Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember

By Steve Liskow

Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.

We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.

I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.


Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.

One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.

In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.

26 May 2017

Monuments to a Terrible Past

by O'Neil De Noux

Confederate monuments have been removed from public places in New Orleans.

A little perspective about these monuments. Founded on May 7, 1718, New Orleans has been around for 299 years. For 1 year and 3 months she was a confederate city (from January 26, 1861 until April 25, 1862). That's it - 15 months.

For the record - I'm a New Orleanian. Born, raised and educated in New Orleans. I'm fairly intelligent (my last measured IQ was 161). I am a US Army veteran, been a police officer most of my life. I'm an internationally published, award winning writer with 34 books in print and over 400 short stories sales. I have a voice and I now use it.

I dislike changes in our city, dislike renaming streets (What happened to Good Children Street and Craps Street and Nyades and so many others?). I love art and sculpture and statues and have given the removal of confederate monuments a lot of thought.

There is much to be admired about Robert E. Lee but let's face it - he broke his oath to defend the constitution of the United States when he quit the US Army to join the Confederate cause. He led men into battle against the US Army, against men who died flying this flag:


Could you take up arms against this flag?

Robert E. Lee was an important leader of the armed insurrection that divided our nation and caused the deadliest war in American history (Over 750,000 killed and an undetermined amount of civilian casualties). His particular genius at war prolonged the conflict. Jefferson Davis and P. G. T. Beauregard were also traitors. Beauregard, in command of Confederate forces at Fort Sumpter, started the war. We are talking four years of horrific history in America.

Robert E. Lee has no connection to New Orleans (visiting the city doesn't count). His statue was put atop Tivoli Circle by post-reconstruction white citizens thumbing their noses at the Yankees in Washington. The Lee statue, just as the statues of Jefferson Davis and P. G. T. Beauregard, does not celebrate the glory of old New Orleans. They celebrate the lost cause of a confederacy of states whose economies depended on human slavery. They celebrate the arrogance of a people who thought they were better than ungentlemanly Yankees and believed people with darker skin were subhuman and could be bought and sold like beasts of burden.

These monuments were not even put up to celebrate the glory of the old south. They were put up to celebrate defiance, to show the world white people were back in charge of the south after reconstruction and their will be done. Only white folks can vote now. Bring on segregation.

The Liberty Monument is not only a celebration of white power, it is the ONLY American sculpture celebrating the murder of police officers (white and black officers) by an armed mob of terrorists. Abominable. It is a "monument to a deadly white-supremacist uprising in 1874" (www.apnews.com). New Orleans Mayor Mich Landrieu explains these statues "perpetuate the idea of white supremacy". He vowed, "We will no longer allow the Confederacy to be put on a pedestal in the heart of our city."

As I said earlier, I love art and sculpture and statues. These monuments should not be desecrated or destroyed but their time is long past. Put them in a museum.

photo of St. Louis Cathedral © O'Neil De Noux


www.oneildenoux.com

10 February 2016

Ardennes 1944

David Edgerley Gates


It can't be late-breaking news that I read a lot of history, anything from the Peloponnesian War to building the Brooklyn Bridge, and I read out of curiosity, for background, and more or less to please myself. It doesn't always have a specific aim or application, but lately it's been WWII.

I'd read Antony Beevor's FALL OF BERLIN, and Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, about the last year of the European war, and it
was natural to pick up ARDENNES 1944, Beevor's new book about the Bulge, and then Hastings' INFERNO. I topped it off with Paul Carell's SCORCHED EARTH, which covers the German-Russian campaigns, 1943-44. You could pretty well say I was played out by this time, enough already. Fatigue sets in. You hit a wall. Your sympathies flag.

Then an odd thing happened. I began to see a storyline. Not just a theme, or a situation to hang a plot on, but the whole thing, soup to nuts. This is unusual, and I figure other people have much the same experience. Something catches your attention, maybe in your peripheral vision, and you tell yourself, Oh, that's a hook, or an interesting set-up, a landscape, or a springboard. Very rarely do you get handed the spine of a complete narrative: three full acts, ready to go. What caught my eye was what came to be known as the Malmedy massacre, a group of American POW's murdered in cold blood by an SS unit, Kampfgruppe Peiper, a spearhead of the Adolf Hitler division.

If you look at the Order of Battle in the Ardennes, and the German dispositions, although von Rundstedt was nominally in command, the main assault components weren't regular Army, the Wehrmachtbut SS armor. (There was also a black op led by commando legend Otto Skorzeny, with Germans masquerading as American GI's - more bark than bite, even if it created suspicion behind American lines.) The point here is both in France, in 1942, and on the Eastern Front, in '43 and '44, SS were shadowed by Einsatzgruppenthe death squads assigned to kill Jews and Gypsies, and Soviet political officers. This was no accident. SS officers and men later tried to establish the fiction that they were Soldaten wie andere auchor soldiers like any other, but their actions in every theater of war were criminal. 1st SS Panzer in western Ukraine, over two days in December 1943, killed two thousand Russians, and in that time, took all of three prisoners.

