24 August 2019

VEGAS, BABY! In which Bad Girl explains how an imaginary Vegas hotel rocks the latest Goddaughter

by Melodie Campbell

Whether to use a real setting or make one up? That is the question.

Butchering Shakespeare aside (which I do cheerfully, if not cleverly) all authors have to decide whether to set their novel in a real place or not. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

In the Goddaughter series, I set the books in a real place – Hamilton Ontario, also known as Steeltown, or The Hammer. Everyone who has ever been over the Skyway bridge on the way to Toronto (one hour from Buffalo) will experience a taste of Hamilton.

“I live in The Hammer. Our skyline includes steel plants. We consider smog a condiment,” says Gina Gallo, the mob goddaughter of the series.

I don’t have to describe much to put you in that setting. It’s sort of like New York or Paris. Give a few landmarks we all know, plus in this case assault your mouth and nose with metallic fumes, and the author has put you there without endless sleep-inducing description.

The problem with using a real setting is you need to know the place well, because if you make an innocent error, like forgetting that some streets are one way, you will get hundreds of irate emails from readers who know the place better than you do.

Luckily, I know Hamilton. I know where to buy the best cannoli (always my test re how well you know a place.)

I use real settings whenever I can. Readers who live in the place love to see their town highlighted. You can often get local media interested in your book. And people new to the location often get a kick out of coming to know it, in a literal way.

So when I moved book 6 of the Goddaughter series to Vegas, I had a dilemma. Here’s the thing. So many people have been to Vegas, that you have to be very careful to ‘get it right.’ I was there a few years ago, and am very aware that things change.

It takes about 6 months for me to write a Goddaughter book. Off it goes to the publisher, who takes about 15-18 months to get it out to stores. That’s the thing about books. Anything on the shelves right now was probably written two years ago.

In two years, things in Vegas change. Hotels redecorate, and maybe change ownership. It became clear to me, that while I wanted this book to be clearly ‘Vegas,’ I needed to be careful. I’ve stayed at the Mirage. I could have used that as a base. But when writing the book, I couldn’t predict how things would look there two years from now.

The answer? Create a new hotel! Make it the newest and hippest thing, so of course no one has seen it before. And that’s where I had fun. What hasn’t been done, I thought? What theme would present a whole lot of fun, yet be completely whacky, in keeping with the Goddaughter series?

Whoot! It came to me immediately. Hotel name: The Necropolis! Theme: Morticia meets The Walking Dead. We could ramp up the loopiness by throwing a Zombie convention. And then add a Viking Valhalla casino, a bar called Embalmed, the Crematorium Grill steakhouse…

da book, on AMAZON
So The Goddaughter Does Vegas is a hybrid. The setting is the Vegas you know. The hotel is a new concoction, but fitting with the fantasy atmosphere that Vegas is famous for.

I got away with it this time. I think.

How about you? Do you use real settings or do you make them up? When reading, which do you prefer?

23 August 2019

The Heart of Hollywood is in....Pasadena?

by Lawrence Maddox
Pasadena Playhouse alumnus Charles Bronson

I've always felt that the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame are the biggest sightseer scam ever. I see the tourists get excited about finding their favorite celebrity's name on the sidewalk and all I can think is: rubes. Perhaps the best thing about the Walk of Fame is the Kinks' song Celluloid Heroes. It's a little maudlin, but Ray Davies gets to the hollowed-out heart of stardom in his infectious way.

The foot and handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater, located near Hollywood and La Brea, make more sense as a tourist draw. They're an actual artifact of the glory days of Hollywood, like those cigarette lighter ports in cars (now used as power sockets) are remnants of the glory days of smoking.   You place your hand in the cement print of Humphrey Bogart or Judy Garland, and with enough imagination and movie magic, you're shaking hands with yesterday.  It's kind of neat, but it's a half hour diversion, tops. A bigger diversion are the "actors" dressed up as action heroes or old time movie stars that hang around the Chinese, offering to pose for photos. If you snap a selfie with one in the vicinity, they will hunt you down until you fork over some cash.

