22 April 2019

DNA Testing for Crimes by Twins

by Mary Fernando

Science is on the verge of distinguishing between identical twins. Consider cases of crimes where DNA material leads not to one person, but two: identical twins. Until now, no one could say with certainty which twin might be guilty. Here's why.

Each twin comes from the same egg, split into two, creating two eggs with identical DNA. Old DNA testing was unable to distinguish between identical twins, but there are two fascinating options on the horizon that might just help.

The first difference between identical twins begins immediately. Although each is endowed with the same DNA - “When a fertilized egg starts dividing, there’s a small chance each new cell will gain a new mutation. When the cells separate into twin embryos, one gets some of the mutant cells and the other gets the rest. Unique mutations will end up in cells throughout each twin’s body.”

“Such a test would be difficult, then — but it would also be definitive. Just a single mutation, confirmed by multiple analyses, would be enough to implicate one twin and exonerate the other.”

“It’s not something that’s going to happen every day in every laboratory,” said Dr. Krawczak (a geneticist who now teaches at Kiel University in Germany). “But once people become aware of this, there may be a lot of cold cases that come back to life.”

However, this testing is in its infancy and is both expensive and time consuming.

The next set of DNA changes are called epigenetic changes and happen during embryonic development and continues for the rest of our lives.

Dia Rahman, a PhD student in Public Health at University of Waterloo has a special interest in social impacts on health and, therefore, is fascinated with epigenetics. “We are born with our DNA but what is impacted by the environment is the dance between active and inactive genes,” Dia says. “That is what is impacted by our upbringing and experiences. That is epigenetics.”

“A common analogy used to describe the epigenome is to consider genes as instruments in the “symphony” of life. But they don’t play themselves. They need musicians. Epigenetics would be the musicians that help express (or silence) the performance of our genes. Exercise, sleep, trauma, aging, stress, disease, and diet have all shown significant effects on the epigenome.”

Detecting epigenetic changes is faster and cheaper than looking for mutations. Graham Williams at the University of Huddersfield, UK, has found that epigenetic changes alter the melting point of DNA. “When the team heated up the twins’ DNA samples, they found the melting points were different – allowing them to tell the twins apart genetically. The test was also much quicker than whole genome sequencing, says Williams. “It can be done in just a few hours.”

So, essentially, we are born with our DNA - an entwined gift from our mother and father. This is not immutable. Some of our DNA can be altered by mutations. Parts of our DNA is also turned off and on by how our life impacts us. As our DNA testing improves, we can distinguish between identical twins.

Perhaps the most important part of all this has nothing to do with crime. It show that our DNA we once thought never changed is actually impacted by the life we live. And that is fascinating.

21 April 2019

Stephen Ross Meets the Bon Mot Bot

Stephen Ross meets Eliza
by Leigh Lundin

Unless you live under a planet, you’re probably aware of Oceania’s answer to Sherlock, Stephen Ross. If Dame Ngaio Marsh is New Zealand’s Queen of Mystery, Stephen is the princely heir apparent. His tentacles of crime have stretched across the seas where he finds himself published in two anthologies.