We notice a pattern. Yes, the Red Army killed German soldiers after they'd surrendered (so did the Americans and the British and the French, for that matter), but the Germans made it one with their policy of reprisals, the execution of civilians as well as combatants. This is different - I think in a qualitative way - from the industrialized Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, which actually hemorrhaged men and materiel that could have gone to the war effort. It's something else, even though take no prisoners is counterproductive. Men on the losing side fight harder. Surrender isn't going to save them. There's a bitter dynamic at work here.

So where, you're asking, is the story I was talking about? I'm not ready to put out on the first date. Still, the bare bones are there without my giving it away, you take care to read between the lines, The story's about payback. And it's not morally ambiguous, either. It has a simple satisfaction, the elemental working of Fate, weighed in the scales.

The curious part, as I said, is that it just presented itself, in one piece. I even wonder if it's too obvious, too shapely, too finished, but there could be surprises in store. We'll have to see what happens in the telling. I've got a title for it, too, which is usually a good thing. We writers can be a superstitious lot.

One other thing. If you choose to base a story on actual events, you have to be careful not to play them false. There were real consequences. Real people died. Other bore witness. A war was won, or lost. History was in the balance. 'You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts' - an expression I've used before, but in this instance, the story's not invented. Where invention comes in, is in reinhabiting something that really happened. You owe history, and the dead, that much responsibility.




19 February 2015

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury
Part III: the Killing

by Brian Thornton

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on a notorious murder during the reign of King James I of England [James VI of Scotland]. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here. For the second part, which deals mostly with the conspirators, click here.)

When is an "honor" not really an honor?

Everyone knows that sometimes an "honor" is precisely that. A great occasion for the honoree, and the sort of thing to be welcomed–if not outright eagerly anticipated– when it comes your way. Oscar nominations. Getting named to the board of a prosperous Fortune 500 company. Making the New York Times Bestseller list (I should live so long!).

Not always easy to quantify, but like the late, great Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." The same is also true of the kind of thing frequently called an "honor" when it really isn't.

Here's one example


And even worse than this type of infamous "non-honor honor" is the sort of honor that could be
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw:
Dead Honoree
hazardous to your health. In an example from American history, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, first black regiment in the United States Army, received the "honor" of leading the charge during an attack on rebel fortifications at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Led by their heroic commander, one Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th did itself proud, spearheading the Union charge into the teeth of murderous cannon fire, in an attempt to take the strategically important fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor.

But the net result? The 54th Massachusetts Infantry numbered six hundred men at the time of the charge. The regiment suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate in this single action alone (two hundred seventy-two killed, wounded or missing)! Among the dead was Shaw, the colonel who led the way.


When it's an offer to serve as ambassador to Russia!

While not necessarily a death sentence, a 17th century example of an "honor" along these lines was
This guy. Nice boots, huh?
serving as an ambassador to Russia. Especially during the early part of the century, when Russia was pretty much the "Wild West" (without the "West" part) of Europe. Anarchy. Lawlessness. A devastating famine that began in 1601 and lasted for years afterward. Invasion and extended occupation by Polish armies, culminating in a teen-aged Polish-Swedish nobleman briefly taking the throne in 1610!

By February of 1613, things had gotten a little better, with the Russians kicking the Poles out and electing a new (Russian-born) tsar, Mikhail, who established the Romanov dynasty. Barely twenty, Mikhail faced a long, grinding battle getting Russia's nobility to mind their manners and unite behind him in anything other than name. So even though there was a new sheriff in the Kremlin (and if his coronation portrait is any indicator, one with superb taste in spiffy red boots!), there was still plenty of lawlessness, crime, war, famine and pestilence to go around.

Even with the Poles gone, Russia was an impoverished, backward country on the periphery of what most Europeans considered civilization. For government functionaries such as Overbury, it was the type of diplomatic posting where careers went to die.

So how did he come to be the recipient of such a signal "honor"?

What's left of Red Square and Kremlin when the Poles turned Moscow back to the Russians,
August 1612
What happens when you piss off a rival and that rival has the queen's ear.

As mentioned previously, Overbury seems to have consistently overestimated his own cleverness, and systematically underestimated that of nearly everyone around him. He had expended a great deal of time and effort steering his pretty boy puppet Robert Carr into King James' orbit so as to profit by a successful pulling of Carr's strings. When the king began to entrust Carr with a number of duties involving fat salaries attached to a slew of confusing paperwork (Carr was pretty but not too bright), of course Carr relied heavily on his friend and mentor Overbury to help out with the details. Overbury in turn took his own considerable cut. Pretty standard stuff, where court preferment was concerned.

James I
All that changed when the king's favorite minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury died, and a power vacuum opened close to the throne. Salisbury oversaw James' foreign policy, and with his death the king saw an opportunity to begin to set that policy himself, as long as he had someone along for the ride who could handle the intricacies of diplomatic language (and paperwork). He decided that his favorite Robert Carr was perfect for the gig.

