22 September 2020

Let's delve into some word usage issues


English is an interesting, intricate language. No matter how much I know, there's always more to learn. Today I'm continuing an occasional series on words and their usage.

In versus Into

Did you know there's a difference between when to use in versus into? I didn't until I got a recent copy edit back on a story coming out later this year. The copy editor didn't explain why one word was right and the other wrong, but thankfully, we have a little thing called the internet these days, so I was able to consult the quite helpful Cambridge Dictionary. It explained that you use in when addressing where someone or something is right now. You use into when addressing where someone or something is going. Right now, for instance, I am in my kitchen. Later I will walk into my bedroom. I can toss a scrap of paper into the recycle bin. When it lands, it will be in the bin.

What is up with the word up?

There are so many words and word phrases that include the word up, and I see people use the wrong spelling often. For instance, should you use ...
  • setup or set up
  • hookup or hook up
  • makeup or make up
  • pickup or pick up
  • breakup or break up
  • giveup or give ... wait, there's no such word as giveup. Never mind. 
But as to the others, here's the general rule: When you're using the word as a noun, use one word. When you want a verb, use two words. Here are some examples:

  • I set up the camera so it was aimed at the table setup, enabling me to catch the silverware thief.
  • The evil man laughed and said, "I set up your sister for the fall, and it worked." The honorable man replied, "I knew it was a setup, and now the police do too." Then he revealed the wire under his shirt.
  • I hooked up the customer's disabled car to my tow truck, hoping we'd have a hookup later.
  • On the way out of the bar with Jim, my newest hookup, I ran smack into Bob, the tow-truck driver I hooked up with yesterday.
  • My friend Ann hasn't spoken to me since I dropped her makeup bag and her favorite eye shadow cracked. She won't make up with me, no matter how much I beg.
  • The makeup of my days has changed since I stopped begging Ann to make up with me. Now instead of wasting all my time on unanswered texts, I'm hooking up with her boyfriend. (See, hook up can be helpful in all kinds of scenarios.)
  • My brother stole a red pickup. Now he gets to pick up trash by the side of the road as part of his sentence.
  • I wanted to break up with Troy, but my last five breakups happened in this bar too, so I decided to wait until tomorrow and do it over the phone. I'm nice that way.
Sorry to be brief, but I'm out of time. Hope this has been helpful.

21 September 2020

TV Series I Don't Get Tired Of


Like favorite books, there are some tv series that I can watch over and over for the pleasure of hearing the familiar stories retold and revisiting beloved characters. Some of them are crime shows, all are genre fiction and its TV equivalent. Most of my favorite genres and subgenres in reading and viewing overlap.

British police procedurals
Books, a few author examples out of many: Reginald Hill, Deborah Crombie, Jane Casey
TV favorites: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis

American political drama
Books: American political novels tend to be thrillers, not my favorite genre, but I do love character-driven traditional mysteries that explore social issues and may have a law enforcement or related protagonist, such as a judge, journalist, clergyperson, or social service worker.
Author examples: Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Nevada Barr, and Dana Stabenow fall into this category
TV favorites: The West Wing, Madam Secretary

Historical and cross-genre with crime and fantasy fiction
Books, author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Laurie King, Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnette
TV favorite: Outlander

Science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and cross-genre with crime fiction
Books, author examples: Charlaine Harris, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik
TV favorite: Star Trek Voyager

And what do I write myself? The same or similar categories, for the most part.

Character-driven traditional mysteries that touch on social issues (the Bruce Kohler Mysteries)
Historical literary, mystery, and crime fiction (the Mendoza Family Saga)
Urban fantasy with crime fiction (the Emerald Love series)
And a variety of all of those, including a few police procedurals, in my standalone short stories.
I also read, write, and watch some suspense, which probably covers whatever doesn't fit elsewhere. It's limited by the fact, quite awkward in a crime writer, that I don't like being scared.

What do I like about the TV shows I've mentioned? And what do I learn that helps me as a writer?

Inspector Morse
My appreciation of John Thaw as Morse and the way the TV show tells the stories are untainted by knowledge of the books, which I've never read. As a reader and thus as a writer, I demand at least one endearing character. In Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis we have two, both fully developed and engaged in a relationship that grows and changes over time. They complement each other as detectives and as personalities, both kindred spirits and polar opposites. We don't need violence or extreme language to become and remain absorbed in the action. The sparkling dialogue, the vivid minor characters, the use of setting as character, the twists and turns of each plot—this is how it's done.

