14 August 2018

Not Like Us

by Michael Bracken

Hanging out with Kevin Tipple
at The Wild Detectives shortly before
Noir at the Bar-Dallas,
August 2, 2018.
About a month ago, as I write this, I dined with an early career writer who shared his experience during a recent writing workshop’s critique session. One of the authors who workshopped this writer’s story criticized him for cultural appropriation because he—a middle-aged white male—wrote about an older black woman.

My immediate response was a flippant, “If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.”

I’ve thought often about that discussion, have not changed my opinion, but realize I may not be the person best suited to make the argument. After all, a lifetime of both male privilege and white privilege likely colors my viewpoint.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN?

Several years ago, Bev Vincent experienced a similar dilemma, which he describes in “Apparently I Write Like a Girl,” when an editor rejected one of his stories, stating, “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.” Bev is male and the protagonist of his story is male. The editor saw his byline, falsely presumed his gender, and savaged Bev’s story based on that false presumption.

I had a similar experience many years ago when an editor rejected one of my stories because it had a male byline and a female protagonist, and the editor expressed her belief that no writer could successfully write from the opposite gender’s perspective.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN!

I’ve never presented myself as other than what I am—a middle-aged, middle-class white male—yet I’ve sold more than 350 stories with female protagonists and at least 100 stories in which the protagonist differs from me in some other significant way (ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example). In most cases the acquiring editors matched my submissions’ protagonists more closely than I did.

AND NOT JUST LIKE A WOMAN.

For an interview published in The Digest Enthusiast #8, Richard Krauss asked, “In ‘Professionals,’ Out of the Gutter No. 2 (Summer 2007), the narrator is a gay prostitute. In ‘My Sister’s Husband,’ Pulp Adventures No. 27 (Fall 2017), the narrator is a middle-aged woman. How do you ensure your characters act and speak authentically, with respect to their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.?”

Part of my response described how I develop characters: “The key [...] is to build characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and whatever else divides us, we share many commonalities. We want to love and be loved. We want to feel safe and free from fear. We want to be happy and healthy. We want to be appreciated by our families and respected by our peers. The list goes on and on.

“If we build characters from the inside out, the characters will ‘speak’ appropriately and more genuinely than if we build characters from the outside in and rely on stereotypes.”

BUT SHOULD WE?

Where is the line in the sand that we dare not cross when writing from the perspective of a character unlike ourselves? I don’t believe such a line exists, and if it does, I hope a rising tide washes it away.

Rather than limiting ourselves for fear of offending others, we should instead strive to create characters out of whole cloth, making them as authentic as our skills allow, and we should strive to improve those skills with each story we write. We should not be accused of cultural appropriation simply for writing about those who are not like us, but should rightly be called to task if fail to do the job well.

And those who critique our work should not make presumptions about our work because of who wrote it, but should instead judge the work on its own merits. A piece of writing succeeds or fails within the context of itself, not because the fingers on the keyboard were male or female; old or young; gay, straight, or bi; black, white, or any other shade of the rainbow.

We all benefit by reading and writing about characters that are not like us.

John Floyd and I have stories in the third issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the only writers to have fiction in all three issues. I’m uncertain how many stories John has upcoming in BCMM, but I have three in the pipeline, so we’ll likely share space between the covers several more times. Fellow SleuthSayer Eve Fisher also has a story in the third issue, so order your copy now and get a SleuthSayer three-fer.

13 August 2018

Good in the Hood

by Steve Hockensmith

Back in July, I wrote a post about Fred Rogers, and you know what? I'm still thinking about the guy. I spend a lot of time in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, you see. So much so, that a part of me wishes I could become a permanent resident. Since you're visiting this blog, there's a good chance you feel the same way.

I'm not saying I'm dying to move to Pittsburgh. (Mr. Rogers' real neighborhood, you know.) And I certainly wouldn't assume that you want to move there. I wouldn't assume anyone wants to move to Pittsburgh. (Sorry, Pittsburgh! I lived in your suburbs for a couple summers! It was...umm...nicer than at least one other place I've lived!)

