27 May 2020

Another Day in Paradise


I used to have a theory that the defining characteristic of a successful television series was the comfort factor. I don't think this is actually an original idea of mine, but likely somebody else's observation I've appropriated. If you take a show like Rockford, or Murder, She Wrote, or Magnum, it's a relationship, and you build on familiarity. It's about your engagement with Jim Garner, or Angela Lansbury, or Tom Selleck. Pause for a moment and consider that Columbo was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bing Crosby.

So if first we have character, then we have circumstance. To what degree is any given series situation? The term was coined to describe the half-hour comedies that came after Lucy, and Gleason's Honeymooners - even thought those shows were ensembles, and very much dependent on situation. In this case, though, we're talking situation drama, distinct from soaps. These are programming definitions, and not all that useful, except as shorthand.

Taking, again, Magnum for our template. Tom Selleck says the concept was a kind of James Bond party boy, beating women away with a stick, hot cars and vodka martinis, and Selleck was, No, been there, done that. How about beer and a Tigers cap, or the guy gets conked on the head a lot, he's even kinda slow on the uptake, from time to time? In other words, more like the rest of us. Then we begin to discard the other generic conventions. Higgins is an awful stiff, with only one note, the aggrieved and aging queen. John Hillerman clearly loses patience with this pretty early on. T.C. and Rick are there for what, protective coloration? This, too, goes by the boards. The dynamic of the show turns collaborative. It's character-driven.

Selwyn 
Catherine


Now, what if we turn this back to front? Suppose we take a situation that's character-driven, and keep changing the cast? This is Death in Paradise. It has some similarities to Murder, She Wrote, for one. It's not singularly gruesome, and mostly has a light touch. Nor does it break new ground. It's formulaic, and follows an established pattern. But consistency works in its favor. It's closing out the ninth season, and headed for ten.

Poole
Camille


The premise is a fish-out-of-water story. A cop from London, a detective inspector, is assigned to a somnolent Caribbean oasis. There's a lot of French heritage mixed in, but it's part of the British Commonwealth. (The show is an Anglo-French co-production, and actually shot on Guadeloupe and nearby islands.)

We have the expected culture clash, but the charms of the place turn out to be irresistible, and even the flintiest of hearts begins to soften. The other underlying commonplace is that our visiting fireman has the nearly magical ability to read the runes, and rescue clarity from the jaws of disorder.

Dwayne
Fidel


I know I'm not alone in thinking the first two season were the best, because of Ben Miller in the lead. He seems to have made a career of playing anal-retentive Limey twits or chilly Whitehall mandarins - for which see his iceberg performance in Primeval, opposite the indispensable Dougie Henshall. Cast out of rain-soaked England into the sudden sunshine of the New World, the guy never loosens his tie or undoes the top button of his collar. When he finally unbends enough to take off his shoes and socks and wade barefoot in the surf, it's as much of a character reveal as Dorothy Malone undoing her hair in The Big Sleep.

Humphrey
Florence



The third season introduced Kris Marshall, who hid his light under a bushel of socially awkward mannerisms, which never convinced me or won my heart. Both the way Humphrey was written and the way Marshall played him were enormously annoying. Here's the weird thing. I kept watching the show. Kris Marshall put me off but not enough to give up on the rest of them, Fidel and Dwayne and Camille. The concept held my attention, and the ensemble. And then another whammy. Putting up with Humphrey, and having lost Fidel at the end of Season Three, we then lose Camille, and Florence Cassell moves up a notch.

Ruby
J.P.



We finally unload Kris Marshall in Season Six, and Ardal Hanlon steps aboard. Big improvement. Except that Florence leaves. Two new constables have been slipped into the mix, Hooper and Ruby, but the real blow is at at the beginning of Season Eight, when Dwayne has disappeared, and without ceremony. By this point, the entire main cast has rolled over twice. The only stable support personnel are Don Warrington as the police commissioner and Elizabeth Bourgine as Catherine. Oh, and of course Harry the lizard, a still point in a turning world.


Jack
Madeleine



I just find it strange, quite honestly, that I've stuck with it. The locations are gorgeous, the hot colors, the laid back island vibe. There's familiarity, shrugging into a well-worn set of clothes, your expectation that it's all going to be set right. Terrific guest shots - James Cosmo, Adrian Dunbar, Denis Lawson, Clare Holman, Peter Davison.

Who wouldn't give up a week in the clammy UK and fly to the French West Indies? Maybe that's it, in the end.


I've got no explanation. I can only suggest that you pick up the DVD's at your library, or stream it on BritBox. You may well be as pleasantly surprised as I've been.

