it is obvious you are just pretending to be something, people are likely to realize what you really are.

For all the SleuthSayer readers out there: be a little extra kind to yourself this week.  You deserve it.

 
 

02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings

by Robert Lopresti

I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?

19 July 2017

Five Red Herrings 8

by Robert Lopresti


1. Maybe I've been here before.  Five years ago in this space (wow, we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?) I wrote a piece about incidental music in movies and TV, (and by incidental I mean it wasn't written for  that show and is not being performed by a character).  The inspiration was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" showing up in yet another TV show.  I wrote: "It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature 'Hallelujah.'" I now have evidence that I was right (not about the FCC, but about the frequency of that song's appearances.)


I am reading The Holy or the Broken, a book by Alan Light that is entirely about you-know-which song.  It reports that the first appearance on TV was in Scrubs  in 2002.  There were five more visits in 2003 and seven in the year after.  Each performance pays in the $50,000 range, with half going to the author (and his publisher) and half to the performer (and the record company).  Not bad.

By the way, the whole book is fascinating.  If a writer of fiction tried to make up the story of Cohen's "Hallelujah" she would have to sell it as fantasy or magic realism.  It involves two generations of singers dying young, an animated children's film, TV talent contests, the 9/11 attacks...


Meet the new boss
Blonde as  the old boss
2. Blonde on Blonde. Going even further back in my blogging past, in 2008 I commented on my affection for the British TV show New Tricks.  I noted that there seemed to be a rule that all shows about cops working on cold cases (New Tricks, Cold Squad, Cold Case) had to be led by a blonde woman. 

I recently discovered new episodes of New Tricks and all but one of the  characters had been replaced, including the leader.  And yes, the new one is a blonde woman.
from Gratisography


3.  Getcha pretty pictures right here.  Some of us here at SleuthSayers HQ find ourselves from time to time looking for illustrations that we can use without fearing the Long Arm of the Copyright.  The website Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes has a very helpful list of four websites with images free for the using. 


4. Steven on Sherlock.  The latest issue of Strand Magazine (February-May 2017) has a very interesting interview with Steven Moffat, co-producer and co-creator of Sherlock.  Even if you don't watch his show, Moffat's insights into the great original are interesting.  To those who complain about his making the characters young and modern he replies that when Doyle invented Holmes and Watson they were young and used the newest technology available.  They aged into period pieces as Doyle wrote about them for forty years.  He also points out that people don't complain about the James Bond movies yanking the character out of his time period, although Fleming's character was a World War II vet.  Definitely worth a read.


5.  Riding a trend?  But maybe the most interesting thing in the Strand (and my apologies to John Floyd and the other authors of fiction who appear therein) is a full-page ad for Ted Allbeury's novel The Twentieth Day of January.  There are plenty of ads in the magazine for books, but this one is almost forty years old.  So why bring it back now?  Perhaps the plot description holds a clue: 

"Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect.  But veteran intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggest something might be terribly wrong with the election: is Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?"

Timing is the key to success.







05 July 2017

Not a Butterfly Collection

by Robert Lopresti

Let's start with this fact: In 1940 the U.S. Census-takers recorded about 1,500 women working for the railroads as engineers, mechanics, etc.  In the published records they were listed as "Tailors and Tailoresses."  Because they couldn't have really been doing those jobs, right?

For the past two years I have been working on a nonfiction book.  Not related to mystery, alas.  It is more about my day job as a government information librarian. 

WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT (published by Praeger last week) is a book about how women have appeared and disappeared in federal statistics over the past 200 years.

 The feds collect statistics on a lot of different subjects, so my book covers a lot of topics as well.  But I'll just give you some examples from the four chapters related to our favorite topic, crime.

  • The government's first survey on stalking and harassment had to be redone when it was discovered that it had accidentally included data about spam email and calls from bill collectors.
  • Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 to forbid transporting females across state lines for immoral purposes.  It was intended to combat "white slavery," i.e. forcing women into prostitution, but it was often used against adulterers instead.  The Supreme Court quickly ruled that women who traveled willingly could be convicted of "conspiring" to transport themselves.
  •  The 1880 Census lists all the crimes for which women were in prison.  There are plenty of predictable offenses, plus a few that might get you writers out there pondering.  For example: 

  • The National Institute of Mental Health started collecting data on domestic violence in 1968 and concluded that it was a problem of "epidemic proportion," but they didn't mention this news to anyone until a decade later when Representative Barbara Mikulski started holding hearings on the subject.  Exasperated, the Congresswoman declared: "Well, this isn't a butterfly collection, ladies and gentlemen, that people gather for their own private enjoyment.  This is public dollars to get public information to help the American people."
  • The 1970 report Crimes of Violence explained the concept of "victim precipitation," meaning that the victim sometimes "contributes to the commission of the offense."  Examples included when "a wife has masochistic needs that are satisfied by her assaultive husband," or when "a female engages in heavy petting and, at the last moment, begins to resist the man's advances."  The report concluded that 4% of rapes fell into that category.
I examined well over  a thousand sources in putting this book together but now I get to tell you about my favorite.  In 1907 Congress authorized a study of how working outside the home affected women and children.  There was debate over whether the Constitution permitted such a thing, and the Southern states were worried that the result would be a hit job against them, since most child workers were in that part of the country.  Nevertheless, a 19-volume report was eventually issued, and you can read it all online.
But what I want to recommend is Volume 15, Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women.  Author Mary Conyngton was assigned to investigate the popular assumption that jobs in newfangled places like department stores and factories were leading women to a life of crime.  Her whole book is still readable, and fascinating.