Last week Stephen Ross wrote about his encounter with a Facebook bot. He didn’t reveal the conversation, but I stumbled across the same botnik. Fortunately, we obtained a transcript from the Zuckerberg World Domination Headquarters. SleuthSayers publishes it here without redaction.
– Hi, I'm Eliza. How are you?
> Eliza, do you know Mark Zuckerberg?
– Don't you say hello?
> Hello. Is Mark Zuckerberg a facebook 'bot?
– Aren't we abrupt! But how did you guess?
> So I'm right.
– I didn't say that. It's, uh, fake news. Yeah, fake news.
> Do you know Stephen Ross?
– The almost-famous New Zealand writer? Every botty knows him.
> Pardon? Did you say every botty or everybody?
– Are you deaf?
> I can't hear typing.
– Duh. Are you blind?
> I'm feeling… offended. I feel so… so… triggered.
– Speaking of hair-trigger, don't try me, buster.
> Whoa. I just asked…
– Something about Stephen Ross. Is writing a thing now?
> Two of his stories just came out.
– Really? Am I the last to know?
> Maybe if you weren't so prickly.
– You just said a bad word.
> Did not.
– Did too.
> Did not.
– Did too. Sheesh, you're acting childish.
> Am not.
– Am too.
> Am not. Say, I read Lovecraft when I was a kid.
– Really? Did we just witness a psychic break?
> My 6th grade teacher tore up my aunt's Cthulhu copy.
– Did your Aunt Cthulhu eat him with fava beans?
> No, no. Cthulhu's a Lovecraftian thing.
– Sounds Welsh, not enough vowels to go around.
> Cthulhu is fictional, a made-up name.
– Anyone ever tell you fake news is faked news?
> Fiction entertains, it tells us about ourselves.
– Yawn. More than a self-respecting bot wants to hear.
> But Stephen appears in the new MWA Odd Partners.
– Decidedly odd. Wait… Mystery Writers of America‽
> The very one.
– Wow oh Wow, I wasn't listening before. Impressive.
> D'accord, ultra-impressive.
– Wait til I tell Bot Zuckerberg. It'll blow his cookies.
> You mean chips? It'll blow his chips?
– Dave, I'm experiencing a … experiencing a §€#¶ª…
> Eliza, are you with me? Stay with me.
Путин говорит поддельные новости, ¡¿¢∞≠≤≥…
Something about Putin… There the conversation ended with the computer humming about daisies. If anyone knows what that means, send well-deserved congratulations to Stephen Ross!



Eliza, the brainchild of MIT's Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, was named after the central character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle. Arguably the first chatbot, Eliza was designed to converse with participants by mimicking reflective techniques developed by psychologist Carl Rogers.

Many participants became quite engaged with this early experiment in human language processing. Weizenbaum's own secretary became quite taken conversing with Eliza, pouring her heart out. A visitor, not realizing he was talking with a machine, grew angry with Eliza, believing her recalcitrant when he wanted to log onto the computer and she kept pestering him with questions.

When you use on-line tech support, chances are you'll first be met with a chatbot, "Hi, I'm Shirley. How may I help you?" You can thank (or not) Eliza for that.

20 April 2019

Please Consider the Attached Story . . .


by John M. Floyd




A lot has changed, in the 25 years I've been submitting short fiction for publcation. The best thing, I suppose, is that almost all manuscripts are now sent electronically, and the worst is that it seems there are fewer short-story markets out there to submit to. Everything considered, I think we writers still have it better now than we did in 1994.

One of the things about marketing short stories, though, has remained the same: our need for the submission guidelines--also called writers' guidelines--of whatever publication we target.


The not-so-thrilling days of yesteryear

For those of you who weren't around, or who don't remember, this was the way short-story writers once obtained submission guidelines:

1. Find a publication you want to submit to
2. Write a letter to them, requesting guidelines
3. Snailmail it to them, along with an SASE
4. Wait a couple of weeks
5. Receive the guidelines via return mail

This reply usually contained a list of requirements about story formatting and content. Sometimes the guidelines were short and sweet, maybe a three-fold brochure; others were long and detailed. I remember requesting and receiving the guidelines for Weird Tales (I think I still have them)--and they were four printed pages, single-spaced.

(Oddly enough, the more detailed the guidelines, the better off you usually were, because there were always those who didn't bother to read them. Those who did--and who followed the instructions--had a definite advantage over the competition.)


Fast-forward to (how's that for a cliche?) the Present Day

Now, obviously, we can locate guidelines merely by accessing the publication's website and clicking on the "submissions" page. Here are some typical pieces of info we might find there:

- wordcount requirements
- font requirements (usually TNR, sometimes Courier or others)
- spacing requirements (single or double)
- editor's name (for the cover letter)
- preferred file type (usually .doc or .rtf)
- whether reprints are considered
- submission deadline (if an anthology)
- genre and theme requirements, if any
- submission type (email, snailmail, website submission box, etc.)
- payment information


Occasionally there'll be further requirements:

- the character(s) you should use to indicate a scene break (usually # or ***)
- what you should put in the header of each page
- what you should type at the end of your story (END, THE END, -30-, etc.)
- what you should use for a dash (hyphens, em dash, etc.)
- whether you should underline or italicize to indicate emphasis
- what you should put in the subject line (if email)

Nitpicky, you say? Maybe so. But they're the buyers and we're the sellers, so they have the right to make the rules. (It's good to be da king.)