26 May 2020

AloneStarCon


Though our friends are saddened by the cancellation of this year’s many mystery conferences and conventions, Temple and I spent Memorial Day weekend at AloneStarCon, the first-ever presentation of the Lone Star State’s premier mystery convention. We thought we would share some highlights with you.

This year’s convention was held in a modest venue selected for its proximity to the guests of honor. Convention staff went above and beyond to ensure that every guest felt welcome, and the many presentations were nothing short of exceptional. The distance between any two points in the event facility was negligible, the intimate setting allowed close interaction between writer and fan, and everywhere we turned we ran into our favorite writer. There was never a wait for a table in the restaurant, the food was excellent, and the serve-yourself bar allowed for generous pours of one’s favorite libations.


AloneStarCon
May 22-24, 2020
Hewitt, Texas

Guest of Honor By Default: Michael Bracken
Fan Guest of Honor By Default: Temple Walker
Surprise Guest: Kiwi

First event of the day was the Speed Dating Breakfast, where I had a scant two minutes per table to discuss my story “Sleepy River” in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Here I am holding up a copy of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods while moderating the panel on anthology editing.

Later, I moderated the panel on creating and editing a serial novella anthology series, and I’m showing the audience the first two volumes of Guns + Tacos.

The Fan Guest of Honor caught me in the lobby, taking a break between panels.

Surprise Guest Kiwi failed to adhere to social distancing suggestions when he joined me in the lobby.

The dealer’s room had quite a selection, and here I am with a copy of Password to Larkspur Lane, one of Temple’s favorite Nancy Drew titles.

After a hard day of paneling and book buying, we found a place at the bar for some much-needed libation.

When we finally made it back to our room the first night, we dumped out our swag bag and found many titles written or edited by the Guest of Honor.

Though we hope AloneStarCon does not become an annual event, we must express our gratitude to the organizers for putting together this stellar event on such short notice.

Until we see you all again, stay safe!


25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain

"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

24 May 2020

The Murder of Me, part 2


Narrows Gorge Underwater
Narrows Gorge Underwater

Last week, a boating companion left Leigh trapped upside down in an overturned canoe in surging waters, fighting to free his ankles. If Leigh didn’t smash face-first into boulders rising from the depths, a whirlpool lay ahead.

He had been targeted for murder.

We return to the story…
— Editor

gorge map
Upside down in churning, freezing glacier melt, I fought to free my ankles. Threaded under the seat, my long legs proved difficult to extricate from a crevice not made for anyone over six feet. One foot pulled free… tug, twist… then the other. Still submerged, I yanked off my boots so I could swim.

My life preserver popped me to the surface. To my right, a ledge extended. I climbed like a wet rat, reaching that shelf, momentarily safe.

At a distance below, Jeff clung to the capsized canoe, orbiting the whirlpool. He screamed up at me, violently swearing.

Only one way off the ledge presented itself. I needed to plunge back into the freezing waters. It seemed a twelve-foot drop, but was probably half that.

I jumped. I swam for the circling canoe.

One of my boots bobbed there. I never knew hiking shoes could float. The other came within reach. Jeff cursed me the entire time.

“Shut it,” I said. “We need to empty the canoe.”

“How?”

“Give me the paddle,” I said.

“No.”

“The paddle, else stay stuck in this spin cycle.”

“No, you’ll leave.”

“I’ll leave if you don’t.”

He didn’t know how to get out of the predicament. He swore and tossed me the paddle.

“Rock the boat like this,” I said. “Slosh the water out.”

He followed instructions until we emptied much of the water. I stretched across and pulled myself into the stern. Jeff followed suit, clinging to a thwart. I ruddered the canoe until it separated from the grip of the whirlpool. It bounded down the rapids battering the hell out of the hull.

We spotted the portage. Bill, Sandy, and Lauren huddled there, stamping their feet against the cold.

“Where were you?” they said. “What happened to you?”

“Leigh fucked up,” said Jeff before I could speak. “He tipped us over. Leigh lost one of the oars and he’s fucking paying for it.”

The women hovered over Jeff, cooing and cawing. “You poor thing."

“Let’s hike,” I said. “Hypothermia. We need to get warm and dry.”

Moments later, Scott appeared. As the others climbed the trail, he and I hefted the canoe over our shoulders to portage it. In relative privacy under the shell, he spoke quietly.

“Weirdest thing, Leigh. I inched along the cliff face and kept you in sight.”

“You picked your way across that bluff?” I was impressed.

“Yeah. As the canoe aimed at those rocks, I remembered the stern guy steers. When Jeff started rocking the boat. I’m convinced he deliberately capsized it.”