Besides Grauman's, what else does Hollywood have to offer? Paramount is on Melrose, southeast of of Grauman's. If you're a tourist hoping to hang out on a movie set, good luck getting past the gate. Disney, Universal and Warners are all out in the San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood. Fox and Sony (formerly MGM) are a traffic-jammed trip to the westside. Besides the Universal Tour, the studios are busy places of hustling crews working long hours. Editors are locked in their windowless rooms pouring over hours of dailies. Gawking tourists looking for selfies aren't welcome.

The original Brown Derby ca 1968. RIP. 
The powers that run Hollywood-land  have gleefully torn down its past in favor of strip malls and parking lots. The Hollywood Hotel, built in 1902, stood at Hollywood and Highland. It was demolished fifty years later. It's said the stars on its ballroom ceiling were the inspiration for the Walk of Fame. The Garden of Allah Hotel, party central for writers like Fitzgerald & Hemingway, and actors like Bogart & Bacall, was torn down in '59.  The iconic Brown Derby, south of Hollywood on Wilshire, was a world-famous tinsel town symbol. Lucy met William Holden there in an I Love Lucy episode. It bit the dust in 1980. Schwab's Drugstore, where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered, was leveled in the late '80s. The Cinerama Dome and the Hollywood sign have been on the chopping block, but both we're saved by massive public campaigns.

An original postcard from The Formosa Cafe.
The Maddox Archives.
Greed wins out over history in Hollywood, and it burns those of us who grew up loving not only the movies, but also the historical hang-outs that catered to show biz. I used to frequent  the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard in the '90s. The Formosa was a cozy asian-themed bar that officially dates back to 1939, but the owner claimed pre-dated prohibition. A bartender named Lindy Brewerton had worked there since the 1950s, and he regaled patrons with tales of the drinking habits of movie stars. He told us of John Wayne's whiskey binges, and how Dean Martin would deliver his alimony checks there. Elvis tipped a Formosa waitress with a Cadillac.  When the original owner died, the place was gutted. A tacky second story was added, along with a techno vibe.  It was a typically short-sighted Hollywood move that failed. After that it pained me just to drive by the place.

Twelve miles east of the hype is Pasadena. When Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt street and America's only movie studio was in New Jersey,  Pasadena was a vacation spot for wealthy east-coasters who wanted to soak up some rays during the winter. With them came vast vainglorious mansions and a deep turn-of-the-century thirst for culture.

The Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925, two years before the Chinese Theater. It was such a big hit that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called the Playhouse the "Athens of the West."  Authors such as Eugene O'Neil and Tennessee Williams had world premieres there. When talkies became the rage in the 1920s, Hollywood needed a place where actors could learn to "speak." Twenty-four students enrolled in the first class in 1928.

The Pasadena Playhouse awaits.
The Pasadena Playhouse really hit its stride when it became a college of theatre arts. Tyrone Power took classes there in 1932.  TV Superman George Reeves was a local kid who interned at the Playhouse before his supporting role on Gone With the Wind.  Dana Andrews hitchhiked from Texas to California to become a star. He was a Playhouse darling before hitting it big in films like Laura. Carolyn Jones, another Texan, dreamed of joining the Playhouse when in high school. She made it in 1947, and went on to become a unique screen presence in films such as The Big Heat and Career. Most remember her as Morticia Addams in TV's The Addams Family.

Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman became fast friends while studying at the Playhouse in 1957. Hackman was voted least likely to succeed, and he moved to New York to prove the Playhouse wrong. Hoffman soon followed, as did Robert Duvall, who moved to New York to study with Randall Meisner after serving in the Army. The trio became the epicenter of a group of actors who were just a few years away from taking Hollywood by storm.

The Mechanic-Bronson at his detached best.
Perhaps my favorite Playhouse alum is Charles Bronson. After serving in the Air Force during World War Two (he earned a Purple Heart), Bronson moved to upstate New York. He picked onions, studied art, and even joined the local bakers union. Nothing seemed to fit, so he moved to NYC to study acting. When Roger Ebert asked Bronson why he chose acting, he said, "It seemed like an easy way to make money...I had nothing to lose."