Of course Carr was not remotely suited for such work. But his mentor Overbury was.

The bed-hopper
With Carr's elevation to his new role there were people lining up to try to win influence with him, and through him, with the king. This included members of the already powerful and well-connected Howard family. Namely Henry Howard, earl of Northampton and his niece, Lady Frances Howard, already married in a teen-aged and allegedly never-consummated hate-match with the young earl of Essex.

As Overbury had done with Carr, placing him in King James' path, now Northampton did to Carr, placing his still-married and barely into her teens niece in Carr's. Her tender years notwithstanding, Lady Frances had already acquired a reputation for bed-hopping, and while Carr seemed capable of wrapping a king around his little finger, he seems to have been no match for Frances' feminine wiles.

The two were soon openly consorting, and there was talk of marriage after first seeking an annulment of Frances' marriage to Essex, on the grounds of non consummation. (The earl detested his new bride nearly from the moment he met her and fled on a tour of the continent rather than sleep with her. And he stayed away for a good long while afterward!).

Overbury was furious at being frozen out of the lucrative gig of pulling Carr's strings, and published a  widely-read poem pretty effectively slandering Lady Frances. He had made a powerful enemy.

Lady Frances' catspaw: Queen Anne
What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convince her husband the king to offer Overbury the "honor" of serving as His Majesty's man in Moscow.

Now Overbury found himself outfoxed. If he accepted the posting, he'd be away from court, with no influence and no money. To the people of Jacobean England, Russia was only slightly closer to home than the New World, which was to say one step closer than the moon!

However, to refuse such an offer of appointment was flat-out dangerous. Such refusal could be taken as an insult, and history is replete with examples of how well royals tend to take insults from those ostensibly in their service. (Newsflash: it ain't lying down!)

Overbury's thoughts along these lines are not recorded. And there's no way of knowing whether he seriously considered the possibility that the choice before him could possibly wind up being between a trip to Russia or a trip to the Bloody Tower. Regardless, he chose to refuse the "honor" of serving as English ambassador to Russia, and apparently managed to come off as so high-handed that in April 1613 an infuriated King James had him tossed into the Tower for his trouble.

Yep, same tower was the one where Richard III killed his princely nephews. Same room, too, apparently.
By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was
Robert Carr
later in life and no longer pretty.
not, in fact, impotent, as the papers requesting the annulment claimed. Within a couple of months, Lady Frances and Robert Carr, now no longer earl of Rochester, but "promoted" to an even more plumb title with vastly more substantial holdings as earl of Somerset, were married.

That might well have been the end of the story. But Robert Carr was an idiot, and it quickly became clear that he was now as much the Howards' puppet as he had earlier been Overbury's. Plus, the king was fickle in his affections where his favorites were concerned, and apparently within a year or so, Carr began to lose his hair and his looks. James soon tired of his pet earl, and let it be known to certain influential members of his inner circle that he would welcome an excuse to be shut of him, so he could focus his attentions elsewhere (namely George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham).

And that was when rumors began to surface about Carr's frequent visits to the Tower to see his erstwhile friend and mentor Overbury in the months preceding his death. And of Carr's possible connection with the gifts of possibly tainted food and drink a certain jailer pressed upon the unfortunate man.

The Investigation

Whispers of "poison" were nothing new during the reign of James I. Invariably when anyone of any importance died quickly and without violence, some gossip, somewhere began to murmur in the ears of friends that the circumstances certainly seemed suspicious. And as much as James wanted to be rid of Carr, the last thing he wanted was a scandal. So he set his two brightest advisors to work on the investigation, ensuring it was handled right from the start.

These two were none other than the greatest legal minds of the age. Two great names that survive even today: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

The first thing they did was have Overbury's corpse exhumed and subjected to an autopsy. He was indeed found to have been poisoned. Not by food, or drink, it turns out, but by a combination of emetics and enemas.

Overbury's jailer and the lord lieutenant of the Tower were immediately confined and questioned. It all came out in their confessions and the confessions of those they named as co-conspirators.

Apparently Lady Frances and her uncle the earl of Northampton dreamed up the scheme to have Overbury dispatched in a manner which might not look suspicious, and pressed her dupe of a husband into service, getting him to visit his "friend" Overbury regularly, and impress upon him the only way out of the Tower was through touching the heart of the king and moving him to pity at Overbury's lowly state.

Ann Turner: Poisoner by enema
Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics and enemas would help make him seem even more piteous and enfeebled, certain to prod James into an act of clemency, Carr argued. Overbury, desperate to escape the Tower, agreed to this course of action.

In furtherance of the Howards' plan, the Tower's lord lieutenant (the government official overseeing the operation of the Tower) was removed in favor of a notably corrupt one named Helwys (recommended by none other than the earl of Northampton, to whom he paid a customarily hefty finder's fee), who in turn assured that a jailer named Weston agreeable to Lady Frances' plan was placed in position to oversee Overbury's "treatments."