I said, “Pretty much what happened.”

“Why do that? You could have been killed.”

“I don’t know, Scott. I can’t explain it.”

Jeff Summerfield's Malfoy sneer
The Malfoy sneer
The Cool

Back at camp, the only warmth arose from the fire. Jeff held court, regarding me with his down-the-nose Malfoy gaze.

He might have been practicing the campfire tale of my misfortune for hours, days, even weeks. His dramatic recounting horrified a sympathetic audience. He held my incompetence forced the canoe into the rocks. I panicked, lost my paddle, and needed rescuing.

“The great canoeing expert man,” he said. “Good thing no one else trusted lives to him. Guy can’t hold onto a paddle.”

Bill glared at me accusingly. “You almost got Jeff killed.”

A childhood defect often renders me speechless against untrue accusations.

Scott remained silent. I imagined he’d filled Sandy in as they glided back to camp, but her eyes showed doubt as Jeff told and retold his story. Who would deliberately capsize a canoe in dangerous waters?

The Cold

Lauren took my protests as churlish and unfair to Jeff. On the drive back to Minneapolis, she hovered under a blanket with him, not me, signaling the beginning of the end of a lengthy relationship.

Thereafter, she brooked no criticism of him. The more I sullenly avoided Jeff, the more Lauren cozied up to him. Except for curt, one-word replies, she stopped speaking with me.

The day came when Lauren called it quits over the phone.

Next morning, Sandy rang me. She couldn’t contain the breakup headline news update.

“We barely got her stuff moved into a condo and in waltzed Jeff with his backpack and ski poles. He sat in the easy chair and ordered the rest of us around, where to put this, where to arrange that. We can’t believe her. Can’t you stop this?”

“Not any more, Sandy. Not any more.”

The Ice

During those moments of the river ‘accident,’ I didn't have time for fear. The real impact came later, shock and internal pain… Once upon a time Lauren caused my world to revolve. Then the planet tilted, stopping dead in its tracks.

No way. I’m a tough guy, big, resilient, not gutted, not hurt, no bruised soft tissue, no seared scars, no brutalization of betrayal, nothing to see folks. No jagged spear tore out a wretched pulsing, pumping organ that couldn’t be mine. No salty water blinded my eyes, no unending oceans of agony, no treacherous waves hammered soft shoals, no dark tunnels flooded with torture and torment, no anguish, no fiery cauldron of pain, no. No problem, nothing, nothing at all, just a… just a fourteen-digit number on the Richter scale of heartbreak.

General Armstrong Custer, Jeff Summerfield look-alike
Custer, Jeff look-alike
Casting Stones

In the time I’d known him, Jeff had become an expensive acquaintance. The never-ending lending for lunch or dinner was the least of it. Around him, things broke, things disappeared, things died.

The year before, he’d mysteriously blown up the new engine in our little Triumph Spitfire. I never let him drive another car, but he persuaded Lauren to let him try out our newly purchased Dodge– an hour after midnight– while I was at work, when good little children should have been sound asleep. Claiming he hit a patch of ice, he’d slammed it into a guardrail on Interstate 494… at one in the morning.

Jeff manifested a couple of peculiarities, especially compulsive lying. Our expanded circle of friends merely wrote that off as Jeff being Jeff. But the cash bag from Lauren’s shop vanished in Jeff’s presence. And animals… critters left in his care curiously died.

The women in our larger circle noticed something else. They remarked how Jeff exhibited a penchant for dating young widows.

Lauren had nearly become one– a young widow.

Constant nightmares haunted me. With difficulty, I caught my breath and began to recover. I threw myself into my work.

That should have marked the end of the saga. It didn’t.

Sherburne County Sheriff
Castle Breached

A freezing January day found me consulting out of state. An emergency phone call rang in from Lauren, she was visiting the house. My peaceful home in the woods– a state forest– had been burglarized and badly vandalized.

Sherburne County’s Sheriff might have presided over a frozen rural fiefdom, but he was no slouch. While his fingerprint maven dusted enough powder to mount a community theatre production of Chim-Chim Cher-ee, the sheriff explained the situation over the phone.

Wood chips from the supposed point of entry were scattered inside, not outside the back door. The sheriff found no footprints in the snow, none, nor footprints anywhere around the house. The only trail was tire tracks straight into the garage. A large screwdriver left at the scene suggested a burglary tool used to break into the house, except… it had come from my toolchest… already inside the house.

“Kinda strange, doncha think?” the sheriff said.

“Very.”

“Anyone besides Lauren have access to your garage opener?”

