30 November 2021

Supreme Grammar


  As I've mentioned previously, my employed hours are spent in the criminal courts of Texas. Consequently, I normally don't invest much time thinking about Supreme Court cases on topics outside of criminal law. That becomes apparent every time someone asks me a question about copyright or wills or contracts. 

    This past April, however, the Supremes handed down an opinion that I stumbled into while looking for something else, Facebook v. Duguid. The background of the case follows: As a security precaution, Facebook sends an automated text alert when a user logs in from a strange device. Duguid apparently had a recycled phone number of a Facebook user. He got alerts from Facebook even though he had never created a FB account. Duguid sued, claiming that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 protected his privacy from this invasion. The act was written to prevent robocalls. (Who couldn't possibly be riveted by a case interpreting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991?)

    The case turned on the sentence within the act defining what the statute meant by an "autodialer." Spoiler alert--Facebook's notification was held not to be a statutorily prohibited "autodialer." As defined by the TCPA, an "automatic telephone dialing system" is a piece of equipment with the capacity both "to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator," and "dial those numbers." 

    What I found fascinating was not the outcome but rather the discussion. The nine justices focused on whether the clause following the comma "using a random or sequential number generator" modifies both verbs "store" and "produce" or just the one closest to it. The opinion is an argument about the significance of the comma. 

    Justice Sotomayor offered up the Series-Qualifier Canon of statutory interpretation. She argued that under this "conventional rule of grammar, "[w]hen there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series," a modifier at the end of the list "normally applies to the entire series." She used commonplace sentences to illustrate the interpretation. 

    "Imagine if a teacher announced that "students must not complete or check any homework to be turned in for a grade, using online homework-help websites." It would be strange to read that rule as prohibiting students from completing homework altogether, with or without online support."

    Justice Alito agreed with the outcome of the case. He wrote a separate opinion, however, to criticize the reliance on the Series-Qualifier Canon. He threw down his own sentences to support a contrary position, including a Biblical quotation.

    "He went forth and wept bitterly [Matthew 26:75] does not suggest that he went forth bitterly."

    Justice Alito does not put forward a different interpretive canon, he argues that these are guidelines and are not ironclad. Interpretive canons are helpful in understanding language, but they are not to be applied as rigid rules. 

    This is the Supreme Court having a bare-knuckle brawl about commas and reading English. 

    Rest easy, the nation's brightest legal minds have resolved the burning question of an auto-dialer. Be forewarned, however, in the future, other words will surely come up for interpretation.
 
    To this point, Justice Alito suggests a data-driven approach to grammar rules, word usage, and definitions.

    "The strength and validity of an interpretive canon is an empirical question, and perhaps someday it will be possible to evaluate these canons by conducting what is called a corpus linguistics analysis, that is, analysis of how particular combinations of words are used in a vast database of English prose."

Jebulon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 
In the future, therefore, we might crowdsource law. Corpus linguistics employs language usage databases to answer legal questions. When judges are called upon to interpret a word, they often begin with the question of 'what it means to the public?' To answer this, they might Google the word or look it up in a dictionary. Corpus linguistics seeks to systematize the approach. 

    (I've read short stories that put AI in the courtroom, usually as a substitute for juries. Here is a not-too-distant alternative use for AI.)

    If, for instance, a judge wanted to discern the meaning of "to keep and bear arms" and she wanted to know what the zeitgeist of colonial America was regarding firearms, she might look to the Corpus of Founding Era American English. Brigham Young University released the database with nearly 100,000 texts from the period beginning with the start of the reign of George III and ending with the death of George Washington. From a variety of texts, she could read how the words were employed. 

    Depending on her judicial philosophy, the original intent of the framers may not be the judge's desire as the tool for interpreting words and phrases. Consider this example: When the Earl of Sandwich wanted a bit of food that he might eat while gambling, the "sandwich" became meat between bread. That's what period literature would describe. An Originalist, therefore, would not include PB & J in the definition of a sandwich. As times change, our words, and language do also. (I thank Slate for this example 4/8/21) The scope of the applied corpus might also bake in race and gender notions no longer appropriate. 

    Corpus linguistics may be a great beginning to legal interpretation. (Much like the dictionary definition would be a great start.) The problem in a data-driven world is that judges might easily let quantitative analysis become the end rather than the start of the examination. 