Lady Frances' connection to the plot was laid bare by the confession eventually wrung from her "companion," a seemingly respectable physician's widow named Anne Turner. In reality Turner was anything but.

While her husband was still alive Anne Turner carried on a prolonged affair with a wealthy gentleman, and bore him a child out of wedlock. After her husband's demise she "made ends meet" in part by running a secret red light establishment where couples not married to each other could go to have sex. She had also served as her deceased husband's assistant on many occasions and possessed some skill with chemicals–especially poisons. She quickly developed a black market business selling them to many of the "wrong people."

So when her employer Lady Frances came to her seeking help, Anne Turner was more than willing to assist. Together with an apothecary she knew and worked with, Turner came up with several doses of emetics and enemas laced with sulfuric acid. Weston in turn administered these to an unsuspecting Overbury, who soon died.

The Outcome

Possessing not much in the way of either money or influence, the quartet of Turner, Weston, Helwys and the apothecary (whose name was Franklin) were quickly tried, convicted, condemned and hanged.
Henry Howard, the well-timed earl of Northampton

The earl and countess of Somerset, who did possess both money and influence, were immediately arrested and thrown into the Tower. The earl of Northampton only escaped a similar fate by having had the good timing to die the previous year.

The resulting scandal, far from merely ridding the king of a tiresome former favorite, caused James no end of embarrassment. He repeatedly offered to pardon Carr in exchange for a confession to the charge of murder.

For her part, Lady Frances quickly admitted her part in Overbury's murder. Carr, however, insisted ever afterward that he knew nothing of the plot (given his demonstrated lack of smarts, hardly difficult to believe that he was little more than the dupe of his extremely cunning wife). The earl and his wife were tried and eventually convicted on charges of murder and treason. Obviously concerned that Carr might implicate him in the murder and no doubt also nervous about what Carr might say about the nature of their personal relationship, James let them languish in prison for seven years, eventually quietly pardoning both the earl and the countess, and equally quietly banishing them from court.

Apparently the bloom came off the rose for this star-crossed couple during their long confinement, and their burning passion cooled into a dull hatred. If Carr's protestations of innocence are true, it stands to reason that the revelation of the part she played in killing his friend and mentor Overbury may have had something to do with his seeing her in a different light.

The next ten years after they were pardoned in 1622 were spent quietly loathing each other on Carr's estate in Dorset, far from the pomp of James' court in London. Lady Frances died aged 42 of cancer in 1632. Carr followed her to the grave in 1645.

30 November 2014

The First Female Detective

by Louis Willis

In my August post, “An Homage To Poe,” I discussed Andrew Forrester (pen name of J. Redding Ware) and his short story “Arrested On Suspicion.” I also mentioned The Female Detective, a collection of stories that he supposedly edited. I couldn’t find the book on Project Gutenberg. I found and downloaded it from Google Play. Because I couldn’t increase the small text in the scanned edition, I bought a print edition (released in 2012). The Female Detective was originally published in 1864.   
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of The Female Detective, Mike Ashley accepts Forrester as the author of the stories, though the scanned edition shows him as the editor. When  the book was published, there were no women detectives, either private or police, in Britain. It would be 50 years before women detectives appeared. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Pinkerton agency employed a woman detective in 1856, and the first policewoman appeared in 1908 in Portland, Oregon.
However, women as amateur detectives had appeared in stories prior to 1864, but “These works...involved women who, by circumstance, were forced to investigate matters.” According to Ashley, THE FEMALE DETECTIVE features the first professional woman detective: "Whether inspired by real events or entirely fictional it is clear that the mysterious 'G' is first and foremost the pioneering female detective.” 

G, as the police refer to her (she calls herself Gladden), is retired from the detecting business and was wise enough to allow a “literary editor” to revise her manuscript. G wrote the “book to help show, by my experience, that the detective has some demand upon the gratitude of society.”
The first case in the collection, “Tenant For Life,” is about a five year old inheritance fraud that G feels she must expose. Her round-about way of telling the story at first annoyed me until I accepted that she, like many of us old folks, likes to talk. She considers herself “a good talking companion, and “women are in the habit of talking scandal, with me for a hearer, within three hours of my making their acquaintance."
From a cabman and his wife, she learns the story of how, five years earlier,  the cabman bought a baby from a poor woman who appeared to be in distress. Shortly after the transaction, a lady ran after him looking for a woman with a baby and hears the baby crying in the cab. She offered him thirty pounds and he sold the baby to her. After hearing the story, G suspected the lady wanted to substitute the child for one who had died and that possibly an inheritance fraud was involved. She feels it is her duty to “deal out justice” and see that the property is return to the rightful owner, if it is in fact an inheritance fraud. 
I like the story for the way in which G goes about the investigation. Researching the birth and death records of the village where the cabman had sold the baby, she discovers it was born close to the same time a wealthy lady, Mrs. Shedleigh, in the village died. Armed with this information, she locates a family consisting of a five-year-old girl, her father Mr. Newton Shedleigh, and his sister Miss Shedleigh. Disguising herself as a seamstress, she gains entrance into the Shedleigh household and learns all she can about the Shedleighs. 
From her research on the law on inheritance, she learns that if the children of a husband and wife die before the wife, and she dies before the husband, he inherits her possession and becomes a “tenant for life.” If she dies without children, her property passes to her father’s brother. Her investigation of the Shedleighs leads to the dead wife’s uncle, whom she suspects is the rightful heir.
I like G even though she seems to be a meddlesome woman who interferes in other people’s lives to prove that detectives are necessary. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the remainder of her sleuthing adventures.

