26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)

Advance:

…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)

Agents:

An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.

Deadlines: 

Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com

24 March 2017

Now for Something Different ...

by
O'Neil De Noux

Adventure novels, always loved them. From the Doc Savage - Man of Bronze books to H. Rider Haggard to David Dodge's PLUNDER OF THE SUN ... I could go on and on.

Secret Agent Spy novels, always loved them. From Ian Fleming to Len Deighton to Adam Hall to John le Carre ... again I could go on and on.

Adventure novels, always wanted to write one. So I wrote one with secret agent spies. Most fun I've had with a computer since I discovered the Bettie Page page. It started with an oil painting my artist-daughter Dana painted for me for Christmas or maybe my birthday.


The characters came next and as soon as I created them, they let me know they needed to be different from other secret agent spies. They needed special powers so I gave them super powers, which took the novel into the realm of the paranormal. All right. I grew up with SPIDER-MAN and DAREDEVIL and THE FASTASTIC FOUR ... I could go on and on.

OK, when does the story occur? I just finished my historical mystery THE FRENCH DETECTIVE (set in 1900), so let's go back in time, but not that far. As I kept looking at the tiger, I started thinking INDIANA JONES and the ultimate villains of the 20th Century - Nazis. Hey, I have all that research from my historical novel about OSS assassins set during World War II - DEATH ANGELS. So I set the book in 1936.

OK, where? Some place different. I know - Macao (now spelled Macau). And that's how it began. I put a character in a tuxedo, another in an evening gown and have them run into each other in a giant casino where there's a gunfight with Nazis and Japanese agents (can't leave out the villainous Japanese of 1936).

So where does the tiger tie in? Easy enough. India. So we're off to India. I gave my characters their super powers, added a mysterious stone with special powers and followed them from Macao to India to Goa and into the Indian Ocean to a secret island where Nazi scientists are experimenting on tigers.

Here's the result:

Here's the promo:

IT IS 1936 and the world is on the brink of war -

An American with special talents is sent to the Portuguese colony of Macao to discover why Japanese agents are frantically searching for a mysterious stone called the Blaer. Murder quickly follows as the American stumbles on a vivacious brunette who needs rescuing. Or does she? This audacious woman has her own special talents.

The chase is on as Japanese spies and German thugs pursue the American secret agents who turn out to be superheroes with super powers. Against a backdrop of exotic locales - a giant gambling casino in Macao, a voyage through the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal to mainland India before our heroes travel to a lost island in the Arabian Sea to battle Nazi SS troop and evil scientists. The two Americans are drawn to one another on this plush island and become enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil.

What diabolical plan do Nazi scientists have for tigers? The perilous adventure becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in the realm of the ultimate predator - the tiger.

Here is the link to the paperback and eBook: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifers-Tiger-paranormal-secret-agent-ebook/dp/B06XCQS4CL/

Can't wait for the 1-star reviews on Amazon. "Hey, what the hell is this?"


I'll close with a quote from William Sydney Porter - better known by his pseudonym O. Henry (who lived in New Orleans for a short while). He once said, "Write what you like; there's no other rule." Not sure he said this. I got it off the internet. But I hope he did.
www.oneildenoux.net


23 March 2017

Cliffhangers

by Rob Lopresti

This appeared on a different blog seven years ago and was one of my most popular pieces.   I figured many of you haven't read it and the rest have forgotten it, so....

LOOK OUT!
 
Don’t you see that car fishtailing up the road, barely staying on the pavement? It’s heading straight to the cliff, zooming like the brakes have been cut, and it seems that in just a few seconds it will crash to certain doom. We may have just enough time to figure out what kind of a novel we are in …

If the driver is the local aristocrat that everyone in the village hates and has reason to kill, this is a cosy.

If the driver is a young punk who has just realized, too late, that the beautiful woman he slept with last night had no intention of sharing the dough with him, this is a noir.

But if that punk has in his pocket a compromising photo that implicates a millionaire’s daughter in a vicious murder, we’re in a hard-boiled.

If the driver and passenger are currently engaged in an activity that might feature in a compromising photo, this could be pornography. The Supreme Court will know it when they see it.

If the driver is in a mad rush to get Scruffy to the vet, and Scruffy will eventually have to drag his master out of the burning wreck with his two remaining teeth, this is a dog novel.

If the driver, nursing deep scratches on both arms, is steering with one hand while trying to stuff poor kidnapped Mitzi back into the carrier case, this is a cat mystery.

If the driver is attempting suicide because he just discovered (on the day he got his license!) that his sexy driver’s ed teacher was only pretending to like him to get the attention of the hateful football coach, this is a coming-of-age novel.

None of the above.
If the driver is scrabbling at the door handle, clawing at it with both hands in a desperate attempt to throw himself out before it’s too late, this is a suspense novel.

If he took the wrong road because he just heard his wife being interviewed on the radio, and he thought she died in South America ten years before, it is psychological suspense.

If the handsome young man races up in a jeep at the last moment to pull the beautiful driver out the car, it’s a romance.

But if she realizes that that handsome young man had been tinkering with the car just before she got in it and she has to decide right now whether she trusts him or not, this is romantic suspense.

If the only one who had the chance to tamper with the brakes was the handsome young man’s insane mother, it’s a gothic.

If the car is being chased by a crack squad of militant monks because the driver is in possession of the only extant copy of the Perth Amboy Codex, an ancient manuscript that claims St. Paul was a woman, this is a religious thriller.

If the car is being chased by a tank, it’s is a war novel.

But if the tank is full of Confederate soldiers, this is alternate history fiction.

And now the car is flying off the cliff…

If the driver, an elderly Byelorussian, uses his last strength to toss from the car a blurry photograph with the words “Storm Captain, Morocco” scribbled on the back, this is an espionage novel.

But if, on the other hand, the driver, a handsome man with a ruthless expression and an ironic smile, jumps out the window and, by pressing the right lapel on his tuxedo, turns his pocket handkerchief into a fully-functional parachute, then this is a spy novel.

If the car suddenly emits a pale green light and takes straight off into the sky, it’s science fiction.

If little Maisy in the back seat prays really hard and the car lands, unharmed, in a tree, this is inspirational fiction.

If the driver manages to scrabble out to safety but the car, weighted down by a trunkful of gold bullion, sinks forever into the swamp, it’s a caper novel.

If that same driver lands safely in a pile of pig manure, it’s a comic caper novel.

Attribution below.
After the crash …

If the brake cable was sliced exactly 17 centimeters from the pedal with an Entwhistle Model 22K cable cutter, which is sold only by three hardware stores in the northeast, this is a police procedural.

If the car crashed because of a design flaw which only one engineer in the whole world can detect, and he is a drunken has-been, living on hand-outs from the company that made the mistake in the first place, this is a legal thriller.

If the driver is found to have a temperature of 105 degrees, green splotches on his skin, and breath that smells like nutmeg and old firecrackers, we’re in a medical thriller, and I hope you had your shots.

If it turns out the driver, alone in the car with all doors locked and windows closed, was stabbed through the heart with a dagger which is not even in the car, this is a locked room mystery.

If it turns out the driver died for no reason and everyone spends the rest of the book feeling very, very sad about it, this is mainstream literature.

If the driver turns to ashes as the sun comes over the horizon, this is a vampire novel.

If the driver turns out to be the president’s best friend, who hasn’t been seen since the day after the election, it’s a political thriller.

If the driver’s sister discovers a tragic secret in the wreckage, and has to decide whether to share it with the family, this is women’s fiction.

If the driver got the heel of her Manolo Blahnik caught in the gas pedal, this is chick lit.

If there is no driver, it’s a ghost story.

If the trunk contained forty-seven jars of homemade jelly which were intended for a tasting at the new gourmet food store in town, this is a novel with an amateur detective.

If this is the fifth car to zoom over a cliff in the last two years, it’s a serial killer novel.

If the pulverized remains of the murdered driver meld with the shattered remnants of the ruined auto and together they go in search of vengeance, this is a horror novel.

If, on closer examination, the car turns out to be a Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses, this is a western.

If the Conestoga wagon was pulled by a team of llamas, this is a very badly researched western.

If the car bounces, it’s fantasy.

Did I miss any?

Photo: By Matchstik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

22 March 2017

TOM & LUCKY

David Edgerley Gates



In early 1936, the racket-busting New York prosecutor Tom Dewey went after the Mafia crime boss Lucky Luciano. They convicted him, and Luciano drew thirty to fifty. Ten years later, his sentence was commuted and Luciano was deported. Luciano's lawyer in the 1936 trial is a guy named George Morton Levy, not mobbed up by any means, but a regular Joe and a straight arrow. His legal notes, from a long and storied career, have gone unexamined since his death. The writer Chuck Greaves - a former lawyer himself - got access to Levy's papers. And thereby hangs a tale.