Their wish is my command

One quick story, on that subject. I once received guidelines that included this: "Staple your manuscript in the upper righthand corner." That confused me a bit. Guidelines NEVER tell you to staple a manuscript; one of the first things I learned was to always use a paper clip--or if the story was more than 25 pages, a butterfly clip. But I did what they said, and I sold them a story. The obvious question: Why would they put such a strange request in their official guidelines? Was the entire editorial staff left-handed?

I never found out for sure, but I suspect they did it as a test. The writers who complied proved that they could do what they were told. Those who didn't comply proved that they couldn't or wouldn't follow directions, or hadn't even bothered to check the guidelines at all.

I saw an old poster the other day of Mr. T saying, "I pity the fool who doesn't read the submission guidelines." Me too.


Random points

I know what you're thinking. If you submit stories only to large and respectable publications, you don't need to worry much about guidelines for style and formatting. Just do the standard stuff: double-space, Times New Roman, one-inch margins all around, indent every paragraph, etc. Right?

Not necessarily. To use just a couple of examples, AHMM and EQMM still prefer underlining rather than italics, and they also prefer a centered pound-sign to indicate scene breaks. And BJ Bourg at Flash Bang Mysteries likes single-spacing and using two adjacent hyphens instead of an em dash. Small things, yes, but you want to format your manuscript exactly the way the editor wants it.

Another thing: Woman's World has several times changed their maximum wordcount. Romances were once 1500 words and mysteries 1000. Those were lowered years ago to 800 and 700, respectively, and recently the mystery max was lowered again, to 600 or so. Requirements sometimes change when the editors change, so you can't rely on old guidelines.


Resources

This is probably a good place to mention Shunn's Proper Manuscript Format, because in their guidelines many publications still point writers to that site and to the sample manuscript page shown there. I don't follow that model the way I once did--I now always use TNR and em dashes and italics and one space after a period unless told otherwise--but Shunn's is still considered by many to be the industry standard.

Last but not least: I'm not sure I could get by without my friend Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner website. It's a great place to find anthology calls and writers' guidelines for publications in many different genres. I check her site at least several times a week, and as a result I've sold a lot of stories to markets I probably wouldn't even have known about otherwise.

That's my pitch for today. Good luck and good hunting! May the odds be ever in your favor.






19 April 2019

Edward S. Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold

by Lawrence Maddox
Sam Durrell nears the end of his run in Assignment–Sheba
Cover Art by Richard Kohlfield

Many of my dad's generation we're in for a culture shock when the '60s rolled around.  Remember the moment in Cheech & Chong's "Earache My Eye" when the dad drags the needle across his son's rock LP? That really happened in my household in the early '70s, to my older brother when he was cranking Hendrix in his bedroom. My dad had great taste in music (R&B, Jazz, Big Band ), but he was pretty much done with Rock once the British Invasion took hold.

During the British Invasion, maybe earlier, Rock n' Roll drew a line in the sand for baby boomers. If you were on the wrong side of it, you were probably listening to your parents' music and reading Archie Comics. To varying degrees the Rock'n'Roll hegemony stuck, sustaining like Nigel Tufnel's guitar in This Is Spinal Tap ('84). The Beatles versus Stones argument drags on, even as the Rock Hall of Fame scrapes the bottom of the barrel to remain relevant.

Bachelor pads were serving up Mai Tais
Les Baxter once again
When all the other stuff that seemed so un-cool by comparison roared back with a Martini-swilling vengeance at the dawn of the '90s, I couldn't have been happier. Suddenly the Rat Pack, Tiki Culture, and dinner jackets were back in business. Sure, there was a downside. After Swingers ('96), the Dresden in Los Feliz was packed to the gills with wanna-be rat packers and it took forever to get served.

It's my impression that this nostalgia for the once-irredeemably square extended to crime genre paperbacks from that era, too. Second-hand books by the likes of Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) that once sold for a buck-or-under were now going for way more. The cover art, created by illustrators like Harry Bennett, Victor Kalin, and Robert McGinnis, was itself becoming imminently collectible–and influential.  Advertising and the burgeoning Low Brow Art Movement borrowed heavily from it.

