26 November 2021

Black Friday


In year's past, anyone who read my previous blogs knows I am not a fan of Black Friday. To many, it's the official start of the Christmas season.

It's also a primo time for crime. How do I know? I drive Uber.

No one's committed a crime in my car in all the time I've been doing rideshare. Usually, people want to get from point A to point B. But especially since the world is ready to move on from the pandemic – Whether the pandemic is ready to move on from us is another story - this year promises to be packed.

Malls and big box stores will be ideal locations for pick pockets, muggers, and the odd smash-and-grab. Already, one person has jumped in my car and talked about witnessing a fight and the aftermath of a homicide in Over-the-Rhine here in Cincinnati. Years ago, that would not even have been news. I got propositioned by a working girl there on Vine Street back in the bad ol' days. (Spoiler alert: I rolled up the window and jumped when the light turned green.) Now, however, it's party central. So when bad things go down there, it's news.

Crowds are like riots. In reality, riots are just angry crowds. And crowds bring out the worst in people. I know attending the sold out show of one local band, the Naked Karate Girls, or, as I call them, the Beastie Boys of the Queen City, I had to leave the bar several times. They're that popular. As the night wore on, alcohol worked its magic, and my then-spousal unit found herself bumped by a couple of guys who thought nothing of shoving the cute blonde (who, cute as she is, had about fifteen years on these schmucks) the way young boys pull girls' hair or snap their bras because they can't just say, "I think you're cute. Wanna dance?" When I came back into the bar after that, she pointed them out to me. The thing about drunk belligerents is weakness. Some guys are spoiling for a fight, and you avoid them unless you yourself are also spoiling. (When they won't leave you alone, all bets are off. That's usually when someone goes to the ER.) But when they prey upon someone because they perceive them to be weak, they don't handle quiet intimidation well. 

So, I intimidated them. They started bumping other girls. I planted myself in front of them and pretended not to notice them. They moved away. I moved with them. They moved again. I moved with them. Anyone who's met me knows I'm the least scary person in the room. However, I'm also 6'1" with broad shoulders. A person of that description who is scowling and not saying anything?

They moved right out of the bar, out to the parking lot, and into their cars. Probably thought I was the bouncer.

Riots are worse. We all know there are people who live for riots, who, like Heath Ledger or Jared Leto's Joker, live to watch the world burn. Get a crowd worked up and angry, and they're like a pyromaniac with a box of wooden matches. They'll throw a rock in a window. They'll set fire to a car. They'll pick a fight with a cop or even a protester. Or start a fight between one of each.

In one hilarious example a few years back in Baltimore, one such gentleman found himself on CNN spouting incoherently about police brutality – Never mind he couldn't tell you the actual event that spawned it, which was a suspect not taken to the ER when he had breathing trouble – when his mother marched out on camera, grabbed him by the ear, and started dressing him down in front of not only a squad of cops in riot gear, a crowd of protestors, but the entire country. This guy wasn't protesting. He was trying to drop a match on the world. His mother's reaction to his playing with matches was similar to my mother's. Only I played with actual matches, and my mother didn't have an audience, just a fly swatter. (Pre-timeout days, but my father was an artiste with the timeout. Ask my younger brothers.)

Black Friday is somewhat like this. People used to make fun of those at Walmart at 4 AM to grab a $20 DVD player. Yet one year, my brothers and I found ourselves in Walmart on Thanksgiving. Walmart was in This-Is-Not-A-Drill-Mode with sections of the store cordoned off so workers could prepare for the next day's onslaught. It was surreal. The aisles had stacks and stacks of the DVD players with crowds of people at 6 PM on Thanksgiving standing there with their hands on them. It reminded me of a Stephen King novel about a town taken over by Sinister Forces™.

Or the Purge movies. In fact, that year, my niece was on a Purge kick, so I posted to Facebook that my brothers and I were at Walmart "where murder is legal for the next 24 hours. The new Founding Fathers thank you for shopping at Walmart. Have a blessed day." (I suspect Walmart will not be carrying any of my books, especially if one of the Waltons reads Suicide Run, but that's scifi and for another blog.)

Nonetheless, I plan to mask up and go out next weekend for Uber. There will be no shortage of those wanting to take advantage of the mad rush, and the extra trips will let me get some shopping done while I'm between shifts.

