05 August 2020

Breaking Into Showbiz 3



This is the third time we've played this game.  Rules are simple.  Below is a list of well-known characters from popular culture.  The question is: Where did they start?  For example, the Cisco Kid began life in a short story written by O. Henry, of all people.

On the side in a white box you will see a list of possible origins.  Don't assume there is one-for-one match (one character from radio, one from opera, etc.)

Answers at the bottom of the page.  Good luck!

Paul Bunyan

Charlie Chan

Jiminy Cricket

Robinson Crusoe

Green Hornet

Detective John Munch

Horace Rumpole

Karen Sisco

Staggerlee

Honey West


Ready? Okay, here are the answers:


Paul Bunyan. Folklore. Sure, the giant logger started in oral legends, but as is usually the case with folklore, it's complicated.  The earliest known written appearance is a one-line reference in a newspaper in 1893, a joke that would make no sense to anyone unfamiliar with "Paul Bunion."

He was apparently only about eight feet tall until 1916 when William B. Laughead used him in an advertising pamphlet.  That's when he grew into a man who could lift mountains and make lakes with his footprints.

Because so many of the familiar stories show up late some scholars call it "fakelore," but James Stevens, who wrote a book about our big boy in 1925 argued that making up new tales based on the basic framework is exactly how the stories worked in the lumber camps.

Charlie Chan.  Real Life.  Sort of.  Yes, Charlie Chan made his first appearance in Earl Derr Biggers' mystery novel The House Without A Key (1925), but he acknowledged that the character was inspired by Chang Apana, a famous member of the Honolulu police force.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Apana was not permitted to work on cases involving White people.  Biggers and Apana met in 1928, by the way.

Chan is considered an offensive stereotype today - less for the novels than for the countless movies starring White men in the part - so it is easy to forget that Biggers was trying to combat the "sinister Oriental" cliche represented by Fu Manchu, by creating a decent and brilliant Chinese policeman.


Jiminy Cricket. Movie. The living puppet began in The Adventures of Pinocchio, an Italian children's book by Carlo Collodi, published in 1883.  In that book the Fairy with Turquoise Hair gave him a talking cricket as a conscience, which the little wooden brat promptly murdered.  So the animal appeared as a ghost throughout the rest of the book.

As part of the Disneyfication of the book, in the cartoon the insect turned into Jiminy Cricket, complete with top hat and umbrella.  (The name, of course,  already existed as a modified swear word.)  Jiminy was voiced by Clifford Edwards, who got to sing "When You Wish Upon A Star," which became the Disney corporation's unofficial anthem.  Until then Edwards was better known as Ukulele Ike, a very popular crooner in the early days of the phonograph.  Among other things, he did the first recording of "Singing in the Rain," and had a hit with "California, Here I Come." 

In a most un-Disneylike twist, Ukulele Ike had also recorded some hokum - which is to say double entendre songs that were only sold to adults "under the counter." 


Robinson Crusoe.  Novel.  Daniel Defoe's immortal novel about a desert island castaway is often linked to the ordeal of Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an island off the coast of Chile after being dumped there by his captain.

But Andrew Lambert, in his book Crusoe's Island, argues that the book is a mash-up of the adventures of several maroonees, if that's a word.  Defoe never confirmed or denied Selkirk's influence.


Green Hornet.  Radio.  The masked hero in the green fedora (secret identity of newspaper publisher Britt Reid) came to life on Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1938, as did his assistant and chauffeur, Kato.

I included him here largely because many years ago the NPR quiz show Says You did a round of questions about comic strips, and somehow included one about the olive wasp: "What was the name of the Green Hornet's grand-uncle's horse?" 

I knew the answer.  But I was irritated because GH didn't start in a strip or even a comic book, and you think a radio show would know he came from radio show.  (And by the way, that is a clue to the answer to that question.)


Detective John Munch.
Real Life.  Detective (later Sergeant) John Munch entered the world through the wonderful TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, played by Richard Belzer.  When that show ended Munch left Baltimore Homicide and moved to NYPD for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  Believe it or not the cynical conspiracy-minded cop  also made guest appearnces on The X Files, Arrested Development, The Wire, 30 Rock, and a handful of other TV series.

So why do I say he started in real life?  The TV series Homicide was based on David Simon' award-winning nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.  Munch is clearly (and admittedly) inspired by Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman.