I unloaded suspicions that had built from the moment she phoned. She’d mentioned Jeff acted particularly odd when she announced her intention of checking the house. Normally Lauren defended him tooth and nail. Now she hesitated.

The sheriff promised to call me back. He did, sooner than I expected. Deputies had picked up Jeff skulking along country roads… in January… in subzero Minnesota.

The sheriff said, “Thirty minutes after question one, our boy painted himself in a corner so tight, he confessed to crimes we never asked about. FYI, this guy hates your guts.”

I said, “Why? I gave him work, I lent him money for lunch and dinner.”

“That’s the problem. You need to pick better pals. He pretended to be a friend while he hung around your companions and targeted you. He invited himself into your group, into your shop, and into your home. He gave the women little gifts stolen from others, robbing from Petra to pay Paula.”

The sheriff continued. “This boy profiled you. He asked innocent questions, gathering personal ammunition. On your previous canoe trips, he said it was goddamn hard to get you talking about yourself, getting you to reveal the private you, but he managed.”

“Why so much effort to come after me? I never did anything against him.”

“He admits that. You gave him lifts when he didn’t have a ride. You often paid for his meals. What you considered generosity and sharing, he took as deliberately showing off and humiliating him. Jeff envied you, he hated you. You had material things he wanted: lovely woman, house, and a couple of cars. Your occupation allowed you to travel. What did you do with your advantages? Nothing, by his reckoning. You didn’t buy fancy stuff, you just kept working. It wasn’t fair, he thought. You didn’t deserve it, he did. So he set out to destroy you and take what he could.”

“Sheriff, did you ask about the canoeing accident?”

“Clearly no accident. He didn’t give us a thing to charge him, but he enjoyed mocking us. It was like he challenged us to prove anything. He fed us cocky TV dialogue and cute tidbits like, ‘An accident couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.’”

“Sheriff, I never intended him ill.”

“Son, you do not understand evil. No one believes you wronged him. He’s a total narcissist. His world has a population of one. He gets what he wants manipulating innocents. For him, screwing others is more rewarding than working. In the future, try not to be so damn trusting.”

Farmers Insurance
Castle Defence

Jeff’s game wasn’t over.

The sheriff’s office filed burglary, theft, and property damage charges. However, the state attorney wouldn’t prosecute until my insurance company weighed in, and Farmers Insurance hadn’t obliged. For months, they refused to pay for the damage and destruction.

My insurance agent resembled a red-bearded Hagrid. Two metres tall, 6½+ feet of Midwestern muscle, my rep sumo wrestled professionally in the US and Japan. He could have shaded Jesse Ventura, but he proved no match for Jeff. When he sat down with me, he looked morose.

He said, “Farmers won’t pay, they won’t subrogate, they won’t prosecute. This guy’s going to walk.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Jeff persuaded the company investigator you masterminded the burglary of your own house and snared innocent him in your scheme.”

“I’m the guy who wants to see this case go to trial. The sheriff wants to try him and so do I.”

The agent shook his massive Hagrid head.

“The adjuster’s convinced the sheriff got it wrong and you’re the bad guy.”

“How? On what evidence?”

He drummed fingers the size of hammers on his desk.

“The company investigator turned in dinner expenses for two. She said she needed to get Jeff to open up.”

“Why does she…? Oh, no, no. She wined and dined Jeff? He played her?”

“In-depth investigation, according to my secretary.”

“That’s a pun? They’re dating?”

“Who’s to say? Who investigates investigators?”

Farmers’ confidence in their private detective cost them. After I hired counsel, the underwriter realized their statutory window of time to sue Jeff had run out and they could no longer collect. The company begrudgingly paid my attorney and sent a check for replacement and repairs.

The investigator’s position caused further fallout. Because Farmers Insurance contradicted the findings of the sheriff, the prosecutor didn’t indict. His office explained the defense would simply call Jeff’s tame insurance investigator and undermine their slam-dunk case.

After mere days in jail, Jeff skated. A homicidal grifter now walked free.

Case Closed

For a year, nightmares haunted me. They didn’t stem from fear of Jeff, but fear of my inner rage. In my violent dreams, he died a hundred imaginative deaths. That wasn’t me, not the person I wanted to be. During waking hours, I clamped down my anger, but when freed to roam dreamscapes, my nightmares would have terrified him; they certainly horrified me.

For my own well-being, I needed to escape. I stravaiged around Europe, working, consulting, trouble-shooting. A couple of times, word drifted over from the States.

Lauren entered the hospital for a couple of weeks. Her parents confided that absent a meal ticket, Jeff promptly moved in with a younger girl, and then another, always another.

