Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts

04 December 2017

Old Dogs and New Sticks

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, a woman who has acted in five or six plays with my wife (I directed one of them) invited me to her home because she had "something to show me." She mentioned "corruption," "graft," bootlegging" and murder, too. Your typical date, right? Naturally, I accepted.

A week later, I followed my GPS down a series of twisting back roads through woods and dales to her house, where I found her dining room table sagging under legal pads, file folders, photographs, and her laptop, which looked exhausted.

"Check this out." She showed me a Hartford Courant front page from 1921 (below) featuring FIVE different stories, all continued later in the paper, about Andrew J. Richardson and his son Andrew F. Richardson, who were arrested for bootlegging, auto theft, possible murder and a variety of other charges. some of the headlines were priceless. My personal favorite (bottom of upper right cluster) is "Mom Sobs While Sons Nabbed." They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Reading farther, I learned that Richardson pere and fils were detectives on the New Britain, Connecticut police force. In fact, Dad was the Chief of Detectives. Oops. And it gets even better. I looked up at my friend, Nancy Richardson Cardone.

"That's my great-grandfather," she said. "You think there's a book in here?"

"How much material do you have?" I congratulated myself for not drooling.

She held up a flash drive. "About 200 files."

She gave me a copy of that flash drive and we discussed options. Eventually, I convinced her that the best bet is to find a traditional publisher because she has pictures and other documents from the side of the family her relatives never discussed when she was growing up. She went to Ancestry.com and it turns out she is a brilliant researcher. If Robert Mueller needs someone to flesh out his investigation team, I know where he should look.

I've looked through the files. A lot of them have family value--birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and an autopsy report (yes, really!)--but most of them provide little or no narrative. Nancy knew a few great anecdotes, but they may not even be relevant. I told her that if we can find enough material to produce a coherent story, it's probably going to take three to five years. Since it looks like I would do the writing, I told her I've never tried nonfiction and this could take away two of my few strengths: dialogue and interviewing people. After all, the events took place nearly a century ago, so none of the major players will sit down to chat.

Another downside is that I've never put together a nonfiction proposal. I've started researching that, too, and it looks like a cross between a marketing plan and my Master's thesis. Fortunately, I can write within rigid constraints. As an English teacher, I could sling jargon with the worst of them and still be somewhat coherent (yes, I know that's a sin). I've also written grant proposals, the literary equivalent of jumping through progressively smaller flaming hoops while pounding nails into your forehead. I never want to write another one.

The project has some bright spots, too. I taught in New Britain, scene of the crime, for over thirty years and have former students in city government and on the police force. Maybe someone will remember what a brilliant, funny, and generous guy I was and open a few doors. The gang operated out of several sites, but one was a farm in Newington (where I now live), between New Britain and Hartford. Without even knowing it, I drove past that farm on my way to New Britain High School for years. If we need more pictures, that farm is still there.

New Britain was one of the most prosperous towns in the Northeast a century ago (ever heard of Stanley Hardware or Fafnir Bearing?) and has an industrial museum that I highly recommend if you're ever in the area. They have fascinating exhibits and even more fascinating people who can tell you all about them.

Last week, I tracked down a former colleague who used to do genealogy for clients back before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. He suggested several other possible sources of information.

I know, I could use whatever we find as the basis for a novel, but I'd still have to research the story anyway, and there's more competition (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day comes to mind instantly). If the information is there, nonfiction seems like a better choice even if it does feel like learning to play guitar again...left-handed.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good story? Would you read it? And how old do you have to be before you can learn new tricks?

28 August 2017

Now It Gets Personal

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed Connecticut crimes that span our country's history. Several were grim "firsts," and they prove that you don't have to set a crime story in the Big Apple or LA.

But when people ask--as they invariably do--"Where do you get your ideas?" I have answers that hit closer to home. Postcards of the Hanging grew from a crime in the town where I attended high school half a century ago, but today I want to talk about other crimes that shocked Connecticut. I know or knew people who were involved in all of these, and even though I changed every possible detail, two of them have inspired novels...so far.

It's probably an urban legend, but New Britain, CT claims to have more package stores (liquor stores to you tourists) per capita than any other city in the United States. On October 19, 1974, Ed Blake felt ill and closed his Brookside Package Store early for the first time anyone could remember. It probably saved his life.

Two career thugs decided that holding up a New Britski packy would mean good money on a Saturday night. When they found their target closed, they went next door to the Donna Lee Bakery, where a customer called one of them by name. The men could have turned around and walked away, but instead they forced all six workers and patrons into the back room and shot them. They raided the cash register and fled, gaining less than twenty-five dollars for their efforts.

Passersby noticed their car and license plate, and police tracked them down within hours. They served long terms in Somers, Connecticut's maximum security penitentiary (one died of cancer a few years ago), but it didn't bring back the victims. One was the cousin of my assistant principal. Two others had a son in my junior English class. Ed Blake's son was a former student, too.

I've never used that story. You don't always gain insight by trying to analyze a horrific event. Evil is simply banal and stupid, and sometimes it comes down to unfortunate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Several years later, Pulaski High School became a middle school and I transferred to New Britain High School, alma mater of two Connecticut governors, Thomas Meskill and Abraham Ribicoff.

By the early nineties, NBHS, designed for 1600 students in 1973, had an enrollment of 2800. It also had turf wars between the Latin Kings, Los Solidos, and 20 Luv, all of whom wanted to control drug sales in the area. The President of the Latin Kings, Miguel deJesus, was no scholar but he caused no trouble in my fifth period comp & lit class, aside from doing no work. Other teachers had less luck with him, and his guidance counselor told me they were less sociopathic than I was.