I'm also not talking about that electric train set-looking 'hood with the Matchbox cars from the opening credits of Mr. Rogers' show. Though I must say, I wouldn't mind living there, too. It looks so peaceful. You can't imagine a carjacking there. Partially because it looks like it was hit by a cute little Matchbox neutron bomb. There are buildings and cars and even a moving trolley, but there aren't any people. Which is a big plus in my book. Just look at the headlines. Who's causing all the trouble? People, man. And the occasional wombat. But mostly people.

No, the place I've been checking out with my realtor is the realm of good King Friday: the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. You know -- the joint with the hand puppets that Mr. Rogers used to go to when he'd catch his trolley through the wall. (Boy, that sounds like faux hippie talk from a late '60s episode of Dragnet, doesn't it? "Buzz off, pig! I'm gonna drop a lid and catch a trolley through the wall, dig?")

It's not the hand puppets I'm into. (Though I am pretty fond of Daniel Striped Tiger.) It's the Make-Believe. Because the Neighborhood of Non-Make-Believe lately? "Reality"? It sucks. So I've been thinking about relocating.

There are writers who wrestle with grim truths in their works. They win awards. (Or, more commonly, go unpublished.) And there are readers who seek out works that force them to stare deep into the abyss of an indifferent universe and contemplate the fatally flawed humanity floundering in it. They join book clubs. (Or write reviews for The New York Times.)

I'm not that kind of writer and not that kind of reader. I never have been. Tell me "Life is nasty, brutish and short," and I'd say, "Well, duh." Tell me "Life is meaningless," and I'd say, "Yeah...and?" Tell me a good joke, and I'd say, "Thanks."

So, yeah, escapism. I'm into it. It got me through high school. (Thanks, Star Trek! Thanks, Doctor Who! Thanks, DC Comics!) And maybe, just maybe, it'll get me through the collapse of Western civilization. (Thanks, Marvel movies! Thanks, FilmStruck! Thanks, bourbon!)

In the meantime, I want to keep writing. Because, you know, I'm a writer. But I have zero interest in writing about the world of today. See above, re: "Reality." I can barely keep up with "the world of today" anyway. By the time anything I've written comes out, "today" is "yesterday" -- or more like "last year," which may as well be "the Mesozoic Era" given the speed of change nowadays. That's probably why I've been so drawn to historical mysteries and Westerns. Where do you go when the present is an ever-shifting morass of suck and you don't believe in a future? Narnia, maybe. Middle Earth. Or the past.

Which reminds me of another subdivision in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Gene Roddenberry's. Specifically, the Star Trek episode "All Our Yesterdays." I recently had a revelation about it akin to realizing for the first time, when I was in college, that Scooby-Doo's pals in Mystery Inc. were watered down hippies exposing how The Man (as personified by "Mr. Jenkins" or whoever) manipulates fear to get rich. Zoinks, indeed.

In "All Our Yesterdays," Capt. Kirk and crew boldly go to a doomed planet where the population has seemingly disappeared except for one person: Mr. Atoz, a librarian. It turns out Mr. Atoz's "library" is actually a time portal, and everyone has escaped their world's imminent destruction by fleeing into the past.

Jesus! What a metaphor! And I never saw it. Until I was living it.

I'm sure some of you are going to tell me "You've got to live in the present, dude. You've got to fight for the future." Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. And I do, I do. But that's all stuff you've got to do. Reading and writing are things I choose to do. And I choose to ride the trolley through the wall. Dig?

12 August 2018

He Had Plans for Her (Part One)

by Mary Fernando


“He laughed a lot, but not loudly. Other people naturally deferred to him. He was a skilled communicator,” she said, in that famous voice, like smooth whisky with a touch of honey. “We married very quickly. I was very young.”  



After they were married, he began to reveal his plans for her. By humiliating and belittling her daily, he made her feel small, unimportant and made it easier for her to be controlled. It taught her that she was no match for him. If she disagreed with him, embarrassed him in any way, there would be consequences. There would be beatings. She learned to never disagree. Never to say anything he would disapprove of. She learned to avoid other people. To become isolated, because that too, made her easier to control.