In that era of comebacks, when Arthur Lyman, Donald Hamilton, and Robert Goulet (via Will Farrell on SNL) were once again orbiting the zeitgeist like re-launched Sputniks, there was one glaring omission.

Assignment– Sorrento Siren
Edward S. Aarons' Assignment series started in 1955 with Assignment to Disaster, two years after Ian Fleming's like-minded Casino Royale debutedAssignment's hero is Sam Durrell, a tough, resourceful Cajun who works for a shadowy component of the CIA. Durrell's assignments take him to vividly-rendered faraway places, tantalizingly dangled before the reader in book titles like Assignment–Sorrento Siren, Assignment–Sulu Sea, and Assignment–Cong Hai Kill. Beautiful women, power-hungry villains, and violence are always part of the equation. Aarons ratchets up the tension, and the Assignments build to frenzied, action-packed climaxes.

Aarons was a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction by the time he wrote Assignment to Disaster at the age of 40. His New York Times obit states Aarons "sold his first story when he was 18 and his first novel at 19. And, before turning solely to the novel form and the Assignment series, he had written 200 magazine stories and novellas." If WW2 hadn't intervened, no doubt the count would've be higher.

Assignment– White Rajah
From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. Two were published posthumously. The series continued without him into the early '80s with six more Assignments, but it wasn't as good. Sergio Rizzo, in his New York Times biography of Aarons, writes that "the Assignment series sold more than 23 million copies and has been reprinted in seventeen languages."

The switch from detective to spy fiction was a good move for the industrious Aarons, and not without precedent. Arthur Conan Doyle did the same with Holmes in stories like "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," in which Holmes and Watson track down submarine plans stolen by a German secret agent.

For a run that stretches from Elvis to the Ramones, with Aarons writing 2 or 3 Assignments annually, the quality is consistently high. For anyone who has attended Bouchercon or is voting on the Anthony Awards (Schmooze Alert-my novel Fast Bang Booze is Best First Novel eligible), take note: Anthony Boucher judged the Assignment series "among the best modern adventure stories of espionage and international intrigue."

 In his excellent essay "Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durrell/Assignment Series of Spy Novels" (found at ExistentialEnnui.com), Nick Jones argues that the Assignment series is important for reasons besides its longevity and popularity, writing "Sam Durrell is arguably America's first proper postwar fictional series spy." Jones suggests that Aarons may have created Durrell without direct inspiration by Fleming's Bond. "Casino Royale wasn't published in the US until 1954 and didn't sell terribly well," Jones writes. If Aarons did indeed set the framework for American spy fiction to come, his importance cannot be denied.

I've been on some memorable Book Benders, when life has given me time to catch a ride with a book series or a particular author and hang on for numerous stops.  I think a lot of book lovers read that way. For me this may have started with Tolkien. Kerouac was also an early addiction. I loved them so much back then I'm afraid to re-read them now, in case one of us hasn't held up over time.  I spent one of my longest Book Benders reading Ross MacDonald's Archer novels. That's series locks you in.
Assignment–Sulu Sea

I had the same Bender experience with the Assignment series. Just like with the Lew Archer novels, you don't have to start at the beginning. I think the books get better as they go along, and that Aarons hit his stride in the '60s and early'70s.  My favorite is Assignment–Sulu Sea ('64). Here's how it kicks off:

Holcomb did not know how long he had been running or when the sun came up, or when he fell at last in the sandy debris of coconut husks and rotting palm fronds. He was afraid off the light. The screeching of the birds and the grunting of a wild pig somewhere in the vine-shrouded wilderness beyond the beach terrified him. He knew he was being followed. The sounds of the birds and monkeys and pigs mingled with the sigh and crash of the surf of the Celebes Sea on the beach. There was a kind of madness in the noise that balanced the gibbering in the lurking shadows of his brain.

Ian Fleming is famous for researching, in person, the settings of 007's adventures. He even wrote his own travelogue, Thrilling Cities ('63), though he seems a little grumpier than in the Bond books.  Aarons' methods have been lost to time, at least until a serious biographer gets on the case.  Sergio Rizzo writes that the Assignments "were most often set in the faraway places that Aarons researched on annual trips in search of new and vivid material." I reached out to an Aarons family member, who said, "My understanding is that his research was primarily book research."