On November 4, 1993, a car dropped Miguel off at the Mill Street entrance, directly below my classroom's window (circled in red).



He came early to be readmitted after a ten-day suspension for fighting. As he approached the double doors, a stolen car pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a hoodie put a handgun against the back of Miguel's head and shot him six times (the black circle on the picture). Dozens of witnesses saw the car, which was later found abandoned, but it took nearly two years of detective work before the shooter and driver were caught. Two members of rival gangs died in the next week, and police barely managed to contain an all-out gang war. Miguel was the first of three gang members I lost over the next three years.

Run Straight Down changed every detail, but it grew from that shooting. I focus on the teachers who had to go back into the building the next day and make it safe for the kids...when we all knew damn well that everything was broken.

After retiring from teaching, I read newspapers to the blind for several years, but in summer of 2007, a federal trial took place in Hartford without a word about it appearing in print. The jury eventually convicted Dennis Paris, alias "Rahmyti," of assault, drug trafficking, extortion...and over 2500 counts of trafficking under-aged girls along the Berlin Turnpike.
Raymond Bechard's book about the case includes transcripts in which the women are asked over and over if Paris knew they were between 14 and 17 while he forced them into as may as ten liaisons a day. They said "yes" over 300 times. The case convinced the federal government to rewrite the existing law so that if the person was underage, it didn't matter whether the trafficker knew that or not.

The Berlin Turnpike had been notorious for decades (I live less than a quarter-mile from the highway), and I revising Cherry Bomb when I bumped into Bechard at a signing and discovered that his girlfriend was a cousin of one of my former teaching colleagues (and another sister who had been a student). Through him, I got to do a phone interview with one of the "witnesses" to clarify details of prostitution from the woman's perspective.

Dennis Paris's defense counsel was Jeremiah Donovan. His trial was in session when two men invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit, a case I mentioned two weeks ago. Donovan later defended one of those men, too.

In March of 1998, disgruntled worker Matthew Beck, on leave for emotional problems, returned to the CT Lottery headquarters in Newington, armed with two handguns and a knife. He killed four workers. Lottery President Otho Brown lured Beck away from the building to give other workers a chance to take cover and call for help before Beck trapped him in a fenced-in parking lot. Survivors called Brown the hero who saved their lives.

Others weren't so lucky. Beck shot Linda Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, formerly the first female mayor of New Britain, in her office. New Britain had a 21% Polish population, third in the nation at that time, and Linda literally walked through neighborhoods knocking on doors to talk with residents. She met her soon-to-be husband Peter when he helped her run her campaign. Over 1000 mourners attended the woman's funeral during a cold heavy rainstorm, the same day Mlynarczyk's farewell to his wife appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant. It hurt like hell when I realized he now wrote even more eloquently than he had years before...as another student in my class.

Playwright Marsha Norman advises writers to write about the things in your life that still hurt, that still feel unfair and make you angry.

I've got mine.

14 August 2017

The Land of Shady Habits

by Steve Liskow

I set my first mystery in Saginaw, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Detroit. While I shopped that around, I also worked on a series set in Hartford, CT, where I now live, and many people asked why my stories didn't take place in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston. I told them there were already enough private eyes there to keep things under control. Twenty years ago, Robert Parker, Linda Barnes and Dennis Lehane all worked Boston. It's a wonder there was even a parking violation.

Rosemary Harris uses a fictionalized Southwest Connecticut and a couple of other writers have set an occasional mystery in the state (Thomas Tryon, a Hartford native, created a version of Old Wethersfield in The Other), but I don't know why we don't see more of them. The state has an energetic multi-cultural background--Irish, Italian, Polish, African, Hispanic--not even counting the original occupants. Manufacturing and the insurance industry flourished here, and the history offers truckloads of material.

So does crime. The two towns that still argue over which is the oldest one in Connecticut both have seen major foul play.

Wethersfield, on Hartford's southern border, still has a section called "Old Wethersfield," with colonial architecture, tall trees, and a cove that leads to the Connecticut River. Thomas Beadle, a merchant who contributed to the revolutionary war effort, lived along the cove with his wife and four children. When the Continental Congress devalued Connecticut scrip to 1/40 the face value to help finace the war, Beadle faced bankruptcy and disgrace. In December 1782, after months of planning and delay, he struck his wife in the head twice with an ax and cut her throat in their bedroom. He did the same to the children in their rooms, then wrote a suicide note, sat in his favorite chair with a pistol in each hand, and shot himself through the head. His act was the first mass murder in the American colonies.

Over a century later, Amy Archer-Gilligan
ran a nursing home in Windsor, which borders the northeast corner of Hartford, only about ten miles from Wethersfield. Although she was only tried and convicted for one death, she poisoned at lest five men.

In fact, between 1907 and 1917, sixty residents of her home died, mostly from stomach ailments.


Eventually, the court declared her insane and she spent years in an asylum, dying in 1962 at the age of 93. Her story inspired the popular play Arsenic and Old Lace. If it had become a TV movie, maybe they would have called it Gilligan's Trial.

The Nutmeg State boasts (?) other ground-breaking crimes, too (pun intended). In 1957, authorities captured George Metesky, AKA "The Mad Bomber," after he had planted over thirty bombs in the preceding decade. After years in prison, he died in Waterbury at the age of 90 (Crime in Connecticut appears to be connected to longevity). His arrest came about after one of the first uses of a psychological profiler, whose description proved remarkably accurate.

