18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie



by John M. Floyd



For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.



17 November 2017

Moderating a Short Story Panel

James, Alan, Janet, Travis, Angel, and Barb
At the Bouchercon in Toronto a few weeks ago, one of the highlights was a panel on the short story moderated by my friend James Lincoln Warren. He wrote a long piece on FaceBook about it and graciously gave me permission to edit it and put it up here.

James says he feels like the Godfather of SleuthSayers, and he's right about that. He founded a website called Criminal Brief in which seven writers took turns talking (mostly) about short mystery fiction. When he decided to shut it down several of us grizzled survivors started SleuthSayers.


James is the author of many short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. Perhaps his best known works are ahe tales of 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe but he won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a contemporary private eye story. His "Shikari" is, in my opinion, the best Sherlock Holmes story ever written that does not include Sherlock Holmes.

Without further ado, here we go. Any mistakes below can be blamed on me.

— Robert Lopresti



Moderating a Short Story Panel

by James Lincoln Warren

The panelists and I have received comments from the audience that this was their favorite panel at the convention. People have also mentioned how well attended it was—it was SRO, which is very unusual for a short story panel at a crime fiction fan convention.So I decided I'd explain how I structured it and my theories for its unusual success.

First, I think its success was largely due to the wonderful panelists: Alan S. Orloff, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Travis Richardson, Angel Colón, and Barb Goffman, all of whom are greatly respected in the crime short fiction community. Kudos is also well-deserved by Janet Costello, the Bouchercon Programming Chair, for scheduling such a panel.

But let me begin by explaining why I at first dreaded having it assigned to me.

My working rule as a moderator (and I always prefer to moderate rather than contribute as a panelist) at a fan convention is first and foremost, "Connect the author with the reader." In other words, I want to get at least one person in the audience to read the work of each of the panelists.

The themes for panels at fan conventions usually key on elements relative to a particular subgenre, or things that particular works, in a variety of subgenres, have in common, e.g., a panel about private eyes, a panel about hard-boiled female detectives, a panel on detectives with pets, and so on. Usually on such panels, one of the panelists will be a prominent star writer with a big fan base---those are the folk who are going to come to the panel. In so doing, they will discover lesser known writers whose work is previously unknown to them, but whose stuff they are guaranteed to enjoy. Everybody wins!

Short stories are not a subgenre, like hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, fair play, romantic suspense, etc. The short story is a form, not a thematic genre, and the subgenres represented by it cover the whole spectrum of crime fiction. This means that other than length, short story writers' works may have very little in common with each other. On top of that, writers like me, who work almost exclusively in the form, are not likely to be stars, because crime fiction has been dominated by the novel since the 1930s. Likewise for the panelists---no matter how wonderful their work, it is bound to have less exposure than the works of novelists. The upshot is that it's unlikely that an audience will be drawn to the panel on account of the names assigned to it.

As I said, my goal is usually to connect every writer on the panel to someone in the audience. But I noticed that on every short story panel I've moderated, when we get to the Q&A, the questions are never about the authors whose work I've tried so hard to expose. Instead, the questions are always about "How do I get published? What are your secrets?"

So I proposed to Janet Costello that for this short story panel, we'd go all the way and make it about writing short stories. I proposed that we'd come up with a list of simple concepts the panel could agree upon, or if they disagreed on the concept, at least recognize its importance, and illustrate how that concept worked by reading examples of it from the short fiction written by the panelists, along with other observations and suggestions from short fiction editors.

But then I ran into some trouble, because I couldn't figure out how to structure the panel, or whom to assign to which nugget of advice. And then it hit me.

Aspiring writers have entire libraries of sound advice available to them on how to write: Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Steven King, and divers others, have all written very good books on it. For access to markets, there's the venerable Writer's Market---every writer I know has bought one at sometime or another. So what's different about asking published writers these questions face to face? We're not going to dispense more wisdom in an hour-long panel than you can get from any of those books.

The answer is, of course, that there is personal interaction. The rookie wants to pick the brains of the veterans. And that's when I realized that the way to run the panel was to make it consist of questions from the audience, and not the questions that I thought should be asked. I had the audience members write down their questions on a leaf from a small tear-out notebook, restricted the questions to one or two, and had them collected and given to me. I would then read the questions, pick the most interesting or generally applicable ones, and get the best of both worlds: the audience would get answers to their personal questions, and I would remain in control of the panel.

To open the panel, I listed five pieces of advice everybody agreed on, and read from the works of the panelists to illustrate each one. This also gave the audience time to phrase their questions and turn them in while we were still able to dispense some basic advice, while also establishing the bona fides of the panelists.

That took about fifteen minutes. The rest of the panel consisted of questions from the audience.

Robert states that I dispensed with several questions on my own with the mantra, "There are no magic bullets." This is true. I did this because, well, there are no magic bullets, no perfect formulas, no foolproof techniques, and aspiring writers must understand this. But there were lots of very interesting questions that were directed individually to the panelists, and some directed at more than one panelist. And as I had encouraged the panelists to speak up when they had something to say about a question pitched to someone else, there was a lot of stuff that got covered from more than one angle.

The personal touch is why everybody loved the panel so much. Now, you can't teach someone to write a commercial crime fic short story in an hour, but a frequent comment was, "I learned so much!" The important point here is that they learned not what any of us wanted to teach, BUT WHAT THEY WANTED TO KNOW. Respect your audience!

All right, that explains why the panel was a success, but it doesn't explain why the house was packed.