Hopefully, my crime-free streak will continue. If not, barring serious injury, I'll have another story to tell while I look for a new side hustle.

I'll be back in three weeks with my annual A Very Tom Waits Christmas. For now, here's Steely Dan's take on Black Friday, featuring the late Walter Becker…

25 November 2021

Thanks!


Well, it's that time of year again. 

Time to take a few moments and reflect on the blessings we have received, and to give thanks for same.

Some highlights:

First and foremost, I'm grateful for my family and friends. Furthermore, I'm grateful that they have remained healthy during this pandemic. And of course I'm grateful to have my health as well.

I'm grateful for the vaccine. Doubly grateful for the new one for children (our nine-year-old got his first shot just last Saturday).

I'm grateful for the love of my wife and son. I'm grateful that my wife is my best friend. I'm grateful that my son seems to be developing "my" sense of humor.

I'm grateful for my writing (of course). I'm grateful that 2021 has been for me, the "Year of Finishing Things," so many half-finished writing projects (and several new ones) wrapped up, sold and placed for publication. I'm grateful to have a number of new projects on the horizon for 2022. 


I'm grateful for my day gig, the people I work with, and the students I serve. I'm grateful for public employee unions (especially my own). 

I'm grateful for President Joe Biden, his amazing wife, his family, and the same goes for Vice-President Harris, her husband and family, as well. I'm grateful for my country, and for everything it represents, the positive and the negative- for America as a whole.

I'm grateful to live in a gorgeous part of this country. 

I'm grateful for books. All of them. Every last one.

I'm grateful for the Seattle Mariners (World Series 2022! This is our year!).

I'm grateful to have healed up from my cascading series of leg injuries last Spring.

I'm grateful for my son's unflagging and continually escalating excitement about the impending Christmas season. And I'm grateful to be here for it!

I'm grateful to be member of this community, for my fellow Sleuthsayers, and for my regular turn in the rotation. And of course, I'm grateful for all of you, our readers.

Lastly, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be grateful, today of all days, and to get to share it with my family. How about you? What are you grateful for? Feel free to share in the comments!

See you in two weeks!



24 November 2021

The Unwashed


 

I got a call from the laundromat where I drop off my stuff for wash, dry, and fold, and they’d been broken into.  Whoever it was had rifled the laundry bags, and mine was light a couple of pounds.  I was a little nonplussed.  Maybe a junkie, or maybe just kids, random mischief.  Maybe they thought they’d get lucky, and find rolls of quarters, who knows?  But suppose somebody so desperate, they were looking through people’s dirty clothes hoping to find a pair of jeans that fit, or a sweatshirt.  It’s like stealing from the Goodwill drop box, or diving the dumpster behind a supermarket for bruised fruit.  There are people in this country who can’t imagine such a thing, just as there are people living hand-to-mouth, who can’t imagine it any other way. 

The next thing that crossed my radar was in The New Yorker archive, a profile of David Simon while he was shooting the last season of The Wire.  He remarks at one point that they’d taken the ideas of Greek tragedy, of fated, doomed people, and used them in the context of a contemporary urban environment.  “Instead of these Olympian gods,” he says, “indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts, … postmodern institutions are the indifferent gods.”  The social contract, in other words, has failed.

What this reminds me of is the postwar world of the 1940’s, noir and its discontents.  The subtext of noir has always been the collapse of moral order, and the foreground has always been a rat in a maze.  The indifferent gods are the forces of brute capital, in one reading, or simply the exercise of power.  The noir hero is reduced to bare essentials, and pitted against Fate.  He maneuvers across a hostile landscape, and internalizes the darkness. 

Another point, here, is that noir is often about people on the margins.  But this goes back to the 20’s and 30’s.  Warners, for example, was more class-conscious – or more socially self-conscious – than, say, Fox.  It’s the difference between Ida Lupino and Greer Garson (and meaning no disrespect to Greer Garson, either), and there’s an enormous contrast in social content between a movie like My Man Godfrey and Wild Boys of the Road.  Jack Warner got wise to Hitler early on, too, and wasn’t shy about speaking his mind, although it cost the studio money: Germany was a big market, and the price of doing business there was to keep your voice down.  Warners had always been big in gangster pictures, too, and there’s a certain subversive glamor there.  I think, though, that it took the war, and the exhaustion that followed, with the Red Scare, to create the necessary conditions.