Bronson left New York for the Pasadena Playhouse, where he took classes and acted in several plays. Steady work soon followed. In 1951 he landed a role in the Gary Cooper film You're in the Navy Now.  Two years later he joined fellow Playhouse alum Carolyn Jones in the Vincent Price horror-hit  House of Wax. Bronson starred in a slew of classic movies, including The Dirty DozenOnce Upon a Time in the West, and Hard Times. My favorite Bronson film might be The Mechanic, where he plays an expert hit man who takes on an apprentice.

Inside the Pasadena Playhouse.
If I mentioned that Eve Arden, Leonard Nimoy and Nick Nolte were also Playhouse players, I'd still be scratching the surface. Okay, William Holden was one too. Still surface scratching. The Pasadena Playhouse went bankrupt in 1975 and was shuttered. You're probably thinking, "What a bummer. I bet they tore it down to build a plush new parking lot." Dig this. The city of Pasadena bought the building and held onto it for seventeen years until in reopened in 1986. Unlike Hollywood, Pasadena takes pains to protect its history. It's not perfect, but it tries. Pasadena is a mecca for lovers of old-time LA, Greene and Greene architecture, and craftsman bungalows. The Pasadena Playhouse is a thriving part of Pasadena today.

If you find yourself standing over John Tesh's star on Hollywood Boulevard and you have that cold clammy feeling that you've been scammed, jump on the 134 East towards Pasadena and its famous Playhouse. There's plenty of street parking. Across the street from the Playhouse is Vroman's Bookstore, where I've had the good fortune to attend readings held by literary heavyweights like Frank McCourt and James Ellroy.  On the way to Pasadena is Eagle Rock, where Dragnet's Frank Gannon fictionally lived, and where some of the action of Fast Bang Booze goes down. Stop at the family-owned Casa Bianca for pizza. Steve McQueen ate there.

My latest novel is Fast Bang Booze, from Down & Out Books. The sequel is coming soon.

22 August 2019

The Man Who Sold The Papacy

by Brian Thornton

Continuing in the vein of my last SS post, revisiting some of the most notorious historical "bastards" in preparation for the launch of my author's website and the concomitant relaunch of my blog The Weekly Bastard.

Look below for the pope who tried to auction off the Papacy – and succeeded!

...sort of.

*     *     *     *     *

“That wretch, from the beginning of his pontificate to the end of his life, feasted on immorality.”

                   — St. Peter Damian, writing about Pope Benedict IX, in  Liber Gomorrhianus
 Pope Benedict IX

This week’s bastard is another of those wacky medieval popes who so scandalized contemporary and later church writers.  As was the case with one of our previous weekly bastards (Elagabalus), Pope Benedict IX came to his position very young (the sources disagree on this point, but he was definitely no older than twenty) because he was the scion of an extremely well-connected family.

Think about it: who gives the sort of wealth and power that went with being pope to a twenty year-old and doesn’t expect it to go straight to the kid’s head?  Who doesn’t expect someone living the medieval equivalent of a rock-star life to go a bit nuts once thrust into the limelight?

After all, there's a reason why humorist P.J. O'Roarke once characterized the height of recklessness as akin to "giving whiskey and car keys to teen-aged boys."

In Benedict’s case that’s precisely what happened.

Benedict's uncles, Pope Benedict VIII...
Born a younger son of Theophylact, the powerful Count of Tusculum, Benedict was “elected” pope in 1032.  In becoming pope he succeeded not one, but two of his uncles, who between them had spent the previous twenty years keeping the papacy “in the family.”  It is a virtual certainty that Benedict’s father spread a fair amount of money around among the papal electors in order to ensure that it stayed there.