So long until next month when I must say goodbye.

16 October 2014

Wut Werkz and Wut Duzn't in Historrikuhl Fikshunn, Part Deyuh

by Brian Thornton

We'll begin today's post with a quotation within a quotation, and end it by posing a conundrum for the reader. 

First the quote within the quote. The initial one comes from The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk's magisterial history of the Anglo-Russian struggle for control of Central Asia (and by extension, both India and all trade routes to the Far East). Within that quotation lies a telling quotation from the recollections of one of the so-called "Great Game's" most colorful players, a British army officer and diplomat named Alexander "Bokhara" Burnes:


Finally in August 1831, laden with gifts and compliments, Burnes and his companions crossed back into British territory, making for Ludhiana, the [British East India] Company's most forward garrison town in north-west India. There Burnes met briefly a man whose fate was to be closely bound with his own - Shah Shujah, the exiled Afghan ruler, who dreamed of regaining his lost throne by toppling its present occupant, the redoubtable Dost Mohammed. Burnes was not impressed by this melancholy-looking man who was already turning to fat. 'From what I learn,' he noted, 'I do not believe that the Shah possesses sufficient energy to set himself on the throne of Cabool.' Nor, Burnes felt, did he appear to have the personal qualities or political acumen to reunite so turbulent a nation as the Afghans. 

It almost goes without saying that not much has changed in or about Afghanistan over the 183 years since "Bokhara" Burnes wrote the bit quoted by Hopkirk above (Brutal terrain? Check. Unruly tribes with nearly no attachment to the central government? Check. Hostility to outside influences? Check. The list goes on...).

And yet so many things actually have.


"Hindoostan" and Environs - 1830s
Not least the fact that, as a result of events from 9/11 onward, most Americans have actually heard of Afghanistan and might even be able to find it on a map.
The same region today

Another thing that has changed is the cessation of the at times unintentional Occidental practice of  transforming proper names and other nouns into sometimes wholly other words, or at the very least, of mangling them so badly in translation as to render them nearly unrecognizable.

Not THIS Burns (Scottish poet Robert)
Take Burnes' reference above to "Cabool." Anyone who knows anything about the region (or hasn't been living under a rock for the past 13 years) is likely quick to realize that Burnes was, of course referring to modern-day "Kabul," the capital of Afghanistan. You see this all over the place, especially during the 19th century, and particularly when reading historical accounts written by British soldiers, sailors, explorers, scholars, etc.

At times seems as if this is nothing more than an extension of the old joke about English gentlemen being fluent in any number of languages, so long as it's understood that they'll speak them s-l-o-w-l-y and with an impenetrable English accent.

For example, at the mouth of the great Indus River that drains all of Pakistan, a large chunk of
THIS Burnes (actually a distant cousin, despite the difference in spelling)
Central Asia and a significant amount of Northwestern India sits a port city called Karachi. I have seen this spelled a variety of ways, including "Kurachee," "Carratchee," and "Kharatchee."

And then there's "Hindoo" (Hindu), "Hindoostan" (Hindustan), "Peking" (Beijing), and a host of other place-names. The British take on the world they set out to colonize and "make English" through the administration of British laws and forcing British customs on the locals seems to be forever misspelled, especially from a modern perspective.

Now, of course this sort of thing isn't really limited to the British. It's just fun pointing out a few choice examples from Britain's storied imperial past.

In fact to do this is to be human.

Remember these guys...
Everyone does it. Corrupting and breaking down and reshaping words is part of what keeps languages "living." Seen the capital city of Turkey referred to as "Nova Roma" ("New Rome") as anything other than a term of art lately? That's the name the Roman emperor Constantine the Great gave the city when he founded it during the 4th century A.D. Or when was the last time that anyone other than indie rock jingle writers They Might Be Giants referred to this self-same city by it's later Greek name of  "Constantinople"?


...who did this song?
(And now you've got it running through your head, admit it..."...If you've a date in Constantinople, she'll be waiting in Istanbul!")

In fact the modern name "Istanbul" comes from an old Greek nick-name for the city: "eis tēn polin" ("into the city").

Confused yet?