I think there are two essential reasons: (1) Janet Hutchings, the editor of the world's leading crime fiction magazine, was being honored at Bouchercon, and people from the audience thought that maybe they'd learn how she picked stories for the magazine; and (2) the subject of the panel, "how to construct the short story", was something they had always wanted, but never before had offered to them. Bouchercon is not a writers conference. It's a fan convention. But we sometimes forget that writers usually start as fans of other writers.

(Now, I don't think that Janet told them exactly how she picks a story, although she gave them some very good advice---be in control of your narrative, do not fixate on the opening but on the whole narrative, and that she could use a lot more fair play detective stories featuring a crime and its solution. I should also mention that I gave a shout out to Janet's colleague Linda Landrigan at EQMM's sister mag, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, who once told me she likes stories that seem to be about one thing, but are really about something else.)

I was extremely fortunate to have so much expertise on the panel, and for Janet Costello allowing me to have my own way with it. It was a helluva lot of fun.

16 November 2017

Dhammayangyi Pagoda: A Tale of Lust and Murder

by Jenni Legate

(Travel writer extraordinaire Jenni Legate, a good friend of mine, has penned quite a story with a setting beyond exotic. So when she offered its use to pinch-hit for me during my regular rotation on the Sleuthsayers blog, I jumped at the chance to pub it here for her. So have a great Thanksgiving, one and all, and read on for "Hidden Doorways," a "tale of lust and murder," set in medieval Myanmar! See you in two weeks! –Brian)



Hidden Doorways

Every building has a secret entrance, one even the architects somehow overlooked. I use the secret entrances in the great temples of Bagan, hiding in the shadows, listening for the secrets bricked up in the walls, and searching for safety in this kingdom faraway from my home in Kala.

My name is Phabhavati, and in the year 1151, my father made a gift of me in tribute to King Alaungsithu in Bagan. I miss my home in the mountains of Kala, where waterfalls sing in the lush mountain forests and the air is crisp and pure. Bagan was once a forest kingdom by the river, but now it is a hot, dusty forest of temples in the desert. Where pines once grew, cacti bloom in sandy tracks between pagodas. Every king for years has commissioned temples to commemorate their greatness. The forests were cut to fire the kilns that produced the bricks to build the temples. It was the main enterprise of the kingdom for at least three generations – aside from raiding nearby kingdoms like my father’s, that is.

Before I came to Bagan, my father sent my older sister, Princess Kyabaun, as tribute, and she was married to Intaw Syan, the King’s son, who was later known as Narathu. Kyabaun was beautiful with long, dark hair, eyes like toasted almonds, and long lashes. She used thanaka paste, made from crushed bark and scented like sandalwood, to paint intricate designs on her face and arms, adding to her legendary beauty. Narathu had to have her. He made a point to take everything he wanted.

King Alaungsithu was a great builder who traveled extensively throughout his kingdom. I resented my father for sending me to him, yet I felt lucky to be with a man who was kind. His big passions and many consorts ensured that my time spent with him was limited. I was happy not to be in Kyabaun’s golden slippers.

I started hiding in shadows and listening for secrets the day my sister asked me a favor. She whispered as she told me that Narathu mocked our Hindu traditions. Kyabaun trembled when she described how Narathu snatched a kitten from her lap and strangled it.

Narathu’s brother, Min Shin Saw, heir to the throne, sought an audience with King Alaungsithu. Kyabaun met me in my chambers.

“Narathu wants you to break protocol tomorrow and stay seated next to the King when Min Shin Saw arrives,” she said.

“I cannot. That would dishonor our father,” I said.

“Please,” Kyabaun pleaded, “Narathu will punish me if you do not.”

I could not refuse my sister. I wish I had chosen differently. I wish I could have kept her safe.

The next day, in the throne room of the Royal Palace, I reclined with other consorts on a sofa beside King Alaungsithu. Queen Yadanabon sat to the right of the King. When Prince Min Shin Saw and Narathu arrived to pay homage to the King, I continued sitting, even when the other consorts rose. Narathu’s long, slender face gave nothing away as he kneeled before the King and bowed his dark head to the ground. Min Shin Saw spat his words at me: “I am the eldest son. Shall this Kala wench abide on the couch in my presence before all the ministers and councilors?” He turned from the King and marched out. Narathu looked to the King in mock shock.

At Narathu’s suggestion a few days later, King Alaungsithu gave a robe normally worn only by princes to an attendant. When the attendant showed up wearing the robe at the next royal council, Min Shin Saw stripped it from him, saying “This garment is not for a king’s usher or nurse to wear. Only the King’s brothers and sons are worthy of wearing it.”

King Alaungsithu flew into a rage. “Min Shin Saw, you are no longer my heir.  Narathu is now my heir. You shall be exiled from the kingdom.”

Prince Min Shin Saw went into exile in Ava a few miles northeast of Pagan. He tried to build a peaceful life there, happy to be done with the intrigues of court.

Kyabaun grew listless as Narathu gloated. For weeks, I watched from the shadows as Narathu began meeting privately with his friend Theidikaggi, a man built like an ox and feared widely in Bagan. In 1167, King Alaungsithu mysteriously began to weaken. His stomachaches and headaches threatened to cripple him. He was violently ill for days. Had Narathu poisoned him?

One day, King Alaungsithu slipped into a coma. Narathu had him carried by litter to Shwegugyi Pagoda, the Golden Temple King Alaungsithu built in just seven months. Narathu presided over council meetings as though nothing had happened.

I was delivering food and bedding for my King when he woke briefly. His consort, Ti Lawka Sanda Dewi, told him his son Narathu had usurped the throne. Shocked, I hurried out into a hallway. As King Alaungsithu cried out in torment, Narathu came in. Seeing his chances at holding the throne slipping away with each breath his father took, he gathered the bedding and pressed it on his father’s face. Then, he turned to Ti Lawka Sanda Dewi with his sword. I shrank back into the shadows as her screams rose in terror, then stopped.