She learned his rules. In the midst of fear and humiliation - she knew if she followed his rules, the beating would be less. And the beating would stop when she was pregnant. And he didn't beat the children.

She didn’t go to the hospital to give birth to her first three children, because he didn't want her to say anything when he couldn't control her.

When she was nine months pregnant with her fourth child, she said something that upset him. He threw her down the stairs, broke her coccyx and sent her into labour. He took her to the hospital.

To keep her in line, to make it clear how unimportant she was, he parked and made her walk, bleeding and in pain, the long distance to the hospital doors. 

When the x-rays showed her broken coccyx, she told the nurses and doctors that she had fallen down the stairs. No one, no nurse, no doctor, asked her if she had been beaten, if she felt safe. When she went into full labour, she refused all pain meds, fearful that she would say something she shouldn't if she was drugged.

After she delivered her baby, she began to realize that there were no rules that could keep her safe. Before, her pregnancies had protected her from severe physical violence. Now she knew that he was eventually going to kill her. And then who would take care of her children?

That provided the impetus to get help from a women’s shelter. Here she voraciously read their literature on abuse, found solace in those who cared for her and her children. 

But he still had plans for her. 


Before she could escape and build a life for herself, he kidnapped her children. To get them back, she had to go with him. She went with him.



For three days, he tied her down and he tortured her. Beat her. Humiliated her. Raped her. She still remembers that moment during those horrific days that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She was filled with loathing for the woman she saw in the mirror. She hated what she saw. What he had made her. 

“I now know I was just doing my best,” she said, whisky voice turning soft. “I was being extraordinarily brave to take the only path forward I could see for my children. For myself.”

That path was to get her children back, escape him and make a life for herself. 



You probably know her as Eve, or by her twitter handle @BrowofJustice. She is a nurse who is fierce about the care of her patients and the raising of her children. She is fierce in defending others. You can’t scare her, because she has been to hell and she walked out. On her own two feet. And she has other things that terrify her.

Eve is not alone, not only because she now has friends and colleagues. She shares the same story as the one out of every three women worldwide have been the victims of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Less than 40 per cent of the women who experienced violence sought help of any sort. Less than 10% sought help from the police.

Healthcare providers - doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, PSWs - all need to be trained to see the signs of domestic abuse. We need to ask - do you feel safe? We are trained to recognize heart attacks and strokes. We need to be trained to help curb the epidemic of domestic abuse. 

Eve is the voice of these women and her story is their story.

One of the reasons women don't speak, don't escape, is that they are frightened that their ex-partner will eventually find them and make them pay for breaking their silence. They are scared that they will never be free. Never feel safe. 

When I write the rest of Eve’s story next month, it will become clear why Eve, like many women, is justified to have these fears.

11 August 2018

Hit The Road

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
There are a couple obvious influences on my writing – Raymond Chandler, of course, and Warren Zevon, Steely Dan and The Shield. But my first brush with the detective genre was a video game – Sam & Max Hit The Road to be precise.

Purchased in a set of four LucasArts game at the height of my Star Wars fandom in eighth grade, Hit the Road follows Sam, a private eye who happens to be a dog in a rumpled suit, and his partner, Max, a “hyperkinetic rabbity-thing” as they track down a stolen bigfoot across the USA. The game is played as a point-and-click adventure, with text prompts and plenty of insane puzzles to solve.

With a comically neo-pulp aesthetic, Hit the Road also taught me the very early mechanics of how a detective story works – that one clue leads to another and nothing is coincidence. Sam has to say the exact right thing or else the puzzle doesn’t get solved. You have to think beyond the obvious, steal the rasp, attach the hand and the magnet to the golf ball retriever to get the mood ring. Makes total sense, right? But that’s how good detective story is put together – if anyone could solve it, then they wouldn’t need a PI. Sam and Max have the right kind of smarts to hunt down a missing bigfoot.