It isn’t simply cynicism; that’s a misreading.  It’s weariness, and mistrust, and the deeper paranoia that the Cold War brought.  Look, for instance, at Shack Out on 101, or Pickup on South Street, or the almost definitive Kiss Me, Deadly.  At the end, when Gaby Rodgers opens the case, and the white-hot Furies spill out, what is it that’s lured her to this Doom?  The moth to the flame, it would seem.

Are we seeing something similar, in this uncertain and mistrustful present?  Is the Zombie Apocalypse a metaphor for the dispossessed, or should it be taken literally?  We internalize the darkness, and we seem to have fallen into a place that’s dangerously familiar.  The noir world is narrow.  It’s persecuted and conspiratorial.  Nothing is what it seems.  Authority is suspect.  The only constant is treachery, each of us isolated in our fear.

We’re trapped in generic conventions, and we know the story ends badly.  We’ve seen it before.



23 November 2021

For Everything There is a Season


I spent the last weekend of October at a VRBO in Comanche, Texas, with James A. Hearn and our spouses. The getaway was organized by Temple and Dawn, and the intent was to get us all away from daily stresses.

I’m one of those people who must keep occupied at all times, so I had a difficult time relaxing. Instead of enjoying the quiet and the company, I kept thinking about all the writing and editing projects I’d left behind.

Despite not being fully engaged in the art of relaxation, I came home with a new attitude toward the trajectory of my life. During the past few years, I’ve been writing less and editing more, and I had been wrestling with what that meant.

A week after we returned, Temple and I had a long discussion in which I decided to embrace editing as a priority over writing rather than as something in competition with writing. By the end of our conversation, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

In one of those events that would be too coincidental for belief if I’d included it in a short story, the next day I was offered—and I accepted—an editing situation in which I’ll be acquiring fifty-two stories a year. A week after that, a different publisher greenlit three anthology proposals, and all of this is in addition to existing editing commitments.

As King Solomon might have written in Ecclesiastes, if he’d worked in publishing: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to write, and a time to edit.” My time to edit has come.

So, keeping busy won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future, and the next time Temple and I get away—with or without the Hearns—I might better appreciate the downtime.

 
My story “Crush” appears in the Winter 2021 issue of
Vautrin.

22 November 2021

Lights! Action! Murder...


 by Steve Liskow

A week ago, I did something I haven't done since 2004.


Proof, that last audition, 2005

I auditioned for a play at a local community theater. From the early 1980s until 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for over 100 productions in central Connecticut, but I pretty much left theater in 2010. It was a combination of burnout and signing my first contract for a novel, and it seemed like time to turn from stage to page. Since then, I've acted in one show where the director invited me to take the role, and directed a couple of one-act plays where friends I'd worked with before asked me to step in.  
Me as the cop in Miller's "The Price," my last role in 2013



I seldom read plays anymore. At my age, I don't see a lot of interesting roles I could do, anyway. But this particular play needed a sixty-five-year-old male who is a former literature professor, and it's a substantial role, the only male with four women. 

When I arrived at the theater, I met four other men; I'd worked with three of them before--often--and knew the fourth. All of us were over 60. Coincidence?

I didn't get cast, but Barbara, my wife, will play the matriarch lead. She still performs in three or four productions a year. In fact, she closed in a production Saturday night, and her first read-thru for this new show will be tonight.

I don't mind not getting cast (I can stay home watching the UConn Women basketball games), but it started me thinking about my overlapping interests/careers.

One novel and fifteen of my short stories use music as an important component of the story. Two of my novels involve teachers, my day job for three decades. I've only used theater in one story, and it didn't involve the actual play at all. Upon further reflection, I couldn't remember a single story involving theater by ANYBODY that strikes me as better than mediocre. I haven't read everything out there, of course, and Linda Barnes, a former teacher and actor herself (and also from Michigan), used an actor/amateur sleuth for several novels before creating Carlotta Carlyle. She left the actor behind because she decided his propensity for showing up where people died might affect his chances of getting cast again. 


I've never read any of Barnes's theater stories, but most of the others--and I can't think of many--betray the writer's lack of knowledge or experience in theater. The performance spaces, characters, and technical aspects of the show all sound like they're out of the 1950s, and the actors and other theater people are little more than comedic stereotypes. The last light board with those immense levers like Frankenstein's laboratory disappeared by 1990. For the last show I directed at Hole in the Wall in 2008, my lighting designer sat in the auditorium and programmed 104 light cues involving about 70 instruments on her laptop. For all I know, today she might use an app on her phone. 

