30 November 2011

Digging Up Old Crimes

by Robert Lopresti

We just got back from San Francisco, which felt like deja vu all over again, since we were there last fall for Bouchercon.   Even stayed at the same hotel.  But this time we were attending a very different conference: the fourteenth annual Biblical Archaeology Fest.

I discussed this event the last time my wife and I attended it.  I won't repeat myself except to explain that this is not a religious event, but a chance for archaeology buffs and wannabees to learn from the experts (who are actually meeting together across town).

And I heard a lot of wonderful lectures on subjects ranging from the horned altar of Gath to misconceptions about second Temple-era Judaism, but I will stick to two lectures that I can reasonably tie to crime.

Dr. Robert R. Cargill's talk was titled "No, No, You Didn't Find That."  He is an archaeologist and since he is willing to face cameras and was for several years working in Los Angeles, he became a go-to person when someone made an outrageous claim about archaeology.  This happens with depressing regularity.  (Does anyone keep track of how many times Noah's Ark has been discovered in the last century?  Or the Ark of the Covenant?)

A pseudoarchaeological claim is generally made by an amateur (who will often argue that the elitists - e.g. those with training - are conspiring against him).  There are a lot of possible motives: money, fame, religious or other ideology.  Cargill offered his "magic formula" for success in pseudoarchaeology:  start with a media blitz (as opposed to attempting publication in a scholarly journal or conference), misinformation dump (forcing critics to go through piles of irrelevant stuff, disproving it all), and attacking the critics.

One fun example: Glenn Beck claiming that the Dead Sea Scrolls were texts being hidden from Emperor Constantine.  What's a difference of three centuries between friends?

Law and Order: Ancient Canaan
Rami Arav has had an interesting career.  With his fresh doctorate in hand he moved back to Israel and began searching for a place to excavate in his native Galigee.  Aware that no on e had determined the site of  Bethsaida (the third most mentioned place in the Gospels).he set out to find it, and in ten days he did.

He duly reported this at a conference in front of an audience of about ten people (the air conditioning had broken down).  One of them happened to be a reporter who wrote that the site of  the miracle of loaves and fishes had been discovered.  Two days later everyone in the world wanted to interview Rami Arav.  The result is 25 years later he is still digging at Bethesda - or more accurately at Geshur, the huge ancient city whose ruins Bethesda was built on.  Arav estmates he has dug up about 4% of the site's 25 acres.

Amazing story, but what does this have to do with crime?  Well, Arav explains that archaeologicists "are like C.S.I.  First we take thousands of pictures.  Then we bring in experts.  Geologists, biologists,  chemists, computer experts, paleozoologists," and so on. (Quotation is approximate.)   He says archaeologists only deal with mute witnesses (texts get passed on to other scholars, but ruins can nonetheless provide remarkable evidence.

For example, one issue about the Geshur era (say, 3.000 years ago) is the question of law and order: was there a reliable system of justice, or something more like anarchy?  Is there anyway to find out without written texts?

Well, one of the things Arav's workers found was a four-meter wide paved road outside the city.  Nobody builds a paved road that wide for pedestrians or people on horseback.  That road was for wheeled wagons.  Now, think about that.  The merchant wouldn't bring a wagon pulled by animals to the city if he wasn't fairly comfortable that it would be there the next time he looked for it, and that someone would take an interest if it disappeared.  So there was law and order in Geshur.  Cool, huh?

I have 19 pages of notes from the conference, but I'll be merciful.  Meanwhile, keep digging.

29 November 2011

When We Were Very Young

A number of postings on SleuthSayers have concerned the act and nature of creative writing and brought up a lot of interesting issues: outline or free-form, cozy vs. hard boiled, first person narrative or third; just to name a few; recently, Dixon Hill did one on endings which I enjoyed very much.  So I thought I'd throw something else into the pot--Why do we write?  And beyond that, why do we write what we do?  Things that we never considered when we were very young.

I'd like to think that I can write anything that I want (at least fiction), but when I seriously consider it; I'm not so sure.  For instance, could I really pull off a romance story of the ripped bodice variety?  My inclination is not only to say no, but hell no!  Why not, you may ask; you being the consummate professional you are?  Well, I would answer, "Cause it just doesn't interest me, and I seriously doubt I could stay focused long enough to pull it off."  Besides, I'm not very clear on what a bodice is exactly and am too shy to march into the nearest Victoria's Secret and demand a viewing.  But if I did muster the required nerve necessary in the pursuit of that ringing authenticity for which I am known; I would have to request the modeling of a torn one, and I'm thinking my Robin (not Christopher) wouldn't like that.  But a Western, maybe so…I think I could do that.  War story...ditto.  Horror...oh, yeah.  Literature...sure, I've got a thesaurus.  So, in other words, I've got limitations.  I'm not saying that I couldn't write the romance novel if there was a gun to my head, but I would have to be certain it was loaded.

I suspect there's a few of you who would agree that we don't just write what we know, but write what we must, to a large degree.  I still believe in free will mind you, but I also believe we work out of all the experiences and influences that make us who we are and inform our choices on the subject matter, genres, style, endings (happy, grim, or positive), etc., of what we write.  Even the fact that we write at all is a choice.  I mentioned in my first posting that I began to write as a requirement of a college course I was taking; but I didn't have to continue; that I chose.  It was what I wanted to do from that moment onward.  The sum total of my experiences, as Elizabeth Zelvin touched on a few weeks ago, had given me something to say.  Not that I grasped that at the time.  Self-awareness came later, and with it exile from the Hundred Acre Wood.

Once published (just once, mind ye) we become professionals; thrown in amongst the great of the land; the frailties and excesses of our youth no longer tolerable; all excuses to be checked at the door.  So we concentrate on style and craftsmanship and write and write...but what, exactly?  Well, in a sense, we write about ourselves.  The particular genre(s) that we work in probably say something about us right from the start.  In my case, it's laughingly obvious--a cop writing cop stories in the beginning, and later on, crime fiction of various bents and persuasions, but almost always crime stories.  Even when I wrote a family saga and a horror novel (both languishing in a desk drawer) they involved a crime or crimes.  It's what I know...but it's more than that; it's also who I am, and I don't mean just a retired policeman.  After all, you write crime stories as well as me, and not all here are ex-law enforcement. 

My best guess is that there are as many motives for writing crime fiction as there are people writing it.  I know that a love of order has a lot to with it in my case; and a desire for justice as opposed to the rather dry, unsatisfactory rendering of the law that the courts dispense.  Writing allows that.  Can you think of a single profession where the practitioner exercises more control over his creation than that of an author?  Almost everyone else has to work in a collaborative fashion.  That is only true of us when our work reaches the hands of a willing editor.  We may be called upon to make changes and alterations, but the content; the soul of the work, remains largely untouched.  After all, it's being published because of what the editor found there, not for what they wished they'd found.

When we were very young, it was easy and comforting to believe that we could accomplish anything that we put our hands to, but with the painful self-awareness of experience and, dare I say it, the onset of wisdom, are we not better off; better writers for it?  A greater understanding of who I am and what motivates me is not actually restricting at all, but ultimately liberating: the small world that I inhabit becomes just large enough to encompass the universe.