10 August 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?

by Thomas Pluck

Some say FaceBook is friendly, others say it is dangerous. Those of us old enough to remember "the Bear" commercial that played on TV for Reagan's election campaign will get what I'm saying.

The social media platform we all love has been accused of being complicit with allowing foreign interference in our elections, by selling ad space to Russian operatives. Their CEO says that Holocaust denial is "a viewpoint" and it was only today that they removed Alex Jones for "bullying," which I guess is what they call his conspiracy that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, which caused his followers to repeatedly make death threats to the parents of murdered children, who have had to move several times to remain safe.

It is not a place I want to be. Yesterday I unfriended practically everyone who I haven't met in person or interacted with regularly, and I apologize if there was collateral damage. You can friend me again, my bad. I turned my personal profile into a page, and you can follow me there if you 'like.' If not, there's Twitter (which is really no better--they had methods in place to ban anyone who used "elon musk" in their name, after people were making fun of their fellow tech bro billionaire, but they allow hate speech in profiles and names until enough people report it). Twitter is easier to make earplugs for, with Block Lists, muted words, and other ostrich in the sand techniques.

I've met a few readers on Facebook, but I don't consider it a good platform for what I was using it for, which was event promotion. It is good for chatting and making friends, or "promoting your brand" by sharing the parts of your life that fit the writer image you want to project. I watched an excellent dark comedy called Ingrid Goes West about a woman who gets obsessed with Instagram stars and fakes her way into becoming one. It is available on Flintstones-style plastic disc for consumption, but you can't stream it directly into your consciousness just yet. It is worth the trouble. Aubrey Plaza is a rather fantastic comedic actress, best known as April on Parks & Recreation, and despite having a name like a street in a make-believe suburb, she truly inhabits this role, which goes pretty dark. It could be a crime story, a funny one. She's just as good in the delightfully weird The Little Hours, which spoofs the Decameron, and has Nick Offerman as a grumpy lord, and nuns gone bad.

Part of me has been cleaving to the icon of the reclusive writer who appears like a Greek bearing gifts whenever they have a new book out, and disappears in the interim. It's how it used to be, unless you had a column in a magazine, and blogging like this is no different. Social media has many benefits, but it is extremely draining to me, and I have mostly left Facebook except to give updates on sick cats (they are all doing well) or to create an event that reaches few of the people I'm trying to reach anyway.

Everyone has a Writer Dream. Mine, it seems, was partly inspired by one of my all-time favorite writer stories, Romancing the Stone starring Kathleen Turner, which I was reminded of while reading this incredible interview with Ms. Turner. It is highly quotable, and she offers great advice for all artists within. Anyway, she has great adventures in that movie, but she lives a quiet life. I live in a busy suburb, in a 5th floor 2 bedroom where I write with a view of Manhattan. It's as close to a cabin as I'm likely to get for now, but the noise is coming from inside the house. I've let it in, with my addiction to social media. And my health and writing have both suffered.

I recently finished the first draft of Riff Raff, Jay Desmarteaux's second yarn, and I have another novel in edits, a bar story that's light on crime and heavy on humor, and I need to write a dark short story by the end of the month, so I am retreating to my cabin. I'll see you when I get out, hopefully with a story and two more books for you.




09 August 2018

Early Early EARLY Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

If I asked you what was the first mystery story, what would you say?

Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue?"  Sorry.  Published in 1841, that's practically current events.

How about Shakespeare?  There was that whiny prince trying to figure out who killed his father.  Uh uh.  Hamlet only goes back to 1600.

Well, there was the story of Susannah, which appears in some editions of the Book of Daniel.  The prophet solves a crime by using a technique known to every modern police force.  But that only dates back to around 200 BC.

How about Sophocles' play about a king interrogating various witnesses to discover the murderer of his predecessor?  Nice guess, but no.  At 400 BC, he's still an Oedipus-come-lately.

Enough suspense.  Here is the true answer, courtesy of those brilliant British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.


08 August 2018

Munich 1938

David Edgerley Gates

Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.

Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.  



What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.



We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.



This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.

The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.



The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.

Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable.