14 July 2018

Arizona Hills

by Leigh Lundin

Seven years ago, a coterie of writers banded together to launch SleuthSayers. In his first column, Dixon Hill introduced his fedora. I think I met that fedora recently.

Dixon Hill
Dixon Hill
To be sure, I also met the storied Dixon Hill and his equally legendary wife, Madeleine. You may remember reading about her, the very charming lady who drove fuel tankers in Iraq.

Dixon has written about his own military training, parachute jumping, explosives, and special ops. Yet in his writing and in real life, he displays quiet confidence and an utter lack of braggadocio. What you read, what you see, is what you get.

But fair warning: Around him, women get a gleam in their eye, that “Yum, Teddy Bear” look, which the rest of us males envy.

I’ve wanted to meet the man behind the writing. A few months ago, it looked like that might happen, but life intervened. Finally I set foot in Arizona only to meet an elk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a death in the family followed. Finally, though, I was free. Dixon squeezed me in.

Despite lack of sleep, he proved the most consummate host. Being raised by a professor shows. A natural teacher, he’s written about the history and geography of Greater Phoenix. I found myself racking up mental notes everywhere we visited.

First, at my request came a brief introduction to automatic sidearms, this from a guy who’s living (in multiple senses of the word) depended in part upon knowledge and skill of weaponry. Who better to learn from?

Hole-in-the-Rock
Hole-in-the-Rock, Papago Park
Dixon followed with a tour of Phoenix. He drove through Papago Park to point out the Hole-in-the-Rock, an elevated cavern open at either end. He named the surrounding mountain ranges. He noted bridges that ran high over dry river beds, waiting like a boxer for that blow that never comes… until it does.

Questions had been gathering in my mind about desert plants, mesquite, ironwood, and especially cactus. With Dixon’s wide-ranging interests, I was almost unsurprised to discover he’s a member of the Desert Botanical Garden. There, they combine education with beauty.

Dixon shared a story about his father and the infamous ‘jumping’ cactus, AKA Teddy Bear cactus. His dad experimented, risking his own flesh. He hypothesized cactus pods store up kinetic energy, until the slightest touch sends them exploding off their host plant. Me, I think that’s a damn clever theory.

Dixon had another surprise up his sleeve, a visit to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore adjacent to Poisoned Pen Press. Loaded with signed mysteries and science fiction, it’s a drool-worthy shop in Scottsdale that seems both packed and airy at once. Independent bookshops could take lessons from them.

I introduced myself to the owner… not too crudely I hoped. Dixon and I made quite the prickly pair.

Setting aside his own fatigue, Dixon showed me his writing cabin set in a corner of the garden. There he retreats to write, coaxing the computer from his arm chair. The fedora there… was it the same Staff Sergeant Hill traveled with around the world? I suspect so.

The visit turned out entertaining and educational, everything and more I expected from a man I learned about through his writing. One day, Dixon, let’s do it again.

The Flight of the Phoenix

So…

At Phoenix airport, I gathered my kit around me, my wits and my tickets. Hot as it was, I found myself strangely reluctant to depart. Turned out United had the same notion.

“Whoa,” said the ticket agent. “You’re too late to board.”

“What? No, I can’t be.” How many times had she heard that story? “Really, I received a confirmation email telling me to check in, like now, I’m on time.”

Anxious to put in her propeller, a United supervisor strolled over. Her snoot lifted into the air like my soon-to-depart plane.

“We closed boarding and no, you could not have received such an email.”

“I did, I did,” I said plaintively, thinking I must have read it wrong. Wait… Although I’d had poor luck finding phone signals in Arizona, five million people populated Phoenix. Surely AT&T had a presence here, didn’t they?

I pulled out my dusty iPhone and… Yes! A signal! Moreover, an email! The right one. I held out the phone like a child showing homework to the teacher.

“Ma’am, here’s the email. It spells out the details and I’m here on time.”

She read it once. Not quite believing it, she peered closer. I could almost hear the chips in her brain going, “Oh crap, he’s right.” Then she glanced at the clock ticking away on her computer terminal and lit up. “NOW,” she said with immense satisfaction, “now you’re too late.”

The counter agent gave me the most carefully neutral look. She managed to convey a measure of sympathy.

“I’ve booked you tomorrow. If you don’t mind a hint, lose a couple of pounds in your suitcase.” Again she gave her patented neutral look. “Thank you for choosing United.”

No hurry. Good company, good food, good night’s sleep. Orlando could wait another day.

Phoenix Rising


The personality of all cities depend upon geography and geology. More than most, the Copper State’s very existence depends upon Mother Nature’s good nature.

It’s bedrock is literally laid bare. River beds lace hither and yon, empty and dry… most of the time. Water, when it comes, can rage rapidly, as colleague Susan Slater has expressed in her novel, Flash Flood.

Unlike Eastern states, water rights are bought and sold. So are mineral rights. A few strip mines in the Copper State have left behind unnatural terraced hills, white not from rime but extraction chemicals. Arizona has been fortunate in other metals that begin with the letter A in the periodic table: Au, Ag, Al… gold, silver, and aluminum.

NASA used selected places in Arizona for lunar mission training. It’s not difficult for an outsider to think of Arizona as a beautiful planet in itself, one where pioneering humans have dug in, stubbornly nesting amongst its fabulous rock structures, a landscape hospitable to the hardiest among us.