Here is how that book begins:
    Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.
    "Here's your problem," he said.  "He's got a slow leak."
    "A leak?" says Pellegrini, picking up on it.
    "A slow one."
    "You can fix those."
    "Sure you can," Landsman agrees.  "They got these home repair kits now..."

Inevitably Jay Landsman did some acting, in The Corner and The Wire.


Horace Rumpole.
Television. The defender of the British criminal classes  began in TV, although he was later seen in novels, short stories, and radio.  John Mortimer, himself a barrister, claimed he created Rumpole specifically to fund his retirement. 

In 1968 Mortimer wrote a TV movie called "Infidelity Took Place," about a barrister who is a sort of ur-Rumpole.  A few years later he wrote a play about Horace Rumbold, but the name was changed because there really was a lawyer by that name.  (Of course, the name is a pun.  Think of a Cockney saying Rump 'Ole.)
 
While Rumpole was conceived as a small-timer who lost most of his cases, as the show went through seven seasons he became more and more successful.  And as Mortimer looked farther afield for interesting plots, Rumpole found himself working in a military court, an African court (with the death penalty on the table), an ecclesiastical court (bizarre for an atheist), and, hardest to believe, conducting a prosecution (inevitably he proved the defendant innocent).


Karen Sisco.  Short Story.  Elmore Leonard would sometimes try out a character in a story before trusting her with a whole novel.  Deputy Marshal Sisco began life in a 1996 tale, "Karen Makes Out."

She then starred in the novel Out of Sight, made into a movie in which she was played by Jennifer Lopez.  That led to the short lived TV series Karen Sisco, starring Carla Gugino. And that was the end of the character. Or was it?

In the second season of the TV show Justified, a much more successful adaptation of Leonard's work, Carla Gugino reappears  as the Assistant Director of the Marshal Service, Karen Goodall.  It is mentioned that she had married and divorced.  Was Sisco her maiden name? 


Staggerlee.  Real life.   Alias Stackolee, Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.  The song (and its infinite variants) is based on the murder of Billy Lyons, which took place in St. Louis, Missouri in 1895.  Curiously, I have never heard a version that mentioned that the killing happened on Christmas, making this one of the least likely holiday carols since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."  The murderer was Lee Shelton and there are many explanations for his nickname.

Lyons and Shelton were both criminals, possibly business rivals.  Billy Lyons stole Shelton's stetson hat, Shelton got his gun, and the rest was musical history. Most versions of the song I am familiar with show our hero being executed and end with him telling the Devil "I'll rule Hell by myself."  He was a bad man, that Staggerlee.  But in reality, Shelton spent twelve years in prison, got paroled, and returned to stir one year later, and died there.

Honey West.  Novel. One of the first female private eyes, she appeared in 11 novels written by G.G. Fickling (actually Forrest E. Fickling and his wife Gloria.  She debuted in This Girl For Hire in 1957.

In 1965 Anne Francis guest-starred as Ms. West in an episode of Burke's Law, and that led to a TV series of her own, which lasted for 30 episodes.

04 August 2020

I Write Therefore I Am


Walking the dogs. Buster above.
 Pepper (left) and Buster below.
Sometimes—often—I get tired of the writing grind. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and toil for very little reward, or so it seems. I’ll complain to my wife that I want to quit. I’ll think about doing just that. But then I think about what I would do with all that extra time. Garden? Watch TV? Read? Do hobbies? Spend even more time walking the dog.

Who would I be? My whole identity is wrapped up in being a writer and has been almost my whole adult life. I don’t think I’d recognize myself anymore if I wasn’t writing. One hears about people who retire and have these great expectations of playing golf all the time or doing whatever their fancy is and then getting bored awfully damn quick. But also losing their identity because so much of it was wrapped up in their work.

Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the years to work at being a writer, so obviously it was something that was worth making sacrifices for.

And I like the process of creating something out of nothing, yet it’s too late for me to be a molecular physicist, if that’s the right terminology. Writing fiction is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (something I don’t have the patience for). But like a jigsaw puzzle in writing you have to find all the right pieces and put them in all the right places or it just doesn’t fit.

I write, therefore I am. With my assistant, Curley.

Red Smith famously said: "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  Even when you open a vein for the Red Cross and donate blood they give you juice and cookies.



Most people don't have an appreciation for what we go through as writers.  The hours spent alone, no one to talk to over the water cooler (though that's changed somewhat with the internet, which is a surrogate water cooler).  The opening of our veins to get to the good stuff.