Chuck Greaves has two trains running. He's written a series of legal thrillers (three so far, very funny books), Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir, and as C. Thomas Greaves, the noir historicals Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky.

Tom & Lucky is, you guessed it, about you-know-who. Not to mention George Levy and a soiled dove called Cokey Flo Brown. Each of them gets a turn at bat, the novel told in multiple POV, winding the clock. The book's third act is the showdown in court, which is hotter than a matchhead. Hot enough, as Cokey Flo puts it, in a somewhat different context, that the people in the adjoining rooms could light up cigarettes.

Wait a moment, and savor that turn of phrase. The voices in Tom & Lucky are nothing if not engaging.  Cokey Flo tells her own story, first-person, third person for Dewey, Luciano, and George. That omniscient third is different for each of them, Dewey's reserved, a little chilly, even, Luciano's more interior, but not inviting (he's a moral leper and a psychopath, after all), and George's, finally, one that shares confidences, along with his humanity. Levy is the center of gravity, here. And regarding the voices, or the collective voice of the book, the effect is specific and immersive, a particular time and place.

Not that this is easy to do. In fact, the opposite. It's easy to trip yourself up. Inhabiting the past is tricky. Too much effort, and it shows. The smell of the lamp. You want to bait your hook with the evocative detail, but almost an afterthought, seemingly accidental, something thrown up by the context, yeast working in the dough. The casual aside, overheard, the careless glance. The other device in Tom & Lucky is the use of pulp conventions, again without breaking a sweat. Not just for momentum, or atmospherics - although they happen to work that way, too - but because they're familiar landmarks. Like compass points, they help orient us, both to the period and to the principal relationships. Everything's a transaction. It's about leverage and opportunity, palms and grease.

That said, Tom & Lucky is actually sort of counter-generic. The material is pulpy, the tabloid headlines at the time wrote themselves. Nor can you do a book about this kind of thing without getting into the down and dirty - and of course enjoying it. It's too juicy. George Levy gets his shot at defending Lucky? He'd be crazy not to. Nobody stays home on this one. At the same time, as sensational as all of it is, you don't have to add extra relish. Lurid is as lurid does. For my money, the real trick Chuck Greaves pulls off is that he reimagines the whole event, and doesn't take any cheap shortcuts. The tension is all in the telling. The people sound and seem entirely genuine, to the circumstances. They're not caricature. They're not noir tropes, or conveniences. They're immediately recognizable, their weaknesses, their heroics, their ambitions, their folly. They're in their native element, fully fleshed, and not as if they're posing on the horizon line of history, looking over their shoulder.

Chuck Greaves is published by Bloomsbury and by St. Martins's. The paperback edition of Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) comes out April 11th, 2017.
http://chuckgreaves.com/



21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories

by Barb Goffman

Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.

I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?

19 March 2017

Florida News – Sudden Death Edition

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard Death and Texas

Florida’s corporate prisons face a major problem. Our inmate population is so huge that even a death a day from guards and other inmates can’t cure the overload. We proudly possess the second largest death row in the nation and we can’t kill the convicted fast enough. Believe me, Florida tries and we compete fiercely.

Surmounting our rivalry with Texas came with bitter disappointment. Just as we pulled ahead of the Lone Star State, California came from behind to pass us both. That sound of gnashing teeth means we’re still Nº 2.

The Supreme Court keeps telling us our capital punishment statutes aren’t constitutional. Hey, as long as jurors had a ⅚ majority and it was fishing season, we were good to kill. We didn’t need no stinking 100% unanimosity. If a misguided jury decided the accused didn’t deserve death, our statutes allowed a hanging judge (who in Florida isn’t?) to override those wussy jurors and impose a death penalty anyway. How dare the Supreme Court tell us that’s not fair!

The Florida legislature raced forward and not only patched statutes making it easier to execute, they also enhanced the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, making it even easier for Floridians to kill each other and stray tourists caught in the crosshairs, not that anyone bothers aiming.

Originally, like Britain and most of North America, we relied upon the Castle Defense, a code aimed toward preserving life. If your land or your home was invaded, your first duty was to retreat, phone 911, and fire a warning shot if you were armed. You weren’t authorized to kill unless you were in imminent danger.

The Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law changed that. The NRA didn’t like the idea of strategically retreating and especially didn’t want good ammo going to waste. The SF/SYG law allowed you to shoot anyone who trespassed or stood in your way if you felt fearful. As has been noted, the legislation was written by white people for white people. Whereas a few hundred citizens have escaped prosecution or conviction, ask black folks how well that law worked for them.