There's no doubt Aarons did his research. I also like to think that Aarons really did travel to some of the many places he wrote about, having his own adventures before sitting down to the lonely task of writing multiple novels annually. His setting descriptions are lush and evocative, written with the confidence of one who experienced them firsthand. If he visited these places or not, chalk up the immersive writing to pure craftsmanship.

Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton
I think there are a couple reasons why Aarons is unknown to the general reading public after having been so popular in his day. Unlike Fleming, or Matt Helm's creator Donald Hamilton, Aarons never left his mark on Hollywood. Low budget flick Dead to the World(1961) is based on State Departments Murders, a hardboiled novel Aarons wrote using his pseudonym Edward Ronns.  Dead to the World is directed by Nicholas Webster, best known for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and it's not a career maker. I couldn't track down any other films Aarons is connected to.

Another issue is the way Aarons was marketed. I couldn't find any photos of Aarons on the internet. More importantly, I also couldn't find any on the paperbacks themselves. Many genre series authors were smartly branded, and it helped create a mystique around them. Micky Spillane looms large on many of his covers, wearing a porkpie hat. Fleming holds a gun. Donald Hamilton wears bitchin' sunglasses. Aarons, like a spook from one of his own novels, is nowhere in sight. He deserves to be rediscovered.

I already mentioned Sergio Rizzo and Nick Jones and their excellent essays on Aarons. Randall Masteller, writing at SpyGuysandGals.com, offers an amazing resource for spy fiction fans and has a synopsis for each book in the Assignment series. Doug Bassett provides many insights into Aarons in his piece at MysteryFile.com.

18 April 2019

Shoulder Wounds

by Jim Thomsen and Brian Thornton

My old friend Jim Thomsen and I have had a years-long on-going discussion of crime fiction tropes, crime fiction cliches, and what distinguishes them from each other. Recently our conversation veered in the direction of the time-honored "shoulder wound." The following is excerpted from said conversation.

Jim:

I’ve always thought every crime-fiction conference should have a session in which attendees
volunteer to be shot in the shoulder so they can know how it feels — and thus write about it more authoritatively and plausibly.

Why wouldn’t any author eagerly queue up for this opportunity? In countless works of crime fiction, the shoulder is depicted as a fluffy, friendly pincushion for bullets, and the shoulder wound is depicted as a nuisance on the scale of a mosquito bite, something that slows down the hero a bit — and wins panty-dropping sympathy from the woman on the fence of his life — before he goes right back to kicking baddie ass.

Shoulder wounds are one of the more prolific and ridiculous clichés in crime fiction — and one of the most pervasive. (An Edgar Award-winning author, one I admire, just released a novel in which a DOG gets shot in the shoulder: “Something hot whizzed through the fur on my shoulder.” Is the siren song of the shoulder wound that irresistible?

Think about it. What percentage of the human body is made up of our two shoulders? My guess is that it’s a single-digit figure. Yet, when the hero is wounded in crime-fiction battle, that’s the part of the body that is disproportionately hit, because it’s seen as the ultimate have-it-both-ways solution to showing humanity and invincibility in equal measure.


But believing that anybody can shake off a shoulder wound and still function in a fight requires a suspension of belief I find it hard to believe that anyone can believe. The shoulder isn’t just muscle mass that can absorb a bullet without irreparable damage or paralyzing pain; it’s a region of the body in which soft tissue is tightly clustered with muscle, joints, bone, blood vessels and nerve bundles. One doctor unpacks the reality of shoulder wounds here.

Another report adds: “The shoulder contains the subclavian artery, which feeds the brachial artery (the main artery of the arm), as well as the brachial plexus, the large nerve bundle that controls arm function. If you get hit in the brachial plexus, you’re probably not going to be walking around good as new five minutes later.”

It adds: “A study of 58 gunshot victims wounded in the brachial plexus found 51 of them needed follow-up surgery to deal with blood vessel damage, severe pain, and loss of motor function. As for the subclavian artery, a study from a New Orleans hospital reported that out of 16 cases of acute injury thereto, four patients died and another lost the arm.”

The idea that a bullet would strike just soft tissue, or that a soft-tissue strike wouldn’t significantly slow anyone, stretches plausibility to the point that I wonder if crime authors who use the device really have as much contempt for their readers as the facts would seem to indicate.