The lessons I learned in theater carry over to writing, though. Both my acting and directing mentors quoted Sanford Meisner's dictum about monologues: nobody has to watch the person speaking a monologue unless the actor MAKES him pay attention. That doesn't mean over-the-top histrionics (which are hard to do on paper). It means being real and showing what is at stake. High stakes is what story-telling is all about. 

And that got me thinking again, always a dangerous thing. I haven't written a new story in a few weeks because I've been trolling for ideas.

Maybe it's time to go back to that other part of my life and try a mystery based on theater.

(...Fade to Black...)

21 November 2021

Character References


Queen's Gambit, girl and chessboard

The Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit led me to check out the novel from my local library. I was charmed. Walter Tevis chronicles the professional life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises above her expectations.

Her journey reminds me of the vicissitudes of Bobby Fischer, America’s erratic genius. When Fischer faced off against his friend and relentless Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjav√≠k, for the first time the US saw Fischer and Spassky’s battle televised move for move. Those of us with an interest in chess enjoyed the showdown.

When Queen’s Gambit appeared on Netflix, those days came back to me. I was immediately captivated. I’m going to preach heresy– I liked the series slightly better than the novel.

Film has advantages over words on a page and one here was the portrayal of chess on the ceiling. (You have to see it to get what I mean.) Beyond that, the miniseries offered a few subtle enhancements. For example, Beth learns Russian and happens to overhear an opinion about her… a critical opinion that gives her a chance to assess the destructive path she’s taking.

Top chess players often suffer a touch of madness, Fischer among them. The great Paul Morphy committed suicide. Few women play. It might be sexism or women may be too smart to pursue chess. The actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, perfectly portrays that touch of something not-quite-right and does it in an endearing way.

In both book and on screen, the players (her competitors), her mentors, and especially her step-mother are well drawn. Unfortunately, the novel’s sketch of her primary Soviet opponent reminds one of a boar-like Leonid Brezhnev. The movie version opted for a sophisticated, elegantly dressed family man, which carries much better.

The series outlines that male habit of being cautious of interlopers until they prove themselves. Beth’s biggest fans become those she defeats. She earns their respect, unstinting admiration and, in one case even love.

The ending of the miniseries is well done, a fitting ending to a poignant story.

But…

In both book and film, I level a criticism about a small but important lost opportunity. The story opens with Beth’s mother crashing her car into a steel bridge. Later, her childhood friend Jolene asks, “What’s the last thing your mother said to you?”

Beth answers, “Close your eyes.”

Absolutely chilling, or it would have been except both the book and the film felt they had to add background, diluting that simple answer down to nothing. Therein, I thought, lay a lesson.

Oh, the cover, Queen’s Gambit… sheer genius.

chessboard with bottles of booze and pills

20 November 2021

Who Chose the Prose for Those Anthos?


  

I think I've mentioned, here at SleuthSayers, the fact that I've been submitting almost as many short stories to anthologies as I have to magazines these past couple of years. (Reminder: a collection is a group of stories written by the same author; an anthology is a group of stories written be different authors.) And the more stories I've sent to anthologies, the more I have come to appreciate the knowledge and professionalism of the folks who edit those books. I've done it myself only once, fifteen years ago. I had a great time with it, met some fine writers, made long-lasting friends in the process, and--I hope--produced a good anthology. But I haven't done it since. It's hard work, a lot harder than writing. 

As sort of a nod and vote of thanks to those editors, here's a list I put together of some of the recent anthologies I've been published in and the people who steered those ships.

NOTE 1: All these are within the past couple of years, except for those edited by folks with whom I've worked several times--in those cases I've listed multiple projects from the past.

NOTE 2: I've shortened some of the anthology titles, when possible (apologies to those editors). But the list is long enough as it is.