Flush with the heaving, panting bosomy excitement of seeing the SF/SYG metastasize across the country, Florida decided it could do better. The new, enhanced law, making its way through the Florida legislature, adds new benefits for lucky gun owners.
  1. Just as SF/SYG removed the requirement of first attempting to retreat, the new and improved revision says you won’t even have to stand your ground. You could actively pursue your victim, er, fear-causing-person.
  2. In the original SF/SYG incarnation, you merely had to show you were afraid. The revision places the onus on police and prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the use of deadly force was not justified. A perpetrator relying upon the new law, could without risk, ask for a hearing, claim self-defense, ask a judge for immunity from criminal and civil prosecution, and thus short-circuit a trial.
  3. If (2) seems in conflict with (1), don’t worry your pretty little non-Floridian head about facts and logic. (2) still applies.

Choice and Challenge

Along comes a bad guy named Markeith Loyd. He’s big, he’s scary, he’s black. He kills his pregnant girlfriend and goes on the lam, as golden-age crime novels say. While visiting a WalMart a few minutes from my house, he and a lady cop, Sgt. Debra Clayton, recognize each other. Before she can react, he shoots– kills her– and continues on the lam.

Markeith Loyd
Markeith Loyd © Orlando Sentinel
In mid-January, authorities captured the fugitive after he discarded his weapons and surrendered, then sustained “minor facial injuries as he resisted officers,” according to Orlando Police Chief John Mina. While I’m cynical about how he gave up and subsequently obtained facial injuries, I’m pleased to report police didn’t overreact.

Florida polished its latest in capital killing laws and salivated at the prospect of frying Loyd in the ‘new’ Old Sparky. If anyone deserved electric execution, Mr. Loyd did. As some might argue, he merited death writhing in ‘the chair’, his hair smoking, skin cooking, eyes bulging and face contorting so much executioners close the curtains to the sensitive in the viewing room.

And then…

Aramis Ayala
Aramis Ayala © Blue Lives Matter
Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala, did the unthinkable. The first and only black State Attorney elected in Florida said enough, no more will I seek the death penalty. Quoting concerns about the latest version of Florida's death statute, she correctly added no evidence shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, it's costly and drags on for years for victims' families. Despite a spurious claim from the Governor's office, at no time did she say she wouldn't fight for justice– quite the opposite in fact.

Virtually everyone in the Sunshine State gasped in horror. All turned against her… women, men, black, white, Florida Republicans and Democrats (all four of them). Kinder blogs called her misguided. Some claimed she was blinded by BLM. The cruder, calloused, and clamorous referred to her as a traitor… and worse. One man is floating a petition demanding the Governor fire her.

Who couldn’t understand Police Chief Mina’s anger? Who could blame the families of the two women killed if they too were frustrated? No one could, not even Aramis Ayala.

One trait her multitude of opponents couldn’t accuse her of was a lack of bravery. She appears tiny but holds an outsized heart… in the senses of commitment, compassion and fortitude. People like her take the heat but eventually help turn the tide toward justice. Think of those who preceded her who just said no:
  • the suffragette who sought the right to vote.
  • the woman who wouldn’t sit in the back of the bus.
  • the little girl who attended school surrounded by the National Guard.
  • the teen who protested the Vietnam War.
  • the Son of Man alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
She gave a comprehensive well-reasoned explanation for her decision without mentioning moral issues or her personal feelings on the topic. While fully cognizant of the desire for revenge and retribution, I admire what Aramis Ayala is trying to accomplish as she stands alone. That doesn’t negate the feelings of victims’ colleagues, family and friends, but her decision makes her a heroine… even if she’s wrong…but history says she isn’t.

The drama was far from over.

Our corrupt Governor Rick Scott (I use that term advisedly about a man who committed the largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid in history and was fined $1.7-billion) read the polls and flew into a rage. He pulled Aramis Ayala from prosecution. Scott installed his own minion to erect the legal scaffolding around Markeith Loyd and grease the skids to the death chamber in that jewel of Florida, beautiful, exciting Raiford.
To reiterate, Gov. Scott removed a duly elected official from my county and substituted his own choice of prosecutor, subverting yet again our election process.
Could a defense attorney argue on appeal that Florida’s governor stacked the deck against the defendant? It would take someone with far more legal knowledge and imagination than I to construct such an argument, but clearly the governor is not above meddling in the legal system, a dangerous precedent. Ayala has received some support from state attorneys and at least one public defender who question Scott's subverting the election process and pressuring state lawyers to do his bidding.