So what say you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury?  Could you just chuck crime fiction today and begin a new career in Science Fiction tomorrow?  How about plumbing or lion-taming? Any takers?  Well, let me know your thoughts.  In the meantime, I'm reconsidering that romantic novel career...the more I've thought about the research required the more intrigued I've become, and besides, a challenge keeps you young. 

28 November 2011

A Sad Farewell

Way back when I did my undergraduate work at the University of South Carolina, I double-majored in English Literature and Journalism. The only grade less than an A I ever made was the exam on writing obituaries. There was an exact format that had to be followed. Unfortunately, I'd partied too hearty the night before the class and slept in. Not only did I not know how to write an obituary, I didn't even know we had a test the following class. I received an F and a lecture on missing the prof's lecture.

Times have changed and our State Newspaper now will print ANYTHING the family gives the mortuary. Of course, now the family has to pay by the word for the printed obituary. I've written quite a few, but I'd still rather write anything than an obit. Today's topic is a death, but I'm not going to write it as such.

This morning, I received an e-mail from Darlene Poier, editor and publisher of Canadian magazine, Pages of Stories. Subject line reads, "Goodbye from Pages of Stories." Problems forced the Poiers to take a brief hiatus to reorganize. Research in how to promote the magazine convinced them that they could not continue. Therefore, Pages of Stories ends.

I learned of Pages of Stories through Criminal Brief and won a subscription through a contest. That led to my submitting a story, which led to my story appearing in the same Summer, 2011 issue as stories by John Floyd and Leigh Lundin. I was honored to be in such fine company.

Darlene started the magazine intending to publish the best stories available, and she states, "I believe that this magazine did accomplish the goal of having the highest quality stories available, making for an enjoyable read for everyone." She wrote that subscriptions never rose to the level necessary to establish a foundation sufficient for production and promotion.

Last Friday, comments on John's blog led to a discussion of how few fiction magazines are left and how hard it is to obtain them. Perhaps we need to reconsider subscriptions. John, what I do to avoid the crowding situation is donate to nursing homes and senior citizens groups. But then, I have to subscribe because not a single bookstore of newsstand in Columbia, SC, stocks AHMM or EQMM.

The web site for Pages of Stories is still up but will soon come down. The war story project Lest We Forget is available in both hard and soft copy. Communicate with Darlene through the website or at www.pagesofstories.com.

I promised I wouldn't write this as an obituary, and I'm not. Instead, it is an eulogy and a question about our legacy and the inheritance we leave. Certainly the market is depressed, but what do we leave those who come after?

I'm going to miss Darlene and Pages of Stories.

27 November 2011

Metaphor Hunting

by Louis A. Willis

Attempting to combine the subject of this column with a Thanksgiving theme, I tried to find a metaphorical image of a turkey’s thoughts about Thanksgiving but I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind. The image I had in mind shows a large tom turkey in the foreground holding a rifle across his chest. In the background are several turkeys gobbling in an angry mood. The caption reads: “No More Turkey Funerals.” 

(Image courtesy of  Steve Voght )
Like the symbol hunter, I’ve been hunting metaphors. The idea of writing about metaphors has been circulating in my mind since I read Dixon’s column on props. Metaphors are props that ignite the senses which, combined with the imagination, enables the reader to experience viscerally the sensation the writer is trying to convey.

Although we often apply the term metaphor to all figures of speech, the figure writers use most often is In fact that workhorse of the figures of speech, the simile. For my own clarification of the difference between metaphor and simile I consulted a source I have been reluctant to use: the WIKIPEDIA FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA (why my reluctance to use it might be subject of another column). 
From the Wikipedia: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., ‘Her eyes were glistening jewels.’ Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance. In this broader sense, antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile would all be considered types of metaphor.” 

“A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words ‘like’, ‘as’. Even though both similes and metaphors are forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities, whereas metaphors compare two things directly.“

A good simile forces me to suspend my right brain and allow my left brain to take over (I think I got correct which side of the brain controls imagination and which rationality).

Erick G. Benson in his novel Framed Justice describes how rapidly Monday morning greets his detective Tiger Price“: …as swiftly as a bullet exiting the barrel of a rifle.” I imagine Tiger waking suddenly with the morning sun in his eyes, expecting to have a productive day, which he does.
Austin S. Camacho uses a sun smilie in his debut novel Collateral Damage to describe the look the private detective sees on his girlfriend’s face: “When she opened the door he saw the expectant look lift from her face like a mist when the sun hits the land.” The disappearing mist reveals the smiling face of happiness.

Leigh in his short story “Untenable” in Pages of Stories suggests that the Nina character may be a dangerous person when he describes her look “as cold, dark, and tart as the witches brew” and continues the simile with “Her glare turned icier.”

In his short story “Detour” (EQMM July 2011), Neil Schofield made me think of why I hated the 30 plus pigeons that at one time occupied the roof of my house. Questioning by the police makes his unnamed protagonist feel “like being pecked to death by a thousand pigeons.

In David Dean’s short story “Tap-Tap” (EQMM  March/April 2011), the protagonist, sitting at his computer staring out the office window into the street through the cold, steady rain, sees “cars planing past like water-skiers”, and I see my car fishtailing into a ditch on black ice.

The narrator in the early Edward D. Hoch horrifying story “What’s It All About?” (EQMM December 2011) describes Friday night in a Florida city as “alive, with blood of the city throbbing in its veins…” . The description reminded me of Friday nights in downtown Las Vegas when I lived there in the late 1960s.
I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving

26 November 2011


by John M. Floyd

A few months ago I got a phone call from Strand Magazine editor Andrew Gulli. That, of course, usually means good news, and it was: he said they had accepted a story I'd submitted to them. He wasn't sure when it would come out, so I've been watching their web site, and last week I noticed that my story was listed as one of those in the newly-released Holiday 2011 issue.

Having completed my investigation, I decided to drive over to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of the magazine. But there was one more thing to do. Our nearest bookstore, now that Borders has put all four feet in the air, is now almost twenty miles away. No great distance, but since this was late afternoon, and since Jackson's rush-hour traffic reminds me of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, I didn't want to make a special trip all the way over there until I was certain they had the current issue on their shelves; sometimes they've been known to run a little behind. Besides, I'd been there only a few days earlier, to buy the latest Stephen King novel, and the only Strand they'd had in stock on that visit was the previous (June - September) issue. Cautious soul that I am, I called the bookstore and asked the lady who answered the phone if they'd received the Holiday issue. She said she'd check.

When she came back on the line she told me yes, they had the latest issue in stock, but it didn't say anything on the cover about being a "holiday" issue. She was holding it her hand, she said, and down in the bottom corner of the front cover were the words "October through January." That sounded to me as if that adequately covered the holidays, but I wanted to be sure. For all I knew, they might've put out an extra issue this year. I thought for a moment, and after a rare brainflash I asked her if she saw any authors' names on the cover.

"Yes," she said. "Five or six."

"Would you read them out to me?"

"Read them out?"

"I want to make sure this is the issue I'm looking for."

"Okay." After a pause she said, "Alexander McCall Smith . . . Cornell Woolrich . . . Laura Lippman . . ."