Wethersfield used to be the site of Connecticut's electric chair, where Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky was executed in 1960 after killing at least seven people in a series of liquor store robberies. His reign of terror caused package stores to close earlier in the evening than had been customary.



In September 1983, several Puerto Rican nationalists held up a West Hartford branch of Wells Fargo and escaped with over seven million dollars, the largest recorded haul in history at that time. By the time authorities tracked down the thieves, they'd spent most of the money on political activism.

A much darker first occurred in 1989. In Newtown, philandering airline pilot Richard Crafts went to prison for killing his wife Helle, the first time a Connecticut jury convicted a defendant for murder without the corpse being found. Prosecutors built a grisly chain of evidence about how Crafts destroyed the body, and the case is still notorious as the "Wood Chipper Murder." It may have inspired the scene in the Coen brothers film Fargo.

In 2005, Michael Ross became the first execution in Connecticut since Mad Dog Taborsky after a jury convicted him of raping and strangling at least eight women in Connecticut and New York. Ross, who looked slightly more dangerous than cotton candy, picked up most of his victims hitchhiking.







In central Connecticut, the Cheshire Home Invasion of July 2007 is still an open wound. Two career screw-up druggies battered Dr. William Petit in his home, forced his wife to withdraw money from a local bank as a ransom (The banks' surveillance video was evidence at the trial), then raped and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. The injured Petit managed to escape and alert police, who captured the fugitives within blocks of the house, driving Petit's car. Their trial and ultimate convictions aroused a movement to bring back the death penalty, which Connecticut had rescinded after Ross's execution. The movement failed.

In August 2008, Omar Thronton, fired for stealing beer from the Hartford Distributors in Manchester, entered the building with two 9 mm semi-automatics and killed eight co-workers before turning his guns on himself.

It's disturbing to notice how these tragedies seem to come more and more quickly. The most horrific of many school shooting rampages took place in Newtown, the home of the Crafts couple I mentioned above. On December 14, 2012, mentally disturbed Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 six-year-old students, five teachers and the school's principal. He shot himself when police answered the frantic 911 call, and his mother--who bought him the guns, including an assault rifle--was found shot to death in her home. Local Senator Chris Murphe is one of Congress's strongest voices for gun control, and President Barack Obama's private visits to each of the victims' families are now local legend.

I'm closing this installment with the story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if you don't follow football, you might have heard of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, a star athlete at Bristol Central high school (where one of my theater buddies used to teach English). Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015. while in prison, he was tried for two more murders, but was acquitted. Five days after his acquittal, guards found him dead in his cell, apparently after hanging himself.

Yes, it's a grim list. But it gets even worse. Next time, I'll discuss a few more cases, all of which involved people I know. I even used a couple of them for stories...

10 June 2017

True Crime? Maybe Not

by B.K. Stevens

Over twenty-five years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps as a mystery writer--no publications yet, but a respectable stack of rejections--I was teaching English at a liberal arts college in Illinois. (For reasons about to become obvious, I won't say which one.) A student came to my office to ask for an extension on an essay and, as justification, launched into a litany of typical freshman woes. She couldn't get along with her roommate, her chemistry professor hated her, the girls on her hall partied late every night, making so much noise she couldn't sleep.

"And," she said, "I'm depressed because my older brother's in prison."

That made me perk up. Prison? Crime? Maybe I could use this in a story. After all, it's vitally important for mysteries to be realistic--at least, that was my theory at the time.

I tried to sound compassionate, not hungry for information. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "May I ask why he's in prison?" Murder, I hoped. Murder murder murder.

She sighed. "Arson," she said.

Oh. Not murder. Well, arson's a serious crime, too. There must be ways to make it interesting. Pushing all scruples about professional ethics aside, I decided to keep digging. The student probably wouldn't mind. She'd see it as a sign of sympathy, and she'd figure that increased her chances of getting an extension. Yeah. She'd talk.

"That's too bad," I said, and paused delicately. "What was it--some sort of elaborate insurance scam?"

She shook her head. "No. He was mad at our neighbor, and one night he got drunk and burned down his barn."

Not such an interesting crime after all. But maybe I could wring some emotional drama out of the situation. "That must have been hard on your family," I said. "All the tension and worry during the investigation, the trial--"

She shrugged. "There wasn't really an investigation. Or a trial. See, he was drunk, like I said. So his wallet must've fallen out of his pocket when he reached for his car keys or something, but he didn't notice, and the police found it right near the barn. So the next day they came to our house and showed him the wallet and said, `Joey, did you burn down Ed Swenson's barn?' And he said, 'I guess.' So they arrested him, and he made some kind of deal or whatever, and he went to prison. It's depressing. It makes it really, really hard for me to write essays."

I gave her the extension. I wasn't altogether convinced that she was deeply depressed about her brother's plight, or that her concern for him accounted for her essay-writing difficulties. She often came to our 8:00 class looking hung over, and that made me wonder if she might in fact be partying with those noisy girls on her hall, and if that might be why her essay hadn't gotten written. But I owed her. She hadn't handed me a plot, but she'd taught me a valuable lesson. Yes, mysteries should be realistic--sort of. But the crimes in mysteries have to be interesting. Real crimes don't, and usually aren't.