Like I said, it’s a calling. And it called me very young. When I was a kid I used to set up my army men on the bedroom floor.  But often, instead of moving them around pretending they were on a real battlefield I would pretend that they were on a movie set. I was lucky enough to have one little plastic figure of a cameraman and I'd even set up my TinkerToys in such a way to mimic Klieg lights. I'd move the men around the floor, putting words in their mouths, the good guys and the bad. Making sounds of gunfire and other sound effects. That, coupled with having been born in Hollywood, literally, made me want to do something in the movies. So today when I write something I figure I'm just doing on paper what I used to do on the floor of my room, moving around letters and sentences the way I used to move "armies" across the floor. And it really all amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, I am really still playing with (and collecting) toy soldiers. See pic.

Still playing with toy soldiers.

And, when I started out as a writer I had romantic notions of what being a writer meant. Images of Hemingway sipping absinthe on the Left Bank. And though Hollywood ain't no left bank it did have Joe Allen's at the time, so I went there for drinks. Or I'd sip some whiskey while writing in my little office. But I found that if I drank while writing—or trying to write—I didn't want to write. I wanted to play. So those romantic visions of the drinking writer (at least while writing) vanished quickly as did the bottle. I also thought writers should hang out at bars and dives and soak up atmosphere or thrown beer. My first adventure out was to a well-known sleazy eatery. I sat at the counter listening for tidbits of dialogue, insights into lives. What I got was a shirt full of beer when two guys playing pool a few feet away got into a fight. Free beer, who could ask for more?  If a cop had stopped me on the way home my shirt-alcohol level would surely have been over the legal limit.  Would they have arrested me or just my shirt?
Cafétafel met absint by Vincent Van Gogh
So, though it can get tedious, though the rewards might not always come, I don’t think I could or would ever give up on writing. Ultimately, we write because we have to. We open those veins because we have no choice. And anything’s better than sitting around watching TV all day, even that vein opening.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
                           



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

03 August 2020

The Second Sleep


"The writing of many books," said Ecclesiastes, " is a weariness of the flesh," and even with the invention of the computer and instant research on the web, the construction of many plots and the devising of many characters can tire the Muse. Consider with mysteries that there are only two sorts to murder, male or female, and only so many plausible motives, led by the always dependable lust, greed, and envy, and you can see why the modern version of the Biblical scribe begins to think that books are long and novel series longer.

We crave variety and the getting of it is not always easy. That is why, despite certain reservations, I have to cheer Robert Harris, whose newest, The Second Sleep, pulls off the neat trick of setting the future in the past and lining up one mystery in order to reveal a quite different sort of crime.

Harris first gained fame with another clever premise in Fatherland. His protagonist is a Kripo detective in a post WW2 Germany, and the twist is that the Nazis, having won the war, now are trying to clean up their image, a circumstance which makes all sorts of trouble for the basically conscientious and decent investigator.

He followed up this best seller with a mystery set at Bletchley Park among codebreakers in a UK still very much in the war. After that he went further afield in history, rather than alternative history, to do a series of crime novels set in the Roman Empire. Now he has returned to the south of England to the Year of Our Risen Lord, 1468, with a priest riding an old mare toward a small town in Wessex.

The twist is that The Year of Our Risen Lord is, by our present calendar, roughly 800 years in our future. Our current technological civilization has collapsed, world population has crashed, and the folks in rural Wessex are living like their medieval ancestors with high birth and death rates, lousy sanitation, rudimentary education, a king, and a domineering church.

For various reasons, the religious establishment, recognizably a variant of the Church of England, is particularly down on history, antiquarian books and investigations and speculations of every type. It is a shock to the inexperienced Father Fairfax, our man on the mare, when he discovers that the late Father Lacy, whose funeral he has been sent to conduct, was a passionate collector of ancient
memorabilia and the possessor of a variety of heretical books.

He also possessed a letter from one Peter Morgenstern, who had speculated on possible civilization-ending dangers, including disruption of the computer networks, pandemic, climate change, nuclear war, and a host of other all-too believable perils. These speculations shock Father Fairfax, steeped as he is in the church doctrine that they are living post the Biblical Apocalypse and that it was a supernatural event, a punishment for wrong doing and secularism, that caused the great disaster.