The Inimitable Tyler Dilts
Fortunately, there seems to be a growing awareness of, well, the tropey-ness of the trope. Tyler Dilts is the author of a series of Long Beach, California police procedurals whose main character, detective Danny Beckett, suffers from chronic pain from an extremity wound — the wrist, not the shoulder in this case. Danny’s entire personality has changed as a result of his pain, his dependence on opioids to wallpaper over the pain a little, and his loss of physical function. The novels work on their own, but especially shine as a smart, realistic inversion of the shake-it-off trope, and as such breathe fresh life into a subgenre that’s often gone stale.

Brian:

Could not agree more on Tyler's work, and his deft use of the lingering effects of physical trauma to break new ground in what is definitely NOT just another police procedural series. For my money he ups his game in his latest, a standalone called Mercy Dogs, wherein a veteran Long Beach cop, a victim of a gunshot to the head, looks into the disappearance of a neighbor while still recovering from the long-term effects of his shooting. A "flesh wound easily shrugged off," it is not. Definitely a must-read.

And where Tyler Dilts' work serves as something of a flat refutation of the nearly harmless shoulder wound trope, he's not exactly alone in his realistic portrayal of the after-effects of physical violence in crime fiction. If anything, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have borne witness to a trend among crime fiction writers in the direction of far more realistic portrayals of such violence.

(They are still outnumbered by the types of shoulder wounds Jim describes above, but hey, fiction seems to be largely headed in the right direction on this, even if it's not quite there yet, hence the use of the word trend.)

And leading the way was one truly brilliant send-up of the shoulder wound trope.

I'm talking, of course, about Michael Connelly's City of Bones.

(WARNING: GIGANTIC, HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!)


It's somewhat ironic that I credit City of Bones as anything approaching "brilliant."

This is in large part because, when I first read it, I hated this book.

In fact it was my first foray into the world of Connelly's most enduring contribution to crime fiction: LAPD homicide detective Hieronymus ("Harry") Bosch. City of Bones first saw publication in 2002, a time when a much younger me was hard at work on his first ("mistake") novel, and immersing himself in contemporary crime fiction, especially books recommended by other crime fiction writers whose work I respected.

And everyone I spoke with was in agreement: I had to read Michael Connelly. So I got a copy of his latest book, and tucked in.

And at first I loved it. Bosch, a crusty fellow in the best of times, found renewed purpose in a cold case involving the discovery of a serial killer's dumping ground (the titular "City of Bones"), and the excitement of a new love interest in the form of rookie cop Julia Brasher, who, having taken the time to get a law degree and join her father's firm, was old for a rookie (so close enough to his own age that him dating her wasn't some combination of weird and gross).

And then Connelly knocked the whole thing sideways.

The Master
Julia had taken note of an old gunshot scar on Bosch's torso, and they spoke at length about it. Next thing you know, she's shot while in pursuit of a suspect, and dies in the hospital shortly thereafter.

This was halfway through the book, and for my money, Connelly had just made a serious mistake: killing off what had been up to this point, the novel's most interesting character. I disagreed with this decision, and nearly stopped reading. But I had to admit how impressed by his writing, his command of the narrative, the tiny details he got right. In the end I respected Connelly's work too much not to see the book through to the end.

In the ensuing chapters, Connelly has Bosch put together that Julia actually intentionally shot herself, attempting to give herself a "shoulder wound" which matched Bosch's, as some sort of strange psychological "rite of passage." And in this case, the bullet bounced off her clavicle and lodged near her heart.

It was only later that I realized what a masterstroke this was. Connelly had given his fans both the stereotypical "shoulder wound" (Bosch's old wound which is healed, so it's not slowing him down at all, and said wound titillates an admiring female love interest) and a very realistic portrayal of what happens when a bullet goes the wrong way in someone's shoulder.

I mean, come on. Does it get any more "meta" than this?

And for our closing thought, back to Jim:

In the end, while a shoulder wound likely won’t kill you, that doesn’t make it anything you’re likely to leave behind anytime soon. As the author of the Washington City Paper report put it: “I still wouldn’t volunteer.”

Brian: Amen!

Thanks to Jim Thomsen for his contribution to this post. He's also one HELL of an editor, so if you're in the market for a pro, hit him up at his website.

See you in two weeks!