It reminded me of my own brush with real crime, buried still deeper in the past. I was in high school, my older sister was away at college, and my parents had gone out to enjoy a Sunday evening of playing bridge with friends. I had to catch the bus downtown to get to the Buffalo Jewish Center in time for my B'nai B'rith Girls meeting, and I was running late. (I promise these details will prove relevant later.) I was scrambling to get ready and looking, as I recall, for a silk scarf. Back then, I fretted about fashion accents such as silk scarves, because the boys' B'nai B'rith chapters held their meetings at the Jewish Center at the same time ours did, and we mingled before and after. The scarf eluded me. Frustrated, I pulled out my top dresser drawer and dumped its contents on my bed. I spotted the scarf, grabbed it, and ran for the bus.

I assume the meetings and the flirting went on as usual--I don't remember, and it doesn't matter. Usually, I took the bus home after meetings. But on this particular night, my best friend's father stopped by to pick her up and offered me a ride home, too. (This detail might also be relevant. It might have saved my life.) They dropped me off and drove away, and I walked up the driveway to our front door, digging in my purse for my key. As it turned out, I didn't need my key, because the door was slightly ajar. That's strange, I remember thinking. My parents--my mother, especially--always kept doors shut and locked.

I pushed the door open and stepped into the house. I remember standing there like an idiot for a full minute, maybe longer, looking around in confusion. The living room was a mess--paintings pulled off walls, books pulled off shelves, cushions pulled off couches. My parents had an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a secretary, and all the drawers had been emptied on the floor, papers and doo-dads scattered everywhere. I couldn't understand it. Had my mother decided to take a radical approach to spring cleaning? Had she decided to start on a Sunday evening in October?

Then it dawned on my. Our car wasn't in the driveway. My parents hadn't come home yet. Somebody else had been in the house, and had turned it upside down.

I ran next door, and my neighbors called the police--this was long before cell phones, of course. I stood out on the lawn to wait. By now, I was excited. At that point in my life, I had no idea of ever becoming a mystery writer, but what teenager wouldn't be excited about having his or her house burglarized? When the first police car arrived, I accompanied the officers to the door. I'll never forget the older officer's words as he took a long, careful look around our ravaged living room.

"Yup," he said, nodding sagaciously. "Looks like we've had an entry here."

An entry! Cop talk! It was just like TV, only better because it was really happening. I wasn't thinking about what precious things the burglars might have taken, only about how cool it all was.

The younger officer said he'd check upstairs, and I raced up ahead of him, leading him straight to my room. That was the worst moment. The officer saw the dumped-out dresser drawer on my bed and pointed.

"They've been in here for sure," he said.

Humiliating as it was, I knew, even then, that one mustn't lie to the police. "Not necessarily," I said. "I left it that way."

He raised an eyebrow, looked around upstairs for a few minutes, didn't see anything of interest, and decided to check the basement. Again, I went along, to show him where the light switches were. He was checking out the laundry room when he said, "You know, I really shouldn't have let you come down with me."

"Why not?" I asked, looking around for traces of the burglars.

"Because they might still be here," he said.

That hadn't occurred to me before--or, evidently, to him. My excuse is that I was a teenager who had no experience with crime or criminals.

Around then, my parents got home. Alarmed by seeing police cars outside the house, my mother took the situation in much more quickly than I had. She ran up to the older officer.

"My daughter!" she cried. "Where's my daughter?"

He looked at her somberly. "She's in the basement, ma'am," he said.

My mother promptly went into hysterics, imagining me in the basement, chopped into a thousand tiny pieces. But I came upstairs intact moments later and calmed her down.

My parents and I watched as the police looked around, asked us questions, and took notes. I felt relieved when they found that a window on the back porch had been forced open, and concluded the burglars had gotten in that way. After my initial excitement had faded, I'd started to worry that I might have been so intent on catching the bus that I'd forgotten to lock the door. If I'd made things easy for the burglars, I'd have to face my mother's wrath, and that scared me more than any burglars ever could. But apparently it hadn't been my fault. Thank goodness.

The police also decided the burglars hadn't finished going through the living room. Chances were, they thought, the burglars had been in that room when I got home, and they'd seen my friend's father's headlights in the driveway and left through the back window before I made it inside. So if I'd taken the bus and walked home from the corner, as usual, I might have strolled into the living room and taken them by surprise. Probably, they would have simply run off anyhow. Most burglars aren't homicidal. But if they'd been on drugs or determined to leave no witnesses behind--well, I'm glad Joanne's father picked that night to give us a ride home.

The police made a long list of things that were stolen, told my parents to call if they  noticed anything else was missing, promised to stay in touch, and left. We never heard from them again. It was like an early Seinfeld episode. Jerry discovers his apartment has been burglarized and calls the police, and the officer dutifully makes a list of stolen items. "We'll look into it," he says, "and we'll let you know if we find anything." "Do you ever find anything?" Jerry asks. "No," the officer says.

Our burglars did quite a job on our house. My mother's father had been a jeweler, and he'd given her some nice pieces. She kept the most valuable ones in a safe deposit box, but the burglars found and took everything else, including my grandfather's pocket watch. They also took my parents' good silverware. My parent didn't mind that so much--insurance covered it, and they could pick a more modern set they liked more than the one my grandparents had given them as a wedding present. But insurance didn't cover the cash that was stolen. My mother didn't drive, and she grew up during the Depression and didn't entirely trust banks, so she liked to keep a fair amount of cash in the house. She hid it in all sorts of clever places--in her sewing box, at the bottom of old Band-Aid boxes stuffed with rubber bands and balls of string, between the pages of books, between photographs and the frames holding them. The burglars found and took almost every dollar. Amazing.