Anyway, for me where it gets really sticky is when you're trying to write fiction. And not just fiction, but historical fiction about places with history such as these.

Allow me to refer yet again to Hopkirk's example above. Elsewhere in his book (and if you've not read it, you really owe it to yourself to give it a look. "Compelling" doesn't even begin to describe it.) he refers to the chief city of the Afghans as "Kabul," using the modern, accepted spelling.

But of course when quoting from an historical source it is of the utmost importance to preserve the text in its original form if at all possible. This is why actual misspellings tend to be quoted whole cloth (followed by a helpful "sic").

But what to do when writing, not history, but historical fiction?

Of course it really depends upon which person you're writing in. So much historical fiction these days is written in the form of a supposed first person memoir. This is especially true of historical mystery fiction.

If you're writing in the first person, you're golden. You can use any weird-ass, archaic derivation of one of the places you're discussing that pleases you. In fact if anything it's going to help establish your narrator as a product of the time about which they're (really you're) writing.

BUT

(Aaaaand here's the question with which we're going to end today's post)

What if you're writing a third person multiple point of view story?

What then?

Case in point: as part of my current novel-in-progress, I have my protagonist talk about a visit to the Fiji Islands during the year 1840.

Fijian (Feejeean? Feegeean?) Club Dance, as witnessed  by members of the United States Exploring Expedition, 18


During this time period the word, "Fiji", had nearly as many old misspellings as "Karachi" (see above).

Note the spelling in the map's title (Upper left corner).

Think about it. As I mentioned in my last post, a good cardinal rule of historical fiction writing (and of fiction writing in general) that you don't want to put anything into your work that will jar the reader out of the story. Scare? Sure. Frazzle? Absolutely.

But if you knock your reader out of the story, they may just give up on it.

So how about it? If I have my protagonist talking about his cruise through Fiji, should it read: "I sailed the Fijis?"
A view of Fiji (Feejee? Feegee?) in 1840

Or should it read: "I sailed the Feejees"?

Or: "I sailed the Feegees"?

See the problem? He's not writing it down. He's talking about it.

Maybe not that big a deal for some, but I have heard many readers complain about just exactly this sort of thing.

What works for you, Dear Readers? Which option is least likely to take the reader out of the narrative, and why?

Istanbul...Constantinople...Tomato...Tomahto....?

10 June 2014

A Place In History

by David Dean

I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.

"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

15 April 2014

Writing For Fun And Profit

by David Dean

In a very few weeks I will have the privilege of making a presentation on short story writing at the Pennwriters Group (as in Pennsylvania) convention. A kind friend of mine, a writer of several fine thrillers, recommended me for the job, and not knowing any better, the staff approved. For months now I have been sweating this assignment. After all, I will be addressing writers who (regardless of where they are on their career paths) probably know as much I do. In fact, upon sober reflection (obviously that was not the case when I agreed to this), I find that I do not actually know much about writing anyway. I just do it.

So at this stage of my planning process, I'm picturing myself appearing before these dear people and saying something along the lines of, "I like short stories. I've read a bunch. There are some real good ones out there. Read a lot of those real good ones (at this stage I hand out smudged, mimeographed lists of real good stories). Then write a lot, okay? Practice makes perfect. Oh, I almost forgot...don't imitate those writers of real good stories. Write original-like. Ummm...any questions?"

Then I wake up screaming, "It's not my fault! It's all been said before!"

Which it has really.

Or … maybe, I lay down at the bottom of the stairs on the big day, just as Robin gets home, and start moaning incoherently, "Owww...my head! What happened? Who are you, beautiful lady? Do I know you?" This has worked in the past.

Here's my problem— I'm not an academic. I'm a high school drop-out that got a GED in the army and a junior college degree later. Not much in the way of credentials. I have played instructor on occasion, but the circumstances were very different. In the military, I gave classes on Soviet equipment identification, and sometime led P.T. (physical training). While a police officer, I taught search and seizure, and patrol techniques, at the academy. In both instances I had what amounted to a captive audience. They needed me more than I needed them. Also, if I noticed anyone's attention wavering, I could drop them for push-ups, or make humorous remarks about their family lineage and chances of graduating. Rank had its privileges. Not so much now.

So, do I dredge up the history of the short story, perhaps discuss its definition(s)? Or do I assume that they know that much already? Do I offer brief examples by the form's greatest practitioners, or figure they are probably better read than I am? Maybe, I'll just concentrate on the writing aspect. Or is that too subjective? Perhaps, I'll just ask them what the hell they want from me?

What say you, fellow SleuthSayers (especially you, John Floyd, as I know you give classes on this very thing), and dear readers? Any suggestions of what you'd want to hear or have discussed at such a gathering? What has worked for you? I'm all ears.

02 March 2014

Women in Mystery History

women of mystery
by Leigh Lundin

As part of Women’s History Month, this is also Women in Literature Month, and of particular interest to our genre, Women in Mystery Month as well. Today, you’ll find a bit of history and mystery.