Just avoid uninsured elk.

Yacht Rock Badasses

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
I used to joke that I was going to write a series of novels where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would use their time off of touring with Steely Dan to solve mysteries. Can’t you just picture it? They’re a perfect detective pairing; they’re snarky and sardonic, with a clever patter and a long history of writing songs around lowlifes. It would have been amazing and the most on-brand Libby Series of all time, combining my well-honed talent for writing mysteries with my deep and passionate love for the Dandom.

Tragically, Becker’s death last September put an end to this and many of my other Steely dreams (like getting to hear them do “The Second Arrangement” in concert again) but it did get me thinking about the core of hardboiled noir that runs throughout a lot of Yacht Rock.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, (coined by J.D. Ryznar in his eponymous and, frankly life-changing Channel 101 series) “Yacht Rock” generally refers to a style of smooth, often jazz-inflected music from the late 1970s and early 80s, bolstered by studio musicians (Jay Graydon, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, etc) and, if you want to get hyper-specific, containing the word “fool.” Think Michael McDonald. Think Christopher Cross. The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” is Yacht Rock. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is not. Do not try to fight me on this, I swear to God, I will mess you up.

13 July 2018

Bookstores I Visited on My Vacation This Summer, By Little Tommy Pluck, Age 47

by Thomas Pluck

The title of this post is a reference to a Harlan Ellison story you can find in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, one of his many collections.

Oh, Harlan. I learned of Ellison's passing while away on vacation, and while I can't say I didn't know it was coming, it affected me more than I thought it would.

He was 84 years old, hardly young, but some live twenty years longer. And someone as driven as Ellison was, you thought they'd have a shot. His health had deteriorated after a stroke, but he kept the fire burning, working with an editor to release long-lost stories and essays, and to finally put together Blood's a Rover, the collection of stories related to his classic post-apocalyptic nightmare, "A Boy and His Dog."

That book was waiting for me when I returned home, and brought back the sadness. HE as he was called in correspondence--it has a delightful outlandish godliness to it, doesn't it, like H. Rider Haggard's She or his own creation, AM, the malevolent artificial intelligence that destroys nearly all of humankind--and I met once, corresponded "infamously," once, but it made Letters of Note and appears on the internet now and then, most recently shared by Neil Gaiman.

The story is mundane, but like most things involved with science fiction fandom, was blown out of all proportion and made to seem epic and shocking, which is why I don't write speculative fiction anymore, or at least when I do, I don't call it that. I found the fandom toxic. I can't remember if I wrote him first or met him first at I-CON, held out in Stony Brook college on Long Island. I drove my silver '65 Mustang convertible out on the LIE to see a few literary heroes, illegally blasting through traffic cones blocking my way out of the Lincoln Tunnel. This was before GPS, we had the Rand-McNally Road Atlas and faith, and when I saw no police around, I swerved around those cones and hoped I wasn't heading into a parade.

The con was one of my first. I'd met Jimmy Doohan and Tom Baker at a Creation Con once, dressed as Arthur Dent in my bathrobe, but this one was bigger and different, more book-centric. Dan Simmons was there, and he'd just written the excellent Summer of Night, which is better than It, in my estimation, but not better than Boy's Life, for horror bildungsroman. Worth a read. Anyhow, Harlan was generous to me, and all in the signing line. To be fair, I'd plunked down a bunch of green for Again, Dangerous Visions, a t-shirt, some records of him reading his stories. He signed them all and shook my hand. It was a rough, knobby, workman's hand, probably from his early days as a carnie roustabout, or from hammering at his manual typewriter. But he was gracious to my flabbergasted young self, and I walked away like I'd met J.C. and had my bunions cured.

I'd heard the stories. And he's far from innocent--what he did to Connie Willis was indefensible, and he doesn't get a pass for it--but I found it hard to believe that he was irascible to innocent fans, as I was told by fan gossip. At that particular convention he was well behaved when I was in his presence, which is all one can say. We don't know anyone, really. That's why we love books. We get to know the people in them better than anyone we meet. But I digress. Harlan got up on stage for his one-man panel, decked in a bomber jacket complete with a blood chit from the air campaigns to liberate China from the Japanese Empire. Sure, he was full of himself. He liked to tell stories, and given an audience, he knew how to work it. He was never boring, for sure. I don't remember what he said, because what sticks out, was when the mic was malfunctioning, he asked "can you hear me?" and a woman sitting near me bellowed, "we can't see you!" to great applause, mocking his short stature.

Now that's hardly much of an insult, and he took it in stride, but the heckling from the crowd bothered me. What did they want? Were they fans, or did they come to watch the show, get him riled up, which he would gladly do for them? In the old days they brought rotten vegetables to throw on stage. Anyway, just a memory, hardly even a "Harlan story" worth telling. The letter, well, to my shame, I wrote it because I couldn't find a story by Gerald Kersh that he'd quoted. Now I could Google it and identify it in seconds. Back then, I re-read and skimmed all his books looking for the epigram, and came up blank. (It was in a graphic novel, which is why I missed it). So, I fired up my daisy wheel printer and sent him a letter. I wanted to use the same quote in a story I was writing in college. I didn't mention that, or send my work to him. (The story, "Phoenix," is about a Vietnam Vet haunted by a comrade who shows up like Mr. Hyde, it's preachy and garish, he goes to a Mothers of Invention show for no good reason, and my professor was very generous with his grade.)