As for me, at first I thought the burglars hadn't bothered going through my room at all. But they had. As I got ready for bed, I kept noticing signs they'd been there--my jewelry box sitting open, the contents of an old purse dumped out on my closet floor. The burglars must've been frustrated when they found nothing but costume jewelry and dried-out mascara. So, evidently, they'd given up and moved on before spotting the one truly valuable thing in my room--my grandmother's diamond watch, sitting right out on my bedside table in a velvet-covered jewelry box. (Years later, my husband and I named our daughter Sarah after my grandmother; we gave her the watch as a bat mitzvah present, and she wore it at her wedding. I'm glad the burglars missed it.) So I didn't lose much, if anything, in the burglary--after all, I was a teenager and didn't own much worth stealing. Even so, it felt unsettling to know strangers had been in my room and handled my things. I slept with the lights on that night.

I'll never write a mystery about that true crime. If I did, nobody would publish it--it had some quick comic touches but no real drama or conflict, and any attempt to build suspense would collapse into anti-climax. But I gleaned some insights from the experience, insights into the way even a non-violent crime can leave people feeling violated. Not too long ago, I drew on those insights when I wrote "The Shopper," a story about a librarian whose house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. Here's the description of how she felt the next day:

She felt like a stranger in her own home now, constantly reaching for things that were no longer there, every ten minutes discovering fresh evidence of The Shopper's intrusion--a bottle of aspirin missing, a box of tissues moved. She'd been so proud of this house, had felt so safe here. It was tiny, and only rented, but it was her symbol of security and independence, her proof she could take care of herself. And now some stranger called The Shopper had destroyed all that. Her privacy had been denied, her contentment sneered at. She felt suddenly vulnerable.

In that story, I also drew on something a co-worker told me about the time her purse was stolen when she carelessly left it unwatched in her grocery cart. She came home to find the thief had returned her reading glasses by leaving them in her mailbox. That true crime story also didn't lead to much: My co-worker was nervous for several days, afraid the thief might be stalking her, but nothing else ever happened. The thief did a bad deed, then did a good deed, and that was the end of it.

In my story, the burglar does prove to be a stalker. I worked my small insight from that long-ago burglary and my co-worker's sliver of experience into a fair-play whodunit: The librarian notices that two men she's never seen before have started showing up at the library every day, and she has to unravel several clues to figure out which one is the burglar who's probably up to no good. (I'll casually mention that "The Shopper" is one of the stories in my collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. Not that I'm trying to sell books or anything.)

True crime seldom gives us everything we need for our mysteries. The criminals usually aren't clever enough, the cops sometimes aren't quick enough, the crimes themselves often aren't interesting or conclusive enough--often, they end without any real climax, any definite answers. They end not with a bang but a whimper. But we can still gather scraps of ideas and insights from our brushes with true crime, and from true crimes we hear about or read about. If we add some imagination, we might end up with mysteries readers will find satisfying.

Maybe I should give more thought to writing a story about someone who burns down a barn. After all, it worked out pretty well for Faulkner.



I'm delighted to say that I'm interviewed in the current issue of The Digest Enthusiast, a fascinating publication that celebrates genre magazines. The interview (it's a long one) focuses on my stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, especially the series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt. This issue also includes an interview with science fiction writer Edd Vick, with Vick's advice on finding markets for short speculative fiction; a review of the first issues of the classic crime digest Manhunt; a look at digest articles about the career and death of Sharon Tate (take note, O'Neil DeNoux); and more articles, reviews, and original stories. If you'd like more information, you can find it here.

07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?

Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!


— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.

Why?

I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.

03 July 2016

Hats off to Larry

by Leigh Lundin

Larry Jonas
Larry Jonas, man with a noteworthy superpower
We occasionally touch upon real-life events that would never work in fiction because they beggar belief. Thanks to friends and classmates Kristi and Larry Jonas, we bring you such a tale, the true story of a man with his very own superpower, one he used to detect and defeat a small but ongoing crime.

Larry’s married to Kristi. For many reasons, he’s her superhero. Larry is also the president of the town council (i.e, mayor) of the pretty little town of New Palestine, Indiana, where Kristi keeps a beautiful house and a lovely garden.

Sitting around their kitchen table, they shared this story, one that lends a bright glow to those small injustices all of us experience from time to time.

The Fast-Fingered Filcher

In a fast food restaurant, Larry placed an order. He handed the girl behind the counter a $20 bill. She rang it up and gave him back change.
Larry said, “Excuse me, miss, I gave you a twenty. You returned change for a ten.”
“No, you handed me only a ten.”
“Not a ten, a twenty. You placed it under the drawer.”
“It was only a ten.”
“A twenty.”
“A ten. Next customer, please.”
“I’m not leaving until I receive the correct change.”
She jutted out her chin. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the manager.”
The manager came out, wiping his hands on a towel. He inquired what the problem was.
The clerk snapped her gum and said in a disparaging tone, “He gave me a ten but demands change for a twenty.”
The manager looked at Larry. “Sir?”
Larry said, “Under the drawer you’ll find the twenty-dollar bill I gave her.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Duh. That’s where we keep bigger bills.”
“But if you look at that one, you’ll find the series date is 2006 and the serial number is IK-6952317-E.”
The manager pulled the top bill from under the drawer. He stared at it in disbelief.
“What was that number again?”
“IK-6952317-E. Kind of a knack, see, I remember numbers. Also, someone scratched a pencil mark on the back.”
The manager gazed at Larry in awe, then handed him the twenty. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, sir. I’m giving your money back and your meal is on us. As for you, young lady…” He fired the petty purloining perp on the spot.