Who’s Counting?

I was surprised when I initially joined Sisters-in-Crime to hear women were largely underrepresented in the mystery genre. I say surprised because I read more women authors than men with a strong liking for British women writers. I grew up with Agatha Christie and loved Dorothy Sayers. In my Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers articles, I often refer to Lindsey Davis, who writes the Falco series. I read all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books and although Elizabeth Peters isn’t English, I very much enjoy her Ramses series.

Here at home, I’ve read something by each of our Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers women authors and enjoyed them all. I’m so pleased we have such talent in house! We could not have done better! Moreover, it may not be obvious to the outside world, but to my knowledge, all of us male SleuthSayers are fans of Liz, Jan, Fran, Eve, and Janice.

My teacher friend Deborah is a major consumer of romance thrillers and she argued S-in-C was wrong. According to the RWA, if one includes crossover romances or romance novels ‘with mystery elements’, then female crime writers considerably outnumber male authors!

Mystery Elements

The definition of the difference is that in ‘pure’ mysteries, the central focus of the novel is a crime and its solution. In romance with mystery elements, a crime is a plot device to move the central relationship.

I sampled a few of the top authors in this latter genre and one thing drove me crazy. You’ll often hear arguments about ‘women in peril’. Such gnashing of teeth is futile because guys like being heroic and women like heroic guys. (It’s a case of being simultaneously correct and politically incorrect.) But in romance thrillers, the heroine more often than not places herself in deadly peril. Yaaargh.

In one such case, a hired killer stalks a female photographer. A guy ('the romantic interest') is hired to keep her safe, but she finds inventive ways to throw herself into the path of danger. In an effort to flee her protector, she magically ‘hot wires’ their only transportation and abruptly drives the vehicle into a ditch. At that moment, I was hoping the killer would succeed.

In another series, the hybristophiliac heroine starts out in pursuit of another hit man but, convinced he’s a sensitive, misunderstood soul who just happens to kill people, she falls in love and cultivates a 'relationship'. (In case of nausea, air-sickness bags are located in the seat pocket in front of you.) Some of you begin to understand why I prefer pure mystery and crime.

American Mystery History

Almost everyone is aware of that mistress of suspense, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who published her first mystery in 1908, more than a dozen years before Agatha Christie. You can’t be a fan of classic crime or classic movies without encountering that great lady. But I draw your attention to two far earlier mystery novelists.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
Metta Victoria Fuller Victor (1831-1885), along with her sister Frances, began writing at a tender age in the 1840s. She is credited with writing the first American crime novel in 1866, The Dead Letter, which blazed the way for paranormal mysteries. Writing under her nom de plume of Seeley Regester, she followed with another occult mystery in 1869, The Figure Eight.

Although she wrote poetry and edited a cultural periodical, The Cosmopolitan Art Journal, she became best known for 'dime novels' in the sense of modern day paperbacks, including moralistic dramas and westerns. Her 1862 abolitionist 'romance' novel, Maum Guinea and Her Plantation 'Children' or Holiday-Week on a Louisiana Plantation: a Slave Romance, became her best known, even drawing the attention of President Lincoln. Her supportive husband, author and publisher Orville James Victor, brought her works to the American public.

Anna Katharine Green
Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) is slightly better known and I occasionally find myself reading one or another of her stories, thanks to Louis Willis. She also was blest with a supportive husband, Charles Rohlfs, who brought some of her stories to the stage, including her 1878 The Leavenworth Case, which is considered one of her best.

She’s known for a number of firsts, such as the first series detective, the first spinster detective, the first girl detective, and I suggest another first. She created the prototype for that terribly popular (and popularly terrible) television show, Charlie’s Angels.

The detective in this case is Miss Violet Strange, a society deb, who not only has intricate access to haut monde, but is brainy as well. Her agency ‘employer’ appreciates that about her and sends her on tasks where she’s usually over-appreciated and underestimated. Those oh-so-thin seventies 'jiggle' television plots could have learned much from her.

So guys, if one weekend you find yourself without a woman, then grab a woman author. Enjoy one of those bits of history, but especially consider Eve, Fran, Jan, Liz, and Janice. You’ll be glad you did.

19 December 2013

The Bubble Reputation

by Eve Fisher

I've been re-reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" because I want to, because I love her writing style, and because I'm really looking forward to the third volume.  But it's made me think about reputation and how it changes over time.