Harlan wrote back, and while he starts off justifiably angry for me wasting his time, he can't help but praise Kersh, who became one of my own favorite writers. He's most famous for Night and the City, which was adapted as a film noir, but read anything you can get, he's a master of the short form and the novel. Fowler's End is wonderful, and his stories can be better than Roald Dahl. He captured humanity like insects in amber, magically kept alive. Here is the letter.



I was later honored to anthologize Harlan in Protectors 2: Heroes. Once again I summoned the chutzpah to write him, asking for a story for the charity anthology that helps PROTECT train wounded vets to hunt online predators. It's hard to say no to that. He offered up "Croatoan," but holding to his mantra of Pay the Writer, we settled on an honorarium of one dollar, and two copies of the book for his library, which I gladly shipped on publication. And yeah, I sneaked a copy of Blade of Dishonor in there. I doubt he read it, but he doesn't seem the type to throw a book in the trash. Hopefully it's in Ellison Wonderland, or donated to the Sherman Oaks public library. Or a doorstop in his shithouse, for all I care. He called me to seal the deal, and answering the phone to hear "Hey, kiddo! It's Harlan!" nearly gave me a heart attack. He had more energy at 80 than most have at 20. Which is why his death seems unfathomable. He was the Harlequin, but he ran like the Ticktockman, a wind-up clock that was never supposed to run down.

I'll miss him. He left us a legacy of fiction and stories and fights and slights that will be hard to forget, whether you lionize or loathe him. He had a cadre of toxic fans of his own, who Googled his name and posted anything said about him on the Internet on his website for him to read and respond to. I forgot that we traded posts on one of his forums, too. That was when I compared the movie Fallen to his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I thought they'd stolen his idea, but obviously he didn't, or he would have sued. (Watch the end of The Terminator and see the note that it was indebted to his works, specifically the Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier," and the short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." I wasn't sure until I watched "Soldier." I thought he was overreacting. But hunt it down, and you'll be damned if the post-apocalyptic low budget future doesn't resemble the post-SkyNet nightmare in Terminator way too closely. Harlan didn't write very much in his later years, and it would be tragic and ironic if it was because of the internet, answering fan queries and taunts online instead of by mail.

Anyway, I was supposed to mention bookstores, wasn't I?

I really liked Writer's Block in Anchorage (Spenard, technically) Alaska. A town once infamous for rough bars is now a tourist trap with a couple of nice local ginmills such as Darwin's Theory, which hipsters call "dives" nowadays because working people drink there. But they do have a few good bookstores, and The Block is one of them. It's also a music and reading venue, a cafe, and a bar. So it's one of the few bookstores you could truly hold a Noir at the Bar at. (I enjoy attending readings at bookstores, cafes, hotels, and yoga-kombucha spaces, but call it something else maybe). Writer's Block has a nice selection, if small. I noticed horror by John Langan, a lot of Edwidge Danticat, somewhat light on crime, heavy on well-curated literary. They had Rene Denfield, James R. Benn, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The used bookstore is Title Wave, and enormous. I picked up a first edition hardcover of Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley there (such a beautiful cover).

Washington had more bookstores. Elliott Bay Book Company is wonderful, a big selection, good staff. Eagle Harbor Books out on Bainbridge Island is smaller but keeps a good selection, new and used. Overall, the trip to Bainbridge on a ferry was a waste. The ferry trip is nice, but there's not much to do on the island if you don't live there. It's some place old people go to walk to wine bars and buy crap. Vancouver has a ton of bookstores, but I only visited one, White Dwarf. They absorbed Dead Write books, and it was a time warp to the '90s, walls of mass market paperbacks in the old display shelves. It made me wish those affordable reads were more plentiful. A nice crime selection, and a friendly owner, Walter. I'm told there's a Jill as well, but I didn't meet her. Owen Laukannen clued me in to the shop, and it's worth a visit if you're in town. The used store there is Pulpfiction Books, which I'm glad I didn't visit because I spent a couple hundred bucks on books this trip and brought home a duffel full.

I also read several books on the trip thanks to long plane journeys. One was I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty, a treasure. The Sean Duffy books are wonderful, set during the '80s in Belfast, when the Troubles burned hot. He knows how to tie a mystery together, and they remind me of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books in tone, in that they are just plain fun to read, full of repeating characters you care about, and they paint a detailed portrait of the city and time they are in. Luis Alberto Urrea's House of Broken Angels was incredible, epic in scope but under 300 pages. He continues to amaze. I finished The Bobby Gold Stories by Anthony Bourdain on the plane before takeoff. I had heard about his novels Bone in the Throat but wasn't grabbed by it. but Bobby is a great character and you can read the book in one sitting. Find a copy. It is shamefully out of print. It had a British edition, we didn't respect him enough over here. Sort of like how McKinty isn't published in the U.K., which is downright criminal. The last book I opened was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, who lives in my town, and a book that Roxane Gay called her favorite of last year. It is, as the blurbs warn, addictive. A family saga that begins in Korea before World War II, it is paced like a thriller and written with deceptively cozy prose, in third person omniscient, masterfully. I am 200 pages in, and I have to force myself to put it down to write.