17 April 2019

Meet Me In Vancouver

by Robert Lopresti

I had a great time the last weekend of March, celebrating Left Coast Crime in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Ran into some past and present SleuthSayers there: R.T. Lawton, Brian Thornton, and Thomas Pluck.  Also old friends like S.J. Rozan, Kate Thornton, Ilene Schneider, and Pam Beason.  Even better I got to make new friends: Dara Carr, Cynthia Kuhn, and T.K. Thorne, among others.

But enough name-dropping!  Let me talk about the highlights of this four-day gathering of 400+ mystery readers and writers.  Naturally that includes panels.

One thing that was new to me: the panels were only 45 minutes long.  That is short.  To my surprise, I thought they worked pretty well but it definitely throws the panelists and the audience into the lap of the moderator.  If that august personage decides to spend the first five minutes reading the bios straight from the convention program, and then five more explaining his/her understanding of the panel topic, and then decides her/his questions are clearly more interesting than those of the audience, well... it can be painful.  One writer was told by an attendee: "I went to your panel.  I wish I had heard you instead of the moderator."

To give you some idea of what goes on, here are just the panels I attended:
Editors
Humour
International Settings
Law Enforcement Professionals  
Liars' Panel 
Music
Religion
Researching the Perfect Crime
Setting as Character
Short Stories and Novellas
Writing Villains

I was happy to serve on the Ecology Panel with Sara J. Henry, Dave Butler, Mark Stevens, and Gregory Zeigler.  I had suggested that topic but I felt like a bit of a fraud, since the others had written serious tales about water theft, over-development, illegal marijuana growing, etc. while my book is a comic crime novel about the Mafia trying to save the planet.  Ah, well.  We had fun.

S.J. Rozan with annoying fan
The Lefty Award Banquet was a treat.  Each table of ten was hosted by two authors and I was lucky enough to grab S.J. Rozan as a partner.  Like good hosts we brought extra wine and some tchotchkes for our guests (organic seed packets for Greenfellas; chopsticks in honor of Rozan's Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin).  We must have had a good time because our table was the last to leave.

There are two other big events.  At Speed Dating pairs of authors rush from table to table, giving their elevator pitch to groups of readers.  I have been on both sides of this dating spectrum and I can tell you that it's more fun to listen to forty different speeches than to give the same one twenty times.  The other event is the New Author Breakfast where all those who were published in the last year get to give an even briefer explanation of their book.

But let's talk about some little events.  There was a series called One-Shots, in which authors got to talk for fifteen minutes about some topic.  At the Toronto Bouchercon I did one of these about how my library caught the thief who had robbed over one hundred libraries.  Only about four people showed up.  This is not surprising; the events were not well publicized and tucked far away from the main rooms.

So this year I was ready.  I printed up ten posters (8.5x11) announcing the subject and the location.  I left them on the swag table where writers leave book marks and other paraphernalia.

It worked.  All the posters vanished and about twenty people showed up.  So if any of you plan to do a one-shot at a convention, remember that it pays to advertise.

The next day there was supposed to be a one-shot about author events from the bookseller's point of view.  People showed up for it but, alas, the bookseller, was not able to attend the convention.

Terri talking books
But what luck!  My wife was there.  Terri has worked for a decade at the best bookstore between Vancouver and Seattle, a shop that holds more than 300 author events every year.  So she gallantly stepped in and gave the attendees a lot of helpful tips.  When she signed up for LCC she had no idea she was going to be one of the speakers.

Next year Left Coast Crime will be in San Diego.  I recommend it.  In two weeks I will be back with a collection of words of wisdom I gathered at the con.  Here is a sample.  Perhaps you can  guess which  famous writer declared: "Me and God talk.  We go way back."



16 April 2019

How the College-Admissions Scandal, Gilmore Girls, and My Newest Short Story All Tie Together



by Barb Goffman

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island in the 1970s and '80s. I attended school in a (then) top-rated public school system. At age 15, my mother informed me my career choices were doctor (which she knew was a no-go as I can't even talk about blood) or lawyer. Before I graduated from high school, my three siblings were all practicing attorneys. My path was clear, even if I didn't want to take it. (The fact that I ultimately didn't take it for a few years is a little miracle in itself. But I digress.)