I tried to remember if those names had been listed on the web site for the new issue. I thought Laura's had been, but I wasn't positive. "Keep going," I said.

She hesitated. "Woolrich sounds familiar."

"He wrote 'Rear Window,'" I said.

"Rear what?"

"Keep going."

"Three more names," she said. "Harlan Coben?"

"Keep going."

"M. L. Malcolm?"

I could tell she was beginning to lose patience with this. "Keep going."

"John Floyd?"

"Okay," I said, relieved. "That's who I was looking for. Thanks--I'll be over in about an hour to buy one."

"You're going to come over here and buy the magazine just because this guy Floyd's one of the writers?"

"Yeah," I said. "He's really good."

If this were a perfect world, she would have then put down the phone, hurried over to the fiction section, and bought one of my books. After all, employees get a discount. But somehow I doubt that happened.

The truth of the matter is, I can't figure out how I deserve being included in the company of those other folks whose names she read to me. As a friend of mine once said when he first heard he'd received a prestigious award, "They must've made a mistake." But if they did, I'm glad they did. Anyhow, I hotfooted it over to the store and bought the magazine, and in the process I got a lot more than just a contributor's copy. The October - January issue (a.k.a. the Holiday issue, apparently) has some interesting stories and interviews. Here's a quick summary, in order of appearance:

  • "Chameleon in Berlin," by M. L. Malcolm, is an enjoyable tale about spies and passwords and stealth in the cold-war era. It reminded me a little of George Smiley's adventures.
  • Cornell Woolrich's "Never Kick a Dick" brings back a long-lost story that mixes New York gangsters and Miami vice. And this one has an especially effective surprise near the end.
  • "The Adventure of the Vintner's Codex" is a New Year's Eve mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, by Dust and Shadow author Lyndsay Faye.
  • My story, "Turnabout," is--in the introductory words of the editor--"a desert-highway caper full of his [my] trademark twists and turns."
  • The interviews with Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben are--what can I say?--as informative and entertaining as you would expect them to be, from those two authors. LL and HC are among the best crime writers around, and it was fun to get a look inside their heads.
  • "A Very Personal Gift" by Alexander McCall Smith is a tale of love and suspense set in western Australia. This one is probably my favorite story in the group.

Also featured are more than a dozen book reviews and detailed coverage of the annual Strand Critics Awards ceremony, which was held this summer in New York City.

If you've not picked up this latest issue, I hope you will--I think you'll enjoy it. The Strand, like AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, and a few others, has always been a great mystery market for both readers and writers.

There aren't many of them left.

25 November 2011

Flying Without a Parachute

There was a time early in my career when we wanted to get into a house, but had no probable cause for a legal entry. Without probable cause, any evidence found inside the residence becomes fruit of the poisonous tree. In short, this means any items found inside get thrown out as inadmissible evidence in court.
So here's how it all went down.

The Setup
A street informant called the office.
"Hey, you guys got a warrant for Bopper, don'tcha?"
"Yes, why?"
"Well at ten o'clock this morning, Bopper's gonna be at James Lewis' house to make a score."
The phone got hurriedly hung up, the troops got hatted up and we all headed out to James Lewis' place where his apartment consisted of the entire third floor. We set up surveillance and waited. Time passed. A blue Cadillac pulled up out front, two men got out and went into the house. Ten o'clock went by. One of the two men, a tall thin guy, came out of the house and returned to the Cadillac, sitting on the passenger side. More time passed. Then it started.
"Bopper's walking down the street," came the radio call.
"Wait," replied the case agent.
"He's headed for the house," said the radio voice.
"Wait," said the case agent.
"He's going up on the front porch."

"Not yet," ordered the case agent.

"He has his hand on the doorknob."
"Hit it now," barked the case agent.
Four government vehicles immediately came alive, screeching up to the front of the house and bouncing over the curb. Car doors opened and agents with drawn guns came screaming out, making as much noise as possible.
"Federal Agents!"

Survival Instincts: Fight or Flight
Bopper morphed into Panic Mode. Bless his heart, he ran into the house we wanted to enter, but hadn't previously been able to acquire probable cause for a legal entry. However, there are exigent circumstances known as Hot Pursuit for situations like these. When law enforcement is in immediate pursuit of a fleeing felon, a search warrant is not needed in order for officers of the law to enter the same building which the pursued felon has just entered during the chase.
Having now found himself inside James Lewis' house, and seeing no good exit, Bopper chose to ascend the stairs to the second floor. The Thundering Herd close behind him, still hollering "Police" and "Federal Agents," shifted into Hot Pursuit Mode.
Having now arrived at the second floor landing and still not finding a good way out, Bopper continued his desperate journey upward toward James Lewis' apartment on the third floor. In full hue and cry, the mob followed at his heels.


Now, we take a short intermission to catch our breath and explain that in those days only seasoned agents had the privilige of entering the house. Snot-nose green agents, such as myself fresh out of the academy, were regularly assigned to the perimeter where nothing of consequence ever happened. Special Agent Pat got assigned to the back of the house and I got assigned to the front. We two newbies were designated to miss all the fun.
Bored, I decided to do something. Since the tall, thin Cadillac passenger had previously been inside the house, I thought maybe he'd be holding, so I knocked on the passenger window and flashed him my tin. In no time, I had him out of the car, hands on the roof, legs spread into the proper position and was patting him down. Just as I found contraband in his hip pocket, I heard a great noise behind me.
I glanced back at the house.

The Not (W)Right Brothers
Two bodies came flying out the front third-story windows and landed on top of the front porch roof. They stood up with guns in their hands. Neat.

A Sharp Drop in Business
Unknown to us, James Lewis already had company in attendance trying to conduct a little business. His company's nerves began to unravel as they noticed the Thundering Herd was ascending the stairs and coming their way. By the time Bopper burst into the room, their taut nerves snapped and they departed via the front windows.
At least now I had something to do.
Wheeling the tall, thin Cadillac passenger around in front of me, where I could keep an eye on him, I placed my gun hand on his right shoulder and pointed it at the two miscreants on the porch roof, ordering them to drop their weapons.
They looked at me, looked at their buddy the gun rest, looked at the distance to the ground and then decided, yeh, they'd drop their guns. Good thing. If there'd been a shooting match, I'm fairly certain my gun rest would have ended up hard of hearing in his right ear. Took another half hour before I had enough help to get them two off the porch roof.

One Landing for Every Launch
Back to inside the house. When Bopper made his Mad Hatter entrance into James Lewis' apartment, he was still looking for a rabbit hole. However, since all the front exits, also known as the third-story front windows, were occupied at the time, he opted for the side window. Bad choice as Bopper soon realized.
Left behind, James Lewis sat flabbergasted through it all. He'd never seen a show like this before and therefore sat quietly, readily giving up his two handguns, plus all his contraband to approaching members of the Thundering Herd.
Bopper, outside the house and now in mid-air, suddenly saw that what he had failed to consider during his hasty departure was that there was nothing to deaccelerate his downward flight, except a concrete driveway.
Turns out in all the confusion, none of us saw his exit.
At a descent rate of 32 feet per second per second, his right leg failed to stand up to the pressure of cement bringing an end to his ill advised experiment of flying without a parachute. He then crawled through a bordering hedge and "ran" away from us. Our Probable Cause had literally flown out the window. Took us an hour to catch up with him.