When Min Shin Saw heard of his father’s death, he gathered his army and began to march back to Bagan to take the throne. He had no idea how Narathu had betrayed him. His boat landed at the port with Narathu there to greet him. “Brother!” Narathu greeted him him with a bow, offering his sword in homage. “Our new king.” Min Shin Saw was immediately consecrated as King, and there was a great celebration in the palace that night. The men drank late into the evening. But the next morning, Min Shin Saw did not awake from his slumber. He was dead, with purpled lips and a froth at his mouth, his face contorted in agony. Narathu seized the throne.

As King, Narathu immediately ordered construction of a temple, the Dhammayangyi, in his honor. Its name means “the rays of the dharma, or the teachings of Buddha.” King Narathu announced that the temple would contain twin Buddhas, representing the past and the future. The temple was built to atone for his sins, but Narathu’s cruelty grew worse with each day. He was fanatical about the construction and insisted that no mortar be used. As the workers lay their bricks, he inspected their work.

If he could fit a pin between the bricks, he cut off the worker’s hand and watched him bleed to death. Theidikaggi conscripted monasteries full of monks into the construction crews, stripping them of their monk’s robes. The luckiest monks escaped to Ceylon. I stayed in the shadows and waited on Kyabaun when I could. I explored the great temple in the evenings, learning my way in the dark. Dhammayangyi was a vast structure with a cave in the middle. Bats already hung from the ceiling,
and I could hear them calling to one another in the darkness.

The King’s scribe was Narathu’s uncle, Mahabo. He tried to advise Narathu, but they disagreed often. One day at the construction site, in a fit of rage, King Narathu drew his sword and took Mahabo’s head. Narathu eyes glowed with triumph. The workers looked down and kept working. Stories of Narahu’s viciousness grew.

At home at the Royal Palace, Narathu’s behavior was explosive. Kyabaun feared for her life and the lives of her sons. Narathu took her son Ottorathu from her side, promising to show him the construction of the temple. Ottorathu never returned. Kyabaun fled the royal palace. When she came to me, I took her to a quiet spot deep in the Dhammayangyi temple where I thought she could hide. As I tried to get her settled into a temporary bed for the night, we heard a scraping noise. Narathu was in the temple! His sword struck the stone floor as he came closer. Kyabaun told me how much she hated him and how he frightened her. I ran, begging Kyabaun to follow me. She was slow to follow. Narathu confronted her.

“You are sworn to be my bride, yet I heard you whisper that you hate me,” he roared.

“My King,” Kyabaun started, “you are scaring me.”

Narathu drew his sword and stabbed Kyabaun. Throwing the sword aside, he grabbed her by the throat, choking the life from her. I stood frozen in the shadows, stifling my horror. I wanted to save my sister, but there was nothing I could do.

When Narathu left the temple, I fled into the night. As a lesser consort to the former King, I would not be missed. I ran home to my father’s kingdom. I told my father all that I had observed.

My father grew angry but quiet. He called eight of his best men together. “You will pose as Brahmins,” he ordered. “Once you have killed the King and revenged my daughter’s death, you will kill yourselves. Your families will be provided for.” The eight men dressed in Brahmins’ robes, and each carried a gift for the King. They arrived at the palace and announced their intention to honor the king. Narathu gave them an audience in the heart of his new temple. The eight men surrounded him, creeping closer. Then they struck. I don’t know whose blow caused his death, but all eight of the men struck him. Then they turned on Theidikaggi. “Your actions caused the deaths of so many monks, and you failed to stop the death of Kyabaun.” Theidikaggi fled the temple and was never found.

Finding King Narathu dead, the workers immediately stopped construction. He had been in power for three tyrannical years. Rumors began to circulate that the temple was haunted by the ghosts of Narathu, Kyabaun, her son, Ottorathu, and workers who had died constructing the temple. The inner corridors were walled off, filled with brick, to keep the ghosts within. I never went back to Bagan or the temple of Dhammayangyi. But I remember where those hidden doorways lie, deep within the temple, concealing their secrets.

---

I wrote this story after a trip to Bagan, Myanmar where this temple fired up my imagination.  As we made our way through this temple, it was eerie. Away from the crowds near the entrance, the tall, narrow corridors with walled up doorways leading to the inner sanctum of the temple created an oppressive atmosphere. We stumbled into the pitch-black bat cave, overwhelmed with the odor of bat guano, the bats squealing to one another on the ceiling. If haunted, that would have been the spot where we would have seen an apparition. Do you believe in ghosts?

Most of the characters in my fictionalized account come straight out of Burmese history. I took liberties with the character of Phabhavati, the narrator of this story, namely I don’t know what her relationship to Kyabaun really was, but their father had made tribute of both of them to the King of Bagan, Alaungsithu. Much of this fictionalized account comes straight from the stories related by guides at Dhammayangyi, and the books about Bagan. My main sources other than oral histories were Pagan/Bagan (This is the Real Burma), Book 3, by Markus Burman, 2014, and Wikipedia articles.

---


Jenni Legate was born in Libya and grew up in Africa and Asia. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and has lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Washington DC area, Alaska, England, Idaho, and the Seattle area. Her childhood was enriched by diverse experiences such as hurricanes, earthquakes crocodiles, army ants, snakes, historically notorious dictatorships, coups, and wars. She currently lives in Thailand with her husband/best friend/travel partner. She enjoys learning about the history, politics, religious beliefs, and daily lives of other cultures. Jenni has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a freelance writer, publishing several articles for local-interest magazines and a business magazine. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. 