I'm nearly done with the messy first draft of Riff Raff, the second Jay Desmarteaux yarn. I have a duty-free bottle of Bruinladdich Octomore scotch waiting to celebrate when I type "The End." I thought that would be a better incentive, I bought it after Bouchercon in Toronto last September! But alas, you can't rush the work. It takes what it takes. I'm having fun with it. I hope readers will, too.


12 July 2018

Herding Cats

by Brian Thornton


An accurate depiction of my first experience editing an anthology
"Herding cats." The phrase conjures an image of someone, somewhere, attempting a herculean feat: keeping a whole bunch of freely moving pieces in a coherent enough group to get them across the finish line of one's choice.

It calls to mind such daunting tasks as getting kindergarteners to stand still in a straight line for longer than a few short breaths. Or getting Americans to agree on anything.

And it's also a pretty spot-on description of what editing an anthology can be like.

As I've mentioned before in this space, with the calendar turning over to July, I've launched my latest fiction project: collecting and editing a crime fiction anthology. This one employs as its thematic inspiration the music of jazz-rock giants Steely Dan.

This is my third stint collecting and editing the content for an anthology. It's my second fiction anthology. My first anthology, Teacher Miracles, was a combination collection: partly true-life remembrances of outstanding teachers from those whose lives they had touched; and partly teachers themselves doing the remembering. Both types of stories were supposed to be well-written, uplifting, poignant, etc.

You get the idea.

My next anthology was a collection of crime fiction tied together thematically by a common setting: each story needed to be located somewhere on the West Coast. It was entitled (surprise, surprise) West Coast Crime Wave.

Both of these projects were challenging. Each constituted learning experiences in both similar and unique ways. And not just because one was nonfiction and the other was fiction.

But Teacher Miracles was definitely the more challenging of the two.

First there was the learning curve. Teacher Miracles was uniquely challenging because I had never done anything like this before. I'd written plenty of nonfiction, but I'd never edited anything but my own work, and I sure didn't know the first thing about amassing a "collection."

What qualified me for this project? The acquisitions editor (now my agent) at the publisher where I'd had some nonfiction convinced their publication board that I, as a teacher and a writer, could get this thing done.

In other words: not much.

Why would I do this, you ask?

Simple. I was a teacher still pretty young in my career, and I needed the money. And it was good money. To this day still the most I've ever earned from a single book contract.

Emphasis on earned. Because I earned every nickel.

Once I'd signed my contract and pocketed my advance, I set to work educating myself about how to go about collecting and editing an anthology.

You can't collect and edit without someone to collect from. I needed contributors.

So I started at the beginning: finding said contributors.

Now, this was over a decade ago, when social media was largely in its infancy, there was no such thing as Facebook, and people still frequented internet message boards looking for topical connections. So that's where I started looking for contributors for my first anthology.

This alone was a fair amount of work.

Once I found people willing to contribute, I had to get their work published.

This was even more of a challenge, because most of the contributors to Teacher Miracles were anything but professional writers. And quite a few of them had definite strong ideas about what their story ought to come out looking like. On top of that, once we'd worked out between the two of us what their story really ought to read like, I had to get final approval from the in-house editors at my publisher.

Like I said, I earned every nickel.

Once we had the content set, I had to get contracts written, mail them out, get my contributors to sign and return them (this was all via snail mail), and make sure they got paid.

This part was the definition of "herding cats."

Bear in mind, I had forty contributors.

I re-sent one particular contract a total of six times before the contributor to whom it was addressed received it. One guy up and moved (I later found it was to Australia) without leaving a forwarding address. He got accepted, but his check came back stamped "Return to Sender."

All in all, it was exhausting.

Great experience, though. Glad I went through it. Met some great people with whom I am still friends all these years later.

That said, I wouldn't EVER do it again.

West Coast Crime Wave was a lot more fun to do (and not just because I didn't have to manage contracts or payments this go-round). I got to pick at least half of the contributors. By the time we published this one (2011), I had established myself enough in the crime fiction community that I knew several authors whom I both liked and respected, and immediately set about pestering them about contributing to WCCW.

Funny thing about dealing with pros (and I'm not just talking about the established writers who contributed, here, there were several emerging voices who had never published anything before WCCW.): they are usually gonna respect a deadline.

And show up.

Now granted, there was still a fair amount of editing and rewriting involved this time around. I just didn't have to chase people down or coerce them to go at it a seventh or eighth or ninth time. We just committed, and kept at it until we got it right. My publisher this go around wasn't a big east coast press, but a friend who was taking a run at starting up his own press (hey, it was 2011!). And just by virtue of being one person as opposed to a whole bureaucracy, he was way easier to deal with!

And this current bite at the apple?

This one so far has been a complete groove.

Why?

I got all pros for this one. My due date for story submission was July 1. I had to chase a couple of the contributors down, but we're all on the same page and I've got a time-table moving forward (thanks in part to my uber-organized wife, who helped with setting up the time-table and realistically distributing the work that's going to be required going forward. Thanks Honey!).

And I guess you could say that I've learned from previous experience what to do and what not to. Where to spend energy and where not to waste.

Best of all I'm working with a group of great people (most of them friends: some others who likely will be once we've finished this process together), and the "work" I'm doing for this project is getting to work on some of the best short stories I've ever read.

Now that kind of day at the office I will take all week long.

See you in two weeks!

11 July 2018

Wet Work

David Edgerley Gates


The Russian security services are well-practiced at what's known in the trade as Active Measures: Mokrye Dela, which loosely translates into "Wet Stuff." They've been doing it for a long time now. 

The assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, or the suspect suicide of defector Walter Krivitsky in a Washington hotel room in 1941. They used an ice axe on Trotsky. Krivitsky was found with a hole in his head and a .38 revolver in his hand.

The methods get more sophisticated. Georgi Markov in London, and Vladimir Kostov in Paris, were targeted by the Bulgarian DS, under KGB discipline. This was 1978. The vehicle was a tiny metal pellet containing ricin. A dose equivalent to a few grains of table salt is fatal. The delivery system was the by-now-notorious poisoned umbrella tip. Markov died, Kostov survived, but due only to a technical failure. The special protective coating on the pellet dissolves at human body temperature and releases the toxin; in Kostov's case, the coating was compromised.

2006. London. Alexander Litvinenko. An unstable polonium isotope. It took him three weeks to die, excruciatingly.

2018. Salisbury, UK. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A nerve agent in the Novichok family. Both victims survived. (But two British nationals suffered Novichok poisoning symptoms four months after the Skripals, and one died. How they came in contact with that specific toxin is unknown, as of this writing.)

This is by way of prologue, for those who may be skeptical of blaming the Russians for God knows what, or imagine it's some variation on Red-baiting. They've been practicing disinformation for a very long time, as well. If you didn't know, for example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forgery cooked up by the Czarist secret service, the Okhrana. You might have guessed which road I'm going down, here. Disinformation and the 2016 election.

Let's dispense with the denials. Facts don't matter, in matters of belief. We know that. Only faith counts. If you want to think Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor, you're not going to doubt your convictions when you find out the pizza joint in question doesn't have a basement. It's obvious I'm only trying to throw sand in your eyes, distract you with inessentials, because the essential is the Deep State, the interlocking conspiracy of - ah, Jesus. I don't have the patience. You can insert [BLANK] here, fluoridation, alien abductions, or whatever the latest grievance is.

Stop me if you've heard this. Let's talk means, motive, and opportunity. Actually, motive doesn't need to take up much of our time. It's obvious the Russians are enjoying terrific benefits at our expense. The minimum damage is a widening mistrust of American political institutions, along with the collapse of a common language and our failure to engage in a national conversation. We've turned a deaf ear to any voices but our own.

Now of course this is a self-inflicted wound, and we didn't need the Russians to help, but why should they stand idly by when the opportunity was  offered to them?

People, understandably, get stuck on the means. Social media seems so transient, and shallow. How can a platform that gives us the internal monologues of Kanye and Kim have such a fatal effect? How can it be so consequential?

The penetration of social media in the everyday, its ubiquity, and the Internet presence generally, is too big a mouthful for me. That's cultural anthropology, or maybe sociopathology, if such exists. I'm just taking a look at the mechanics. If you can fix a horse race, how do you fix the Internet, in that same sense?

There's a tool content providers use called Search Engine Optimization - SEO. It's similar in a way to product placement, in a movie or on TV, a shot of the Apple logo, or a Dos Equis label on a bottle of beer. You want to draw web traffic to your sites, your sponsors, your content. A lot of web content masquerades as information. When you search for 'dental implants,' for example, or 'Mini-Cooper replacement wiper blades,' very often the top result is a tutorial. It appears as information, but it's a stealth sales pitch. The way to get Google's filters to feature this result is with trigger phrases, which optimize the search. The trick is to second-guess which keywords are most likely to be entered as search parameters, which games the system.

Search algorithms provide the closest match. You can load the dice. The higher the frequency of your triggers, the higher your SEO, and the higher results you'll return. It's pretty much an article of faith that most people won't scroll past the first ten results of any given search, and if you could weight the results, it might appear there was consensus on, say, the efficacy of dental implants.

We can apply this lesson in virtual marketing to any kind of content. Suppose we could leverage Benghazi to mean not simply a place on the map, but a leadership failure of the Obama presidency and the personal responsibility of then Secretary of State Clinton. If every web search generated six or eight results that followed this narrative, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the received wisdom.

Stories like this can be placed using private blog networks or dummy websites. These are the robocall centers of the Internet. One will sell space on 900 sites for twenty bucks a pop. Another publishes on a network of 2,000 sites for $225. These sites aren't curated, not in the sense of being checked for accuracy. Their purpose is to maximize search hits, and boost traffic volume, which multiplies the hits exponentially,  and so on. It's circular.

It's not as dramatic as a daylight terror attack, and it doesn't have the same deterrent effect as throwing a turbulent priest or muck-raking journalist off the top of a forty-story building, but the fact that it's so pedestrian actually recommends it. It's basically a data-driven model of what's long been known as Black Propaganda.

The question isn't why would the Russians want to poison the American political well, the question is why wouldn't they? They're playing the long game. This isn't some anti-Bolshevik hysteria, this is geopolitics, the place of nations, the uses of power. Clandestine warfare is no less real or violent for being hidden.

*

And some BSP.  David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher are both featured in the July/August 2018 double issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK. 


10 July 2018

Writers: Their Rooms and Pets

by Paul D. Marks

One of the things I really enjoy is seeing other writers’ offices/work spaces. I’m curious about how other people go about their work—it’s like looking into someone’s eyes, seeing into the soul of the writer (sort of). Or maybe it’s just the writer-voyeur in me. But I’ve always found it fascinating. Some people have pristine offices that look like they’re out of Architectural Digest, while others look like that picture of Einstein’s cluttered desk.