It is in this quite ingenious setting that Harris has placed his first mystery: the real cause of Father Lacy's demise, gradually unfolds the second, much more complex mystery, that forms the substance of the novel. In effect, he has most efficiently borrowed historical descriptions of late medieval/early renaissance life in rural England to depict the future. And it works.

I am not sure the same strategy would be satisfactory in an American novel. But in Britain, where human history is not only thousands of years deep, but with many large and still visible ancient monuments, and where there are relatively homogenous populations that can trace their genetic lineage back a thousand years and more, disbelief can be suspended.

Harris' characters are easy to take, too, perhaps too easily. The main players seem suspiciously modern in their outlooks even after eight centuries of religious indoctrination, and Father Fairfax's fall from grace happens with suspicious ease. That said, The Second Sleep is intelligently put together, its real revelations pack a punch, and it certainly gets high marks for ingenuity, especially when so many best-selling authors find a format and cling to it.



02 August 2020

Merciful Air Conditioning Appreciation Festival



steamy Florida writer man Leigh
Steamy Florida Man
I’m celebrating MACAF, Merciful Air Conditioning Appreciation Festival. Village lads luge ’cross frozen cobblestones on home-grown ice blocks. Hyperboreal maidens dance around The Great Icicle stalactite streaming ice-blue ribbons. Famed artists compete to carve the bestest ice sculpture before melting in the ƒ-ing Florida heat.

You guessed it. My air conditioning went out, in Florida, on a weekend (naturally), coinciding with a record heat wave, and my brain cells are dehydrating. Why, oh why always on weekends?

The original York A/C had passed its 40th birthday. While it would have happily celebrated its quinquagenary (I cheated and looked that word up), experts claimed its inefficiency was killing glaciers in Manitoba.

I desired a heat pump manufactured in North American, one that wouldn’t keel over milliseconds after the warranty expired. To be fair, LG claimed a unit in Nunavut was rumored to have lasted eleven years. Guinness disqualified it — it hadn’t been plugged in.
My salesman said, “I can offer you a Rheem…”
“No kidding, I saw the prices.”
“… or we can talk Ruud.”
“That was, wasn’t it.”
“You need the Atlas Kazoom Freezer-Kool Polar 3000, fully automatic, four barrel, thirteen stage, multilevel, max-filter, micro-fibre, zip-lock, four-on-the-floor, orthopædic super-traction, six-gigawatt, five-speed, 29 SEER, solar-ready, entertainment-prepped, streaming, IoT featuring Apple Siri, Google Home, Alexa alert, corona-virus secure, mercury-free, gluten-free, biometric, child-proof, NASA-approved, UL listed Intel Inside HVAC with the opt-in hyper-glow platinum-plated Coldplay thermostat…”
“Uh, I just want an air conditioner, you know, a heat pump.”
He gave me a pitying look for my failed foresight and lack of regard for his commission, just when he needed new golf clubs.

I opted for Lennox, still made in America’s heartland, boasting a 125 year history. The outside condenser’s dimensions astonished me, the size and price of a small apartment building. Micro-miniaturization doesn’t apply in the physics of air conditioning. Apparently the ‘SEER’ energy rating grows along with bulk, but at least my house’s interior has dropped below triple °F digits.

So now I’m celebrating Air Conditioning Festival where village dogs pull faux sleds and bark at heat thermals. The madness should fade as the temperature drops.

The following shows my original heat pump, the new one, and the model the salesman tried to foist on me.

The Hypothermia Headliners

I needed to replace the Baby Bear original…

The Baby Bear A/C model
1978 Trash-a-Rainforest Pain-in-theTush model (T.A.R.P.I.T)

So I bought the Mama Bear…

The Mama Bear A/C model
The Woefully Inadequate Middlin’ Pump (W.I.M.P) model

Instead of the recommended Papa Bear…

The Papa Bear A/C model
Penumbra 6000, 3rd largest American Air Heat for Home, Hut, Hovel, House, Hotel, & Hamlet (AAHHHHHHH)

Hey, this is Florida!

01 August 2020

Recognized and Tuckerized




Tuckerization (or tuckerism) is the act of using a person's name (and sometimes other characteristics) in an original story as an in-joke.
--Wikipedia


It occurred to me, after I started writing this, that I'd done a SleuthSayers piece on this topic almost four years ago, called "Namedropping." If you take the trouble to go back and read that post, be sure to read the comments also, from readers--I think those are more interesting than what I wrote in the column.