15 November 2017

A Policeman's Lot, A Writer's Plot

by Robert Lopresti

It seems like just two weeks ago I was writing about having a new story published.  And it was.  After an 18-month gap I have two fresh kills in November.  Go figure.

"The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" is my first appearance in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.  It is an old-fashioned fair-play mystery in which the aforementioned cop, who is happily engaged in running the evidence room, is dragged out of his cozy shelter to solve a murder which may or may not depend on a clue only a Savoyard would understand.

Did I hear someone ask What's a Savoyard?  Perhaps I need to explain a bit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were nineteenth century Englishmen who created comic operas.  G wrote the words, S composed the music.  The third member of the duet, so to speak, was Richard D'Oyly Carte who produced their works.  Think of him as Brian Epstein to the Beatles, trying to keep them from breaking up, or killing each other.

D'Oyly Carte  created the Savoy Theatre, where most of the works premiered, and thus, a fan of their work is called a Savoyard, because Gilbert-and-Sullivan-head takes too long to say.

Here is an example of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking D'Oyly Carte contributed to the operation.  You may remember that Oscar Wilde made a famous lecture tour of the United States.  (Customs Official: Do you have anything to declare?  Wilde: Only my genius.)  The tour was arranged by D'Oyly Carte because the G&S opera Patience was a satire on the Aesthetic Movement and would have fallen flat if Americans didn't know about Wilde.

The operas featured memorable, beautiful music, hilarious, ingenious lyrics, and, let's be honest, abysmal plots.  As my hero notes in the story you can't go too far into the stories of any of the operas without finding a plot hole you could  drive a hansom cab through.

A random example: In The Gondoliers a woman admits to trading her own baby for one of a pair of other boys.  But twenty years later, coming across those now grown men, she expresses no interest in knowing which of them was her flesh and blood.  Huh?

The fact is that Gilbert couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag  But his stuff was hilarious and being tied to Sullivan's tunes makes it immortal.

Fortunately, considering Gilbert's dreadful plotting, he never tried a mystery, but crime does feature in a few of the operas.

The main character of The Mikado, for instance is  Koko, the Lord High Executioner, who promises that he's ready to do his job:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list -- I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs --
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs --
All children who are up in dates and floor you with 'em flat --
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that --
And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist--
They'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed!

The Mikado himself rolls off a gleeful list of appropriate punishments he has ready for evildoers.

All prosy dull society sinners, 
Who chatter and bleat and bore, 
Are sent to hear sermons 
From mystical Germans 
Who preach from ten to four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies 
All desire to shirk, 
Shall, during off-hours, 
Exhibit his powers 
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

Among the lesser known (but still good) works is Ruddigore, in which a character named Robin  is cursed. He must commit a crime every day or die in agony.  Unfortunately, he is not very good at it.

Robin (melodramatically) How would it be, do you think, were I to lure him here with cunning wile -- bind him with good stout rope to yonder post -- and then, by making hideous faces at him, curdle the heart-blood in his arteries, and freeze the very marrow in his bones?  How say you, Adam, is not the scheme well planned?
Adam.  It would be simply rude -- nothing more.

But the greatest connection between G&S and our  field is The Pirates of Penzance, which features a gallant troupe of constables.  No doubt my sergeant, dragged out of his cozy evidence room to cope with murder would agree with them on this subject.

14 November 2017

Smooth Criminal

by Michael Bracken

I have long participated in SleuthSayers, commenting on posts and occasionally writing guest posts, but this marks my debut as an official member of the tribe. Thanks, y’all, for inviting me to join.

I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.

But let’s back up to the beginning.

Michael Bracken, pre-publication
My parents divorced well before I entered kindergarten, and the late ’50s and early ’60s were not filled with opportunities for single mothers. We were poor, we moved often, and we had limited entertainment choices. (We did not own a television until I was in the third grade, but we did curl up in my mother’s bed late on Saturday nights to listen to rebroadcasts of old radio dramas.) So, my mother taught me to read, and one of the first things we did each time we moved was locate the nearest library.

Through reading, I could be anyone, go anywhere, and do anything.

TRANSITIONING

Like many of us, I knew at an early age that I wanted to be a writer. Unlike most, I began seeking publication almost immediately.

When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote my first short story, “The 1812 Battle at Two Rocks.” In ninth grade, my junior high school’s literary magazine published one of my poems. (Unfortunately, many years ago a flood that destroyed much of my early, pre-publication writing also destroyed my first publication.) I contributed to my high school’s literary magazine, wrote for (and later edited) my high school newspaper, wrote for an underground newspaper while in high school, and published a science fiction fanzine while contributing to other fanzines.

Bracken's first pro rejection
I also began submitting fiction to professional publications, receiving my first rejection from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in September 1974. So, while other young men my age were tossing footballs and sinking free throws, I spent my high school years pounding the keyboard.

The rejections piled up.

GOING PRO

During the spring and summer of 1976, I wrote “The Magic Stone”—a 1,200-word fantasy about a young boy, an elderly woman, and a magic stone—and submitted it to various SF/F magazines. After the story earned several rejections, I sent it to Donn Brazier, who published “The Magic Stone” in the February 1977 issue of his fanzine Farrago. (Farrago, a limited-circulation amateur publication produced on a photocopier, was an offshoot of his more popular fanzine Title.) The response was positive, and someone suggested “The Magic Stone” was a wonderful children’s story.