Ah, Karma! Don’t you love a story that turns out right?

12 January 2016

Made to be Broken

by Paul D. Marks

Well, it’s January 12th. If you haven’t already broken your New Year’s resolutions you’re running late. So get to it. Start by eating that Snickers bar or cutting back your daily jog from twelve miles to a quick walk to the corner store...to buy that Snickers bar.

A couple of years ago Writer’s Digest put out 5 resolutions for writers (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/5-new-years-resolutions-for-writers ). I’d like to comment on them.

1. Resolve to make time for writing: This would seem pretty obvious. We all have busy lives, but are they really any more busy than when we had to till the ground working from dawn till dusk, before there were dishwashers and washing machines to do our dishes and clothes? Generally speaking we are as busy as we want to be. True, there are things that have to get done like work and dealing with kids or critters, but if one wants to write they will find the time. I hear a lot of people who claim they want to be writers. They have great ideas for the next best-seller or Academy Award-winning screenplay. They want to share them with you, have you write them while they take half the credit...and money. But they never write a word. So, apropos of Resolution five below, are they writers?

2. Resolve to embrace your personal writing style: The WD piece talks about embracing your style of being a pantster or an outliner. But I would look at this differently. When I first saw their resolution I thought they were talking about “writing style,” as in your voice, not how you go about your writing. And I would say, find your own voice. We all borrow from things we’ve read but you have to make it your own. The “worst” part about finding your voice is when some editor or someone else wants to water it down. That’s why I never use grammar checkers. They’re way too didactic, and some editors are too. They often want you to change your style to fit some mold or template that they like, which may be fine. But it’s not you. So you have to resolve to stick to your tone, your voice. Your style.

3. Resolve to self-edit as you write: They’re talking about “revising as you write in order to produce a cleaner manuscript that requires less revision on the back end.” I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not saying one shouldn’t do a little minor editing as you go along, but that often turns into major editing and going over the same ground ad infinitum. The best piece of writing advice I ever got was not to rewrite as you go along. If you do rewrite as you go you’ll just get mired in that quicksand and often never move ahead, or move ahead so slowly that it hardly seems like progress.


4. Resolve to step outside your comfort zone: Here the folks at Writer’s Digest suggest we branch out from whatever genre we mostly work in to other things outside of our comfort zones. For example, if you write fiction, try freelance articles, if you write cozy try hardboiled. Like that. I don’t have a real problem with this one...except to say who has the time to branch out? I have several “branch out” works in progress, but I rarely have time to work on them, much as I want to. And why not just try to break out of your comfort zone within your own genre/sub-genre? Sometimes the best novels are the ones that change the genre and stretch the boundaries of that genre. They also mention reading books you normally wouldn’t read. Fine. I like reading a variety of things anyway. As they say, variety is the spice of life, one just needs the time to enjoy those spices while trying to meet deadlines, earn a living, etc.


5. Resolve to call yourself a writer: Writers write. If you write you’re a writer. You may not be a professional writer, but you are a writer. Go for it. I’ve seen various arguments here and there as to who is and isn’t a “writer”. But why rain on someone’s parade? If they write, if you write, you’re a writer. Just do it. Learn as you go. Trial and error. We’re all at various stages of learning to write and we’re all still learning as we go. I come from a screenwriting background. Making the switch to prose writing had various learning curves, particularly in description and transitions. In screenplays/movies description is sparse at best. A beach is a beach. No glorious crimson sunsets dancing on the edge of a knife (well, you know what I mean...). And transitions are usually cuts from one scene to the next. The audience can figure out what’s happening. In prose writing one needs smoother transitions and more “transcendent” descriptions. In some quarters there’s a certain snobbery as to who’s a writer and who isn’t. But mostly I’d say you’re a writer when you put the words on the page, keep writing despite setbacks of one kind or another, including “endless” rejections. When you persevere and believe in yourself, then you are a writer.

6. And now a resolution of my own: Resolve to watch more shows on the Murder Channel, Discovery ID: like Homicide Hunter (Lt. Joe Kenda), Momsters: When Moms Go Bad (w/ Roseanne Barr), Wives with Knives, Web of Lies, Evil Kin, Vanity Fair Confidential, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones, On the Case with Paula Zahn. In fact, I plan to do nothing but watch murder shows on Discovery ID 24/7 to escape the horrid realities of everyday life.


7. And one more resolution of my own: Resolve not to do much BSP in the coming year: But wait, it’s time to break all those resolutions, so please check out Vortex, my noir-thriller novella (which means it’s short—you can finish it quickly!). And if you’re eligible to vote for the Lefty Awards from Left Coast Crime, I hope you’ll consider it for—here it comes and it’s a mouthful: “Best mystery novel set in the Left Coast Crime Geographic Region (Mountain Time Zone and all time zones westward to Hawaii)”. Vortex definitely fits the bill. Set in L.A., Venice, CA, Hollywood, the Salton Sea and on/at the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz/L.A. Ballots are due by January 15th. And right now the book is still on sale at Amazon/Kindle for a mere 99 cents, which means it’s cheap—it won’t break the bank. Hell, you probably have 99 cents in change in your pants or purse or on the dresser right now that you just don’t know what to do with. I know what you can do with it—Vortex calls.