After that, I graduated to the level of door crasher.

So now you have the background. If you want to compare the above telling with the fictionalized published version, you'll have to acquire the Who Died in Here? anthology. All short story submissions to it required a crime in a bathroom. Author compensation was a sum of money, plus an air freshener. I still have the air freshener.

24 November 2011


I've been watching the first episodes of Case Histories on Masterpiece Mysteries. I should say that Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers, and that I approached the BBC production with mingled hope and trepidation. Would Atkinson turn out to be one of the lucky writers whose work thrives on tape or celluloid or would the gods of mystery turn against both her and Jackson Brodie?

No sure thing either way. Some writers and some detectives have famously been improved by the tube. John Mortimer is a good writer, but I suspect that I am not the only reader to find the Rumpole stories a tad on the thin side without Leo McKern's rotund person and orotund phrasing, not to mention the wonderful supporting case embodying Gutherie Featherstone, Claude Erskine-Brown, The Portia of Our Chambers and, of course, She Who Must Be Obeyed.
More recently I felt that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen was more effective digitally than on the page. Rufus Sewell's stubbornness, his watchful passivity and sudden violence made sense of a character who is too often opaque in print. The screen plays of Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking streamlined Dibdin's meandering plots and produced good drama.

Of course, some popular writers have been, like good horses, virtually bomb-proof. Every decade brings another series of Miss Marples from across the water, and I imagine that there is a queue of actresses of a certain age waiting to play the elderly sleuth of St. Mary Mead. But only one to my mind has suggested a really exceptional intellect. Joan Hickson, who was genuinely old when she essayed the part, played Miss Marple in 12 eisodes and got an OBE and plaudits from the Queen for her efforts.

Christie's Hercule Poirot has been lucky, too. He's had some heavy weight interpreters, including Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm and Albert Finney, but it is safe to say that David Suchet has made the part his own with the long running series on Masterpiece.

Other writers have had mixed fortunes. Tony Hillerman was most unlucky with the 2004 series, starring Adam Beach as Jim Chee and Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn. I don't remember them being particularly poor, but the bleached out colors and dusty landscape on the tube captured none of the splendor of Navaho territory in the novels. Background counts, especially in Hillerman's work, where the harsh but beautiful landscape grounds so many of his detective's attitudes and beliefs.

Even successful series with admirable production and good scripts depend heavily on the charisma of the leading characters. P.D. James' Inspector Dalgliesh novels have been beloved both on the page and on Masterpiece, but there is no doubt that it was Roy Marsden who made the ideal inspector. Sensitive but chilly, gangly, bright-eyed and reflective, Marsden really was believable as both poet and detective. A subsequent performance by Martin Shaw in the role showed the difference.

Sometimes a performer simply seems miscast. Elizabeth George, like P.D. James, has been popular across platforms, but the transition to the small screen has produced a shift in the balance between her two detectives.On screen Sharon Small makes Sergeant Barbara Havers much more appealing and attractive than she is in print, attractive enough so that Lynley seems a bit of a dolt not to notice. Nathaniel Parker, who has been funny and effective in other roles, is either miscast or seriously misdirected as the stiff and rather stodgy inspector.

So where does my favorite Kate Atkinson fall on the metamorphosis scale? Somewhere in the middle, I'm afraid. Edinburgh and its environs are beautiful, as might be expected, and Jason Isaacs certainly looks the part, although he has a Brando-ish tendency to mumble that we could do without.

The minor parts are lively and some of the dialogue has the real northern humor, but I am not sure that Atkinson's work is destined to be transferred smoothly to visuals. The strength of her novels lie in her eccentric and unexpected characters and in a plotting talent to rival Christie's. She also has a lightness of touch that is hard to mesh with the realism demanded by TV.

The script, alas, has only one of these virtues. The production seems to fear that we will forget Jackson's lamentable childhood and the traumas which have made him obsessive about protecting the vulnerable. Clips of his discovery of his dead sister appear with almost tedious regularity and serve not to deepen his character but to give a too easy explanation for his sometimes irrational reactions.

So Case Histories is entertaining and handsome but not to be compared to the novels. Read them first and then enjoy the more modestly successful efforts of Jason Isaacs and the rest of the cast.

23 November 2011

Growing Pains

by Robert Lopresti
David’s column two weeks ago got me thinking about my summers on the shore as a kid; in particular how a buddy and I used to don raincoats on foggy days and stroll down the beach roads, imagining ourselves to be private eyes in London, San Francisco, or some other suitably mysterious place. Good times.  But it occurred to me that our stories never developed very far, and I seem to see a pattern there.

Back home in Plainfield my friends and I used to play The Man From Uncle, and the plots never stretched out very far (in fact, the most imaginative conflict consisted of quarrels over which of us got to be Napoleon Solo.  Chris was always  Ilya Kuryakin, because he was the only blond in the bunch.)

People always talk about children having wonderful imaginations, and I agree, but it strikes me that they aren't very good plotters.

Ever read Beverly Cleary?  She's a children's writer from Portland, Oregon, where she is thoroughly beloved.  (The children's room at the main library is named for her, and there is a statue of her character Ramona, in the park in Ramona's own neighborhood.  But Cleary also wrote a terrific little book called Dear Mr Henshaw, in which a kid tries to deal with problems in his family by keeping a journal.  At one point a children's book author visits the boy's class and reads some examples of their creative writing.  Most of the kids made up stories but our hero wrote about a true experience.  The author gives him first place and explains that children his age don't have enough history to make stuff up yet; better to stick to real events.

All of which had me pondering when I did become old enough to come up with a complete (though God knows, not publishable) story.  I think it was sixth grade.   Mrs. Sonin, our English teacher, would let you stay after school and read your stories out loud to her while she graded papers.  Very tolerant was she, I suppose.  Amazing she didn't laugh out loud at our efforts, and not at the funny parts.

I was in grad school before I finally tried to get a story published , and I was twenty-five before I finally saw my name in print.

I read recently that someone said you had to write for 10,000 hours before you could be good at it.  It scares me to think about when/if I have reached that point.

So, a question for the scribblers out there:  When did you become a writer?

22 November 2011

November Twenty Second

    Sometimes I have to think long and hard to come up with a theme for Tuesdays.  Not so today.  Today is November 22nd.  That alone should be enough, but this year Stephen King has weighed in to make the task even easier.

    I would hazard a guess that anyone much over 50 – and some quite a bit younger – brood their way through this day each year.   We remember where we were when we heard.  We ruminate over “what if” scenarios.  Today is a day haunted by the memories of grainy black and white photos, horrors on the front pages of newspapers.  It’s a day to puzzle over how things could have gone that terribly wrong.

     Certainly, if you are of an age, it’s a day when you remember where you were back in 1963, what you were doing when Walter Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced to a stunned nation what had happened in Dallas.  There are other days like this – 9/11 is one – when a watershed was crossed, when the world tilted a little on its axis and then never again spun quite the same.  Those days, thankfully, are few.  But that is one of the reasons that we brood each year when they roll around.

     On the rock of our obsession with this date Stephen King has built his new novel, 11/22/63.  A very different writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, once wrote that there is never a great loss without a little gain, and that is true here.  Out of this day, which shall always be dark, we have gained a fine novel from Stephen King, a novel that explores the “what ifs” that have haunted us for the past 48 years.

    Let’s take a deep breath and, at least for a while, step back from today’s date and focus for a while more generally on the amazing Mr. King.  By my count, since breaking into the publishing world in 1974 with Carrie, Stephen King has published 61 books – mostly novels, but also short story collections and nonfiction volumes. 

     The first Stephen King book for me was The Shining.  I bought it back in 1978 after hearing the paperback edition advertised on the radio.  I read about 100 pages the first night, and then found myself completely unable to concentrate at  work the next day because all I could think about was the story.  That night I stayed up until the small hours of the morning and finished the book.  I had to do this in order to get my life back – that is how intense the story was for me. 

    Since that day in 1978 I have read everything that Stephen King has written.  Yep, every one of those 61 books.  But while I am a stalwart Stephen King fan I am also an inveterate critic.  Like many readers, and probably like most teachers, I tend to grade books as I read them.  To my mind King has offered up some solid “A’s”, including The Shining, The Stand (particularly the longer uncut version published in 1990), It and the Gunslinger series.  My entirely subjective grading system also awards some “A-‘s,” including, among others, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Carrie, and Salems Lot.  But recent works by King, aside from the later Gunslinger volumes, I generally relegate to no better than the “B” range, and there are some that for me fall below that line.  Tommyknockers, gets a C-, as does Insomnia and Cell

The Colorado Kid (sorry about that, Stephen) is lucky to get a D.   I mean, really – a “fair play” mystery plot where the crime is never solved?  In an afterword to The Colorado Kid, King wrote that people will either love the ending or hate it. "I think for many people, there'll be no middle ground on this one . . . .”  Well, that’s right – there wasn’t one for me!

    Others may compile the grade list differently, but from my perspective (since, after all, it is my list) one of the obvious conclusions is that, with the exception of the later Gunslinger volumes, King’s best books, at least my personal favorites, are generally found among his earlier works.  I am not the only one who has speculated that in recent years King may have been just a bit burned out. Ttake a look, for example, at the parody of King that was on Family Guy a few years back.   Perhaps this is because King used his best ideas, the ones that really grabbed him, early on, and then just ran out of really great ones.  When this happens to many of us who are, or who aspire to be, writers we experience writers’ block.  We produce nothing.  Not so, with King, however.  By all observation the man is the energizer bunny of authors.  He keeps going, and going, and going.  When his publisher ordered him to slow down, telling him that he could not continue to write at the pace of more than one book per year, King famously invented Richard Bachman and used that alter ego to drop another seven books into the book stores.  But while the work ethic is admirable, the process has, as discussed above, produced some lesser gems.

    The purpose of the foregoing digression?  Well, I guess it's two-fold.  First, not every Stephen King book is great.  And second, I hand out "A's" pretty sparingly.  12/22/63, however, gets a solid "A."

     So now lets return to today, November 22, and to King’s latest novel.  I have not finished 11/22/63 as of this writing.  This is because I am savoring it, parceling it out in measured doses, like Christmas candies.  All criticism is subjective, but to my mind 11/22/63 is the kind of King novel that we have not seen in years.  There is nothing "phoned in" here, nor is the story a forced effort by King to write "a Stephen King book."   In fact, there is very little that is supernatural about this story.  11/22/63 reads almost like it wrote itself, its premise is a stampede, and King, like the rest of us, is bouncing along trying to do whatever he can to control those horses.   Such mad rides are the best rides.

    And why is this?  Why does this book work so well?  I suspect that it is because once King came up with the premise of 11/22/63 it was a story that he had to tell.  What a difference it makes when the force driving the narrative is one that has completely grabbed the author's imagination.  When that happens writing will not be forced, it will flow on its own.  King's premise of a protagonist presented with an opportunity to go back in time, to live from 1958 through 1963 and to then attempt to right the horrific wrong of November 22 obviously resonated for the author in a way that other story ideas just did not.  King works hard in  his novels to make the characters live and breathe, but the result can  sometimes come  across as a bit forced.  Not so with those who populate 11/22/63.  They invariably ring true, and I suspect that this is so simply because, the story itself must have become so  real to King as he wrote it that character development flowed naturally.  I suspect Stephen King was as carried away writing this book as his readers will be reading it. 

The back cover of 11/22/63
    In his column last Friday my colleague Dixon Hill wrote an incisive and poignant article on happy endings.  And as Dixon concluded, happy endings generally are not Stephen King’s forte.  I have already noted that I have yet to finish  11/22/63, so I do not know how happy or unhappy the ending ultimately will prove to be.  And, of course, even if I did know the nature of that ending I would not share it here – no spoilers from me!

     But it is not a spoiler to reproduce the back cover of the novel.  And from that back cover one must conclude that, at least as to November 22, 1963, Stephen King, like the rest of us, has spent a good deal of time thinking about the possibility of a happier ending.

     The possibility of putting a better end to November 22,  a day that left us all older though not necessarily wiser, was in any event the apparent spark that inspired a great read from Mr. King. Hearkening back to Laura Ingalls Wilder's advice, we might as well be thankful for that small gain, even though it has sprung from our greater loss.

21 November 2011

Criminals and Protesters

Jan Grape What's all the big deal about the Occupy Wall Street protesters? What do they want? Do they expect the rich to give them part of their money? Take from the rich and give to the poor, really? Most of us are happy when someone makes a mint. We don't want their money. Especially the money they earned by working for it. Are they asking for a hand-out? After hearing some congressmen and other people who say they are in the 1% tell the protesters on national television to "get a job." I realize they have no clue. They have erroneously decided most of these protesters are homeless/hippie/college-age or teens who just want to protest.

Maybe so, and since I'm not out in the midst of these folks, I can't say for sure. I've read and heard that stealing food, leaving horrible unsanitary areas and sexual assaults have taken place in the tent cities, and that's just all wrong. But seeing the 84 year old woman who got pepper-sprayed in the face and the marine who got the skull fracture and the peaceful sitting protesters out in CA getting pepper sprayed in the face, by police who've been ordered to disband these peaceful demonstrations. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who feel that something is terribly wrong on Wall Street and in congress. I understand cities already in debt racking up even more debt to try and keep things peaceful. The police are given orders even though they don't always agree. Yet some policemen get totally out of hand. I saw and even personally know some college students who've been protesting, I have read about teachers, police officer, military personnel, people out of work for months, union workers, and even plain ordinary folks joining the protest. Tonight many artists and musicians are joining in with the LA protesters after the AMA awards.

Most of the protesters out there are trying to make Wall Street fund managers and politicians wake up and do what needs to be done to fix some grievous wrongs. However, I don't hold out much hope they will.

The fact that banking and financial institutions were bailed-out with taxpayer money, then the boards of those institutions gave themselves and most of their top management people huge bonuses. When called upon to explain, these corporate Greedy-Gus CEOs never explained. Not one of them has ever been sent to jail for malfeasance or mismanagement of funds or even called on the carpet. Not one of them ever paid back any bail-out monies that I know about or have heard.

Seems as if I recall a huge outcry when the bail-outs were given to the large auto companies but I've heard more than one of these companies has paid money back to the US Government. The banking and brokerage institutions who haven't paid any money back are criminals. To me that's the same as defaulting on a loan. These are same characters got our economy into this mess in the first place.

Okay, having said that, let me digress to why I write crime fiction. Throughout many years of living, I've seen, read and heard of many, many miscarriages of justice. In fact, a recent case happened here in Austin just last month. A man convicted of killing his wife twenty-five years ago was found to be totally innocent. He spent twenty-five years in prison knowing a killer was out there someplace, having gotten away with murder. The man was recently released but his life has been destroyed and his daughter's life destroyed because the man was falsely convicted of killing her mother. Imagine the sorrow his own mother and father went through. The only good part of the story is that last week they finally arrested the person who DNA shows is alledged to be the real killer. It's believed that he killed another woman two years after the first initial murder in the same manner.

In my stories and books the criminal is somehow caught and punished. He or she is put in jail or is killed The criminal get his "just desserts." Harsh justice? I think not. In real life there seldom is satisfaction when a crime is committed. Sometimes the criminal is caught and put on trial, but gets off by a technical error. or an inept prosecutor and inept jury. There is no justice. No satisfaction. Sometimes in one of my stories, I write the criminal gets a psychological punishment...having to live the rest of their life thinking of what they have done.

Real life is full of these huge miscarriages of justice. This echoes back to Dixon's blog the other day. Happy endings. People who read crime fiction want the bad guys/gals caught and punished. They want a criminal to suffer for their crimes. Writers of crime fiction usually write a happy ending. Maybe not every time but enough times to keep readers coming back. This is why I think crime fiction is so popular. If you keep track of the best sellers, the list generally has many books of mystery or crime fiction.

The Occupy Wall-Street protesters just want the criminals punished and these huge companies to STOP giving away money that was not really theirs to begin with, it came from the people. Why weren't those bonuses used to create news jobs? Why not restore a little faith in our society? Why allow criminals to get away with their crimes?

We writers of crime fiction must continue seeking truth and justice and let the bad guys be punished. If all else fails we may have to join the protesters.

20 November 2011


A world renounced romantic comedy author, Susan Elizabeth Phillips runs the game in the romance genre. Phillips is one of the biggest women’s fiction stars soaring onto the New York Times bestseller list with Dream a Little Dream. She’s the only four-time recipient of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Favorite Book of the Year Award.

Pickwick and Weller
Pickwick and Weller
My editor, writer, friend Sharon has a quick eye for writing goofs and spotted the above from BookPerk.com. Pity the world renounced one of her favorite writers, who's actually a five-time recipient of RWA’s Favorite Book of the Year Award.

I've been receiving silliness and word play in my eMail, which I'll share with readers. Along with many writers, I enjoy word play, a devil's playground for an idle mind.


Once earlier, I discussed spoonerisms, but today I'll mention wellerisms, derived from Charles Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Samuel Pickwick's man's man Weller was sort of a cockney Sancho Panza to his employer's Don Quixote. Sam Weller and his father Tony became known for pithy remarks and proverbs. By 1839, the popular valet had become a sensation resulting in Weller merchandise, puzzles, joke books, and even bootleg copies of his stories.

Wellerisms center around a quotation, a cliché, or sometimes a proverb, misapplied with humorous effect. Examples of wellerisms include:

  • "It comes back to me now," said the prisoner, spitting into the wind.
  • "Remarkable," said the teacher, trying out her new dry-erase board.
  • "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the body tumbled from the coffin.
  • "So I see," said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw.
  • "Is this a hearing?" asked the deaf juror judgmentally.
Tom Swift
Tom Swift, Jr.

The once popular adverbial Tom Swifties are a variant of wellerisms. For example:
  • "Let's dig up that body," said Tom gravely.
  • "I bet you have no diamonds, clubs, or spades," said Tom heartlessly.
  • "This tastes bad, Herb," said Tom sagely.

More Play and Burning Questions
  • What disease did cured ham actually have?
  • Why do actors appear in a movie but on TV?
  • Why is 'bra' singular and 'panties' plural?
  • How important does a person have to be before they are considered assassinated instead of just murdered?
  • Why does a round pizza come in a square box?
  • Do the alphabet song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star have the same tune?
    • Why did you just try singing the two songs above?
  • Why do you have to 'put your two cents in', but it's only a 'penny for your thoughts'? Where's that extra penny going?
  • Once you're in heaven, do you get stuck wearing the clothes you were buried in for eternity?
  • How is it that we put man on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  • Why is it that people say they 'slept like a baby' when babies wake up like every two hours?
    • Did they cry, spit, and scream?
  • Why do people pay to go up tall buildings and then put money in binoculars to look at things on the ground?
  • Why do doctors leave the room while you change? They're going to see you naked anyway.
  • Why do toasters have a setting that burns toast to a horrible crisp, which no decent human being would eat?
  • If Jimmy cracks corn and no one cares, why is there a stupid song about him?
    Sam Weller
    Sam Weller
  • If the professor on Gilligan's Island can make a radio out of a coconut, why can't he fix a hole in a boat?
  • Why does Goofy stand erect while Pluto remains on all fours? They're both dogs.
  • If Wile E. Coyote had enough money to buy all that Acme junk, why didn't he just buy dinner?
  • Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?
  • If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from?
  • If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
  • Why do they call it an asteroid when it's outside the hemisphere, but call it a hemorrhoid when it's in your bottom?
  • Why do we press harder on a remote control when we know the batteries are going dead?
  • Why do banks charge a fee for insufficient funds when they know you don't have enough money?
  • Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
  • Why do they use sterilized needles for execution by lethal injection?
  • Why does Superman stop bullets with his chest, but ducks when you throw a revolver at him?
  • Why did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
  • Whose idea was it to put 'S's in the word 'lisps'?
  • Why do people constantly return to the refrigerator with hopes that something new to eat will have materialized?
  • Why do people keep running over a string a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, reach down, pick it up, examine it, then put it down to give the vacuum one more chance?
  • Why can't men open plastic bags in the vegetable section of grocery stores?
  • How do those dead bugs get into enclosed light fixtures?
  • Why is it whenever you attempt to catch something that's falling off the table, you manage to knock something else over?
  • In winter why do we try to keep the house as warm as it was in summer when we complained about the heat?
  • How come you never hear father-in-law jokes?

Ingrid Bergman said, "A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop speech when words become superfluous." Before y'all tell me to kiss off, I'll stop speaking.

19 November 2011

Executive Protection

Elizabeth Zelvin

At a recent dinner meeting of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, the speakers were the founders of an outfit called Management Resources Ltd of New York. A temp agency? Nope. Human resources consultants? Nope again. Robert H. Rahn, a retired NYPD lieutenant and homicide detective, and Kim Anklin, also a retired cop with a background in crime and intelligence analysis, gave their private investigation firm a bland name because their corporate clients didn’t want the information that they’d hired PIs to spread all over the company. They’re not completely undercover, though: their website is http://www.nysleuth.com/.

While Management Resources is a full-service investigations firm, they came to MWA to talk about one of their specialties, executive protection. That’s motorcades and bodyguards and everything the Secret Service does for the President and A-list visiting heads of state. Lesser lights—such as the numerous members of the Saudi royal family—as well as celebrity actors and athletes—make do with private firms like this one. The amount of protection that they get (from a single bodyguard to an eight-person team or from a single car to a mini-motorcade of four) depends on both the level of threat and the client’s budget.

When a client hires them for protection during, say, a three-day visit to New York, the firm starts by getting a detailed schedule and sending out an advance team of two or three operatives to analyze, measure, map, and if possible photograph the details of every venue the client expects to visit, especially the approaches: the principal, as the subject is called, is most vulnerable when entering and leaving the venue. The team that protects the principal during the visit is thoroughly briefed beforehand. Unscheduled stops are strongly discouraged, though if the principal insists, the team adapts. As someone pointed out during the Q&A, the kitchen where Bobby Kennedy was shot was an unscheduled stop.

According to Rahn, the way protection teams work changed significantly as a result of the shooting of President Reagan. When it happened, only one bodyguard got the President into a car and away from the scene, while all the others converged on the shooter. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. In Reagan’s case, the bullet seemed to have breezed under his armpit, leaving no apparent wound. The car was headed back to the hotel when a bloody froth at the mouth, which the protector luckily recognized as indicating a collapsed lung, sent them to the hospital instead.

 After explaining how it works, Rahn called on eight volunteers, including me, to perform a demonstration. I had the right front position in the formation, which made me the person who would tackle the attacker, if trouble came from the right. All the rest would converge on the principal, whose safety is the team’s priority. (Principals who want them to walk the dog and pick up their laundry—actors are the worst offenders--get nipped in the bud.) Rahn admitted that he and his staff, all retired law enforcement, have had to unlearn their instinct to go after the guy with the gun. What impressed me as a participant was how broad the range I had to keep my eye on was, even though I had to cover only one quadrant of the space around the principal.

The National Arts Club, an immense old mansion on Gramercy Park with multiple approaches to every room and plenty of shadows and hiding places, made a great demonstration venue. Waiters and bartenders came and went. (On a job, they would have been investigated in advance.) At one point during the role play, a door on the left opened unexpectedly, and a brand new staff person appeared—fortunately not packing a gun.

Everybody agreed that the audience had more questions for the speakers than at any other talk in recent memory. I’m always interested in whether novels, movies, and TV get it right. I was interested to learn that there’s no personal contact whatever with the principal, except to direct him (“Come this way, sir.”) or respond to requests (“He’s a friend, let him through.”). In other words, Kevin Costner definitely should not have slept with Whitney Houston.

Do people change?

There are two kinds of people: those who believe that people never really change and those who believe they do. Fiction writers may fall into either category, and their fiction reflects their take on this crucial aspect of human nature.

Mystery and crime fiction has some beloved characters whose attraction is partly in their eternal sameness. Sherlock Holmes will always baffle Watson, smoke his pipe, and play his violin. Miss Marple will always knit and find an analogy to crime in village life. Stephanie Plum will always manage to blow up a car and never decide between her two boyfriends. Jack Reacher will always leave town once the crisis is past and never wash his underwear.

I’ve been rereading Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books, written between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have forty-two of them (not all Miss Silvers, but in the same universe), and they’ve been high on my list of comfort reads for many years. Miss Silver never changes. She dresses like an Edwardian or even Victorian governess, projects a powerful sense of security and understanding, and sees through people “as if the human race were glass-fronted.” In every book, she’s described in unvarying terms. It’s soothing, although no modern series author would dare do the same. Miss Silver’s world is unchanging too. Even after the War, girls are good or bad, sensible or silly. Upper class characters may be autocratic, villainous, or filled with integrity, but no housemaid ever turns out to be intelligent.

Novels allow plenty of room for the growth of their characters. In fact, whole bodies of literature—the quest novel, the coming of age novel—focus on the protagonist’s personal growth. The mystery series expands the potential for growth far beyond the range of a single novel. Most of my perennial favorites are about characters who change. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey evolves from a silly ass about town not very different from Bertie Wooster, except for his nose for crime, to a complex individual with remarkable intelligence, integrity, and sensitivity. In fact, I believe Sayers invented the three-dimensional, feeling mystery character—the very kind of character Lord Peter encourages Harriet Vane to write in Gaudy Night. It could be argued that the depth of Sayers’s writing, rather than Lord Peter himself, is what changed. But Harriet herself changes over the course of the series from a brittle, fearful woman who distrusts herself and men to a self-confident woman with no doubts about her abilities of mind or heart.

As a therapist as well as a writer, I’ve bet my career—both of them—on the belief that people can and do change. My series protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, begins to change—fundamentally, radically, and none too willingly—from the moment he gets sober. My deepest motive for writing Death Will Get You Sober was to translate the powerful, transformative process of recovery from real life, where I’d seen it many times, to fiction. At that level, I continued Bruce’s story as a series because for recovering alcoholics, not drinking is just the beginning.

So what about short stories? Are they spacious enough to show the process of change? I’ve written four short stories about Bruce, and I’d say that each of them catches him at a particular moment in his evolution. In “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” he’s doing housework for the first time in years when he finds a body. Later, he goes to sleep on a park bench, commenting that it’s the first time he’s done that sober, and wakes up with the solution to the murder. In “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down,” he has to talk a houseguest out of leaving beer in his refrigerator, “where it looked dangerously at home.” In the later stories, he’s simply sober, using his clear head and his knowledge of recovery to figure out whodunit.

18 November 2011

Happy Endings

It's been a long week.

My wife is actually much prettier than she appears in this photograph. However, she graciously consented to letting me post it, and we had a lot of fun taking it -- largely because she has a great sense of humor.

How she can manage to smile, though, I'm not quite sure.

What I do know is that she's not only pretty. She's also pretty tough--after all, this is a woman who drove a fuel truck at the front of the invasion body, during the first Gulf War, so that the tanks could catch up to her to refuel after fighting their way through the front lines.

A few weeks ago, my wife learned she had Basal Cell skin cancer on one side of her nose, up near the bridge. This week she went in and had it removed. The next day, she went back under the knife to have them take a skin graft from her eyelid, which they grafted to the area they'd removed from her nose.

When I brought her home, the old lady across the street gave me a look that said, "We'll get you one of these days, you wife beater!" I wasn't surprised. The same woman once knocked on my door -- magazine in hand -- to tell me: "I read your story in Ellery Queen." Then she gave me a look that clearly said, "And we're not about to tolerate any of your murderous shenanigans in this neighborhood– so mind your P's and Q's!" After which, she marched home, where I strongly suspect she added the magazine to an evidence file she's compiling about me.

Seeing my wife undergo such trauma ...
. . . actually has me thinking about happy endings.

And I don't mean, just the "Thank God he lived!" sort of happy ending. I'm talking about overall all-around happy endings -- the good guys not only win; they live happily ever after.

I once read an essay by the great Dean Koontz, in which he said he often got zinged by literary writers because his stories usually have happy endings. He went on to wonder why so many literary stories have unhappy conclusions.

For some reason, I tend to read quite a bit of what's termed "literary" writing myself, and I have to agree; happy endings seem to be pretty scarce in that crowd. I'm not exactly sure why.

What I do know is that happy endings -- of the believable sort -- seem very challenging to write. Koontz also mentioned this. And, judging from essays written by many contemporary literary writers, the idea of a happy ending not being believable may actually be at the root of their scarcity. There seems to be a belief that happy endings just aren't believable.

I think they're wrong.

I've read things with very believable happy endings. So, to my way of thinking: While believable happy endings are tough to pull off; they're not always impossible to accomplish. (Sometimes, however, I think the best bet is to aim for what I've come to think of as a Positive Ending. But, more on that some other time, perhaps.)

I tried to figure out a better way to illustrate what I'm talking about, but somehow keep coming back to the idea of comparing and contrasting my view of the difference between early Stephen King novels and a Dean Koontz novel.

I'm not trying to denigrate anyone, here. King is a great writer; there's no question about that. And, there's nothing wrong with what he writes. The reason I chose him is because: (a) he's a writer that is fairly well accepted by the 'literary' crowd and (b) both King and Koontz write scary stories, which makes it easier to highlight the differences I want to discuss.

To me, reading a King novel is like being led by a scary, freakazoid, guy down rickety cellar steps, into a pitch-black basement. The steps wobble and creak as you descend, while other things slither and bump down below. Cob webs stick your face, and unseen fingers seem to take glancing grasps at your clothing. You reach the bottom, and he leads you on, deeper into the darkness, something cold and wet wrapping itself around your ankle as you walk. And then, he leaves you there!

Again: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with King's writing. The guy knows what he's doing. It's really scary stuff, and he couches it in visceral terms that seem to reach out off the pages and tear at your soul. And, he uses a lot of literary mechanisms while he does it. In fact, he's so good at it, I sometimes find myself sucked down into a two-week depression after reading one of his novels. Whether you think that's good or bad, I don't think you can help but admit--that's damn good writing!

But . . .

. . . it's hardly a happy ending.

Now, contrast this to the way I perceive Koontz's writing. You start out being led down the same cellar steps by the same scary, freakazoid guy. The stairs still creak and groan, the icy fingers grasp at your clothes, and when you get to the bottom something cold wraps itself around your ankle. And still, the freakazoid leads you on, deeper into the darkness. But, when he reaches the point where the other guy abandoned you, this guy makes you keep walking.

One step in the darkness. Two steps in the darkness. WHAM! Storm cellar doors you didn't know were there suddenly burst open in front of you! A shaft of sunlight stabs your eyes. And, now, he leads you up the steps and out those storm doors into a beautiful garden--golden sunlight bathing the grass and leaves, butterflies darting among the bushes. And suddenly you realize: You know this garden. Because it's your backyard!

You've walked in your backyard a hundred times, but it's never looked like this before. The grass is greener, trees seem stronger; the soil seems to be bursting with fertility! You've never seen it like this before, because, you had to make that trip through the dark cellar first. Only after making that trek trough the terror, could you come upon your garden from the vantage point which would reveal its full beauty to you.


It seems to me, the best Happy Endings aren't the ones where we just sigh and giggle because the two lovers have finally found each other, or the ones where we wipe a hand across our brow and say, "WHEW! He made it!" I think the best Happy Endings are when we can see that a character or characters have been changed in a positive way by their experiences in the storyline. (And that often means traumatizing them -- sometimes more than just a little.) And, that change in themselves is what now gives them the chance to live Happily Ever After. Or at least, more happily than they used to. And -- guess what? -- it can even be believable.

Which is why my wife's recent operations have me thinking of happy endings.

You see: Because of the trauma she's had to endure this week, she's now cancer-free. And, this means, She and I have the chance to continue our own little "Happily Ever After . . ." right along with our kids.

See you in two weeks!

17 November 2011

Good Writing Sells

Travis Erwin
My friend, Travis Erwin, had his first-ever book signing this past weekend. The novel, The Feedstore Chronicles, is not the type of fiction he usually writes, but is a funny, can't-put-it-down, quick read. Travis describes himself as "a native Texan, a humorist, a devout carnivore unafraid to write or read a good love story."

A stereotypical-looking big ol' boy (he's past six feet tall) and refuses to eat vegetables (unless you count fried okra), Travis is a real friend when you need one. Instead of sitting in front of a computer, he looks like all he does is watch football (he is a Saints fan!). He has a beautiful wife, two rambunctious, good-looking sons and is a true enigma to me as he usually writes women's fiction.

Now if that last bit didn't stop you in your tracks, not much will. This is what I find interesting in what we're told as writers particularly about what will and what won't sell in the mystery market. When I began writing in earnest, writer's conference after writer's conference speakers directed us not to write serial killer stories as they wouldn't sell since the market was swollen with those kind of submissions. Well, serial killer stories continued to sell and show up on the bookstands, in the movies and on television on a regular basis.

We were told our characters had to be believable. A protagonist or even a sidekick that fell into the description of Travis Erwin would not be believeable to most editors. Heck, if I didn't know him so well, I'd agree.

My take on all this is that it is good writing that sells. If the story idea seems overdone -- as in the case of yet another story about teenagers and vampires -- well, that depends on the author drawing the readership in with a good tale.

Travis said his story is based on compilations of some people he'd met through the years and experiences that actually happened when he worked as a teenager in a feedstore. I think most writers use their personal history to create characters that ring true to the reading public. If we read about a detective who shares some of our own qualities, quirks or behavios, then the story is more plausible. I also enjoy when the hero isn't quite as heroic or "proper."

When Nero Wolfe consumes breakfast in bed while wearing silk pajamas, I know he understands the fine art of dining that most rushing about in the Fast Food World has never experienced. Dining with nero Wolfe is recalling a time when everything wasn't quite so hurried and long before grunge became commonplace in eateries. Unfortunately, "dressing for dinner" is regulated for a few times during the year in my own life, so I appreciate it when a writer arranges such an occasion in his own stories.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not all fussy all the time with my characters either. Sometimes the best fun is when characters do something that wouldn't pass muster with the politically correct crowd. There's something about a tough guy in detective novels that lures me into spending time with them. I adore Mike Hammer's hardboilded persona, even when he flies into a rage. Maybe it's because no matter how much we have benefited from the feminist movement in the workplace, a girl likes to know a man would and could protect her if needed. This doesn't mean I'm not above wanting the heroine to be able to take care of herself aka Stephanie Plum or Kinsey Millhone. I don't know many who like a wimpy woman these days in literature -- or in person. I want my heroine to be able to handle the bad guys all on her own and if she saves someone else while doing it, that's even better.

Sometimes I like to settle back with a good story that will make me laugh out loud. The Feedstore Chronicles fits into this category. Who doesn't need to lean back, kick off their shoes and just enjoy a fun story once in awhile? Thanks Travis for allowing me to do just that yesterday. You made me blush just a little, and that's probably a good thing, too.