Young World, November 1978
I’m not certain I knew then that what I was about to do was wrong, but I submitted the story to several children’s magazines without mentioning that it had already been published. When Young World accepted the story, I remained mum, and by the time “The Magic Stone” appeared in the November 1978 issue, I was 21 and fully committed to my crime.

TURNING LEGIT

So, the truth is that I wrote “The Magic Stone” when I was 18, it was first published when I was 19, but it didn’t achieve professional publication until I was 21.

Though my professional writing career began with a literary crime, I didn’t become a crime fiction writer until several years later. Next time, I’ll explain how and why I made the transition.

I am currently reading submissions for The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories that Down & Out Books will release at the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas. The deadline is November 30, and the guidelines and answers to FAQs can be found here: http://www.crimefictionwriter.com/TheEyesOfTexas.htm.

13 November 2017

Reviews: Melissa Yi, Bill Pronzini, Bill Crider

by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
When did I get so behind on reading and writing reviews of books that I said I would review?  Heaven only knows and I haven't heard from an Angel with an answer either. Think my line to beyond the clouds has somehow been broken. Or maybe I was late paying my heavenly mobile bill.

I know when I got back from my awesome trip to Nashville then to Ft Worth to visit my son and his family, Then to my sister's 50th Wedding Anniversary party. I settled in back here at home and had every intention of taking care of business. 

But I had to attend my 60th high school reunion out in Post Texas. Which was great fun and I saw some people I had not seen in 60 years and others who had been without my crazy self only 25 or 30 years. 

At any rate, there were still wonderful books to be read and written about when I got home. I just somehow got busy reading but not reviewing.

Think I must start with the one I read quite awhile ago.
Human Remains by Melissa Yi, one of our own SleuthSayers.  My first introduction to Dr. Hope Sze was in Stockholm Syndrome. both published by Windtree Press in the USA. Dr. Sze is a fully drawn character who draws you into the medical mileau as well as into the mystery. In the beginning of Human Remains, I was a bit petrubed  with the idea that Hope was in love with two men. One she had left behind in Montreal, Dr. John Tucker where she had been taken in hostage but had survived. The other man, Ryan Wun, her first love, she found again as she begins working in a stem cell lab. 

Almost immediately Hope and Ryan and Ryan's new puppy Roxy stumble over a human body with a black bag taped over the head. She knew she shouldn't touch a crime scene but she is a doctor, well, a resident doctor but still. She felt for the radial pulse at the wrist. While still deciding about removing the black bag the police arrive and by then Dr. Hope has decided to do CPR. 

There's no way you can put the book down from that opening and soon you are caught up in the who and why. Along with  the ongoing story of Dr. Hope Sze dealing with her love life.

Some writers write awesome, thrilling books and the absolute best are written by Bill Pronzini. His early summer rrlease of  new Nameless Detective book, titled, End Game, fills my heart with eager anticipation.. Nameless and Bill don't let me down.

Namless gets a new client, James Cahill whose wife Alice has disappeared. Alice has a strong agoraphobia and  never ventures outside. Soon Namless is suspecting his client, With more twist and turns to leave you up most of the night, you can understand the suspicions that Nameless has. 

Jake Runyon, the field operative in Nameless' office comes up with a strange case of his own. Philip Dennison has been found dead in a remote cabin in the Sierras. With all the windows locked and the door barred from the inside Dennison's death is ruled an accident. However, Dennison's wife believes her husband was murdered and wants Jake to find out if there was someone else in the remost cabin with her husband. Even if it means heartbreak.

This is one you have trouble stopping long enough to eat or even check Facebook. You have to read just one more chapter.

Next on my reading stack was Dead To Begin With by Bill Crider.
Beginning a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes book is like slipping into your most comfortable pair of boots, sitting down in a comfortable recliner and reading about your old friend.

Dan Rhodes is Sheriff of Clearview, Texas, small town Texas, much like the town where I grew up. And with the wonderful quirky characters who inhabit the area, including Hack Jansen, the dispatcher, who calls the Sheriff to report that Jake Marley is dead.
There is no way you'll be disappointed.

Crider sets up an almost impossible murder scenario. Marley is a town's rich beyond your dreams, recluse that no one has seen in many years except late night at WalMart or going through the Dairy Queen drive-thru. He didn't attend church nor have any friends. All his immediate family was dead. The out-lying kin had moved away to spend their black gold money in other countries like California, or Florida or the Bahamas.

But he had taken a sudden interest in the Clearview Opera House and wanted in renovated and a play presented there. Marley had been supervising the project but had fallen to his death from a ladder or the walkway high up above the lights. No one was sure. Of course, Dan Rhodes was the logical person to solve the crazy unsolvable puzzle.

As usual you are happy to spend time in Sheriff Rhodes' world and if you haven't read Crider's books before then, get busy and download or buy them. You'll be glad you did.

That's all for now, folks. The others will have to wait until next time.

12 November 2017

Breathing

by Mary Fernando

I still remember standing there, in that hospital room, decades ago. We had news to tell the patient and her family. Although at first it didn't look like it was going to be a bad diagnosis, it was indeed, very bad. That is medicine in a nutshell: we see behind and beneath and in the end the news is ours to tell, but not to craft.

As we told them the news the patient and the family held their breath. A whole room not breathing. Me too.