Last I heard, he married a wealthy widow. No word if Jeff was involved in her premature widowhood.

Leigh Lundin
Final Word

It’s taken years to write this, mostly because of my difficulty talking about myself. My words sound all wrong, I can’t properly document my emotions. Please, my apologies.

Ultimately to a writer, everything is fuel or fodder. I experimented, crafting nightmares into a story, which I might yet finish. In my version, the bad guy finally gets his comeuppance. Perhaps that dark chapter inside me could yet open to the light of day.



Years later, another man– this one a pillar of his church and the Orlando community– would tell me those same words, “You don’t understand evil.” Thirty days later, he and his wife would die violently.

23 May 2020

The Oh-So-Glam and Very Public Life of an Author
(aka Park your Ego at the Door)


John Floyd inspired this column with his recent post Strange but True, describing the things that have happened to him as an author.   I probably have another column of zany experiences to tell, but we'll start with this post.  Raising a glass to you, John!  (Amarone, in my case.  And a case of that would be welcome.) 





The Good:

“Sixty-two people signed up!” said the perky librarian. “We’ll have to move rooms. It’s a record.”

That was last February, at a branch of the Toronto Public Library. I was on stage talking about crime writing and my seventeen books, with Joan, another writer gal-pal. We’re both college teachers, so we know how to hold an audience. And we write humorous books, so we had the audience rockin’.

Photos went up on Facebook; 59 people chimed in with comments. And the most common comment was – Wow! That’s a terrific turnout. How did you do it?

Frankly, I have no idea. Yes, there were several Goddaughter series followers there. But it’s a mystery (sic) to me why some events fill up and others flop like a long-dead lake trout. And believe me, I’ve been in that pond too.

I’ve had events where only three readers show up. Where the number in the audience matches the number on stage. And where you don’t sell a single book.

The Eh…

Yes, well, about book sales on Wednesday night. Here’s the irony. The library brought in over 30 of my books for attendees to check out. I laughed when I saw the table. Everyone picked up the library books. I think I sold two.

Was it worth it? We do get paid in Canada for our books in libraries. So yes, it’s important to keep my books there, and keep people checking them out. But also, meeting my audience is hugely important for inspiring me to keep going.

But glamorous? Just remind me to park my ego at the door. Here’s why:

If you are an author, your life becomes somewhat public. People feel they have the right to comment on your looks, your age, your weight, your clothing, as well as your books. I began to realize last year that people believe celebrities – even terribly minor ones like mid-list authors – belong to them in some strange way.

The Bad:

I’ve had events where audience members come up after the event and thrust their virgin manuscripts into my hands and tell me to read it “for free.” I’m supposed to be grateful. And if I like it, which I definitely will, could I show it to my agent. Plus, I inevitably notice that they don’t buy even one of my books, or even admit to having read one.

That part is funny and frustrating, but it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s even scary.

I’ve had a stalker, who couldn’t tell me apart from Rowena and Gina Gallo (the protagonists in my two series. You would think he would be disappointed upon meeting me. I’m almost 30 years older than my sexy protagonists!) Age didn’t turn him off. I felt hunted and haunted. It got to the point where whenever I was teaching at night or speaking in public, I would make sure to be accompanied by a male escort (not the hired kind. Although that would make for a better story…)

The Ugly:

I’ve had an ex-con confront me at a public event to write his ‘story’. I tried to explain that I was a fiction writer, not a true crime writer. Didn’t convince him. He followed up with angry emails. Things got tense. What DID convince him was explaining who I was related to, and why they wouldn’t be at all pleased to see me writing true crime. (He knew of The Family. That convinced him. He vamoosed.)

The Funny:

We started off this post with a good news event. But those are balanced by the ones that simply devastate the already fragile ego.

I was invited by a downtown Hamilton library branch to come on out for a Monday afternoon to speak about my bestselling fantasy series, Rowena Through the Wall. The event was open to the public, but the main audience would be a very keen grade twelve creative writing class from the local high school. Fantasy rocked with them, apparently.

Now, it just so happened that this Monday, the teachers were in contract talks, and they went work-to-rule. That meant no field trips. Librarian calls me with this news, but says “Don’t worry. Come anyway. I’m sure people will attend.”

When I arrived, instead of 34 eager students, there were exactly six elderly women, all with walkers.
But we’re troopers, right? We perform even if there is an audience of one. So I started reading. And half way through my five minute reading, at the most exciting part, one old dear yelled out, “When does the movie start?”’

And such is the glamorous life of this author.