Daddy’s purchase of the papacy had a profound effect on young Benedict.  Cynical and capricious from the moment he took the Shoes of the Fisherman, Benedict’s rule was quickly marked by episodes that illustrated not only his complete disregard for either tradition or propriety, but his taste for wretched excess as well.  In the disapproving words of one chronicler, Benedict was a “demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest.”
...and Pope John XIX

He earned this sort of scorn by working his way through as many of the Seven Deadly Sins as he could, as quickly and as often as he could.  This pope was apparently on a first-name basis with most of the prostitutes in central Italy, sold church offices for hefty bribes (a sin known as “simony.”), hosted frequent bisexual orgies, sodomized animals, and even went so far as to curse God and toast the Devil at every meal!  Dante Alighieri, author of The Inferno, proclaimed Benedict’s reign the low ebb of the history of the papacy.

Desiderius of Monte Cassino
As had so many popes before him, Benedict owed his position largely to the influence of the Roman aristocracy, which meant that most of his critics came from among the many German clergymen holding positions in the church.  Most of his opponents considered their reigning head of the church something of a bogeyman; perpetrator of “many vile adulteries and murders.”  Desiderius of Monte Cassino who was a contemporary of Benedict IX and later reigned as Pope Victor III, wrote that Benedict committed “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts.”  Benedict’s reign, wrote Desiderius, was “so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it.”

For his part Benedict doesn’t seem to have given much of a damn what his critics thought.  His power base was among the members of the Roman aristocracy, and as long as they backed him he felt free to do as he pleased.  Turned out he reckoned without the powerful (and fickle) Roman mob, who rioted in 1036 and ran Il Papa right out of the Eternal City.  The uprising was quickly put down and Benedict returned to power there, but his hold on his throne was tenuous at best after that.

Medieval Map of Rome

By the time Benedict’s opponents within the church had succeeded in driving him from Rome a second time in 1045, Benedict had tired of being pope.  So he consulted his godfather, a well-respected priest named Johannes Gratianus (“John Gratian”) about whether he could legally resign this most holy of offices.  When the “Godfather” assured him that such a thing, although unprecedented, was wholly acceptable according to church doctrine, Benedict offered to sell it to him for a ridiculous sum that would apparently be used to fund the former pope’s “lifestyle change.”

The older man accepted and took the papal name of Gregory VI.  The bribe he gave Benedict so completely bankrupted the papal treasury that for months afterward the church was unable to pay its bills.  To further complicate matters Benedict’s foes among the clergy had refused to recognize Gregory’s right to the succession, electing one of their number pope as Sylvester III.

So technically Benedict left not one, but two popes (well, really a “pope” and a pretender, or “antipope”) behind in Rome when he retired to one of his country estates later that same year.


Benedict didn’t waste any time, immediately proposing to a cousin (a common custom in his day).  When she refused him the ex-pope got it into his head that it wasn’t such a bad thing being pope after all.  Within weeks he’d headed back to Rome trying to get his old job back.

Emperor Henry III
This time his allies among the Roman aristocracy deserted him, and Benedict got booted from the city a third time for his trouble.  So now there were three “popes” running around claiming to be the infallible head of the Holy Catholic Church!

At this point clearer heads prevailed, and a group of bishops sent an appeal directly to Emperor Henry III in Germany, asking him to intervene.  The emperor convened a special church council in 1047, and by 1048 Antipope Sylvester had been convinced to re-take his position as bishop of Sabina, Gregory VI had been convinced to retire, and “Pope” Benedict IX had been officially removed from office.

A year later he was charged with simony (a charge of which he was clearly guilty).  When he refused to appear before the church court that indicted him, Benedict was excommunicated.

How he responded to this latest reversal is unrecorded.  But at some point during the next decade Benedict had a change of heart and as the story goes, presented himself at the abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, and asked for God’s forgiveness.

The Abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata in Campania

He spent the remainder of his days as a monk in that abbey, dying there in 1065.

Repentant bastard.

21 August 2019

Made in the Decade


by Robert Lopresti

Back in January, when I produced my yearly thing I wrote: "I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me. I will have to do something to celebrate that in a month or two."

Well, more than a month has passed, but here we are. My first thought was to pick out the Best of the Best from the 151 stories that made my original list, but that seemed like a fool's errand for various reasons. Below you will find 15 categories, subgenres if you will, and in each I have listed five stories that made my best of lists in the last decade. They aren't the Best of the Best, just excellent examples of their subgenre.   Of course, some of these could have easily fit into several categories.