I'm not usually tolerant of fictional chronic alcoholics who don't get sober—and come to appreciate sobriety, like my Bruce Kohler. Inspector Morse is the exception. Why do I give him a free pass? I suppose it's a testament to his charm, his intellect, and what I call in Bruce an "ill-concealed heart of gold." In Morse's case, he always falls unerringly for the wrong woman, and it's a much more endearing flaw than if his mistakes were a result of his drinking.

The other outstanding aspect of the series is the all-encompassing presence of Oxford as a character. On TV, much of the impact is visual, and its impressive architectural beauty is brilliantly photographed. But it's far more than that. The crimes are Oxford crimes. They involve intellect; the sense of entitlement, tradition, and hierarchy; and the peculiar insularity of the university as well as the rivalry and mistrust between town and gown. All this makes for a multilayered episode every time.

Inspector Lewis I've come to like the Lewis series, starring Kevin Whately, even better than Morse. Inspector Lewis is an engaging character whose defining characteristic is not a flaw but what Louise Penny would call his goodness. Like his former mentor Moss, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he reserves his rare moment of irascibility for hidebound colleagues and the occasional arrogant aristocrat.

Lewis's sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the perfect foil. He's a Cambridge man and an ex-seminarian, ie the brainy one. Lewis's apprenticeship with Morse has left him with enough knowledge of Wagner, Latin, and bits of poetry to keep up. They're both terrific detectives who drive their boss, Superintendent Innocent, crazy with their irreverence toward Oxford and its shibboleths and gods. She accuses them of "chippy copper antics" at one point when they've been rocking the boat of some socially prominent crooks. Their delicious dialogue as they work a case is a model of clever buddy banter. Watching again recently, I wasn't sure if I heard Innocent call them a "dynamic duo" or "demonic duo."

And Oxford is still an essential and fascinating character. Far more than mere scenery or dreaming-spires ambiance, it has unique mores and a varied population that lends itself to crimes that could only happen in Oxford. I'd like to think my New York in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries has a hint of that quality.

It's hard to talk about The West Wing or Madam Secretary without getting political, since they're both fictional demonstrations of how to govern the United States with intelligence and integrity in an increasingly challenging global environment—and what a very complicated job it is. But the lesson for the storyteller's art, I think, is how brilliantly each of these shows deals with huge themes while engaging the viewer with the emotional life and dilemmas of very real individual people.

These shows are also great examples of "show, don't tell" intelligent characters. They absorb and share on demand vast quantities of crucial information on science, politics, economics, world cultures, and a host of other topics. They think on their feet to maintain collaborative strategies with colleagues, political opponents, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state; and to keep adversarial situations from getting out of hand, since "out of hand" could mean anything from a single death to World War III. And they don't do it by having the protagonist shoot the bad guy in the gun hand. Or via insipid dialogue and telling the viewer the characters all went to Harvard. They do it by being a very, very smart team created by a very smart writer.

Outlander is in a class of its own as a historical series that's true to the series of books it's based on while condensing the complicated story lines for relative brevity, clarity, and drama. It's also a case of perfect casting (Sam Heughan as Jamie and Catriona Balfe as Claire), especially impressive because Jamie Fraser is one of those characters about whom many, many readers have fantasies.
I don't think a writer can apply craft to produce that kind of memorability in a character, at least not to guarantee it. When I first read Outlander, the first book in the series, I was swept away to the 18th century and didn't come back till six hundred pages later. The TV show provides a similar immersion in the historical time in which it takes place. To say, "It's a time travel romance" is so misleading, because a book or TV series so described could so easily be shallow, cheesy, anachronistic in all its elements—the romance, the time travel, and the history. Outlander sets a tremendously high standard, and I think that's what it has to teach the writer. Do your research. Love your characters. Take your time. And keep it moving.