It’s like going to visit someone’s house and seeing what books they have on their shelves. I like seeing what writers have in their workspaces, what art work, what books, awards, photos, tools of the trade, etc. I’m also curious about writers and their pets.

To both these ends, I asked all the SleuthSayers to contribute pictures of their offices and pets. Here goes (and I hope I haven’t missed anyone who responded, if so it’s purely unintentional):

***

MICHAEL BRACKEN

When Temple and I married a few years ago, I sold my home and moved into hers. The most difficult part of the process was determining how to arrange my new office space after more than twenty years in my old office space.

A four-bedroom home, our home has two bedrooms on the right and two on the left, the bedroom pairs separated by the living room, dining room, and kitchen. The two on the left are of approximately equal size, separated by a bathroom, and have a short hall connecting them. I put my primary office—the one with my desk—in the front bedroom of the pair and my filing cabinets, supplies, and most of my library in the rear bedroom. Awards and publication covers adorn the shelves and wall space in the hall.

In addition to my desk—a traditional office desk with secretarial arm—for my computer and printer, I have a trio of bookcases crammed full of books, toys, and music (LPs, CDs, 45s, and cassette tapes, along with the appropriate technology to play all of them). My wife had my first professionally published story framed and it hangs on the wall to my left. Immediately in front of me is the movie poster for Pulp Fiction, and a pair of Pearl Jam posters also adorn the walls.

By surrounding myself with books, music, and toys I’ve created the optimum writing environment.

Ellie, a Border collie, sleeps under my desk when I write. Jenny, a gray tabby, sometimes sits behind my computer monitor, but mostly wants to spend time in my lap. Because she won’t remain still, I have to encourage her to move along after a few minutes. Kiwi, an orange Manx, rarely visits my office while I write, but the moment I sit down in the living room to watch television, he beelines it to my lap.


About the photo: Ellie is under the desk. The gray blur in the middle is Jenny exiting the scene.


***

MELODIE CAMPBELL

I have a giant Frankenpoodle, who is a St. John Ambulance therapy dog, going into nursing homes and schools to provide therapy. If Dr. Frankenstein were creating a dog, this is what he might end up with. Standing 30 inches at the shoulder, Frankenpoodle is a giraffe in a dog suit.

I got my start writing comedy. Frankenpoodle got his start as the klutzy giant of the litter. No breeding for him. Instead, he became a canine muse. Together, we have slogged through fifteen novels; me at the keyboard, him on the worn brown chaise beside me.  Both of us snarfing snacks and looking forward to walk time. Damn straight, this dog inspires me. Toker, the big black poodle-cross with the Mohawk hairdo in The Goddaughter’s Revenge, steals the show. Ollie, “They gone and done it, Stella…crossed a poodle with a grizzly bear,” is the star of The Crime Club, out in 2019. When Frankenpoodle isn't beside me, he's doing his St. John Ambulance Therapy dog thing at the local high school special needs class. He's an old guy now, at twelve, but what a joy, still.

***

O'NEIL DE NOUX  

Here are a few photos of my work space and helpers.

Charley in 2007, helping me after Hurricane Katrina. We’re temporarily relocated in Lake Charles, LA.

Charley again. Same place.


Stella as we’re living in Covington, LA now.



Harri as a kitten, same work place.


Full grown Harri at my current workspace in Covington.



Jeffty in my current workspace. He’s helping with my new computer.



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MARY FERNANDO

My study works for me because I get to write on walls. In my study, one wall is painted with dry erase paint, where I can both scribble ideas and rub them out. There are also two glass mounts where I can insert plot pics and scribble some more. The old typewriter reminds me to be grateful for my computer—even though it hates me and misbehaves constantly. My Bouviers, Kai and Tiffany, refuse to help me write. However, they demand constant walks, so that help me walk off a crucial component of my writing: chocolate.



***

RT LAWTON

[This photo] was taken of one wall of our study. It shows a loaded down old style computer desk and hutch that I've had for at least 25 years, my computer screen and tower, magnifying glass for small print, a few piles of papers that only I can understand their organization, colored files, a mass of reference books (ranging from dictionaries to agent's manuals to how-to books to The Anarchist's Cookbook to Reservation Law to foreign language dictionaries, etc.), my first badge set in acrylic, photos of grandkids, a calendar, bush hat, spurs, Ukrainian officer's hat, and a painting of Hueys which hangs on the wall over the hutch.


There haven't been pets at our house since a series of German Shepherds decades ago. The two local grandsons we do daycare for pretty well fill that emotional slot ever since Grandma cut the cord on the oldest in the birthing room 15 years ago. Over time, I come to think it was easier training dogs, although I did co-write a short story with the oldest for one of the MWA anthologies. Unfortunately, that story didn't get picked, but he and I are getting good grades in 9th grade social studies.

***

ROB LOPRESTI

I have three cats but the only one who takes an active part in my writing is Charlie. Here he is sitting on the desk in my office, urging me to concentrate on my work.  How could I do it without him? And when can I start?




I have included three pictures of that office, without Charlie. One shows the cramped quarters where I created my early masterpieces. The second shows my lovely current ergonomic stand/sit desk. The photos on the left wall are two grocery stores in Plainfield, NJ, one owned by my father’s father, and the other owned by my mother’s grandfather. The photo on the right, taken in Russia, shows my wife’s grandfather. And on another wall I have my proudest trophies: four AHMM covers!