Anyhow, I want to say a little more about the subject, especially because I have since discovered that this practice has a name. The term tuckerization is derived from the late Arthur Wilson Tucker, an American writer of science fiction who--that sly dog--made a habit of using his friends' names for minor characters in his stories. (Most of you probably know this already. I think I was the last writer on earth to find out.)

Mr. Tucker would've been proud of me, because I've been merrily plugging the names of friends and fans into my short stories for a long time. (Well, at least friends; the word fans might be overstating things a bit.) The satisfying thing is, every time I've tuckerized someone, I've been encouraged to do it again because the tuckerizee seemed so tickled by it. I would assume that's probably one of the rules of this practice: Do it only if you're fairly sure the person being mentioned will enjoy seeing his/her name in your writing, rather than want to sue your ass off.

My tuckerizing has so far consisted of the following:

As mentioned in the earlier SleuthSayers column . . .


- Teresa Garver, a childhood friend who now lives four hundred miles away, became an English teacher in "Gone Goes the Weasel," Woman's World, June 27, 2013.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my banking customers at IBM, was a mischievous high-school student in "Not One Word," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, July/Aug/Sep 2002.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a classmate of mine at Kosciusko High School, was featured as a deputy sheriff in "Trail's End," AHMM, July/Aug 2017, which became the first story in a series.

- Charlotte Hudson, a friend and former writing student, appeared in "A King's Ransom," Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue #19, 2015; and both Charlotte and her husband Bill were characters in "Ball and Chain," Woman's World, July 27, 2015. (I said in the previous SS post that Charlotte was in two Woman's World stories, but I later discovered it was one in WW and one in SHMM.)

- Charles Heisley, a fellow engineer and old Air Force buddy, became an officer in the Louisiana State Police in "The Blue Delta," Blood on the Bayou anthology, Sep 2016. Chuck lives in Hawaii now, but he's originally from Florida, so Louisiana wasn't too big a reach.


Since then:

- Deputy Cheryl Grubbs has made additional appearances in two more of my Sheriff Ray Douglas series installments--"Scavenger Hunt," AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018, and "Quarterback Sneak," AHMM, Mar/Apr 2020--and will be featured in two more stories already accepted and coming up at AHMM and one at Down & Out: The Magazine.

- My friend Terri Fisher was a physician in one of my Law and Daughter series stories, called "Doctor in the House," Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring 2017.

- Donna Fairley (the maiden name of one of my IBM colleagues, now Donna Huebsch) was a teenaged genius in "Ace in the Hole," Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer 2017. In real life, I can easily believe Donna might've been a teenaged genius.

- The first names of our oldest son's three children--Lily, Anna, and Gabe--were the first names of my three main characters in "The Music of Angels," The Saturday Evening Post, Sep/Oct 2018. In fact those were that story's only three characters. I didn't tell the kids about it, so when I sent them the magazine and they read the story, they thought that was a hoot.

- My old DP friend Alan Collums (we used to call the computer business Data Processing instead of Information Technology) will make an appearance as a cop in the Jackson, Mississippi, police department in "Friends and Neighbors," a story that AHMM has accepted but hasn't yet published.

Also, I've worked a lot of friends' last names into the names of story titles and fictional locations, over the years: "The Dolan Killings," "Driving Miss Lacey," "Knight Vision," "Purple Martin," "Dawson's Curse," "The Three Little Biggs," "Field Engineering," "Merrill's Run," "Byrd and Ernie," "The Barlow Boys," "Remembering Tally," "An Hour at Finley's," "The Pullman Case," "Dooley's Code," "The Zeller Files," Hardison Park, Chavis Island, Dentonville, etc. This kind of thing is mostly self-serving, because certain names from the past can sometimes just "sound" right.


On the other side of all this, I have found my own name in two stories--both of them written by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. I knew about Rob's story beforehand--and blogged about that one in my "Namedropping" post--but I didn't know about my role in Michael's story until I happened across it while reading for pleasure, in the 2017 anthology Passport to Murder (which included stories by both of us). That was a pleasant surprise. O'Neil De Noux and I were both featured in Michael's story--O'Neil as a policeman (which he once was) and I as a systems engineer (which I once was).