Editor                                                          Anthology


Josh Pachter          Only the Good Die Young (Untreed Reads, 2021)

                               The Great Filling Station Holdup (Down & Out Books, 2021)

                               The Beat of Black Wings (Untreed Reads, 2020)


Cameron Trost        The Black Beacon Book of Mystery (Black Beacon Books, 2020)


Abigail Linhardt       Winter's Vindication (SummerStorm Press, 2021)


Eric Guignard          Professor Charlatan Bardot's Travel Anthology (Dark Moon Books, 2021)

                                Pop the Clutch (Dark Moon Books, 2019)

                                Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Farolight Publishing, 2017)

                                After Death (Dark Moon Books, 2013)


Donna Carrick         A Grave Diagnosis (Carrick Publishing, 2020)


Lyn Worthen            Cozy Villages of Death (Independently published, 2020)


Michael Bracken      Jukes and Tonks (with Gary Phillips, Down & Out Books, 2020)

                                 The Eyes of Texas (Down & Out Books, 2019)


Otto Penzler             Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 (with Lee Child, Mysterious Press, 2021)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2020 (with C. J. Box, HMH, 2020)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (with Louise Penny, HMH, 2018)

                                 Best American Mystery Stories 2015 (with James Patterson, HMH, 2015) 


Verena Rose/Harriette Sackler/Shawn Reilly Simmons              Masthead (Level Best Books, 2020)

                                                                                                     Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018)


Greg Herren            Florida Happens (Bouchercon anthology, Three Rooms Press, 2018)

                                Blood on the Bayou (Boucheron anthology, Down & Out Books, 2016)


Rick Ollerman         Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Bouchercon anthology, Down & Out Books, 2019)


J. K. Larkin             Pets on the Prowl (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Stand Out II: Best of the Red Penguin Collection (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Behind Closed Doors (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               Heart Full of Love (Red Penguin Books, 2021)

                               What Lies Beyond (Red Penguin Books, 2020)

                               'Tis the Season (Red Penguin Books, 2020)

                               A Trip for the Books (Red Penguin Books, 2020)


Judy Tucker/Lottie Boggan        Mad Dogs and Moonshine (Queen's Hill Press, 2008)

                                                   Fireflies in Fruit Jars (Queen's Hill Press, 2007)


Sandra Murphy          Peace, Love, & Crime (Untreed Reads, 2020)

                                   A Murder of Crows (Darkhouse Books, 2019)


Philip Levin               Rocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales (Doctor's Dream Publishing, 2012)

                                  Magnolia Blossoms and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2010)

                                  Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2009)


Barb Goffman           Crime Travel (Wildside Press, 2019)


Andrew MacRae       Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, 2020)

                                  Sancuary (Darkhouse Books, 2018)

                                  We've Been Trumped (Darkhouse Books, 2016)


Johnny Lowe            What Would Elvis Think? (Clinton Ink-Slingers, 2019)


Theresa Halverson/Sarah Faxon             Released (No Bad Books Press, 2021)


Judy Penz Sheluk       Moonlight & Misadventure (Superior Shores Press, 2021)

                                    Heartbreaks & Half-Truths (Superior Shores Press, 2020)


Jake Devlin                 BOULD Awards Anthology (Independently published, 2021)

                                    BOULD Awards Anthology (Independently published, 2020)


Patricia Gaddis/Alexandra Pollock        Mini-Mysteries Digest (Heinrich-Bauer, 2021)


John Connor                Crimeucopia: The Cosy Nostra (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: Dead Man's Hand (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: As in Funny Ha-Ha (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)

                                     Crimeucopia: The I's Have It (Murderous Ink Press, 2021)


Tony Burton                Ten for Ten (Wolfmont Publishing, 2008)

                                    Crime and Suspense I (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007)

                                    The Seven Deadly Sins (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007)


Owen Litwin                The Odds Are Against Us (Liberty Island Media, 2019)


Sarah E. Glen             Mardi Gras Mysteries (Mystery and Horror LLC, 2021)




Some of the above editors (Barb, Michael, Rick, Lyn, Judy Tucker, etc.) have also edited magazines and other projects that contained my creations, and I've found these folks to be just as able and helpful at that as they were with the anthologies. A good editor is a godsend in this crazy business, and I thank them all sincerely.

Questions: Have any of you worked with the editors I've mentioned? Do you have stories in any of their upcoming anthologies? How about other editors, and if so, what were your experiences? Have you edited anthologies yourself? Also, what are some of the more "different" anthologies, themewise, to have featured your work? Please let me know in the comments section below. (If you're interested, here's an earlier SleuthSayers post that discusses themed anthos.)

Meanwhile, keep writing those stories--for anthologies, magazines, collections, and whatever other markets you might find. Good luck with them all!