Star Trek Voyager is "my" Star Trek, the one with the woman captain—Kate Mulgrew as the redoubtable Captain Janeway—and I watch it not for the proto-iPads and phony science but for the people and their relationships. Talk about a locked room! a handful of people on a starship thrust suddenly into the Delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home. The lesson for me is that if you're most interested in the people, it doesn't matter what the backdrop is; you can always weave it in and make it serve the story. And remember that the story is always about people (of whatever species, not just about technology, however important a role technology plays.) Since I read much more urban fantasy than science fiction and don't write true SF at all, I'd have liked to include a Charlaine Harris screen adaptation on this list. I enjoyed True Blood, especially the first few seasons. But I'm unlikely to watch it all the way through again. Like the science in Star Trek, the gore and biting are incidental to the personalities and relationships of the humans, vampires, and shapeshifters, ie the people, for me. My very favorite Harris books, the Harper Connelly series, haven't made it to the screen. Harper's the one who can find the dead and tell you how they died. I haven't gotten tired of rereading those yet.

20 September 2020

Small Claims 3


Hal 2001
Home Automation Interface
Last month, I told you about purchasing expensive name brand home automation that madly malfunctioned. The dealer/installer and the manufacturer’s tech support added insults to injury… literal insults, telling me the device failure was my fault. I was stupid. I was annoying. I misrepresented or misinterpreted the sales literature. I was trying to cheat them into getting something for nothing. Surely their mothers wouldn’t have taught them to behave like that.

So what would an American do? I took both parties to small claims court.

Perhaps it’s a character defect, but I’d have loved to witness the deputy striding into the corporation’s Tallahassee headquarters to serve the complaint. No, that’s not quite true. I really wanted to see the consternation of the so-called customer support guy when faced with a subpoena to produce their tech line audio tracks “recorded for training purposes.” Finally! A useful purpose for those things.

First Contact

A few weeks after filing, I received a telephone call from California, a vice president within the conglomerate’s North American legal department. My little case garnered more attention that I’d anticipated. He courteously enquired if I’d hired counsel and then discussed the case.

I was mindful to guard my tongue. Attorneys and competent interrogators know people feel a need to elaborate. Therein lie traps for the unwary. I simply laid out the facts without revealing how much proof and documentation I’d gathered. When he’d question one aspect or another, I simply said I was prepared to demonstrate this or that.
He asked if I’d vented on-line. I had not.
He asked if I would allow their technician to inspect the unit in situ. I was.
He asked if I was willing to settle. I was.
He asked if I was willing to settle for only a replacement. I wasn’t.
He asked if I was willing to continue the conversation. I was.
While cordially but carefully phrasing regrets, he explained I was unlikely to prevail on several accounts, such as loss of income and violations of sharing personal information. Likewise he predicted a judge wouldn’t award me expenses, but might award them attorneys’ fees. He was surprised to learn his conglomerate’s web sites offered no way to opt out of the distribution of shared personal information.

Leigh in pod capsule
HAL Gone Bad

A technician sent by the vice president arrived. He confirmed everything I said and more. The device wasn’t merely a brain-dead dud, it was a hulking, marauding, unpredictable Frankenstein of a dud.

He verified the firmware serial number 00001. My court filing argued if this were accurate, it meant the assembly line hadn’t yet learned to build this new machine. And if it wasn’t true, then it opened scarier possibilities. A user in California or Calcutta might use their app and suddenly find themselves inside my house.

Mediation

Florida’s Small Claims Courts require pre-trial mediation. This mandatory session takes place prior to a trial in the hope the parties can reach a resolution and avoid tying up the court’s time. I was prepared to back down twenty percent or so, but little more.

Many court-appointed mediators are retired attorneys. They know what they’re doing. The one assigned to my case was pleasant and professional. When the opposing attorney stepped out of the room, he complimented the case’s preparation and suggested, should mediation fail, I might want to move for a jury trial rather than rely on the stricter view of a judge. Good point.

The conglomerate sent down an attorney from Tallahassee. He turned out cordial and likeable. However, he informed the mediator their California Vice President of Legal suggested the gadget wasn’t as bad as claimed, and they’d settle for no more than a replacement product. The lawyer gave an impression he’d urged California to compromise, but they were hanging tough.

This lawyer spent seven hours driving and three hours in the courthouse just to say no. He did what he was told to do, but he didn’t appear pleased as he packed to leave. We shook hands. He said he’d stay in touch and departed on his 3½-hour journey back to Tallahassee.

The Other Party

The independent dealer/installer didn’t appear at all, forfeiting his part of the case. Before leaving the courthouse, I petitioned for a summary judgment.

My intent wasn’t to crush the little guy, crappy as he was. What he had in mind by not appearing, I don’t know, but he panicked. He begged me to settle for a lesser amount, saying he could afford little, and then named a figure more than I would have asked.