Wait! We have good news! Florida is back on track for executions. With luck, the day may come when we no longer defensively chant, “We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2!”

Oh! If you feel like killing someone, come to Florida where your chance of prosecution is rapidly diminishing. We need the tourism dollars.

18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd


by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.

17 March 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

By Art Taylor

Yesterday was my birthday—March 16, for anyone reading this later—and having a birthday so close to St. Patrick's Day always made it one of my favorite holidays as a child. I was and still am insistent about wearing green on March 17—my favorite color generally—and I remember wearing a shamrock pin to school one year as well. When my dad filled out the 1980 U.S. Census, he put down Irish for the question on ancestry (at my urging), though I don't think either of my parents have actually traced that back. (The likelihood is that it's true, given the predominance of Scotch-Irish settlements in my native North Carolina.) In another little quirk: At one point, much younger of course, I thought I might actually be a leprechaun—wishful thinking for those of us of smaller stature.

More recently, when my wife Tara and I got married, we went to Ireland on our honeymoon—including being in Dublin for Bloomsday!—and a few years later, I led a student group to Ireland again for a creative writing Winter Study Abroad. And I'll admit that I have a fondness for Irish writers and for stories set in Ireland. I was reading just recently some of Edna O'Brien's short fiction, and William Trevor's stories are (as anyone who's read him knows) among the best ever, and then another Irish writer, John McGahern, wrote an odd little story that still stands as one of my favorites: "The Beginning of an Idea." As with so many crime fiction fans, Tana French is at the top of my list of great mystery writers today, and just this week, I was excited to see that another friend in the mystery community, Sheila Connolly, has a new book out in her County Cork series: Cruel Winter—which was timely in several ways, since the big winter storm helped to welcome it into the world! There's dozens more writers I could likely point to here, but these are the ones that jumped to mind first.

Despite my long-standing love of Ireland and the Irish, however, I have to admit that I no longer count St. Patrick's Day as a favorite holiday. In fact, some aspects of the day have overwhelmed my otherwise long-standing enthusiasms for it—and the same is true of New Year's Eve (which may already give you a hint of where I'm going with this). 

Now, anyone who knows me well knows how much I appreciate a nice cocktail, but especially at my advancing age (circling back to that birthday I mentioned in the opening), going out on a raucous drinking binge is about the last thing I want to do, and in my mind both New Year's and St. Patrick's have become synonymous with those types of parties: crowded bars, overindulgence, and all the fall-out from that overindulgence—ultimately less a toast to the occasion than an excuse for excessive alcohol consumption.

Or maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly. 

For those who still do head out for public celebrations of St. Patrick's Day, are my impressions actually the case? Or have I fallen prey to some stereotypes about the festivities?

And maybe a better question: For those of you who, like me, admire Ireland and the Irish, how do you raise a toast to today? 

I'll be sipping a glass of Green Spot myself at some point—and maybe revisiting a favorite story or two. And I'll be sporting some green too—one tradition that I inevitably keep. 

However you celebrate, Happy St. Patrick's Day to all!
 

16 March 2017

A House is Always Interesting

by Eve Fisher

For a variety of reasons (AVP, amenities, doctors, and the fact that we go down twice a week minimum) my husband and I are moving from our small town to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 50 miles down the road.

Sioux Falls, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are whole villages of suburbs stretching south and west (mainly because our airport is in the northeast, btw).  Condos have grown up around the interstates.  However, we don't like suburbs much, and all the condos we saw were too small, and we wanted to live central Sioux Falls, which is a hot, hot, hot! market.  There were at least 3 houses that we wanted to see but couldn't even get in to view - they were no sooner on the market than bought. We put in offers on three, yes, three different places:  the first one turned our bid down, and upon reconsidering, we didn't rebid.  The second one failed inspection (huge foundation problems).  But the third, hopefully, is the charm!  I am working on the mortgage papers (everything's on-line these days, dammit!) probably as you read this.

House shopping is interesting and exhausting.  I remember back when we first house-shopped in 1991 (we'd rented the place we were living over the phone), and it was an educational experience. One memorable house had a room with bright orange and green plaid vinyl wallpaper, with orange shag carpet, and, in the kitchen, vintage orange appliances.  No, we did not buy it. Another place was beautifully done, until you opened the basement door and the reek of mold and mildew was enough to knock you down.  Another place was obviously the future home of someone who would formally entertain at the drop of a hat.  (We're the pot-luck or pizza types.)