There was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was that madman only one heartbeat away from the presidency - now he's Theodore Rex.  In his own time, Harry Truman was considered an average numbskull - if not downright impeachable, especially for his opposition to General Macarthur and Big Mac's idea of bombing China - but after Watergate, Merle Miller's transcripts of Harry's "Plain Speaking" became a best-seller, and his salty speech and down home ways proved his integrity in a corrupt world.  Every American reader of "Life" Magazine from the 1920s through the early 40s knew that General Chiang Kai-Shek was democracy's one great hope in China; but after WWII, with China gone Communist, his brutal takeover in Taiwan, and his constant demands for money (and nukes), he became widely known as "General Cash-My-Check."
File:Chiang Kai Shek and wife with Lieutenant General Stilwell.jpg
Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, Mei-ling Soong, and General Stillwell, who called CKS "Peanut" -
and not affectionately.
File:Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg
Thomas Cromwell
File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Thomas More
And there have been the various cases of rehabilitating the infamous.  Richard III - was he the evil, murderous, usurping crookback of Thomas More's little black pamphlet (although there's no proof that the sainted More wrote it) or the misunderstood, suffering, good king of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time"? For that matter, was the martyred saint Thomas More the gentle, mild-mannered public servant of unshakeable integrity and equally unshakeable convictions of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons", or was he the hard-core persecutor of Protestants, advocating deceit, torture, execution and extermination for all "heretics" that both Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" present?  And that, of course, leads to Thomas Cromwell, generally presented - until Mantel's work - as a villain:  unscrupulous, ambitious, jealous, greedy, predatory and ruthless.  Or was this the perfect way to make him the perfect foil for St. Thomas More?

Much of reputation depends on timing.  Histories aren't written in a vacuum, nor are plays, novels, movies, television shows.  There are reasons behind what is written.  Sometimes we know what they are; sometimes we don't.  Sometimes we're too close to know, and it will take later people to figure it out.

For example, there's an ancient historian named Plutarch, who wrote biographies and histories back around 100 CE:  "The Lives of the Noble Romans and the Noble Greeks", and "On Sparta."  They are major sources for historians about the ancient world - especially Sparta, which wasn't known for writing down much of anything.  There are only two problems with Plutarch's work:  his biographies were written to show the influence of character on lives and destinies - and he didn't believe people could change.  And "On Sparta" reeks of nostalgia for a society in which everyone was equal, honest, brave, above sordid things like money and greed and luxury.   And the question is, why did Plutarch - writing 500 years after Sparta was dead and gone - write so admiringly of a society that was totally dedicated to war AND based on one of the most horrifyingly brutal slave-owning regimes in a world that has known some pretty bad ones? Good question.  Well, one answer might be that he was writing during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which saw the greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire:

File:Roman Empire Trajan 117AD.png
The Roman Empire under Trajan - most of the known world of the day
An ideal time to promote military societies, wouldn't you say?  And slavery (Rome was 50% slaves under Trajan; at its height, Sparta was 90% slaves).  But, since all that military conquest was flooding Rome with goods and citizens were wallowing in excess luxury, let's go back to the good old days, when men were men and fought simply for the honor of it, and the greater good of their polis.


File:Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpg
Earliest known
portrait of Richard III
File:King Henry VII.jpg
Henry VII
Going back to that early pamphlet on Richard III - rumored to be Thomas More's - it was written specifically to blacken Richard III irredeemably, and to make everyone absolutely ecstatic that Henry VII and the Tudors had come in.  It was a political document, and needed, because Henry Tudor had no legitimate claim to the throne.  He was the grandson of a Welsh bowman, Owen Tudor, who (perhaps) married the French widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois.  No royal blood there, at least, not English royal blood.  His mother, Margaret Beaufort was the descendant of the House of Beaufort, who were all the descendants of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) by his mistress Katherine Swynford (the steamy details were the scandal of Europe for 25 years, until he - amazingly - finally married her).  In other words, he had damned little English blood in him, and most of it was illegitimate.  There were still legitimate Plantagenets and Yorks around who had much better claims to the throne.  So when Henry VII finally won the throne of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he immediately married his 3rd cousin, Elizabeth of York, got her pregnant as quickly as possible, and declared himself king as of the day BEFORE the battle, making everyone who fought him traitors, and eminently executable.  And he had his court historians - Polydore Vergil, Thomas More, and John Rous - write histories of England that made Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, to be the most evil, implacable king who ever lived. Maybe he was.  But then again, maybe he wasn't.

Yeah, like this is serious history
And so back we go to the Tudor era, which keeps getting rewritten. For many years, Elizabeth I was all the rage - or Mary Queen of Scots (who I consider one of the stupidest women in history).  And most of the popular stuff - HBO's "The Tudors", and many novels - are all centered around Henry VIII and his enormous appetite for women, which gives everyone a chance to show what they can do with codpieces, tight bodices and hoisted skirts.  But the serious stuff today is all on the men of Henry VIII's reign - parsing and reparsing Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey.  I am not sure why.  Is it that Cromwell was a blacksmith's son made prime minister, the American Dream writ large on an English stage, minus the execution at the end?  Is it that we all want to be Thomas More, integrity and sagacity combined?  Or that we're tired of saints, and want to hear about the common man?  Or we're sick of religious zealots, and want to hear how to stop them?

NOTE: My next blog is New Year's Day, and I will be doing a review of our own Janice Law's new novel, "The Prisoner of the Riviera".  I started it last night and I can tell you this much: - it's really, really good…