That sketchy gal, and her friend Joan O'Callaghan, in Feb.
Hey - a candid photo that doesn't make me want to kill myself!

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award, sponsored by CRIME WRITERS OF CANADA!  You can pick it up at all the usual places.  Of course, Gina - the protagonist - would probably steal it...

22 May 2020

Sleuth$ayers Government Loans Are Here!*


Gosh, uncertain times are destroying main street businesses the world over, aren't they? But here in the United States, the spectacle of the public and private sector working together has been downright heartwarming. In recent weeks, the U.S. federal government has made available a giant pool of money that “small” businesses can tap into to pay their payrolls and stay afloat.

Boy howdy, the first round of money went fast! The feds kicked in some more. The pot now stands at $660 billion, give or take a few billion.

And excitingly, the definition of what constitutes a "small" business is refreshingly fluid. If you follow the rules, the "loans" don't have to be paid back. (Among the rules: Please do not buy a Rolex or lease a Rolls Royce.)

But where does that leave you, the professional or semi-professional mystery writer? You might be left asking such questions as, “Gee, America, I don’t operate a multi-million-dollar chain of overpriced steakhousesI am not the owner of a major basketball franchise. Nor am I a scrappy up-and-coming private equity firm, hedge fund, publicly-traded software firm, international cruise line, or globally-known high-end resort chain. What if my business is too small to be considered ‘small’? Who do I turn to for my bailout?”

You’re in luck. SleuthSayers Bank & Trust has joined forces with the U.S. federal government to develop a series of exciting loan instruments for the small-town American mystery writer. Loans are backed by the full faith and credit of the American government, and allow crime fiction writers the same flexibility as the package offered in recent weeks to “small” American businesses.

Loans are only available to those proposing to create a work of mystery fiction, defined as “a literary work in which a criminal act or the threat of a criminal act plays a major role in the plot.”

Please refer to the following before contacting our staff via email or phone. Our bankers are burning the virtual midnight oil to help writers complete their online applications swiftly and collect their sweet, sweet bags of cash.
We are hard at work printing your money.Photo by Celyn Kang on Unsplash

* * * 

FAQ

I’m currently writing my first book, a cozy mystery about a plucky amateur sleuth who operates a bed and breakfast AND bookstore AND antique shop in an adorable town in rural Maine, within sight of the roaring sea. Does this subject matter qualify me for a small “small” business loan?

Sweet monkeys, yes! This is exactly the sort of project the SleuthSayers Bank & Trust hopes to fund. However, there are some concerning issues. Since this is your first book, we’re afraid we cannot be encouraging about your chances of receiving a dime unless your protagonist is a cat owner. Please indicate on your application your willingness to tweak your content in this fashion, and we are sure we could back this project for the modest sum of $1 million. If you satisfy the U.S. government’s requirement to use 75 percent of the funds for your payroll, the money does not need to be paid back.


I am a single American male entrepreneur who has led a robust, exciting life, resulting in some unfortunate issues with the SEC and U.S. Department of Justice. While I feel certain that all the fines have been paid, there may be some unflattering mentions of me on so-called “white-collar-crime” watchdog sites. Will this jeopardize my ability to get a loan? On the upside: I hope to make a clean break with my past, and pen a dark, sobering noir in which things go from bad to worse.

My good man, the U.S. federal government cares not a whit if you have had financial issues in your past, or have run into trouble with various government agencies. In fact, your business acumen may qualify you for our top-tier, $1.8 million loan package, which ensures you will not run afoul of pesky federal auditing issues. Please be certain that the finished work does not appear to glorify the criminal lifestyle. Noir it up! Rewatch Double Indemnity and you should be good to go. Kindly inform your banker if you will be requesting a check, or bound bricks of small, unmarked bills.


I’m a Canadian writer, and—

Let me stop you right there. $500,000 in U.S. dollars. Take it or leave it. And yes, you will have to pay it back over 97 years at the tune of 1 percent interest. Unless you marry an American. The above applicant is available.



I’m actually a writer of science fiction and fantasy. I was turned down for a small small business loan offered by the Bank of Interminable Series Fiction, and am now hoping I can find a home in the mystery community since my as-yet-unfinished 200,000-word sci-fi space opera devotes 30,000 of its words to a shocking series of corporate murder-and-reanimation experiments at a penal colony on a moon of Dendur 57-X-Bleu. Do I qualify?

Unfortunately not. To satisfy our requirements, your plot must be overtly perceived to be part and parcel of the mystery genre. At the present time, we are urging all our SFF would-be clients to consider adding a robot (i.e. “mecha”) who wears a trench coat and fedora, and speaks exclusively in crackling, snappy repartee. This will increase your chances, but please remember that cross-genre fiction is a tough racket. We will only consider funding such a work up to $800,000.