Afterwards, my supervisor, not fooled by my tough exterior - which I have found fools no one at all- gently said to me ‘When patients tell us their stories and let us help them, it is a privilege. Never forget that. Even if the story ends in tragedy, it is a privilege. Honour it by serving those who trust you.” Sometimes you are lucky enough to find people who define you, who are in your life and shape you to be better. This was the man and he shaped my approach to patients for the decades. It taught me to serve. To know it is a privilege. And that patients don't breathe when the news is bad.
I scuba dive. In the boat, at the dive site, the ocean stretches out, and there is a sense of glass and ripples. Diving in, there is coral, turtles and fish. I love that there is another world under the water. I love the beauty of it and how hidden it is. Most of all I love being able to breathe underwater as I move forward deep in the ocean.
Back to patients. There is nothing that prepares you for what medicine is either. What the surface of medicine looks like is nothing like the truth of the practice. Yes, you help. Yes there are medicines to offer but the reality is the stories. The ability and privilege to immerse yourself in the lives of patients where you see their hopes, their loves, their fears and finally, even their deaths. And this brings me back to breathing.

In many books, authors will say that, in response to bad news, people feel ‘punched in the gut’ or ‘their world collapsed’ In reality, what I have seen is that patients, and the people that love them, hold their breath. And I recently learned why.

I have had many people who have shaped me, made me better, because goodness knows, I have needed that, perhaps more than most people.

The person who shaped me most, I met when I was about 6 or 7. She had a blond pixie cut and bright blue eyes. We were the same age but she was much smaller than me. When the large school bully kicked the cello she was carrying, she grabbed his arm and twirled him around and around and sent him flying into a wall. She would wander streams, ride her bike in the woods, and strangely, at the corner store while the rest of us bought chocolate, she would buy a carton of milk. An original from start to finish. I did what any sane person would do: loved her for life.

In our teens she grew and became a 5’10” blond beauty, who towered over me. Which was fitting because she was built for the life she wanted to lead - bold and strong.

Over the last fifty years, she and I have talked every few days. When she headed off to Europe at 18, with a backpack and panache, I stayed in university and worried about her. When she wandered into the woods for long camping trips on her own, I would worry while writing my exams. She got a PhD and turned into a crack research scientists who still takes off for lone camping trips that worry the crap out of me. The real truth of who she is to me is that she was the first person who came when my children were born and the first to come every time I needed her. If she detected a tremor in my voice, I would find her on my doorstep even if we lived in different cities and she had to travel for miles.

This summer, while we sat sipping coffee on a patio of a restaurant, she gently told me that she had breast cancer. I stopped breathing. I looked at her, blond hair now darker and longer, lines around her eyes, and I finally took a breath. Because the not breathing was wanting to stop the world, to go back to before, when illness wasn't real. And the breathing part was because I knew that I had to breathe and move forward. Because she needed me. Because I needed to be there. Every step.

And I was. The mastectomy was hard, and I was there for that. I was there at the hospital, and when she was home, we laughed in our zany way about all things cancer related. Then after she had eaten the food I had made for her, she gently told me that that cancer had spread to her bones. I couldn't breathe. This time, my lungs simply refused to take in any air. Then I did. Because I had to be there for that too.

When tragedy hits, and in books it must, I think it is important to dive in and write about breathing. Because that tells the story. Of wanting to stop time, and go back. Of breathing and moving forward.

11 November 2017

Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned From The Shield

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
If you’ve read my novel, The Big Rewind, or maybe stopped by my Twitter feed (@libbycudmore) or talked to me for, I dunno, 10 minutes, you’ll learn that there are three things I love above all else in this world: Raymond Chandler, Steely Dan and The Shield.

The Shield was the catalyst for much of what’s now considered a Golden Age of television. Without Shawn Ryan’s ground-breaking cop show, there would be no Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, no Sons of Anarchy and no The Walking Dead. The series revitalized Michael Chiklis’ flagging post-Commish career and, better still, introduced us to Walton Goggins, who went on to steal the show on Justified, co-star on Vice Principals and appear in basically every movie that’s coming out next year. And for this we are all so, so thankful.

But more than just seven seasons of white-knuckle brilliance (and an excuse to step away from your manuscript for a few minutes) The Shield can serve as a master class in writing – from plot twists to characters and world-building. It’s available on Hulu and Amazon Prime, so you really have no excuse not to at least watch the pilot.

  • Three Sides To Every Story: A typical episode is layered anywhere between 3-5 sets of storylines. There’s generally one Strike Team story, a Dutch/Claudette B-story, a Danny/Julian or Acaveda storyline, a family or personal drama and connections to the larger season arc. But it’s all about balance – too few and the plot feels dry after awhile, too many and your manuscript gets cluttered. A good rule of thumb is to remember your ABCs – have one main A plot, a secondary B-story and a third C-story that informs the other two.

  • Waste Not, Want Not: Every line of dialogue of The Shield crackles with tension. Not because of catchphrases or vulgarity, but because Shawn Ryan staffed his writers room with people who understood the value of every word an actor would say. Your dialogue must serve at least one of two purposes—move the characters or the story forward and, in an ideal situation, both. Page after page of “As you know, Bob” dialogue or mundane exchanges about the weather get boring fast. As you write the dialogues between your characters, load each sentence with the kind of tension that keeps the reader turning pages.

  • Every Character Is The Main Character: Too often, writers make the mistake of short-changing their minor characters. They appear only to feed the Main Character a line of dialogue or the occasional McGuffin. But what The Shield shows is that some of the most memorable characters are ones that only appear in a handful of scenes.  Van Bro, Taylor Orr and Connie may only appear in a few episodes, but they—and so many others—are all elevated to hint at a much larger world beyond the few lines that they are given. So when you write a minor character, write them as though they might be the star of your next book.