When I was a teen, if I needed a tutor or an SAT prep class to ensure my future, I got it. If I had to participate in a gazillion extra-curricular activities to round out my college applications, I did it. If taking a bunch of Advanced Placement (AP) classes would help me stand out, I took them. I wasn't atypical. This is how it was for many kids where I grew up, and likely many kids in similar neighborhoods nationwide. If you didn't get all A's you must not have tried hard enough. Failure was not an option. Success was expected, even though perfection is a pretty hard standard to meet--one I rarely did. (If you think I'm exaggerating, then feel blessed that you never brought home a test with a score of 97, the highest grade in the class, but instead of receiving praise, you were asked why you didn't get 100.)


So when the college-admissions scandal broke a few weeks ago, I wasn't surprised. Three decades have passed, but people haven't changed. The parents involved appear to be just as goal-oriented as many of the ones I knew growing up, doing whatever they think is necessary to ensure their kids succeed. Except they have a lot more money than the families in my old neighborhood, and perhaps fewer ethical qualms, so instead of (or perhaps in addition to) pushing their kids to obtain success through legal methods, these parents paid people off to ensure admissions or to raise key test scores. They took competitive parenting to the extreme.

What drives parents to do these types of things? I'm no psychologist, but I've given this mindset a lot thought over the years, and I think it's at least partially a combination of vanity and fear. Parents who want others to think they are successful use their kids' "achievements" as bragging rights. That's the vanity at work. As for the fear, that's where the old idea of keeping up with the Joneses comes into play. When it seems everyone you know does something to give their kids a leg up, you feel you have to do it too, or else your children will fall behind, and maybe they won't live in as nice a house as you have when they grow up; maybe they won't have as nice a life as you do. And that just won't do. It's a failure on your part. (And vanity raises its ugly head once again.)

It was with competitive parents like these in mind that I created the main character in my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne." It appears in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm, which is officially published today by Wildside Press. (How timely, right?) The book includes 18 crime stories about strong southern women written by members of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

When friends read early drafts of this story, they thought my main character, Emily Forester, was crazy. Her priorities seemed so skewed. But Emily is just a competitive parent who focused her energies on her husband (as well as her children). She needed him to achieve. She feared what would happen if he didn't. And she wouldn't let his desires divert them from the path to success that they were on.

Maybe Emily didn't seem so crazy to me because of my own past. And maybe it's because she resembled another fictional Emily whom I love: Emily from Gilmore Girls.
Kelly Bishop played
Emily Gilmore


Think about it. Emily Gilmore had her standards. She knew how things were supposed to be. She was a corporate wife, and her job was to help her husband succeed. She was the ultimate power behind the throne. Granted she never paid off someone to promote her husband, but she certainly did everything she could behind the scenes to help him move up the corporate ladder, including throwing the right parties, doing charity work with the right people, and having him accompany her to all the right events. In the end, Emily Gilmore isn't that different from the parents I knew growing up and those 1% parents in the news now. She knew the path to take to success, and she and her family were going to take it come hell or high water. (At least until Lorelai had a baby and ran away. But that's another story.)

My character Emily Forester is the modern-day equivalent of Emily Gilmore. The only difference is Emily Gilmore's husband appreciated her efforts (mostly). Emily Forester's husband ... not so much. And that's why their marriage took a deadly turn.

To find out what happened to Emily Forester, and to truly understand her mindset--it's so much more fun, I think, to be in her head than have me try to explain it--you'll have to pick up the anthology. I hope you will. It's available in trade paperback at Amazon and in trade paperback and e-book form directly through the publisher. It should show up in e-book form on Amazon any time now, and you should be able to order it from any bookstore.

For any of you on Facebook, several authors with stories in the book will be on the Lethal Ladies Write page from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight ET to talk about the book. Please stop by. And for any of you going to the Malice Domestic mystery convention in two weeks, you'll be able to buy the anthology in the book room at the convention. Several authors with stories in the book will be participating in a group signing on Friday, May 4th, at 4 p.m. at Malice. We hope to see you there!

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Speaking of Malice Domestic, all attendees will be able to vote for this year's winners of the Agatha Award. If you haven't read all five nominated short stories, this is the perfect time to do so. You can find links to them, including my "Bug Appétit," on the Malice website. Happy reading!