Old houses are fun.  The history, the charm, the leftover stuff.  In our last house, we found an old-fashioned cream-skimmer that dropped behind the kitchen sink in the summer kitchen out back, decades ago.  I remember once I visited a friend in Chicago, who was remodeling an old house into apartments, and found 4 old books tucked away in the attic, including a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Mayflower".  He was going to throw them away, so I leaped up and claimed them. They've had a good home ever since. And I remember living in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta, decades ago, with a bunch of roommates (starving artists all), and visiting with the little old lady who lived in the bungalow next door - turned out she'd been born in that house, and had never moved in all her 81 years.  I remember being gob-smacked by that.  I couldn't imagine staying anywhere 81 years.  I still can't.

Roderick Usher,
by Aubrey Beardsley
(note - not creepy enough)
Old houses can also be creepy.  I know of two houses in our small town that have had suicides, and at least one with a murder.  One of the original morticians' houses was bought and transformed into a family dwelling, and the owners put their master bedroom where the viewing room used to be.  There are also a couple of houses that just look WEIRD:  you know, the kind where you get the feeling that Roderick Usher uses it as his summer home.   I remember one house we looked at in Tennessee:  we walked into the back room, I turned to Allan and said, "Redrum", and we walked out. Quickly.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers have been written about what happens after the house is bought and/or inherited.  One of the great disappointments of such novels is Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate", which is - well, the only way I can put it is that it's a real mess.  The Beresfords are too old, as was, sadly, Ms. Christie.  On the other hand, I love Christie's "Sleeping Murder" - which is NOT Miss Marple's last case by a long shot. The slow reveal of the fact that Gwenda Halliday Reed actually lived, as a child, in the house she bought in case of love at first sight still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has the house itself as a central character, and God help all who stay in it.  And, speaking of Roderick Usher, the House of Usher went down with a pretty spectacular crash, didn't it?

"Northanger Abbey" -
1986 BBC production 
But that's often the point.  Gothic fiction, whether classics from the 18th century, like "The Mysteries of Udolpho", "Otranto", "The Monk", etc., all the way down to modern Gothic romances, all revolve around mysterious old houses.  Some are spookier than others:  the whole point of Catherine Morland's joy in being invited to the eponymous "Northanger Abbey" is that, to her eyes, it looked likely to have had a murder or two done in it, and she could hardly wait to find the body.  God knows her reading literature had taught her that if you can't find a dead body, or a hidden tunnel with an instrument of torture or two, or the remains of the missing first wife in an old ruin, where can you find one? Instead, being Jane Austen's creation, she found a husband, and the main mystery turns out to be the laundry bills left behind by Eleanor Tilney's secret love.


In true Gothic fiction there are always dark castles, dungeons, tunnels, empty graves, full graves, murders, rumors of murders, supernatural events, monsters, and sometimes all of the above.  ("Dark Shadows" captured all of these in one magnificently campy afternoon soap opera from my early teen years:  click on the picture above to see Barnabas Collins finally set free from his coffin...)

There is always a young, virginal heroine (even in modern Gothic romances) with a mysterious past, who is often revealed to have been born noble.  The hero is always courageous, although he is often a suspect (at least for a while) in the shenanigans going on around the place.  The villain of the piece is a control freak tyrant who will have things his own way no matter what (calling Mrs. Danvers...).  If the villain is married, his wife is completely under his thumb (Countess Fosco in "The Woman in White").  There is often a crazy relative, usually locked up. There is always a mystery.  And the heroine always feels that there's something seriously wrong, then that something's wrong with her, then that she's under threat, and, at various stages, worries about her own mental health...

How the heroine gets to her location varies.  Sometimes the heroine is a relative (Maud is practically willed by her father to Uncle Silas), sometimes she's the governess ("Jane Eyre", "Nine Coaches Waiting"), sometimes she's an invited guest (Catherine Morland).  But I believe - although I could be wrong - that "Rebecca" is the only one where the heroine marries the owner BEFORE she arrives at the house.  

But it's always about the house.  As Jo Walton says, "The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house."

So, the next time you go house-hunting, consider...  you might be looking at your next mystery, your next ghost story, or your next romance.

Will keep you posted on our move.







15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex

by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 


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And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.



After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”


And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

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And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.