What are some of your own experiences, with this crazy practice? Have you tuckerized friends' names in your fiction? If not, have you considered doing it? Have you discovered your own name in the writing of others? If so, were you told about it beforehand? Did you sue 'em? (Just kidding.)

As you might imagine, part of the fun of writing this post was the research it required: I went back and checked most of my stories (not all--there are a lot of 'em) to try to remember the times I had mentioned friends and colleagues and family members as a part of the plot. And that in itself brought back some fond memories.

Lately, though, nobody's been lobbying too much for it--which might be a good thing.

Maybe I'm all tuckered out.






31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

30 July 2020

Man's [Dubious] Search for Meaning


Right before the 2008 election, I was present when a Southern father told his sons to go out and buy guns, right now, because if Obama got elected, there would be black people (my terminology, not his) banging down their doors to "get them". It didn't happen. Then or in 2012. I'm sure it's been a great disappointment to him ever since. And I'm sure he continues to hope.

I thought of him the other day when I read a comment on a conservative web site - and I quote:
"Whites, Traditionalists, Conservatives and small o Orthodox Christian's are being treated by the mob the same way the Nazis treated the jews in Nazi Germany, it only a matter of time they throw us in gas chambers."
And I almost felt sorry for the guy. Really. Because I could tell that deep down the commentator wants - no, NEEDS this to happen. Well, probably not to him: but to somebody, to prove how evil the other side is, and how important and righteous he and his must be, to be so savagely persecuted.

As Fred Clark, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote "You probably don’t hope that millions of your neighbors are secretly cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan. Because that would be bad. But some people really want that to be true."

In case you're wondering, the existence of a large number of cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan is one of the central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and this came up because it's being professed by a number of GOP candidates for public office. (See NPR)

Lauren Boebert, owner of Shooters Grill, Rifle, Colorado
Lauren Boebert, owner of the Shooters Grill, in Rifle, CO, QAnon supporter, and
Republican nominee, Colorado's 3rd District. © Lauren Boebert campaign web site

Anyway, back to Fred as to why people believe this stuff:
"If it’s not real, after all, then where will the true believers find anything else so exciting to provide meaning for their lives? If there isn’t a massive secret global network of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles, then what’s even the point of anything? They hope that it is real. They want it to be real. They desperately need it to be real...

"But there’s the problem. Once you’ve given yourself over to a pack of lies like QAnon or any other variation of the ancient Satanic baby-killers libel, you belong to those lies. You become those lies. And having become a lie, sincerity and genuineness are no longer available to you. To be a true believer in such outrageous lies makes you incapable of truly believing. So do even the “true believers” really believe this stuff? Not quite, because they can no longer “really” anything.

"I think this also captures what it is that those Second Amendment cultists Boebert feeds at her restaurant “really believe” about all of their delirious fantasies about persecution and confiscation and imminent tyranny precariously kept at bay only by their sidearms pew-pew-pew! You can’t “really believe” such fantasies when you’re sitting there at Shooter’s Grill, eating your Swiss & Wesson burger imperturbed by the evil forces of gubmint tyranny. But you can hope that it is real, because that would be exciting and thrilling and it would mean that you mean something no matter how much you’ve begun to suspect that you don’t." (Slacktivist: "I hope that this is real") (my emphasis)
To put it more simply, as Toby Keith wrote, "Let's Get Drunk and Be Somebody."

This, my friends, is why people join cults and/or believe in conspiracy theories (although all cults are founded on conspiracy theories, imho), and why it's so damned hard to get them out of them. They let people, who believe deep down that they're nothing, be somebody important enough to be wanted. Even if it is only by the law.

One of the many reasons I love Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman is the KKK guys. Felix, Walter, and Ivanhoe are true believers in the "Lost Cause", "whites are more persecuted than anyone else", "they're comin' after us!" fantasy that apparently started right after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. In between drinks, they blab, shoot pool, whine, shoot guns, and plan to blow up a dorm of black women for being mouthy and black. They think they're mysterious and powerful and deeply important, but in reality, like Sally Bowles, they're about "as fatale as an after dinner mint." (Or, in their case, a Tic Tac.) But they are, also like Sally, dangerous to themselves and to others.

There really was a time when people didn't seem to need to find meaning in cults and conspiracy theories or much of anything because they were engaged in an existential struggle to stay alive for another year. Or month. Or day. Some of it was that a 95% preindustrial agricultural society has too much work to do to stay up late at night wondering if the Illuminati are real. And they knew they were important - they had families to take care of, crops to raise, clothing to make, food to cook, etc. For that matter, Ma and Pa Ingalls weren't sitting around DeSmet, South Dakota, discussing how many people in President Grover Cleveland's cabinet were Reptilians.

So why did things change? Maybe it's because we have more time. Maybe it's because in industrial societies humans have to work according to machines instead of seasons. Maybe it's because we're a celebrity consumer culture nowadays, and there's too many of us for everyone to be a celebrity, and we're drowning in stuff, and we have no idea what's going on.

Anyway, cults / conspiracy theories provide temporary Meaning:

  • The Inner Knowledge: There is a secret cabal of entities who are manipulating everything around us because they're evil and want to. Which means, of course, that all the bad stuff happening around us and to us? None of it is our fault. (Otherwise known as "magical thinking", very addictive, and the center of most racist ideologies.) Anyway, the Inner Knowledge gives us
  • The Inner Certainty: By knowing this we are in the "inner circle", a specially chosen person to know the truth which everyone else has distorted or denied. (At last! At last!)
  • The Inner Excitement: By knowing it we've you have made an enemy of evil powers - mighty, earth shaking / earth gobbling powers. And the stranger, weirder, more perverted, more horrific, more completely impossibly evil the enemy/enemies is/are the better. You know: Satan-worshipping cannibal pedophiles. Or the Reptilians. Or… Cthulhu.
BTW - the puzzling thing about Jim Jones, Cthulhu, and other death cults is that in the long run all they offer their cult-members is a quicker death than the rest of the world, and that apparently is enough. (Head shaking emoji.)
But most cults offer a constant frisson of fear, anxiety, apprehension, but with
  • The Inner Assurance: We will survive and trumph! We will go into spiritual and physical warfare against these demonic alien powers and get to do an awful lot of slaughtering. And probably not suffer at all, because we've all seen the movies, and only the extras get killed. And we're no longer extras, we're among the chosen. One of us might even be the lead! Like me! No, me! No, me!
(And this is how the Pisgah Church becomes the Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First United Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the Redeemed First United Reformed Pisgah Church...)

Another aspect of cults / conspiracy theories, etc., is, of course, that they aren't always religious. They can be political, dietary, economic - whatever takes you away from the present and wafts you to an often earthly paradise, like the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat." (Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao should have put the kibosh on that dream.)
Or the idea that if you just cut your calorie intake low enough, you will live hundreds of years. (But who wants to live hungry forever?)
Or high colonics (if you haven't seen it, go out and rent, right now, The Road to Wellville, and find out how much of a crackpot John Harvey Kellogg really was). (Oh, and bicycle smiles, everyone!)

Road to wellville ver1.jpg
Here in America the primary economic cult is a combination of
  • Unfettered Capitalism (as opposed to capitalism with checks and balances, i.e., regulations) and
  • Grover Norquist's "drown government in the bathtub" and
  • Trickle-down economics (which started way before Reagan**)
  • The American Work Ethic: 1 week sick leave, 1 week vacation, and a bonus for those who don't use either, and why do you need a weekend off anyway?
Which is why, in the middle of battling a pandemic with no cure, treatment, or vaccine, and statistics like these staring us in the face:

COVID-19 cases in America
It took 97 days to reach 1,000,000 cases
                 (January 21-April 27)
41 days to reach 2,000,000 cases
                 (April 28-June 7)
29 days to reach 3,000,000 cases
                 (June 8-July 6)
14 days to reach 4,000,000 cases
                (July 7-July 21)

the current message from many politicians and pundits is "We must save The Economy at all costs!"

Back to work, back to school, and rewrite the CDC guidelines to match the need to get everyone back to work. And if it costs some lives (the old, weak, disabled, and now children), well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and they were probably gonna die anyway, but now they'll have died in a good cause. For the good of The Economy.
  • The Economy needs us.
  • The Economy will save us.
  • The Economy lives forever.
And the survivors are going to live in a booming economic paradise! It'll all be worth it! You'll see.

Or not.


**From WJB and Will Rogers:
"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it." - William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech, 1896
"This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow's hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue." - Will Rogers, 1932
MY NOTE: Now this is an idea that really should be drowned in a bathtub. Hasn't worked almost 100 years, and it's still being proclaimed as if it's the magic cure to everything.