***

LEIGH LUNDIN

I don't have a photo of Valentine, my goffin cockatoo, without someone other than me in the picture. The attached isn't Valentine, but an identical stand-in, an understudy when his voice grows hoarse at operatic performances. His Wagner is… painful.



When I had a desktop computer (and a desk), he enjoyed sitting between my wrists staring at the screen. Valentine is usually good… if he has to dump, he flies back to his cage. Except… He gets jealous if I speak on the phone.

One day I received a call and went to another room to chat without interruption. When I returned, defiant Valentine had surgically snipped both the mouse cord and the keyboard cable in two. That’ll show me.

He stayed a few days at my friend Thrush’s house. After Valentine’s departure, Thrush tried to make toast. He discovered Valentine had snipped the live toaster cord in half. I’m still gobsmacked.

Here are photos of my favorite workspace moments before demolition started. A couple of deck planks in my dock had rotted, and it must be rebuilt. The variety of birds is extensive– heron, egrets, gallinules and moorhens, shovelers and mallards, anhingas (snakebirds), kingfishers, osprey (fish eagles), and one season, a flock of pelicans.



In late summer / early autumn, I buy citronella candles by the bucket, literally, to combat mosquitoes that carry off unattended toddlers and small dogs. My wifi signal stretches to the dock making it easy to read or write. As this dock is being rebuilt, I plan to run power to it, providing permanent lighting and keeping the laptop battery charged.

In good weather on the dock shaded by an overarching tree, I put my feet up and write or read Paul’s SleuthSayers article. I may enjoy supper on the dock. In poor weather (which includes August temperatures and humidity of 100%), I live in an easy chair, the papa bear chair in the living room.

***

PAUL D. MARKS

My favorite place to write these days is in my home office. Not very romantic, but it's got everything I need close at hand. Probably more than I need. I know some people say you shouldn't have a TV or phone in your office. I do. But I can turn them off. And I have a nice view. Pictures on the wall that inspire me.  Mostly album covers and movie lobby cards, some other things. And, of course, my picture of Dennis Hopper flipping the bird from Easy Rider. When I was younger I had a full-sized poster of that shot, now it's just a little 8x10.  Oh how we change as we get older.

And my desk is a cluttered mess. Oh hell, the whole office is a cluttered mess. I keep talking about organizing it but who has time? There’s something comforting about the clutter (well, I have to rationalize the mess, don’t I?), though I would like to reorganize and put out some other mementos or unbury the ones that are already here.



And, of course, I have my assistants to help out. Over the years there’s been a variety of them. They’re really good company and help alleviate one of the banes of a writer’s existence: being alone much of time.

Here’s my office pretty much as it looks today. And in the photo on the right Curley, who with his littermate Moe, both used to like helping me write and tap on the keyboard. Unfortunately, neither is with us anymore.



And here are Curley (cat) and Audie (dog):



Missing are some earlier buddies, as I don’t think their pix are scanned. But here’s my current crew: Buster and Pepper.



***

JANICE TRECKER

This is my office and painting room, complete with Marcel Proust, who turned 25 this month. He is now too old to assist in any composition whatsoever but retains his affection for typing chairs, and he spends part of every morning trying to acquire either mine or my husband’s.


The room upstairs in an old farm house is quite small for a big desk, a file cabinet, a full sized easel, paint cabinet and bookcases but it has nice light with everything close to hand. That and a cat—what more would a writer want?

***

So there you have it. See how the other half lives. Thank you everyone who contributed. I really enjoyed getting a peak into your writing lives.

***
And now for the usual BSP:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

09 July 2018

DCS (Dumb Cop Syndrome)

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I was critiquing a manuscript and found myself making the same comments over and over.

"Check Police Procedure."   "Check Crime Scene Procedure."  "Check Legalities."

The story was a thriller that relied heavily on two homicide detectives as supporting characters because they suspected the protagonist of a series of murders. That's been done before, and it still works...if you make the details believable. Unfortunately, the writer seemed to base her knowledge of police procedure on Mack Sennett films and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

Maybe the idea of the dumb cop started with Lestrade, the bumbling Scotland Yard officer in the Sherlock Holmes series, or the ineffectual Surete officer in Poe's stories starring C. Auguste Dupin, both of whom would make a rag doll look smart.

Remember the Keystone Cops? Lots of running and jumping and high-speed chases, but not much to show for it. The police in the early Hardy Boys books had names that showed they were the comic relief: Detective Smuff (I almost wrote "Smurf"), for example, and Chief Collig. They both exhibited epic laziness and slightly less impressive stupidity, but little else. They needed the teenagers to drag them in the right direction and hand them the solution to the case they didn't want to investigate in the first place.

Alas, the trope of the dumb cop has become a tradition more admired in the breach than in the observance. Too many contemporary stories still portray the police as idiots, and I stop reading when I encounter the first instance in a MS. Sometimes, I continue reading and suspect that these guys will turn out to be working with the bad guys. That still happens a lot, too, and it's legit if you do it well. But I will only keep reading if the writing up to that point is good. If the prose and the hackneyed idea seem to be a matched set, Sayonara Kid, have a nice day.

If the power of your story comes from the strength of your antagonist, it's no less true of the police as supporting characters. If they are going to be adversaries, major or minor, make them worthy ones. If they overlook major clues, contaminate crime scenes, fail to follow up on conflicting testimony and perform illegal searches, they undermine both your plot and your credibility. Your protagonist deserves better.

If the police are this stupid, how brilliant does your sleuth have to be to solve the case for them (See Holmes and Dupin, above)?

Remember the film version of The Fugitive with Harrison Ford? Tommy Lee Jones was the cop pursuing him after the train wreck, and I wouldn't have wanted him chasing me. Jones was smart, thorough, patient and funny. He looked at everything and missed nothing. We hear his admiration when Kimble (Ford) jumps off the dam into the roiling water hundreds of feet below to escape his pursuers. He even gets a funny sidekick who asks, "Can we go home now?"

He kept his mind open and recognized more and more evidence suggesting that maybe Richard Kimble didn't kill his wife. And he helped the innocent man clear himself.

Jones's character strengthens the story in several ways. First, he adds another layer of tension because Kimble is caught between two forces, the strong and capable law enforcement officers and the hidden evil of the real killer. He gives the story more credibility, too. If a smart cop like this guy thought Kimble was guilty, the evidence that convicted him had to be pretty damning, didn't it? That strengthens the real killer again. Kimble, an escaped convict looking at a death sentence, still doesn't kill anyone to escape, and that makes him look more noble, too.

Imagine how different the story would be if Detective Smuff or the Keystone Cops were on the case.

08 July 2018

Rapists are Criminals: Why do they live among us?

by Mary Fernando, MD

This is my second interview with the Clinical Forensic Medical Examiner, Dr. Kari Sampsel, the only Canadian physician with a fellowship in Clinical Forensic Sciences. She is a Staff Emergency Physician and the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital. 

When victims of  sexual violence come into the emergency room, she is in charge of the rape kit, assessments of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. She is also responsible for setting up long-term physical and mental health care for these victims.

In the last interview, she stated that one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime, but less than 20% of victims report the rape immediately. Many suffer with increasing symptoms and then are seen. Some never speak up at all.

There is no other crime that I can think of where the victims are so reluctant to report the crime. Further, a society that believes in the rule of law is poorly served when so many criminals are allowed to commit a serious crime and yet are not held accountable. Imagine, for example, how emboldened car thieves would feel if they knew less than 20% of the thefts would be reported. 

Rape is rarely a crime committed in dark alleyways by strangers. In fact, 85% of rapes are committed by people who know the victim. This suggests that the poor reporting of rape emboldens rapists to assault women they know, largely without fear of any legal consequences. While children are most commonly raped by family members or friends of the family, adult are most often raped by current or past partners, or acquaintances and friends. 

One of the rapes with a great deal of stigma is the rapes by present partners. Many don't see how a present partner can be a rapist. To explain, Dr Sampsel says: “Think of cake. You like cake. But if someone shoves it in your mouth and forces you to keep eating until you feel sick, that would not be OK.” 

The other way to look at this is that rape is assault. If a partner, past or present, or a friend beat a person till they were bloody, breaking their nose and perhaps a few limbs, this would be considered unacceptable in civil society. Assault that is physical, but not sexual, is viewed as unacceptable. Sexual assault should be equally unacceptable. 
When a victim reports a rape, or a series of rapes, the response they encounter can make them walk away and not finish the report. Dr. Sampsel explains that there is often a stereotype of how a rape victim should behave: upset and crying.  

However, the reality is that victims display many behaviours. Some are so upset that they are closed off, unable to make eye contact or articulate what happened. Others, will be angry and in ‘protester’ mode, trying to get justice. Some can even look fairly normal, reporting as factually as they can about the incident or multiple incidents.

Add to this the fact that trauma can make victim forget details, the report itself can appear incoherent and less trustworthy. 

Dr. Sampsel points out that, “People are pretty savvy about when they are not believed. If you give someone the ‘I don't believe you vibe’ then they can be done with the process.”
Which brings us to the process itself. It is long and difficult. Completing the evidence kit takes about 2-4 hours. Every sample must be labeled, dated and gathered in a way that maintains the chain of evidence. Also, many of the samples are gathered from places that we think of as private and, if there are lacerations, this can also be painful.

After the history is taken and the samples are gathered, the victim is often faced with the reality that it isn’t safe to return home. If the rapist was a present partner or past partner with access to the victim’s home, either going to a shelter or staying with family or friends helps. Even if the rapist is a friend or acquaintance, their knowledge of where the victim lives could make it unsafe for them to return home. 

Many cities have a victim service, which provides everything from cell phones to volunteers - who will drive victims to their own home to pick up personal belongings, and help them get to a shelter.

If charges against a rapist are laid, they often get 12-18 months in jail. If a weapon was used or there was an attempt to murder the victim, the jail term could be longer. When the rapist is released from jail, the victim is vulnerable to retaliation from the rapist and may get a restraining order.

Does the punishment for rape fit the crime? Jail is certainly punishment. And the rapist must register as a sex offender and this limits the jobs they can get. Perhaps the biggest part of all this is that the rapist learns that they cannot rape with impunity. Rape is a crime. Punishing criminals is not merely about each individual criminal, it is also about deterring future criminals. If every rapist truly feared jail time, the stigma of being a registered sex offender and limited employment opportunities, perhaps one third of women wouldn't face the ordeal of being raped in the first place.