I am an artisanal practitioner of highbrow-cum-lowbrow literary fiction. My current WIP is a tome that posits that the “solution” to so many of life’s “mysteries” result in subversive sops to the long-suffering proletariat. To prove this theory, I am in part deconstructing a public domain work of Agatha Christi’s and purging all instances of the letter “e” from her work. The result will be a mash-up of locked-room meets commercial domestic suspense. Is this an acceptable project under your program?

You had us at commercial domestic suspense. Stick an unreliable femme fatale narrator in it, and the million’s yours.


* * * 

* The foregoing does not constitute a bonafide offer of a single damn thing. There is no SleuthSayers Bank & Trust. But Double Indemnity is a cool movie, and you should really, really check it out if you haven’t already. Alas, there are no government loans for mystery writers, but isn't it pretty to think so?

21 May 2020

Tales From the Waffle House and other 24/7 Adventures


by Eve Fisher

Once upon a time in Hollywood - my Hollywood - I spent an awful lot of time with an old black bluesman named Solomon at a place called Ben Frank's on Sunset Boulevard.  I just looked it up, and it's listed on Rock and Roll Roadmaps, and it still exists, only now it's Mel's Drive-In.  (???)  But I liked it the way it was, a 24/7 place where Solomon and I could meet over coffee and cigarettes and sometimes a little food and endless conversation.  We often got kicked out, not because we were there too long - there was no such thing, at least not late at night - but because Solomon would have a tendency to eventually go off on a rap about how the only religion that embraced the full erotic aspect of God's love was Hinduism (and he waxed very poetic), and then hit on the waitress, who usually thought he was a dirty old man.  Maybe he was, but he was a damn good friend - in fact he saved my life one night at a place called the Free Church, which is a whole 'nother story, that maybe I'll tell another time.  And I love a good long conversation on something besides the weather and politics. 

That - and recovery from hangovers - is what 24/7 restaurants are for. 

Check out Waffle House.

Everyone who's ever lived in the South has eaten at Waffle House more times than they can count.  Open 24-7, there's no where else in many towns open at 3 AM where you can get coffee, breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  If they ever add beer to the menu, no one would ever leave.

The motley assortment of people at a Waffle House at any time must be seen to be believed - Sunday churchgoers and the local homeless all chowing down together - but there are those who only walk by night, and they know where they can come.  Granted, the glaring lighting and 3 sided floor-to-ceiling windows are hard on the hung over.  But that's the price you pay for pecan waffles and an accessible bathroom.

And then there's the floor show:  how many places, other than Benihana's, have their chefs in constant view of the clientele?   I've sat there many a time, feeling a little rocky, watching the master chefs of Waffle House flipping burgers, eggs, and hashbrowns all the while tapping, singing, dancing to the radio and/or joking with each other, flirting with the waitresses, and (in olden days) smoking like chimneys without dropping ash anywhere but the floor.  Amazing.

I remember when the local Waffle House in Bristol, TN was taken over by a Yankee manager.  The guy - young know-it-all type - came in and started giving everyone hell about all kinds of stuff.  Not that anyone was paying attention.  They figured he'd move on sooner or later, and if they had anything to do with it, it would be sooner.

"He wants me to go out and chip weeds in the parking lot," said our favorite late-night waitress.  "Now I ain't doin' that.  And I let him know it.  He said he'd fire me.  I said, when do you think I'm gonna find the time to do that?  He say, you can do it when things are quiet 'round here.  When does he think that is?  Four a.m., and it's pitch dark?  I'm not going out there.  And at five, all them people from the factory come in, they shift over, and I'm running the counter like my ass is on fire?  I don't think so."

Another order he gave - to our favorite day waitress - was that she quit putting raw rice in the salt-shakers.  "Where is that boy from, anyway?  Don't he know that if you don't put rice in the salt-cellars, they gonna turn into Lot's wife?  How else you gonna made that salt flow?  He ain't never been here in July or August, that's for damn sure.  You want your hash browns smothered and covered?"  Hell yes.

There was also the time when the carnival came to town, and apparently one of the carnies made off and made hay with the girlfriend of one of the cooks.  The cook didn't take it well, especially when the carnie showed up at the Waffle House for sustenance before the carnival took off on Monday morning.  Let's just say that no one was chipping weeds in the parking lot that day but the carnie, and it was mostly with his teeth, as the cook bounced him around the asphalt.