And by the way, there is a hidden category tucked away here: stories with twist endings.  There are many examples below but to point them out would be counterproductive.

As a lagniappe I have added a Classic story in each category. "Classic" here is defined as a great story that was published before I started reviewing.

Availability! In each case I have listed the original publication unless I thought there was a more available site. I provided links to a few stories that are available for free on the web. You may find others elsewhere on the web but I suspected those sites might be copyright-violators or malicious, so I skipped 'em.



AMATEUR SLEUTH
Palumbo, Dennis. "A Theory of Murder," available free at Kings River Lite.
Perks, Micah. "Treasure island," in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.
Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "The Wedding Ring," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.
Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015.
Classic: Kemelman, Harry. “The Nine Mile Walk” in The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories.

COZY
Cajoleas, Jimmy. "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.
Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.
Page, Anita. “Isaac’s Daughters,” in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.
Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," available free at B.K. Stevens's website.
Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.
Classic: Asimov, Isaac. “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” in Tales of the Black Widowers.

CRIMINAL’S POINT OF VIEW
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Howard, Clark. “White Wolves” in The Crooked Road, Volume 3.
Paul, Bryan. "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.
Sareini, Ali. F. "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.
Warthman, Dan. "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.
Classic: Francis, Dick. "A Carrot for a Chestnut," in Field of Thirteen.


ESPIONAGE
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational),” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.
Faherty, Terence. "Margo and the Silver Cane," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2013.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Rabb, Jonathan. "A Game Played," in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.
Classic: Household, Geoffrey. “Keep Walking,” in Days of Your Fathers.


FANTASY
Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.
Goree, Raymond. "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.
Law, Janice. "The Crucial Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,September-October 2017.
Classic: Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” in Deathbird Stories.

HISTORICAL
Levinson, Robert S. “Regarding Certain Occurrences In A Cottage At The Garden Of Allah,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2009.
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina,” free podcast.
Rutter, Eric. “Runaway” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009.
Thornton, Brian.“Paper Son,” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Williams, Jim. "The Hotel des Mutilées," on Williams's website.
Classic: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Collected Fictions.

HUMOROUS
Gould, Heywood. "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.
Maron, Margaret. "We On The Train!" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Schofield, Neil. "It'll Cost You," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Wiley, Michael. "Making It," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.
Classic: Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat,” in Thurber on Crime.

NOIR
Crouch, Blake. “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2011.
Gaylin, Alison. "Restraint" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.
Neville, Stuart. "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.
Pluck, Thomas. "The Uncleared," available free at A Twist of Noir.
Stodghill, Dick. “Deathtown,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November. 2009.
Classic: Kinsella, W.P. "Dance Me Outside," in Dance Me Outside.

PASTICHE
Faherty, Terence. "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 2015.
Lewis, Evan. "The Continental Opposite," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Warren, James Lincoln. "Shikari," in The 1% Solution.
Warren, James Lincoln. “Shanghaied” in The 1% Solution.
Zeltserman, Dave. “Julius Katz,” in The Julius Katz Collection.
Classic: Powell, James. “The Tamerlane Crutch,” in Christmas Forever.
POLICE
Alcalá, Kathleen. “Blue Sunday” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” in Detroit is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen.
Phelan, Twist. "Footprints in Water," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2013.
Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2011.
Classic: Westlake, Donald E. “Come Back, Come Back,” in Levine.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2011.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014.
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance," available for free on Moran's website.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” The Case of the Vanishing Boy.
Classic: Grafton, Sue. “A Poison That Leaves No Trace,” in Kinsey and Me.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
Brackmann, Lisa. "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.
Cody, Liza. "I Am Not Fluffy," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2013.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2010.
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2009.
Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg. "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,, March-April 2018.
Classic: Bradbury, Ray. "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

SUI GENERIS
Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," available free at  Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers.
Muir, Brian. “Dummy,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2009.
Rogers, Cheryl. "The Ballad of Maggie Carson," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016.
Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.” in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.
Weikart, Jim, "The Samsa File," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.
Classic: Faulkner William. “A Rose For Emily,” in A Rose For Emily and Other Stories.