  • For Every Bad, There Is Good: There’s a moment in season three where Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) strangles a stray cat in order to better understand the Cuddler Rapist (Clark Gregg) he’s chased for half the season. It’s an intensely uncomfortable scene that threatens to destroy an otherwise likeable character…until the season finale, where he rescues the last stray kitten left in a box in the Barn.  It’s a literal “Save the Cat” moment, as screenwriter Blake Snyder might say, that re-redeems a character you though you could never care for again.

The Shield
No character in The Shield was wholly good or wholly evil. Sure, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) routinely beats suspects, but he also brings groceries to a women’s shelter. Claudette Wyms’s (CCH Pounder) moral code may help her take down murderers and rapists, but it also alienates her daughters. And Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) might be responsible for one of TV’s devastating season finales in season five, but he knows why he does it and trusts that the audience does too. These characters are written as whole and complicated, challenging your expectations, and you should strive to write characters who reflect the range of the human condition. Nothing is more boring than a goody two-shoes, and nothing is more infuriating than a one-note villain.

Still In Hollywood: Farmington may be fictional, but it’s a city that lives and breathes, from the Barn to the Biz Lats territory. You’re dropped into the world from the start and expected to run to keep up, and better still, know your gangland and where you can and can’t go after dark. And while much of this is because film is a visual medium, there’s no reason you can’t take some of that world-building advice for yourself.

Try this: Draw out a map of where your characters live and work, where they buy groceries or hard drugs, where they go to hear music, where they go to pick up women. Know your streets, create neighborhoods, populate them with teens who rake their elderly neighbors’ lawns and people who don’t pick up after their dogs. Then fill it with your characters, main and otherwise, give them conversations that spark like an old electric chair.

And when that part’s done, maybe kick back and watch some TV. You’ve earned it.

10 November 2017

Planning Ahead: True Crime

By Art Taylor

After I wrote the headline above, I realized that it might suggest something more sinister—that I'm planning some sort of criminal activity of my own.

...which I'm not.

(...or at least I'm smart enough not to write about it publicly if I was.)

What I am planning is the syllabus for my "True Crime" course this spring at George Mason University.

I've taught this course before a few years ago, and it was enlightening to me as well, though I'd actually included several of the books before in other classes not specifically dedicated to this topic: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Beverly Lowry's Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, which focuses on Karla Faye Tucker, the pickax murderer, who became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the mid-1800s. That latter book remains one of my own favorites—such a rich mix or reportage and reflection, of a writer grappling with issues in the wider world (the impact of place on a person, for example, or the workings of the justice system) at the same time she's struggling with more personal issues, about parenting particularly, what it means to be a parent, those roles and responsibilities and the weight of it all. (As a parent now myself, I think about the book in different ways myself, with greater weight.) I'd also included Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which continues to astound me each and every time I've watched it.

Much of the reading that was new that first time I taught "True Crime" came from the Library of America's True Crime: An American Anthology—some well-known essays that covered a wider history and also a wider breadth of approaches, from the more strictly journalistic (Meyer Berger's Pulitzer Prize-winning article "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street") to works that bordered very close to fiction (Jim Thompson's "Ditch of Doom").

The course requires students both to craft analytical essays and try their hand at their own  creative writing—or at least the opportunity to do the latter. The first assignment asks students to choose a crime that's been covered in the class and to research other documents related to it—additional newspaper coverage from the same era as well as (potentially) more recent essays looking back on the crime—and to compare the approach in each, to evaluate which approaches might help reveal more about the "truth" of the crime. The creative writing assignment allows students to craft their own true crime essays, whether as memoir (amazing how many of us have been at least adjacent to crimes if not involved more intricately in them) or as investigative journalism at least at some rudimentary level.

There are several new texts I'm considering for the course—some I know better than others.

I had the great opportunity this summer to meet Thomas Wolfe, the co-author of Midnight Assassin: Murder in America's Heartland, which explores a crime that I've taught many times in the past: The Hossack Murder, in which an Iowa farmer was killed in the middle of the night by his wife. The story was covered in the press by Susan Glaspell, who went on to write both a well-known play, Trifles, and a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," both based on the crime. Those three sets of documents all by the same author—newspaper reporting, a play, a short story—have always made for good texts to analyze: how they compare with one another, how the story is transmuted from fact into fiction, how themes persist one to another. And I'm looking forward to the opportunity of teaching Midnight Assassin itself—which puts all this into even greater perspective, looking back on it all from the vantage point of today (or 2005, I mean)—and to having Wolf himself visit the class.

I was just recently reading several reviews of a new YA book, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, and I think it would be fascinating to teach, both because of the very contemporary themes explored here and because of the opportunity to explore the differences in writing true crime for young adults and for adults—that shift in audience. Here's the review from the Washington Post that first alerted me to the book:
On the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, a 16-year-old boy in Oakland, Calif., set fire to another teenager’s thin white skirt. The victim received second- and third-degree burns and spent the next few weeks undergoing multiple surgeries. In The 57 Bus (Farrar Straus Giroux, ages 12 to 18), Dashka Slater examines this horrific incident from several angles, providing a nuanced portrait of the assailant and the victim, a brainy teen who identifies as agender (neither male or female). The book also sensitively explores the hot-button issues of gender nonconformity, bias crimes and juvenile justice. And since the attack occurred at one point along the sprawling route of the 57 bus, the city of Oakland — a diverse community beset by inequalities in income, opportunity and safety — also figures heavily in the narrative. For kids in East Oakland, “life had a way of sticking its foot out, sending you sprawling,” and Slater well describes the bleak and bleaker prospects they face. 