    Few reading the post will ever engage in much statutory interpretation. What then might be the take-home point? Your commas matter. And, the story you write today may become part of the corpus, the database, that the computers of tomorrow's lawyers draw from. Choose your words carefully. 

    Until next time.
    


29 November 2021

Post Harlem Shuffle– the Uses of Mystery


A number of famous folk have been turning out mysteries and thrillers lately. Both Clintons have published political thrillers with a little help from James Patterson and Louise Penny, while double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has produced Harlem Shuffle. Technically this is an historical novel that wraps a portrait of Harlem in the turbulent early 1960's around a heist scheme and a revenge plot. Our guide through this tangle of events is one Ray Carney, a good man, a faithful husband, a devoted dad, who, as the novel puts it, was "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked."

If the inhabitants of Whitehead's much praised The Underground Railroad were light on characterization and heavy on allegorical import, Ray is a man in full, hopeful, contradictory, vengeful, generous, and clever. In a word, complicated.

And he'd better be. Harlem in the '60's was a complicated place. New York City as a whole has never suffered from an excess of good government, and the Black city within the city was no exception. Stratified by wealth and color, impoverished by bias in nearly every facet of life, poorly educated, badly housed, and beset by crime, Harlem's vibrancy, creativity and vitality came despite danger and corruption.

Ray knows all about that. He owns a small furniture store, supplying a variety of new and used sofas and dinette sets, recliners and lamps. Much of his clientele buys on time and their payments are not always timely. Worse, the whole city appears to run on bribes to white cops and protection money to black gangsters or, in the lingo of the times, on the circulation of  "the envelopes."

With money going out the door, it is no surprise that Ray, whose late father, Big Mike, was a career criminal, does not look too closely at the source of the second hand radios, TV's, and appliances that cross his path. Indeed, shortly after the novel begins, what was happenstance begins to seem like fencing in earnest, thanks to his charming but feckless cousin Freddie. 

Freddie hangs out with the likes of Miami Joe, an ambitious but maybe unreliable thief, and Pepper, an ultra professional hitman. One foolish thing leads to another with Freddie, who involves his sensible but devoted cousin with Chink Montague, the big mobster of the moment.

If that is not complication enough, Ray is simultaneously attempting to move up the social ladder. He wants to grow his business and handle really quality furniture. He also wants to improve his standing with his snobby in-laws, disdainful of both his impoverished background and his dark skin.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

His attempt to join the Dumas Club, the prime organization for Black movers and shakers, provides more than he bargained for, namely another route to the underbelly of Harlem. There characters like Cheap Brucie and Miss Laura have interesting connections with the cream of Harlem society, presenting both danger and opportunity.

Soon Ray is juggling any number of tricky situations, endangering his marriage by flirting with criminality and endangering his life by making enemies of both outright mobsters and the seemingly legit, some of whom are white. His path through these dangers presents a picture of a society under extreme pressure. Riots that he understands 100% threaten hard-won prosperity, while the corruption that saps the economy of Harlem also provides a vital source of income.

It clearly takes a man of Ray Carney's particular talents and background to survive. His decent impulses and work ethic are as essential as his ingenuity and ability to compartmentalize, driving the novel, along with his imprudent loyalty to Freddie, the brother he never had, the companion of his youth and the spark plug of innumerable adventures.

28 November 2021

Using All Your Resources


I was in the process of writing this blog article about how writers should use all of their creative resources to get a new story started and then I got sidetracked. Was the correct word sources or resources? Might be best to have a look. I went to Google as the deciding judge. Sources vs. resources.

Uh huh.

They lost me in their definition examples when they used the sun as both a source of energy and as a resource of energy. So, I'm just going to use the word resource and you readers can decide on your own which word is correct under these circumstances, source or resource.

Anyway, to get back on track, I don't know how the rest of you authors get your ideas going in order to create a new story. Short story or novel, take your pick.

I usually go to sleep putting my brain on notice to come up with something and then wake up with a character in trouble in whatever type of scene, write the scene down that morning and then come up with a plot at a later time. Or take a walk and daydream along the way. That's probably why I have so many story starts setting in computer files waiting to be finished. Of course, this way I always have something to continue writing on.