And there were always drug deals in the parking lot, the homeless / wino regulars taking a snooze in that back booth that's almost out of sight of the windows, the constant gossip, and the police who ignored all of it, because they wanted a pecan waffle, too.

And we were all snobbish with it.  A Waffle House in Wytheville, Virginia.  Everyone's smoking, including us.  It's raining outside.  Inside, a nice thick haze of cigarette smoke, frying onions, waffle batter, burgers, grease, and coffee.  Perfect.  A car pulls up outside, New York license plates, and a couple gets out.  They walk in, and the woman looks around and asks, "Where is the non-smoking section?"  The waitress didn't miss a beat:  "In New York City."  The couple left, and the entire restaurant clientele stood up and applauded.

Of course, I enjoyed 24/7 restaurants more back in the day when I was apt to be up and around 24/7.  (Now I consider 9 PM seriously late and generally don't answer telephone calls after 8.)  When I was in my early 20s in Atlanta, in between Waffle Houses, the go-to places were the Majestic Diner at Plaza Drugs and Doby's, both on Ponce De Leon.  (Photo at right thanks to GA State Library Digital Collections.)

Doby's Good Food restaurant exterior on Ponce de Leon, 1980Back then the Majestic was just known as Plaza Drugs, and was known for its drugged-up clientele.  We Doby's customers liked to think we were a little more normal, but come on, when you have people walking other people in on a leash at midnight, there's nothing normal going on.  Except for the fact that the walker and walkee were both just showing off.  But at least we knew it was abnormal, and we showed our disapproval by ignoring them, despite their doing everything they could to get our attention.  The waitress' attention.  Somebody's attention.  Anyone's attention.

NOTE:  The worst thing in the world is to be deliberately, flamboyantly shocking and depraved and have no one pay attention.  😉  That is the tragedy of adolescence - temporary or permanent - in a nutshell.

Anyway, I was a Doby's fan, because they had better food.  And it was cheap.  Back in the mid-70s, you could get a vegetable plate (four veg and cornbread or biscuit) for probably $2.00, and breakfast with meat for $2.75.  A 3-piece chicken dinner would run you about $3.25.  I remember this, because we were all poor, doing our starving artist thing in the Little Five Points and North Highlands areas.  Mary Mac's (which is still around) was too expensive for us.

But again, the real purpose of 24/7 restaurants is a place where a group of people could sit over coffee and conversation for hours.  Face to face, laughing, talking, gossiping, arguing, exchanging ideas and dreams, plans and artwork, for hours.  It was great. 

And I think that's what I'd have missed the most if I'd been born in, say, 1990-2000.

Because before the pandemic, the smart phone arrived and ate up the entire attention span of a multi-generational group that apparently had had enough of people, and wanted to spend all their time texting.  From grandmothers to kids, it's been all eyes and thumbs on screen, for years. 

So, why are they suddenly hungering for other people's live company?  I mean, we've all seen it:
  • the people in a restaurant, everyone on their own smartphone, no one talking;
  • the people in a park, on their smartphones, while their kids played and occasionally begged for their attention;
  • the people walking, on their smartphones, never looking up (one walked into our parked car at the grocery store a few years ago, looked at us, shook his head, stepped to the right, lowered his head, and kept going).
Smartphones destroyed riding on subways and buses.  The sights you used to see!  I'll never forget Rughead in Atlanta, who spent all day long riding MARTA, wearing the worst wig in the world, stapled to his head...  Or all the tags of conversation, which I would note down in my little scribble book.  "Ain't no way I'm gonna tell my sponsor everything, even if I am working my program.  I'm not going to prison, even for my sobriety."

Smartphones destroyed the old coffee shops.  Starbucks is simply a vendor of hot liquid; nobody sits and talks there, they're on their tablets or smartphones or laptops, but no one talks.  And coffee shops, from the 1600s on, were all about talk.  That's what they were for.  Ask Samuel Johnson.

Anyway, you'd think the smartphone crowd - like the militia / survivalist types - would be the last people to be bugging out during this time of social distancing.  But no.  Joni  Mitchell was right.  "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."



Maybe some day we'll all get talking again.  And make some new tales to boot.

Stay well, stay safe, stay home.

Meanwhile, Blatant BSP:

Check out stories by yours truly:

"Brother's Keeper" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

"Pentecost"  in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin, editor

"Embraced"  in Startling Sci-Fi.

Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond (The NEW Series Book 3) by [Adam Sass, M. P. Diederich, Eve Fisher, Mike Algera, Brian T. Hodges, Charlotte Unsworth, Jhon Sanchez, Scott Lambridis, Stefanie Masciandaro, Casey Ellis]AHM_MayJun2020_400x570