SUSPENSE
Buck, Craig Faustus. "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.
Day, Russell. "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.
Estleman, Loren D. “Rumble Strip” in Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection.
Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
Tippee, Robert. "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.
Classic: Cail, Carol. “Sinkhole,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

VICTIM’S POINT OF VIEW
DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot," in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.
Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.
Law, Janice, "The Double," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.
Opperman, Meg. "The Discovery," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Classic: Ellin, Stanley. "You Can't Be a Little Girl all Your Life," in The Specialty of the House and Other Stories.

20 August 2019

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy

A few years ago I was editing a manuscript in which an amateur sleuth found a dead body. A couple of paragraphs down, she made a joke. It raised my eyebrows. "Too soon," I said in a note to the author.

Don't get me wrong. I love humor, especially black humor. Ranging from wry observations to slapstick situations, humor is important because it can lighten a book's mood. But you have to know when to be funny--and when not to. In the case I mentioned above, I suggested having the sleuth wait a couple of pages before she makes light of the situation. The author did so, and it made all the difference.

Today I'm pleased to welcome as a guest author my friend Sherry Harris, who knows all about writing humor, including the importance of timing. Sherry writes great books and takes edits like the pro she is. Sherry writes the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries about a woman in Massachusetts who runs garage sales for other people. Sherry's here today to expound on balancing comedy and tragedy in mysteries. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy
 
by Sherry Harris
 
I was sitting at the bar at Writers' Police Academy (this sounds like the start of a bad joke) when I started talking to a woman near me. I asked her what she wrote and she told me. She then asked what I wrote, so I told her I wrote a cozy series--the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. She said, "Oh, well I write serious books." I replied that I wrote serious books too. That I don't think murder is funny, but that I did use humor in other parts of my books.

I'm caught somewhere in between comedy and tragedy. In my most recent book, Let's Fake a Deal, (published July 30th), there are two parallel story lines. As the book opens Sarah is arrested for selling stolen goods at a garage sale and a few chapters later a friend of hers is arrested for murder. I was shocked when someone who interviewed me said they thought the first chapter (where Sarah is arrested) was one of the funniest scenes they've ever read. When I wrote the scene my vision of Sarah was that she was really scared. I guess that just proves humor is in the eye of the beholder. After the interview was over, I reread the scene with a different mind-set and saw how it could be interpreted that way.

Where do I add the humor? I'd like to tell you I carefully plot it all out in advance but I don't. I'll make a decision early in my writing process on how to add some humor. For Let's Fake a Deal, I tossed around ideas with my independent editor, Barb Goffman. (Hi, Barb, thanks for having me here today.) We came up with the idea that Sarah could do a garage sale for a woman who was obsessed with cats. Not a crazy cat woman who has twenty cats living with her, but a woman who wants to make the front of her house look like the face of a cat. To afford that she has to sell off her massive collection of cat-morabilia. So the cat-tastic garage sale was born.
Kishi Station in Japan was redesigned to resemble a cat in honor of a beloved local stray cat. (Can you see it?) This station isn't in the Sarah Winston books, but it's a great example of what a dedicated cat lover could do with enough funds.
But the Sarah Winston books have more than funny situations. Each of my books is set partially on an Air Force base, and I weave in difficulties military families face. In Let's Fake a Deal, one of Sarah's friends, who has been selected for promotion to colonel, has an IG (inspector general) complaint filed against her, which holds up her promotion. I did a lengthy interview with a friend who served as a Navy JAG for 23 years. We talked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Then I interviewed other women I knew who had served. The interviews fascinated and horrified me. Their stories are woven into the book.

I hope the titles add some humor and Sarah is funny. She's not funny in a slapstick, "slip on a banana peel" kind of way, but she has an optimistic outlook on life. Her observations about life add humor to the books. But I also want her to be multilayered so when she stumbles over a dead body Sarah hurts, and when she sees someone die she reacts like a real person would. 

****
 
Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award-nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. She is the President of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers.
 