Even so, my brain doesn't always cooperate at sleep time or on walks, in which case the well runs dry and any lowered bucket hoping to fill up with fresh elixir only bumps against moist sand. But, working undercover and with sly criminals for twenty-five years, I learned early on that it was best to have more than one trick in the bag.

So, I've got this Huey pilot buddy who has done a few things in his time that I'm not allowed to talk about and has a fine brain of his own. He is not a writer himself, but he does understand some of the basics and he likes mysteries. So, we get together every so often and bounce story ideas off each other. Maybe five percent of what he comes up with is pure gold. For instance, a few years ago, he came up with an Archimedes science solution to apply to one of my stories set in the 1660s Paris Underworld series. This solution gave me the second half of the story and an ending. AHMM subsequently published the story, "Of Wax and Watermarks."

And then, a couple of years ago during one of our brainstorming sessions, he produced two main characters and several very visual scenes set it modern day Italy. All I had to do was stitch the scenes together, add the dialogue and come up with the ending. It was like being handed an outline. The story felt like it almost wrote itself.

Did it get published?

Yes it did.

Mystery Weekly Magazine (now known as Mystery Magazine) snapped it up and placed it in their September 2021 issue.

I don't know if any of you writers out there have someone you can bounce story ideas off of as a resource, but you might consider the concept.

As for me, I'll keep the guy around as a resource. I might even ply him with a little Vanilla Crown Royal from time to time to loosen up the corners of his mind for creativity. As a sometime resource, he's gold.

So, what resources do you have in your bag of tricks?

27 November 2021

How Much Violence Against Women can YOU Read in your Fiction?


This is a difficult post.

The Globe and Mail newspaper this morning mentioned that Stig Larson died on this day in 2004. I mentioned this to a man I know who is a reader - a man I like and respect - and he said, "I really liked his books."  This brought about a discussion that has gotten me thinking.

Now, as you may recall, the writing community was quite split on Larson's book 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' when it first came out.  Most authors I know, at the time, thought it needed severe editing.  But others were more concerned with aspects of the content.

I remember being at the bar of the Drake Hotel in Toronto, a notorious hangout for crime writers like ourselves, and hearing the following from a well-known male crime writer sitting beside me.  "Stig Larson was one sick puppy."

I asked him to elaborate.  After all, he was a male thriller writer of some note.  Here's what he said:

"That graphic torture scene of a young woman?  We all know how long it takes to write a book.  He would have been weeks writing that chapter.  What kind of sicko could spend that much time devising ways to describe that kind of horrific torture?"

His words really hit home with a lot of us, all of whom were published crime authors.  

Another male author at the table said, "He glorifies violence against women."

I write mainly heists and capers.  My Goddaughter series is about a mob crime family, so I'm not exactly a cozy writer.  In my short stories, I can go quite dark, but never to the point of torture.  I can't write grim novels - I simply can't spend day after day in a dark world.  It affects me mentally.

Violence is absolutely at the core of a lot of crime fiction.  It's not the topic of violence that was at issue here.  What my male author friends at The Drake were commenting on was the stunning increase in graphic description of heinous acts in fiction. It's not offstage in any way, in these books.  But I think what bothered me today is the following:  my fellow reader friend didn't even remember the torture scene that has haunted me for years.  ( I won't go into details here.)  His memory of the series was that of a woman getting her own back.  Fair enough.

So I asked him:  "Would you be able to read a scene in which a child is tortured in that way?"

He said:  "No, definitely not.  I'd have to put it down."

Telling, isn't it?  And that of course is the issue that haunts me today.  Those books of Stig Larson - and some like it that are extremely graphic in their abuse and murder of women - have done well.  Readers seem to accept it as a means to advance a plot in which - hopefully - justice will be done in the end.  (One could argue that if you are a woman killed in a horrible way, there is no justice, but that's a topic for another post.)

The end justifies the means now, so to speak.  Or is it deeper than that?  Does this reflect a deeper societal desensitization, nonchalance, or fatigue when it comes to the topic of violence against women?

My friend is not the only one.  At some point, and I think it took off with the publishing of the Stig Larson books, the fiction reading society moved to embrace a more graphic description of violence against women as entertainment.  And I have to admit, this bothers me.

Comments welcome.  I'm struggling with this one and could use others' insights.

Melodie Campbell writes about the mob in Hamilton Ontario, with tongue firmly in cheek.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.

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.