And Happy New Year to all ye merry SleuthSayers and our Cherished readers.


Hour glass credit: photo credit: Grains via photopin (license) 

08 June 2015

What Goes On In Your Town?

 by Jan Grape

Product Details1960s AUSTIN GANGSTERS Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett. The History Press 2015

I may have mentioned this book before, not sure, but I just finished it this week and am still intrigued. Mainly, I guess because I was in and around Austin, TX during the 1960s. No, I didn't moved to Austin until the last 60s and then only for about 16 months. I moved here for twelve years beginning in 1987. My Dad and Bonus Mom moved to Austin in 1957. They both worked at the State Offices of the State Employment Commission (now known as Texas Workforce Commission.) And because my family lived in Austin, I visited often. I'm sure I knew like most people that Austin had a certain criminal element, but Organized Crime?

Mr. Sublett's true crime book is outstanding for the history buff and for the crime writing gang. Okay, the Austin mobs weren't exactly like the old Italian mobs I've read about in crime stories and saw in movies like The Godfather. But the elements of crime were organized even if it could be considered a rather loose organization. Mr. Sublett says it was called a White Trash mafia.

Two high school football players, Tim Overton of Austin TX had every thing a young footballer could ever hope or dream for and yet threw it all away for a life of crime. Tim Overton a youngster from the wrong side of town whose mother died from a brain tumor when he was a senior in high School was a big offensive guard and Mike Cotton,a running back. from the more affluent side of town both received athletic scholarships from the new head coach Darrel Royal. Mike Cotton stayed out of the crime business, but Tim was drawn deeper and deeper into that world.

Tim Overton didn't just go nuts after his mother died, although some people thought he was really never the same. He did go on to college and was making decent grades that first year. After his first problems with the police, Coach Royal helped Tim and gave him more than one opportunity. Overton idolized Coach Royal and felt the coach turned his back on him. Probably harder on the coach than Tim Overton ever realized.

Before long, Tim and his associates or crew were driving Cadillacs, wearing diamond pinkie rings and running roughshod over prostitutes, pimps, banks and small businesses. Tim was involved with crooked lawyers, pimps and used car dealers. Smuggling and prostitution rings were high on the White Trash Mafia's plans and crimes. Murder often came into play and trying to outsmart the police was a big order of the day.



 Mr. Sublett has done fantastic research, with court transcripts, police files, Austin History Center files, talking to people who were around then and knew the players. He was able to also come up with photos of the players, their families, their victims and suddenly you realize while you're reading that you are totally involved with this story. Not to romanticize these criminals, but to be interested in the history of a town you've been in and around for over fifty year and a history you actually weren't aware of and in a way surprised about it.

If you have a chance and are interested in the history a small time frame of the capitol of Texas, I strongly advise you to pick up a copy of 1960s Austin Gangsters by Jesse Sublett.

A little personal note: Here's a photo of the beautiful Sage Award that was presented to me on May 17th from the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Foundation. It's  lucite and has a silver colored star on top and is engraved. My picture wasn't  the best but I think you can get a sense of it.

01 April 2015

The Man Who Ate Babies: A Parable

This has nothing to do with April Fools' Day, by the way.  

No babies were harmed in the making of this blog.  I  added the subtitle in hopes of not scaring off people who, like me, are squeamish about true crime.  This parable was written by George Harvey, the editor of Harper's Weekly, and appeared in a March 1907 issue.  I discovered it in the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography and was struck by how relevant it seemed in light of certain events of recent years. 

Oddly enough the question that most concerned Harvey seems to have been well settled, but the underlying issue is still very much with us.  After the essay I will come back to explain the circumstances that led to Harvey's essay.  The only editing I have done to the parable is to remove its introduction and split some paragraphs for ease of reading.

-Robert Lopresti



THE MAN WHO ATE BABIES
by George Harvey

Once there was a man who had the incomparable misfortune to be afflicted with a mania for eating babies. He was an extraordinary man, of astonishing vigor, of remarkable talents, of many engaging qualities, and of prodigious industry.
 

He had education and social position; he could earn plenty of money; and the diligent exercise of his intellectual gifts made him valuable to society. There was nothing within reasonable reach of a man of his profession which he could not have, but over what should have been a splendid career hung always the shadow of his remarkable propensity.

The precise dimensions and particulars of it were not definitely known to many persons. A few men who had a mania like his doubtless knew absolutely; a good many other men knew
well enough; and there was practically a public property in the knowledge that he had, and gratified, cannibalistic inclinations of much greater intensity and more curious scope than those that commonly obtained among careless men.

There was an honest prejudice against him. Persons of considerable indulgence to eccentricities of deportment disliked to be in the same room with him. Sensitive stomachs instinctively rose against him. Yet he was tolerated, for, after all, nobody had ever seen him eat a baby.

One day another man—quite a worthless person—knocked him on the head, and let his pitiable spirit escape from its body. It made a great stir, for the man who was killed was very widely known, and his assailant was also notorious. There followed profuse discussion of the dead man’s character, qualities, and achievements. His record was assailed, but it was also warmly extenuated.

When it was averred that he was an ogre, the retort was that he was not a materially worse ogre than a lot of other men, and that we must take men as we find them, and make special allowances for men of talent. When it was whispered that he ate babies the answer was that that was absurd; that whatever his failings, he was the helpfulest, best-natured man in the world, and particularly fond of children, and good to them, and that if he ever did eat babies he was always careful where he got them, avoiding the nurseries of his acquaintances, and selecting common babies of ordinary stock, who were born to be eaten, anyway, and would never be missed, and who, besides, were in any cases not so young as they made out.

So the discussion went on, and waxed and waned as the months passed. But one day there was set up a great white screen, big enough for all the world to see, and over against it was placed a lantern that threw a light of wonderful intensity, and then came a person named Nemesis, with something under her arm, and took charge of the lantern. And then there fluttered forth all day on the great screen the moving picture of the poor monomaniac and a baby—how he found her, enticed her, cajoled her, and finally took her to his lair, prepared her for the table, and ate her up. Well; it was said that the picture was shocking, and that the public ought not to have been allowed to see it.  Oh yes, it was shocking; never picture more so.  But it was terribly well adapted to make it unpopular to eat babies.

Lopresti here again.  In June 1906 the famous and celebrated architect Stanford White was shot to death by millionaire Harry K. Thaw.  (These events were recalled in E.L. Doctorow's novel RAGTIME.) Thaw said he was driven to the crime by his obsession with White's earlier relationship  with Evelyn Nesbit, a model Thaw had also had an affair with, and later married. 

In court Nesbit reported that White had given her drugs and seduced her  at age fifteen.  Thaw was eventually found  not guilty by reason of insanity.  A few words from Twain's autobiography:


New York has known for years that the highly educated and elaborately accomplished Stanford Whtie was a shameless and pitiless wild beast disguised as a human being...  He had a very hearty and breezy way with him, and he had the reputation of being limitlessly generous - toward men - and kindly, accommodating, and free-handed with his money -- toward men; but he was never charged with having in his composition a single rag of pity for an unfriended woman… [Congressman] Tom Reed said, "He ranks as a good fellow, but I feel the dank air of the charnel-house when he goes by."]

And here is how George Harvey introduced his parable in Harper's:

The President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] thinks that the papers that give "the full, disgusting particulars of the Thaw case" ought not to be admitted to the mails. Perhaps not. Perhaps the country at large does not need all the particulars, but in our judgment New York does need most of them, and it would be not a gain, but an injury, to morals if the newspapers were restrained from printing them.

We will try to explain.

31 May 2012

Trifling Through "Trifles"

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

The play, "Trifles", is a one act play written by Susan Glaspell based on a true story of the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell was working as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News and covered the case. The wife was accused as the killer and convicted, with the verdict later overturned on appeal. A year following the play, Glaspell used the play's storyline to compose her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers."

Reading this mystery play inspired me to be more observant and look to the little things to make a better assessment of what is really going on in my life and those around me. It is the little things we normally dismiss as irrelevant that accurately tell the true story often hidden beneath the obvious like an extravagant gift beneath wispy and inexpensive tissue papers. It is the little things that happen in our lives that gathered together comprise who we become. How and more importantly why a person chooses to do the things they do are subliminally addressed in this play where it is indeed the little things, the trifles, that count.

The historical setting of "Trifles" engages the reader in a look back at a not-so-distant time when women were supposed to be like children: seen and not heard. A woman's worth was less than a man's in more than wage earnings in these early twentieth century days. She was important as a bearer of children, keeper of the home and to pleasure a man. Other than that, she probably gained some recognition among other women by her homemade jams, quilting expertise and attendance at church, but rarely for her intelligence of reasoning skills. Though smart women surely were in abundance, they were stifled by men who were more physically strong and in charge. By the setting of this story, women had not had opportunity to exercise the right to vote much less be a voice heard in a community unless it dealt with child rearing or recipe collections.

Thinking like Sherlock Holmes in an investigation, it was the women who emerged as the true detectives due to the fact they unearthed the truth of the crime and its motive by seeing what the men could not: the little clues left behind to follow like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.

The women also acted as the self-appointed jury by deciding to allow her to get away with the murder, especially since the crime seemed justified to another woman, the men weren't wise enough to pick up on the not-so-hidden clues and a jury of the women's peers would surely not be her own, but a panel of twelve angry men who would more likely view a woman killing her husband as guilty without consideration of the circumstances leading to the crime.

Taking a cue from the men, the women left them to make their own evaluations as the men studied the crime scene in their Barney Fife manner undertaking the homicide analysis enough to formulate what had happened in the household leading to the husband's death. In their arrogance, the men didn't consult with the women on what a woman may have thought or done in such circumstances. Instead, believing themselves smarter than the fairer sex, the men brought the women along only to gather some clothing items for the widow in her jail cell awaiting their investigation report.

Irony runs rampant through the play as the men repeatedly give little relevance to the women and their mentions of the little things they notice in the household. The men overlook the importance of no outside communication via the party line telephone not hooked up to this home because the husband was too cheap to invest in the service even though his wife had once been a very social type whose isolation had robbed her of more than a cheerful song to sing. The dead bird who would sing no more was reminiscent of the new widow who had also been trapped, caged and no longer allowed to sing by a stingy and jealous husband. The men could not see beyond the empty birdcage with a broken door. The half-cleaned table should have been something to note in an otherwise clean household, but the men overlooked its importance.

History shows the strides women have made in being taken seriously for their choices whether they decide to become homemakers, astronauts, detectives or merely portraying ones on television. The true worth of any of us is by how we choose to define ourselves and not what others say we are or should be.

We've come a long way baby, and a lot of that was accomplished by not overlooking the little things in life. Sometimes the little things really are a matter of life or death.