The passage below, in which she quotes from an unnamed "worker specially qualified to speak on the subject" is worth quoting in full: 

The belief you mention in the general immorality of saleswomen is certainly widespread, but I have found nothing to prove it well grounded.  In the course of some investigations into the methods by which department stores seek to secure and retain the trade of the professionally immoral women, a trade which, as you probably know, is considered exceptionally valuable, I came on something which may throw some light on the existence of the belief.  Mr. _____, who was first a department store manager in several large stores, and then himself established a millinery business, said he had found the best way of gaining and holding this trade was by having a forewomen who was "in" with such women, which of course meant that she herself led an immoral life, thus being able to meet them in the way of friendship, and to gain their trust in a natural manner.

"Didn't you find such a forewoman had a bad effect on your other employees?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "she certainly did get some of the others into her habits.  But as soon as I found out they were going that way, I discharged them."

 Ah, the good old days.  May they never return.





21 June 2017

First Words

by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now.  This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump.  I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.

It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller.  You want the bit that begins around 2:20.




I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule.  It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay.  Assuming that is true, of course

Now, how does that relate to writing?  (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)

Glad you asked.  We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news.  It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order.  But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede."  If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.

Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop.  But that's story-telling, not journalism.

These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader.  To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:

I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man.  The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.

Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.

You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit.  But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.
 

07 June 2017

The Mudie Blues

by Robert Lopresti


I have always been fascinated by the clash over evolution versus creationism.  I suppose it started in my pre-teen years when I saw the movie Inherit the Wind.  While other kids decorated their walls with Beatles posters, I had a badly photocopied picture of Clarence Darrow glaring down at me. (Yes, I was that much of a nerd. Would I make that up?)

Which may explain why I have been having so much fun reading Between Man and Beast, by Monte Reel.  It is the true story of Paul Du Chaillu, an African-born Frenchman who, in the mid-nineteenth century became the first non-African to see (and shoot) gorillas.

Du Chaillu
He exhibited his trophies in the U.S. and then England, which dropped him right into the controversy over Charles Darwin's Origin of Species among other squabbles.  The cast of characters in the book is remarkable: besides Darwin there are at least small walk-on parts for Abraham Lincoln (whose Secretary of War called him "the original gorilla"), Richard Francis Burton, Charles Dickens, T.H. Huxley, J.J. Audubon, and P.T. Barnum.  (If you don't despise Barnum yet, you will by the time his chapter is over.)

But the reason I am telling you all this is to bring up another person who appears tangentially in the story, a man I have never heard of.  Charles Mudie was one of the most influential people in 19th-century British literature and one who, in odd-ways, feels like a person from the 21st.  To use current buzzwords, he was an innovator who disrupted his industry through mass marketing.

So, how did Mudie affect literature?  He was not an author, an editor, a publisher, a reviewer, or even a bookseller.  In fact, he more or less invented his own occupation (and that's very 21st century, isn't it?).

In the 1850s he founded Mudie's Lending Library.  For an annual fee of a guinea (just over a pound) anyone could borrow as many books as they wanted - one at a time.  By 1860 when Du Chaillu arrived in London with his gorillas, Mudie had shops in many major British cities.  His main location held more than 800,000 volumes.

If he thought a book was going to be popular he could order enough copies to double a publisher's print run.  (And like many modern businesses he insisted on a punishing discount from his suppliers.)  He put out lists of "Principal New and Choice Books," essentially the first bestseller list.
Mudie

Nowadays a lot of people worry about how Amazon can dictate terms to the publishing business.  But Mudie was there first.  Publishers knew that if he found a book objectionable it might not find its way to his shelf, and it definitely would not appear on his coveted list.

The reason Victorian novels were published in three volumes?  So that Mudie could satisfy three customers at once.  His name is casually dropped in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?  where he is described as "the great librarian."  Funny, I always thought that was me.

And now I want to get back to Monte Reel's book, which I did not borrow from any kind of library. Pleasant reading, all.

31 May 2017

The Family That Slays Together

by Robert Lopresti

Our recent extravaganza about families got me thinking about a related subject.  I didn't have time to write about it during our special fortnight because I was working on another project, one I will write about here in July.  But since no one else covered this aspect of the subject I thought I would take a shot of it.

We wrote about having mystery writers in the family.  But what about those families with, heaven help them, two mystery writers in the family?  Here are the ones I could think of. Please tell me who I missed.


Married Couples

Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar. Kenneth Millar married Margaret Sturm when they were both in their early twenties.  Ken published stories first but Margaret got her first novels out ahead of him. To avoid confusion he tried various pseudonyms, eventually settling on Ross Macdonald, much to the fury of John D. MacDonald who didn't accept the lower case D as a big enough difference.  Ross and Margaret both were named Grand Masters by MWA, in different years.  They never collaborated.

Bill
Pronzini and Marcia Muller.  The other MWA Grand Master couple, both still publishing.  They mostly write separately but have collaborated and even had their characters work together.  They have also both been awarded the Eye  for lifetime achievement by the Private Eye Writers of America.


William DeAndrea and Jane Haddam.  DeAndrea won Edgars in three different categories, and that doesn't happen very often.  Haddam has been nominated twice for an Edgar and once for an Anthony.  DeAndrea died ridiculously young in 1996; Haddam is still active.

The Gordons.  Gordon and Mary Gordon wrote many novels under the name The Gordons (which must have really bugged library catalogers).  Many of them featured FBI agent John Ripley, leaning on Gordon Gordon's Bureau experience during World War II.  They are perhaps best remembered for Undercover Cat, which Disney filmed as That Darned Cat.  In the book the word was not darned, but hey, that's Disney.

Margery Allingham and Pip Youngman Carter. Allingham was, of course, the very successful creator of crime novels about Albert Campion. Hubby Carter was an artist who created her book covers, and wrote about thirty crime short stories of his own.  When  his wife died Carter finished her last book, Cargo of Eagles, and then wrote two more Campion books on his own.

Dick Francis and Mary Francis.  Put a question mark by this one.  Dick Francis was the only name on the cover of those books, although he acknowledged his wife as his researcher and editor.  (She also took the photographs that graced the covers of the British editions of his books.)  Late in life he said "She was in a way a co-author, but she wouldn't take the credit.  I don;t really know why.  She didn't really like publicity, and she was quite happy for me to have all the credit."  Eventually some people declared that Mary had actually written the books, since an uneducated jockey could not possibly have produced such brilliant books.  Ironically, that was precisely the sort of snobbery Francis's protagonists were constantly subjected to.  But see below.

J.J. Cook.  Jim and Joyce Lavene wrote cozies under this name as well as Ellie Grant, and Elyssa Henry.

Sisters

Perri O'Shaunessy.  Pam and Mary O'Shaunessy write about attorney Nina Reilly.  Pam was a lawyer herself until she gave it up for literature.  They have written more than a dozen novels about Reilly, plus some stand-alones.

P.J. Parrish.  Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols write under this name.  They have won an Edgar for their series about Detroit cop Louis Kincaid.


Brothers

Peter Anthony.  Anthony Shaffer and Peter Shaffer were twins.  Anthony wrote several mystery plays, most notably Sleuth.  Peter wrote non-mystery dramas such as Equus and Amadeus, but together they wrote several mystery novels under the name Peter Anthony.


Brother and Sister

Robert Lopresti and Diane Chamberlain.  I am embarrassed to admit this is the last pair I thought of.  Diane's novels are generally described as women's fiction, rather than crime fiction.  Nonetheless The Bay at Midnight and Pretending to Dance are both investigations of suspicious deaths, and The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and Necessary Lies (my favorite) include kidnappings.


Father and Daughter

Tony Hillerman and Anne Hillerman.  After Tony died Anne took over the Navajo police franchise.  Song of the Lion is number three.


Father and Son

Arthur Conan Doyle and Adrian Conan Doyle.  In the 1950s, decades after his father's death, Adrian teamed up with John Dickson Carr to write a series of short stories which were eventually published under the title The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.  I have always wondered whether they were aware that one meaning of "exploit" is "use selfishly for one's own ends."

Dick Francis and Felix Francis.  See above.  After his mother died Francis was listed as co-author of his father's books, and after Dick died, he has published several novels with titles beginning Dick Francis'...

William F. Buckley and Christopher Buckley. Among his many other books WFB wrote a series of spy novels about Boysie Oakes.  His son Christopher's comic novels include No Way To Treat A First Lady, in which the protagonist is accused of murdering her philandering husband.

Mother and Daughter

Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark.  Mary is, of course, a hugely successful author of suspense novels.  Carol writes mysteries about Regan Reilly.  Occasionally they write together, usually Christmas treats.

P.J. Tracy. P.J. Lambrecht, who died last year, wrote the Monkeewrench Gang novels with her daughter Traci.  The gang were a bunch of computer geniuses who lived in the Twin Cities.


Mother and Son 

Charles Todd. That is the pen name for Caroline and Charles Todd.  Their most famous books feature Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective who is haunted by his experiences in the Great War.  Specifically , he is accompanied everywhere by the voice of Hamish MacLeod, a soldier he had executed for disobedience during battle. 

Cousins

Ellery Queen.  You didn't think I would forget them, did you?  Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee defined the crime-writing-duo for more than four decades.  Supposedly Dannay created the plots and Lee wrote the words.

I am sure I missed a bunch.  Please add them in the comments.

03 May 2017

The Story Gene

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

 by Robert Lopresti

This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009.  Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.

I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.

There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?

Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.

First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.

Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.

Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?

Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)

At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.

A very old story

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.

It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.

When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.

Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.

And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.
 

A love story

I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.

Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.

He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.

Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.

It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.

Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)

“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”

Final thought

Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?

Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.

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.