I didn’t need an invitation and he had acted a right ass. “Sure,” I said. “Have it to me before the hearing, then I’ll ask the court to dismiss.”

People's Court letter
As Seen On TV

Besides court filings, I received a letter with a charming picture of People’s Court Judge Marilyn Milian. Oops, not quite– it was from Lori Mooney, a producer for The People’s Court. They wanted my case on television.

Bad enough I burden SleuthSayers with my laundry, but I’m too private to air it on national television.The dealer’s opinion was immaterial, but I felt certain the conglomerate would not risk publicly broadcasting the problems in their fancy flagship device. They might win the case but lose their appeal, so to speak.

Two more People’s Court letters arrived. They guaranteed I’d receive the money sought if I won the case. They’d pay for my time, which as a writer is about 2½¢ per minute or word or some such. They’d pay my travel expenses. I pictured a coronavirus motel off a Connecticut interstate. I ignored the offer, but I didn’t blame them for trying. It’s not every day a little guy takes on a $2.3-billion conglomerate.

The opposing lawyer wondered how our case came to their attention. I didn’t know, but I hazard producers might offer court clerks rewards or bounties to bring interesting cases to their attention.

Countdown

The court date approached. The Tallahassee attorney said he regretted to tell me California decided to play hardball. Would I accept one last offer of a replacement before they prepared for court? Umm, no but thank you, I said.

Meanwhile, I reminded the absentee dealer I hadn’t received a check or money order. He said negotiations to sell his company had kept him busy. The toad had set the terms of the agreement and he wasn’t meeting the conditions he set for himself.

Subpoenas
Subpoenas are writs or instructions to bring to court a person or thing. A subpoena ad testificandum commands the appearance of a person. A subpoena duces tecum commands the appearance of a thing.
I checked on the subpoena duces tecum for the tech support’s recordings. I gathered company sales brochures, went over my notes, and spent hours creating visuals to explain the technology and why their product failed. Wifi inside the courthouse was next to nil. Accordingly, I loaded their advertising videos on my computer so they could be played without internet.

The date neared. Their lawyer phoned. Would I accept a replacement plus a little (very little) extra to ship the old unit back to them for study? I declined. I contacted the dealer, who said he was travelling out of state and could I wait? He couldn’t get on-line. Use priority mail, I suggested.

The date grew closer. The lawyer enquired if I’d accept a replacement, deinstallation, reinstallation, removal of the old unit to their lab, and a bit more money? I told them they were getting closer.

The date loomed three days hence, then two days. Would I, asked the attorney, accept pretty much all I’d sought if we could finalize an agreement in the next few hours? I went, “Mmm,” drummed my fingers and said, “Of course. That’s all I wanted.”

Thus began a flurry of emails and overnight posts. I had no way of knowing whether the two corporate lawyers were a case of good cop / bad cop, but I believed the Tallahassee counsel encouraged the California Legal Department to stop with the hardball and settle.

I called the twisty dealer and informed him I was out of patience and he was out of time. He was in the hospital, he said, palpitations of the pump due to the stress of this case. Just deliver a check, I said, then you’re done.

In the final hours before the hearing, the conglomerate’s attorney prepared motions to dismiss their part of the case. In our non-disclosure agreement, I consented not to bad-mouth their company. Not a problem– I didn’t hate them, but I refused to accept failure of responsibility for a failed product. One tech support guy could have solved the problem a year earlier.

In the middle of the final exchanges, the phone rang– the dealer. He suddenly remembered he had a wife and she could deliver a bank draft to me in the remaining ninety minutes.

Closing the Case

The dealer’s wife squeaked in with the check. That released him from further obligation.

Several days later, a different installer phoned. Under corporate instruction, he was ready to swap out the defective unit for a… he sounded puzzled… lesser model?

Their company’s flagship ‘smart’ gadget couldn’t be trusted, but their top-of-the-line ‘dumb’ models had a good reputation, I worked out a deal to trade down and then provide my own intelligent controller. The installer swapped gadgets, I attached a new electronic brain, and that’s worked well since.

I emailed the California vice president and the Tallahassee lawyer, thanking them for resolving the problem. I love almost being a Southerner. The email to the Florida lawyer might have been a bit more genuine.