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent-holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and her guard dog, Lily, are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.  (Barb here: That's what she thinks. I'm not letting her move away ever. No how. No way.) 
 
 
 
Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor
 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SherryHarrisauthor

Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound

by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







18 August 2019

Assisted Suicide

by Leigh Lundin
“Ferguson, you got one job, keep the damn prisoner alive. No ganging, no hanging, okay? Don’t let no miscreant get to him. That means no bad guys, see? No corrupt guards, no homicidal convicts, no vicious visitors. Also no shivs, no slit wrists, no sliced throat, no shredded sheets, no seppuku. Shouldn’t be hard, right?”
Jeffrey Epstein
Jeffrey Epstein
From published autopsy revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, statistical probabilities alone suggest a 95% confidence of strangulation. Add in death threats and the fact he appeared facially battered and bruised at his most recent court appearance, the odds he wasn’t murdered is extremely small.

But wait. Commentators have seized upon the notion Epstein might have hanged himself with bed sheets. That’s soooo 19th century.

Some time back, a prison matron explained inmates on suicide watch aren’t given standard bedding. Penitentiaries issue hospital style paper sheets precisely so they can’t be used for hanging. Clothing resembles a tear-resistant hospital gown with velcro closures, no buttons, zippers, or ties. Footwear includes heavy socks and sort of felt slippers, rather than prison-issue flip-flops.

In Eve Fisher’s part of the country, prisoners on suicide watch are stripped naked and given a blanket, or issued a paper uniform and bed sheets. Like their East Coast counterparts, at-risk incarcerated are checked every fifteen minutes and recorded on camera 24/7. Like most who have a working knowledge of prison life, Eve says suicide while under observation is nigh impossible, but once off suicide watch, death for the determined isn’t that difficult.

The prison kitchen provides food in paper bowls without utensils, issued randomly so preparers cannot target an individual inmate. Feed is deliberately bland with virtually no seasoning.

Typically in modern prisons, the bed is poured from concrete as is a tiny seat, shelf, and 1st grader-size desktop. Epstein’s assigned cell reportedly contains a shower. Toilets are usually cold stainless steel devices with neither hinged seat nor lid.

prison toilet
cell toilet © New York Daily News
Cameras remain trained on inmates at all times, even when using the toilet. Cell checks occur about four times an hour, but not precisely at quarter-hour intervals. Reports would have us believe Epstein was not looked in upon for several hours.

In late June and early July, Jeffrey Epstein reported his life had been threatened. On 24 July, a supervisor found him mauled and barely conscious on his cell floor.

Epstein expressed fear for his life. Usually that would call for extra protection, not less.

Two guards have been suspended for dereliction. Their warden has been reassigned. A befuddled William Barr has yet to resign.

Meanwhile, Back at the Raunch

People accused – I emphasize ‘accused’, not convicted – include a number of famous men, at least three women, a senator, a governor, and Epstein’s own lawyer, celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, ironically scheduled for a child trafficking mock trial. He has claimed documents ‘prove’ his non-involvement. Whether or not he’s guilty, Dershowitz should know better. Said documents prove no such thing.

The swirling waters have been further muddied by three names linked to the White House, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and– yes, it had to happen– Hillary Clinton. The mention of Hillary is a fevered fantasy of the rabid right just as Trump involvement titillates the ludicrous left.

Despite young women being recruited by Ghislaine Maxwell and Epstein at Mar-a-Lago, available evidence suggests both Clinton and Trump prefer fully-formed women, not teen girls. One president dragging another’s name into the mud epitomizes dirty politics.

And the Verdict is

Inexplicably, the Associated Press has dug in taking a position Epstein’s death is suicide. The alternative apparently appears unthinkable. Likewise, normally conspiracy-loving radio talk hosts are unexpectedly warning about unwarranted conspiracy theories, as if they fear further news will undermine some favored position.

The cleverest conclusion I’ve heard regarding Jeffrey Epstein’s death comes from my friend Darlene. Got to appreciate the irony. She calls it…
Assisted Suicide

What’s your take?