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

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.

19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

05 October 2016

The Way It Wasn't

by Robert Lopresti

A month ago I noticed that my wife was reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  What made that particularly interesting was that I was reading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

Both of them fall into the genre of Alternative History (AH), which is usually considered part of science fiction.  Science fiction, more than most forms of fiction, is all about "What if?" and AH  asks "What if events didn't turn out as they did?"

The oldest example of AH we know of is about 2100 years old.  The Roman author  Livy pondered the question: What if Alexander the Great had gone west (toward the still developing city of Rome) instead of east?

Let's jump ahead past a few medieval examples and land in 1931 when John Squires published  If It Had Happened Otherwise, a collection of essays by different authors, speculating on how various turning points of history could have turned out differently.  One of them, "If Lee Had Not Won At Gettysburg," is a double twist (as you can probably tell), being written from the point of view of a historian in a world in which the South did win the Civil War.  He tries to speculate how things would have turned out if the North had conquered.

You may have heard of the author of that clever essay.  He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Winston Churchill was better known for other accomplishments.

You may be surprised that an Englishman like Churchill should have chosen the American Civil War as his subject but that event seems to have an obsessive interest for alternative historians.  Remember those books my wife and I were reading?  Even The New Yorker  recently took note of our country's obsession with the Underground Railroad.

My favorite AH writer is Harry Turtledove and he was inspired to get a PhD in Byzantine History by an AH novel by L. Sprague De Camp called Lest Darkness Fall.  Turtledove's masterpiece is The Guns of the South  (Yup, that War Between the States again).  It starts with a real event: Robert E. Lee writing to Jefferson Davis in 1864 to say the Confederacy could not win.  Except in Turtledove's book the letter is interrupted by some strangers with funny accents who want to sell the South some new weapons called AK-47s.  You see, some Afrikaaners got their hands on a time machine and decided to nip Black aspirations in the bud by saving slavery.

You can argue that that is not pure alternative history since it involves a science fiction concept like time travel.  In that case you might prefer another  Turtledove novel - and it's a mystery! -  The Two Georges, co-written with, of all people, the actor Richard Dreyfuss.  The heroes are cops in the 1960s, but in this world King George III never went mad and when his colonies started protesting his policies he invited the leaders to England to discuss it.  The result is that George Washington became the first Governor-General of British North America.

Some of you may have seen the recent TV series, The Man in the High Castle, which is based (loosely, I hear) on a classic AH novel by Philip K. Dick.  It explores a world in which the Axis beat the Allies.

To my mind, there are two essential elements to an AH fiction: How did things turn out this way (as opposed to the way we know they did)?  And what would happen if they had?  At its best, AH becomes a thought experiment: If Nixon beat Kennedy, how would the sixties have changed?  What if the Spanish Armada had won?

I have had three fantasy stories published and while none of them are pure AH they all, shall we say, partake of its nature.

After George W. Bush became president, Edward J. McFadden III and E. Sedia proposed Jigsaw Nation, a book of stories that asked: What if the blue states seceded from the nation?  My story, "Down in the Corridor," takes place in the  narrow strip of land between Mexico and the Pacific States of America, connecting the USA with the Pacific.   Yes, it's a crime story, but it's not true AH because it was imaging an alternative near future, not a past.  (Recently Andrew MacRae came up with a similar idea for an anthology about post-current events.)

"Letters to the Journal of Experimental History" appeared in a short-lived humor webzine called The Town Drunk.  It's based on the multi-verse theory of time travel; that is, if you go back in time and, say, kill Hitler, it doesn't change our universe, it merely kickstarts a new one.  You can read it here.

And then there is "Street of the Dead House," which appeared in nEvermore! (and has been reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016, he said modestly.)  This one is Alternative Literature, reinterpreting (without changing) a classic Edgar Allan Poe story.

Anyone out there like this genre?  If so, tell me your favorites.










21 September 2016

Dance Him Outside

by Robert Lopresti

 This year of 2016 keeps stealing celebrities at a record pace, doesn't it?  On the same day last week two famous authors passed away.  The better-known was playwright Edward Albee, but the one who mattered more to me was Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella.

Even if you haven't read his stuff, you probably  saw Field of Dreams, which was based on his novel Shoeless Joe, which in turn was based on a short story.  That  piece was not a one-off.  He wrote a lot of novels and short stories about baseball and they were almost examples of magic realism.  My favorite was a short story in which the manager of the Boston Red Sox receives a vision from God which informs him that that beleaguered team will win a World Series some day - but it will be the last one before the end of the world.  How would that affect your coaching decisions?


But my first encounter with the man, and still my favorite were his Ermineskin stories, and frankly they have always been controversial.  They should be.

The stories are set on the  Reserve of the Ermineskin First Nation in Alberta.  In the U.S. we would call it a Reservation of an Indian Tribe or Native Nation.  The problem is that Kinsella is not a member of any First Nation and, if I recall correctly, said that when he wrote the first story, his only experience of that people was having some as customers when he was driving a cab.

Which brings up the subject of cultural appropriation.  Now, you could argue that Tony Hillerman did the same thing with his Navajo characters, but they were clearly the heroes and as far as I know, his books were popular with members of the tribe.  (They gave him an award, after all.)

But Kinsella was not so respectful.  His stories were often funny, sometimes at the expense of his First Nation characters.  As the books went on they got worse in that regard, in my opinion. One reviewer complained: "[I]magination does not absolve racialism; humor is no excuse to exploit negative preconceptions about tribal people. The author plays Indian for a white audience."

So why do I bring these works at all?  Because some of them are so damned good.

The hero is Silas Ermineskin, a sensitive young man, who practices his writing skills by telling these stories, which also feature  his family, his friend Frank Fencepost, a snarky and sneaky Lothario, and the shrewd medicine woman Mad Etta.  (At least two lines from Mad Etta have found their way into my quotations list: "Gifts make slaves like whips make dogs." and "The law is like rope...useful, necessary, strong, but it can be bent and twisted into all kinds of shapes depending on the occasion.")

Most of the stories are not mysteries in any sense but a few are and one is on my list of favorite crime stories.  The title tale of the first collection, Dance Me Outside, concerns the murder of a young First Nations woman by a young White man who is let off with a slap on the wrist.  When justice fails, a type of vengence is exacted. (This story and a few others were the basis for a pretty good movie of the same name, which then spun off a not-so-good CBC series called The Rez.)

But my favorite is "Pius Blindman is coming Home," which appears in The Moccasin Telegraph, probably the best of the books.  An elderly woman is dying in a hospital and her westernized children, against Mad Etta's advice, assure her that her son is coming to her side.  They just want to comfort her dying hours but, expecting her son, the woman simply refuses to die. The ending is one of the most stunning I have ever read in a short story.

So there you have it.  I wish I didn't feel so ambivalent about the stories. .  Kinsella's world may have nothing to do with the real life of the people on that Reserve, but, for good or bad, he makes me believe it and feel compassion for them, even if he and I are a million miles off from understanding who they are.  Such is the complexity of fiction.