And Now…

Smart appliances, intelligent gadgets, and home automation are running smoothly. The homestead feels secure except… Well, a few weeks ago a burglar attempted a break-in. He made it into the garage. The system notified me and I notified the police. They got him. The state prosecutor loved the videos of the baddie picked up by multiple cameras.

I’ll reveal more about this after the burglar hearing. You won’t believe his last name.

19 September 2020

Who Are Those Short People?


A few weeks ago I did a column here about obscure movies. The point was, all of us have seen good movies that everybody knows about, but there are some good ones that almost nobody's heard of--and those can be fun to find and watch.

The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)

But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.


Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."

Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."

Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."

Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."

John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."

Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."

Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.


Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?

NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.


Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:


"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard


I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.


In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)


Keep writing, and be safe.

18 September 2020

Steinbeck's Writing Tips


John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Nobel committee cited his "realistic and imaginative writings" noting his "sympathetic humor and keen social perception." This "giant of American letters" gave us six tips about writing which I list below (from multiple internet sources):

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it is finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined one and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a sections gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave you trouble is because it didn't belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
 Writers don't write the same way. I seem to follow many of these steps, especially #1, 2, 3 and 6.

I follow #2 but using a computer allows me to go back over what I wrote the day before and edit it. That jump starts me to write what follows.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Themes in Steinbeck's fiction included fate and injustice, especially to the downtrodden or the everyman protagonist.

John Steinbeck receiving Nobel Prize
 Here is an excerpt from Steinbeck's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech –
"The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.

www.oneildenoux.com

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

16 September 2020

Today in Mystery History: September 16


This is the sixth  in my occasional series on Great Events in Mystery History.

September 16, 1849.  Robert Barr was born in Scotland.  His family moved to Canada, where he grew up.  He was best known as an author of short stories, especially about crime, and wrote the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, in 1892.

September 16, 1874.  This day saw the premiere of the play Colonel Sellers, based on The Gilded Age, the novel Mark Twain wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.  The play concentrates on one aspect of the book: the trial of Laura Hawkins for the murder of her married lover, which was itself based on a true crime.  In a  decidedly post-modern touch, on some evenings she was found guilty, on others she was not.

September 16, 1927.  On this date Peter Falk was born in New York City.  He got his first Oscar nomination in 1960 for Murder, Inc.  His other crime-related movies included Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and The In-Laws.  But let's not beat around the bush: his great contribution to our field was of course Lieutenant  Columbo.  Did you know that they originally wanted Bing Crosby for the part?  Did you know that a kid named Steven Spielberg directed the first episode?  I'll stop now. 

September 16, 1961.  On this date The Defenders premiered on CBS.  Starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father and son attorneys, it has been called the first modern lawyer series.  The Defenders did not shy away from controversial subjects, with the heroes working on cases that dealt with abortion, neo-Nazis, capital punishment, and jury nullification, etc.

September 16, 1966.  Does anyone else remember T.H.E. Cat? It began on this night and lasted one season.  A half-hour show starring Robert Loggia as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, former circus performer and ex-con, now a cat burglar who prowled for good.

September 16, 1967.  The show that premiered this evening was much more successful.  Mannix starred Mike Connors as a Los Angeles private eye.  In the first year he worked for a large security firm, but for the rest of the show's seven years he was an independent operator with a secretary, played by Gail Fisher.

September 16, 1970.  A lot of TV premieres on this date, aren't there?  Dennis Weaver starred in McCloud, a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico who found himself working for the cops in New York City.  Surprisingly, they acknowledged taking the idea from Don Siegal's film Coogan's Bluff.

September 16, 1975.
  On this date a panic-stricken young woman runs through the streets of Isola, covered with blood.   That's the beginning of Ed McBain's Blood Relatives, featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct.

September 16, 1984.  The premiere of Miami Vice, creating a national fad for pastel suits and cigarette boats.  Anyone remember this Sesame Street sketch?

September 16, 1987.  Yet another terrific TV series previewed on this date.  Wiseguy followed the adventures of an undercover cop, Vinnie Terranova.  It was ahead of its time in that each season consisted of a few "arcs," several episodes in which Vinnie wormed his way into an organized crime group and then betrayed them - which weighed on his conscience more with each season.  Among the guest stars: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jerry Lewis, Ray Sharley, Patti D'Arbanville, Tim Curry, Paul Winfield...

September 16, 2016.  On this date the Private Eye Writers of America gave S.J. Rozan the Eye for lifetime achievement.