Mason is fortunate to have a true crime writer visiting at the end of next semester: Cutter Wood, author of Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime, which promises to be a potent mix of investigation and introspection (see Crossed Over above again for the works I'm drawn toward). Here's the promotional copy for the book:
When a stolen car is recovered on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it sets off a search for a missing woman, local motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler. Three men are named persons of interest—her husband, her boyfriend, and the man who stole the car—and the residents of Anna Maria Island, with few facts to fuel their speculation, begin to fear the worst. Then, with the days passing quickly, her motel is set on fire, her boyfriend flees the county, and detectives begin digging on the beach.

Cutter Wood was a guest at Musil-Buehler’s motel as the search for the missing woman gained momentum, and he found himself drawn steadily deeper into the case. Driven by his own need to understand how a relationship could spin to pieces in such a fatal fashion, he began to meet with the eccentric inhabitants of Anna Maria Island, with the earnest but stymied detectives, and with the affable man soon presumed to be her murderer. But there is only so much that interviews and records can reveal; in trying to understand why we hurt those we love, this book, like Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood, tells a story that exists outside of documentary evidence. Wood carries the investigation beyond the facts of the case and into his own life, crafting a tale of misguided love, writerly naiveté, and the dark and often humorous conflicts at the heart of every relationship.

Sounds good? Only trouble is that Love and Death in the Sunshine State doesn't come out until the very end of the semester, so getting it on the syllabus will be a challenge. We'll see what I can do!

And finally, another addition—and a switch in media too—with the podcast series Mared & Karen: The WVU Coed Murders, and I'm hoping to get the man behind the podcast to visit my class as well next semester. As the WV Explorer explains, the podcast "explores the kidnapping, murder, and decapitation of two West Virginia University freshmen in 1970" and "presents the case for a wrongful conviction, offers new evidence about who really killed the coeds, and examines the crime’s social and cultural impacts on West Virginia and Appalachia." This one is a definite, and thanks to English Department chair Debra Lattanzi Shutika both for suggesting the podcast and (in advance!) for helping to set up my guest lecturer too!

Any other suggestions for texts I should consider? I'm still finalizing my plans!

09 November 2017

Mornings in London by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

Mornings in London (The Francis Bacon Mysteries) by [Law, Janice]
Amazon Link Here
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Well, not if you have a really good nanny. Which Francis Bacon has.  (But more about that later.)

Yes, Francis Bacon, artist, gay, designer, bon vivant, adventurer, sometime spy, and always, always, always up to his neck in trouble is back in Janice Law's latest mystery, "Mornings in London".

But the first morning is in the country, at Larkin Manor, where Francis wakes up with a hangover and a naked footman, which is fine with him.  The trouble is, all around him are the county set, and (aside from the footman) Francis is already bored to death.  But he's down there at the request of a lady, his cousin Poppy, whom he hopes to rescue from Freddie, a bounder and a cad whom Francis knows a little too well and a little too much about.

Actually, that problem gets solved pretty quickly:
The morning of the hangover, Francis gets up to go to the bathroom and finds Signor Rinaldi, Italian diplomat under Mussolini, emerging from Freddie's room wearing nothing but a dressing gown.  "I was returning a book he so kindly lent me," Rinaldi offers - but no one believes that, especially Poppy.  The fight that follows attracts everyone's attention, and the main topic at dinner is that Poppy broke her engagement.  The next day, she and Francis go for a restorative walk, they find Freddie, his throat cut, lying in the grass.

Now everyone at Larkin Manor know that none of them could have done it.
Francis Bacon by John Dekin.jpg
Francis Bacon, Wikipedia

Signor Rinaldi?  A diplomat?  Never!
Lady Larkin, wealthy, a supporter of fascist movements at home and abroad?  Never!
Major Larkin, "the nice old architecture buff, the henpecked husband of a rich and politically ambitious wife"?  Never!
Basil Grove and his horsey wife, the wealthy Daphne?  Peter Tollman, the silver-haired government man and his trilling wife Lea?  The Larkins' pudgy daughter?  Never, never, never!

But Francis Bacon, dodgy decorator of rugs and furniture?  And his cousin Poppy, who broke off the engagement in a fury?  Well...  maybe.  Why not?

Francis knows trouble when he sees it - and it grows by leaps and bounds.  Someone - as well as the police - are after Poppy.  Someone mugs her.  Someone searches her rooms.  And when the lady vanishes, Francis knows he has to find out what's really going on.

Was Freddie murdered for love?  For blackmail?  For politics?  And the last is possible.  "Mornings in London" is set in the late 1920s, early 1930s, when fascism was rising both on the Continent and in England, especially among the aristocrats, to whom Mussolini was a handy tool for providing social stability.  (They thought.)  Everywhere Francis turns he runs into intelligence officers, including his exceptionally dodgy Uncle Lastings, who shows up with his own ideas on the murder...

Image result for jessie lightfootAnd then there's Nan.  I am so glad she is a major player in this book.  I love Nan.

Nan, who "sometimes has more imagination than a nanny requires.  Of course, that was exactly why she was ideal for me." 
Nan, who always knows a secret place to slip a bit of evidence.
Nan, who will sleep / eat / live anywhere to be with Francis.  (Seriously, in the 1940's, when Francis lived in Millais' old studio in South Kensington, for lack of an "alternative location", Nan slept on the kitchen table. Wikipedia.)
Nan, who encourages Francis to give up decorating and go into painting full-time, saying, "I've been poor.  Money's better, but life's too short to pass on happiness." 
Nan, who cooks and cleans and nurses - believe me, after reading about her, I am certain that all artists, of any genre, need a nanny like Jessie Lightfoot.  

Thanks, Janice, for giving us Francis, Nan, and "Mornings in London". 

                                                










08 November 2017

Trabismo

David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.